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July birds

Other July pages: Downland and seaside flowersWayside flowersHedgerow, fruit and berriesButterflies and insectsWeather

For more pictures, information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

The remaining birdsong fades away in July as the breeding season comes to an end. Though the countryside appears to be empty of birds as a result, this is actually a time when bird populations are at their highest before many of the newly fledged young die or get predated. This is also the time of year when adults moult. In both cases it is in the birds' interest to be as inconspicuous as possible. They also need extra energy to replace their feathers and so are less active.

That being said, it is hard to pinpoint the moment when song stops. Right from the start of the month there can be long periods on a country walk where there is no birdsong at all, but you still continue to hear occasional outbursts. One wonders whether these are no-hopers - inexperienced juveniles or males who did not manage to find a mate earlier in the year - or those who have gone on to have a second brood and so remain territorial after their fellows have ceased.

Among the birds still singing are blackbirds, but even at the start of the month you are only hearing them once or twice in a day - often, though not exclusively, towards dusk. In the first week you may still hear two or three competing, but the rivals are often quite far away. Blackbird song tends to stop entirely by the third week of the month. Some switch to making a tup-tup-tup call at dusk to mark their territory instead, but this soon ceases.

Song thrushes are also usually heard once or twice a day till the third week, and until the same time you can hear the occasional blackcap. Whitethroats and dunnocks are rarely heard after the first week. The songs of these last three birds can be hard to tell apart. The blackcap is more emphatic, the whitethroat is scratchier. The dunnock also has a thin "tseep" call.

Chiffchaffs can still be heard several times a day in the first week of July, but then tail off, stopping altogether in the third week. They continue to make a repeated, though somewhat erratic,"hweet" call throughout the month, however (recording): indeed, this seems to become more common once they stop singing. A confusion is that chaffinches also make a similarly repetitive call (recording) earlier in the year and may also be doing so in early July. The chaffinch's mating song ceases in the first week of July, if it has not stopped already in late June.

Other birds you might hear still hear in the first half of July include the yellowhammer, which can be heard in field hedgerows and sometimes on downland shrubs. They make a very characteristic run of seven rapid notes and then a long wheeze, likened to “A little bit of bread and some CHEESE” - but they don’t always do the cheese bit.

On grassy hills or arable fields you can hear skylarks twittering away until nearly the end of July some years, though in others they are silent by the end of June. On scrubby clifftops or downland near the sea meadow pipits may continue to make their piping song and perform their 'parachute' display flight until relatively late in the month, and in similar locations you may just hear a stonechat in the first half.

One bird that continues to be vocal all the month - and indeed for much of August - is the wood pigeon, making a hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo call that is very characteristic of high summer. This could be confused with the hoo-hooo hoo (a very slight emphasis on the second hoo) of the collared dove, which also sang vigorously throughout July in 2014, but generally seems to restrict itself to the first half of the month with an occasional outburst thereafter. Collared doves are often to be seen on the chimney pots or roofs of village houses: wood pigeons are found near habitation too but also in the deeper countryside. Another bird of this family that is definitely a woodland bird, and which you can occasionally hear in July, is the stock dove, whose call is a throaty "woo".

Other birds that are still singing throughout July include greenfinches and goldfinches. In both cases the twittering sound appears to be communal, and in goldfinches it does sometimes come from family groups feeding. But if you look closely you will also quite often also see a lone male singing on a high perch. You can still hear the chirping of sparrows near houses or farm buildings, while wrens make very occasional outbursts of their trilling song, more frequent in the first half, occasional in the second. Wrens also make a clicking call that sounds like two stones being bashed together.

Robins make a clicking noise too, which sounds a bit like a rachet turning, and as the month goes on you also start to hear some great tit calls, though only very shy and quiet ones. These include a churring contact call, and the occasional "see-choo-choo". Blue tits also churr, with theirs having a rising note at the end. But this is all very inconspicuous and occasional. Even more occasionally a great tit or coal tit may burst into song - probably recently fledged males trying out their singing skills because it never lasts for long.

In woodland a nuthatch may let out a piercing "wit-wit-wit" call. Green woodpeckers also sometimes utter a brief run of notes, similar to their "yaffle" territorial call earlier in the year but flat in pitch and so lacking the yaffle's "laughing" quality. You can still hear the occasional reed warbler chattering away in reed beds and you may hear the thin piping of golden plovers, brilliantly camouflaged against the shingle beaches (try Newhaven or Cuckmere Haven) where they nest.

Perhaps the most delightful bird experience in July, however, is to see house martins or swallows swooping over fields catching insects. Telling them apart in flight is not easy, as they twist and turn so quickly. Both have white undersides, but swallows have a dark throat and a long forked tail (shorter in juveniles), while house martins have a stubbier one and a white patch at the bottom of their back.

Perhaps the best way to distinguish swallows, however, is by their habit of flying very fast and low - maybe only half a metre off the ground - while house martins fly higher and do more of a flap-flap-guide. House martins are also more sociable, always appearing in groups near buildings (where they nest in colonies), and coming to rest in groups on a fence or a telephone wire and then abruptly taking off again (though this behaviour is not unknown in swallows as summer progresses and the young fledge). The calls they make in flight are also different, the house martin's having a staccato rasping quality, while swallows sound like a child's squeaky bath toy being rapidly squeezed.

Swifts fly much higher than either of these and are all dark, with great swept-back wings, gliding around in easy circles, making an eerie screeching sound as they do (which is often what alerts you to their presence). They live all their life on the wing and never land except to rear young.

Swifts are not infrequently seen over towns, perhaps because they nest in church towers and the like. But from mid July onwards they are starting to migrate to their wintering grounds in central Africa, gathering in the sky at dusk and then setting off at night. In the south east you may still see them right to the end of the month, but by the start of August they are usually gone.

(Swallows, house martins and swifts all saw a catastrophic drop in numbers in 2018. It remains to be seen whether this is a blip due to inclement spring weather on their migration route or a more widespread population collapse. Worryingly, all three species do seem to be on a downward trend in the south east.)

More July pages:

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