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April birds

Other April pages: Intro and woodland flowersVerge and field flowersBlossom and shrubsThe greening of the treesButterflies and insectsWeather

Picture: swallows. Click here for more April bird photos. For pictures, more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

The first three weeks of April are the peak time for birdsong, with many of the native species in full voice and migrants arriving and in a hurry to breed. The loudest and most persistent song comes when males are still trying to find a mate or establish territories, which means they have to project their song over a long distance.

Once territories are set or mates secured, singing only needs to remind neighbours not to trespass and so is of a lower volume and intensity. When there are young to feed - later in April or early in May - males have less time for singing and some species stop altogether. But other birds continue to sing until their young are fledged and independent.

Singing is at its most intense at dawn, but most of us are not awake to hear it. Partly this is the males' way of reminding rivals that they are still there, but this is also a time when it is too dark to feed, so there is little else to do. There is then a pause as the birds breakfast, but song resumes again mid morning and some species are vocal all day. As the sun declines, there is then a renewed burst, with blackbirds, song thrushes and robins tending to dominate (at least in favoured spots).

(Colder than usual weather can make a difference to how much birdsong there is. Northerly or easterly winds in particular can keep it very muted, as was the case in 2021, or much of the second half of 2024. In 2013 an icy March caused all birdsong to cease and it was not until the second week of April in that year that things returned to anything like normal.)

Blackbirds are one of the easier birds to spot, as they tend to sit on high perches as they send out their wonderful melodic song, often in competion with a nearby rival. They are in full voice throughout the month, especially in and around woodland and near rural houses. Until 2022 they were also a common bird in suburban areas, perching on chimney tops, but worryingly this now seems to have stopped.

Blackbirds can sing at any time of the day, but there is a kind of "blackbird time" later in the afternoon, when they tend to pipe up, their unhurried song conjuring up the impression that the day's labour is over. (Again, since 2023 this effect seems to be much less pronounced). Just occasionally they resort to tup-tup-tupping competitions with rivals instead - a call that can also be used to ward off predators.

Song thrushes are also particularly vocal towards evening, though they can sing at any time of the day. Their song is identifiable by the way they repeat a variety of phrases. They seem to be less common than they were back in the winter. however - maybe because then they were competing for territories or because earlier in the year one hears young males practising their song. As mentioned above, they can sometimes seem to be competing with blackbirds to be the last bird singing as the light fades.

Much less common than the song thrush is the mistle thrush, mostly a woodland bird, which sounds like a clipped, repetitive version of the blackbird (and so is quite hard to distinguish from one at this time of year). It may be heard right up to the end of April.

Robins are already feeding their young by the second half of April (as are blackbirds), and so their twittering song is less frequently heard than it was earlier in the year and during the day comes in short hurried snatches. But at dusk there can still be quite a lot of it and it becomes more prolonged. In fact, they easily outlast both blackbirds and song thrushes in the competition to be the last bird singing as night falls, carrying on even after dark sometimes. Almost ubiquitous near habitation, they also crop up in rural woods.

Common for most of the month are the various calls of the nuthatch, whose sharp "wee...wee...wee" call (which the bird has to stop and lift its head up to make), more rapid versions of the same thing, trills, and bouts of going "de-dit, de-dit, de-dit" or "wit...wit-wit...", ring out over woodland. These are very characteristic April sounds, but fall silent once they start breeding, usually by the end the third week. A few - possibly males still looking for a suitor - can still be heard after this, however. (Beware of song thrushes, who sometimes produce a perfect imitation of the nuthatch's song.)

Chaffinches supposedly lay eggs in late April or early May, so ought to be in full song earlier in the month. But in fact they seem to be heard quite infrequently until the second or third week, usually picking up a bit after that, and being at their most vocal in May. In recent years they also seem to have become quite localised in the south east - that is present in some places but not in others.

Chaffinch song is an accelerating riff which trips over itself at its end, but they also make a metronomic hweet!... hweet!....hweet!... that can go on for ages. There are two versions of this - a rather harsh, raspy one (clip: known as a "rain call") and a softer toned one (clip). The latter can sound very much like a similarly repetitive call of the chiffchaff (clip). I have observed both birds making the call at this time of year and both can engage in duels with other birds where they swop "hweets" for prolonged periods.

Otherwise chiffchaffs are easily identified by their ponderous three note song (chuff-CHIFF-chaff), which for a time in the first half of April can be so common and persistent it drives one crazy. This is because the birds have only arrived from southern Europe or Africa in late March (though not until 10 April in 2013) and are still competing for territories and mates. Later in the month territories have been established and the losers have moved on, so the excitement dies down a bit, but chiffchaff song is still regularly heard.

Other migrants are also arriving. Blackcaps turn up quite early in the month, if not in late March, and issue a rather random stream of notes that sound devilishly similar to the song of the dunnock, which also continues to be heard from time to time throughout the month, usually (but not always) near habitation. The blackcap song is more emphatic and is sometimes preceded by mumbling notes, as if the bird is working out what riff to sing: its characteristic sound is the decisive flourish with which it finishes, however. It is quite a dominant song during April.

Common whitethroats, which can arrive later in the month, though sometimes not till May, have a scratchier and much shorter version of the riff. They like low shrubs or hedgerows between fields and are quite easily seen perched on top of them. They sometimes fly up into the air in a display flight, which is accompanied by an extended version of their song.

Further adding to the confusion is the song of the garden warbler, which arrives in mid to late April. Its song is like a faster, more demented version of the blackcap's (particularly the mumbling part of it), with something of the scratchiness of the whitethroat. It ends with a slight flourish, but nothing like as emphatic as that of the blackcap. They are not the commonest of birds, and are almost impossible to see, remaining hidden in trees and scrub. If you do catch sight of one, it could be mistaken for a chiffchaff, being quite non-descript in appearance with a lighter belly. Despite their name they are not a garden bird.

Dunnocks lay eggs during April, a fact that traditionally has been exploited by the parasitic cuckoo. This African migrant is now sadly rare in the south east, having declined 75 percent in the last twenty years, but you might hear one from mid month onwards. Good places include the Knepp Wildland south of Horsham, Pulborough Wild Brooks RSPB reserve, or the Otmoor RSPB reserve near Oxford.

Kent for some reason also seems to have more cuckoos than other south eastern counties (one usually seems to turn up near the Bough Beech Reservoir near Penshurst). The heaths around Haslemere, the Hurtwood to the south of Gomshall, and other Surrey heaths and woods can also be good spots, as is the New Forest in Hampshire supposedly.

Even rarer (indeed practically extinct in these parts) is the turtle dove, which used to be a common sign of spring (its name comes from its purring song, which sounds like "tur-tur"). It has declined 93 percent since 1994, but I did hear one on 23 April 2016 and 28 April 2018 near Ightham Mote in Kent, and one was reported near Edenbridge in 2019. They also have been known to turn up at Otmoor, the wetland reserve at Stodmarsh in Kent, and at Knepp Wildland.

Nightingales, another traditional harbinger of spring, are much easier to hear if know where to go. They arrive late in April and sing to attract mates in low trees or scrub. Sussex and the southern parts of Surrey are the place to find them, with Abbot's Wood near Polegate, the woods to the south east of Chiddingfold, Pulborough Wild Brooks RSPB reserve, and the southern block of Knepp all being hotspots. Though they give their best performance at night, they can be heard during the day too, when the males practise - or even give full recitals of - a breathtaking variety of different sounds.

Other summer visitors that one traditionally looked out for from mid April onwards were swallows and the house martins. These should start arriving around the middle of the month, with more coming in May, the swallows having migrated all the way from South Africa. (Traditionally 23 April was the day of the first swallow arrival.)

However both have sadly become very scarce in the south east in recent years, not helped by a catastrophic dip in 2018 due to weather problems on their migration route. Telling them apart can be quite difficult, simply because they fly so fast, but a clear giveaway is the long forked tail of the swallow and the fact that it has a dark throat and back. House martins, by contrast, have a white patch on their rump (the bottom of their back) and a white throat.

Swallows also fly closer to the ground and have a smoother, less undulating flight than house martins, which have more of a "flap flap glide" motion. They can twist and turn with incredible dexterity and are often seen flying low over pasture or arable fields. They nest in pairs while house martins live in colonies, always near farmhouses or other habitation. Swallows may also be found in the same situations, however, and can concentrate over a particularly good feeding site.

You can still hear the see-saw songs of great tits which so filled the woodland in February and March, but they are laying eggs during April and by mid month their song is much less persistent and more occasional - often just a few snatches in a day's walk, though sometimes more. Now and then you might hear the slightly different see-saw songs (see March birds) of coal tits, particularly near conifers, which are their favoured habitat.

Blue tits continue to sing their thin piping mating song, particularly towards dusk, but are also laying eggs in April (though sometimes not till early in May) and so are heard less often - though with so much other birdsong going on, it is also possible that they are just overlooked.

If you hear this sound in fields with hedgerows later in the month, as it might just be that of the yellowhammer instead. The full song of this bird, with its bright yellow head plummage, is very distinctive - a rapid series of notes ending in a prolonged "cheese" sound - but it often doesn't bother with the cheese bit, which is where confusion with a blue tit may arise. It normally starts to sing in May, but can produce the occasional outburst in April. Like so many birds, it is now becoming rare in the south east.

Also possible to confuse with the yellowhammer is the lesser whitethroat, which produces a machine gun-like repeated note, sounding similar to, though more forceful, than the "non-cheese" part of the yellowhammer riff. Found in scrub, they turn up around the middle of the month.

Other birdsong in April includes wrens, who make a sudden loud outburst of notes with a trill in its centre. Although they can make do this at any time of year, the second half of March and the first half of April is usually when it reaches its greatest intensity, with the birds making runs of riffs and duelling with rivals. This sometimes continues into the second half of the month, but is usually starting to die down a bit by then.

You can still hear male greenfinches trilling and making heavy "squeezh" noises from high perches (nearly always near houses and, again, not so common these days). Goldfinches are starting their breeding season and so any you hear in April are overwhelmingly likely to be lone males singing from a tree top or rooftop. This sounds almost identical to the communal twittering the birds make when in flocks the rest of the year, and shares a certain squeaky toy quality with the sound swallows make when flying overhead. It is also easy to overlook, given all the other birdsong going on.

Sparrows continue to cheep away near houses. If you get to see the singer, it is often a lone male on a perch too, though they seem always to remain a communal bird. Another bird associated with habitation is the wood pigeon, whose hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo call is heard now and then - mostly near houses, though sometimes also out in the woods. Collared doves (hoo-hooo hoo), by contrast, are always heard near houses, while the throaty "woo" of the stock dove is confined to woods.

Great spotted woodpeckers can be heard drumming on a tree to attract a mate throughout April, though this is less frequent (or even absent entirely) in the second half the month. Green woodpeckers utter their hysterical laugh known as a "yaffle". As in previous months, skylarks can be heard trilling over grassland or - surprisingly - arable fields (one wonders how successful their breeding efforts are in the latter habitat).

Birds that are sadly now rare but which might be lucky enough to hear in April include the bullfinch, which has a soft sighing song that is quite distinctive: it has declined massively along with traditional apple orchards which were one of its favourite homes.

Meanwhile willow warblers are a migrant with a song that is a gently descending cascade of notes and which might be confused with that of the chaffinch. Not at all common in the south east, they are found in more open country such as downland (Pitstone Hill near Ivinghoe Beacon is one stronghold, and I have heard them on Fackenden Down near Otford), in scrubby places, and on heaths such as Ashdown Forest or Black Down near Haslemere.

Over arable fields, the lapwing, a bird with a very distinctive crest on its head, can be identified by its extraordinary mewing cries and its habit of tumbling downwards as part of its display (hence its name). But this is very rare indeed on agricultural land nowadays. Instead they seem to breed on wetlands, with the RSPB reserves at Pulborough Wild Brooks and Otmoor being good places to see them.

In reed beds reed warblers (another target of cuckoos) can be heard chattering away later in the month, while sedge warblers make a similar, but less rhythmical, sound from nearby bushes: once again Otmoor is a good place for both these birds, and you can also hear them at Pulborough Wild Brooks, the Stodmarsh reserve near Canterbury, and along lowland rivers such as the Adur near Amberley or Arundel.

If you are near Romney Marsh or Southease and you hear a reed or sedge warbler, what you might actually be hearing is a marsh frog. This invasive species lives in ditches, and has a loud croak (much louder than anything produced by our native frogs) that can sound somewhat bird-like. The sharp outburst of Cetti's warblers is also reasonably common in scrub near wetlands, and it sometimes crops up by canals or lakes.

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