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July birds

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

Picture: yellowhammer. Click here for more July bird photos. For more 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 get predated. In addition this is 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 - usually in the afternoon or early evening. This tends to stop by the third week of the month, though even after this there can be the occasional bird that does not get the message. 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 up to the second or third week, and until the same time you can hear the occasional blackcap. Whitethroats and dunnocks are rarely heard after the first week - possibly a week or so later if inclement weather in the spring delayed the start of their breeding. 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 raising a second brood at the start of July, and usually continue singing until the end of the first or second week. They also make a repeated, though somewhat erratic,"hweet" call throughout the month (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, and the same is true of willow warblers.

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 (though also a little irritating when endlessly repeated...). This could be confused with the hoo-HOOO hoo (with an emphasis on the second hoo) of the collared dove, which can be heard now and then right to the end of the month. 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 hear occasionally throughout July, is the stock dove, whose call is a throaty "woo".

On grassy hills or arable fields you can hear skylarks twittering away until nearly the end of July - and then that most summery of sounds is tragically gone for another year. Both on downland and in field hedgerows you might hear still hear a yellowhammer in the first half of the month, or occasionally later. It makes a run of seven rapid notes and then ends with a long wheeze, likened to “a little bit of bread and some CHEESE” - but it doesn't always do the cheese bit.

On scrubby cliff tops or downland near the sea (as well as occasionally inland) meadow pipits may continue to make their piping song and perform their 'parachute' display flight until relatively late in the month. In similar locations you may just hear a stonechat making the "chat chat" call from which it gets its name, or the twittering of linnets in lively flocks. Corn buntings can also be heard in the first half of the month, occasionally later: once common farmland birds, they now seem to have found a refuge on the South Downs and Dover cliffs.

The sound made by linnets may possibly be confused with that of goldfinches, which also feed in groups all over the countryside. Their chattering contact calls can be heard all month, but even till quite late in the month an identical sound may be coming from a lone goldfinch male on a perch guarding a breeding territory. Greenfinches can also be heard till late in July, usually near houses. They may only be making a trilling sound, but now and then they burst into their "squeezh" mating call.

You can still also 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. They also make a clicking alarm call that sounds like two stones being bashed together. Robins make an alarm call too, which sounds a bit like a rachet turning (though sometimes they seem to do this when not obviously alarmed). Otherwise they are silent this month, moulting and recovering from the breeding season, though just occasionally one might start singing at the very end of the month: see August birds for more on this.

As the month goes on you can 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 - almost certainly 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 loud call, similar to their "yaffle" territorial call earlier in the year but flat in pitch and so lacking its "laughing" quality (though just occasionally you get the full yaffle...) Great spotted woodpeckers make a "chik...chik" call.

Early in the month you can still hear the occasional reed warbler chattering away in reed beds (or maybe a sedge warbler in a bush nearby) or just possibly the simple song of the reed bunting. By the sea you may hear the thin piping of ringed plovers, brilliantly camouflaged against the shingle beaches where they nest (try Cuckmere Haven or the scrub behind the beach between Newhaven and Seaford). Kittiwakes, seagull-like birds that one more normally expect to see on remoter Scottish or North Sea coasts, continue to nest on the chalk cliffs at the eastern end of Seaford beach throughout the month.

Perhaps the most delightful bird experience in July, however, is to see house martins or swallows swooping over fields catching insects, though the numbers of both birds seem to be on a downward trend in the south east. They had a catastrophic 2018 due to weather problems on their migration route and have not recovered noticeably since. However both can still sometimes be seen. Swallow numbers, indeed, pick up in July as the young fledge. If you are lucky, you come across a happy group of them, sitting on fences, taking off, feeding, chattering and generally behaving like carefree teenagers. Their flying skills are not always as finely honed as those of the adults. Traditionally house martins were always found in sociable groups too, though in recent years in the south east those groups seem to have got smaller.

Telling the two species 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. The two species also make different calls in flight, the house martin's having a staccato rasping quality, while swallows sound like a child's squeaky bath toy being rapidly squeezed.

Swifts, which also seem to be in serious decline in the south east (2023 being a particularly awful year), 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 only land to rear young. They are usually seen over ancient towns and cities (only in Sandwich and Winchester in 2023) because they nest in church towers and other old buildings, though rather surprisingly some are to be seen over suburban North London too. 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.

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