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June birds

Other June pages: Meadow and field flowersWayside flowers Downland and seaside flowersHedgerow, trees and berriesButterflies and insectsWeather

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

There is noticeably less birdsong in June than earlier in the spring, prompting the sad realisation that it is coming to an end for another year. No longer are there birds singing all around you: instead you just hear them now and then. Having said that, you can still hear a good variety of species on an average day.

The reason for the reduction is that the breeding period for some species is already over and those that are still rearing young (or perhaps even raising a second brood) are busy feeding their chicks and have less time (or need) to sing. It is an irony that at the end of June bird populations are at their height due to all those youngsters but the birds become a lot less noticeable. As the summer goes on many of the newcomers will fall victim to predators.

Birds that are generally not heard in June are great tits, coal tits and blue tits, all of whom have finished raising their young by early in the month. Even the churring contact calls from great tits and blue tits, so common for much of the rest of the year, are absent. Very occasionally you may hear a brief snatch of the see-saw mating songs of great or coal tits, however - particularly the latter for some reason. Whether this is fledgling males trying out their voices or mature ones hopeful of a second brood, I do not know.

Another bird whose song is prominent the rest of the year - the robin - also falls silent as June progresses. In the first half - and much more rarely the second - you may hear brief outbursts of their twittering, but these are isolated examples.

By contrast, blackbirds are still one of the most dominant birds in the soundscape. They can be heard at any time of day but most frequently in the late afternoon or early evening. Early in the month you may hear layers of blackbird song at this time, but after this you mostly only hear one or two birds at once, and one of those might be very distant. They sometimes also make a tup-tup sound to ward off predators from their young, or - if heard at dusk - to mark their territory.

(As observed in May birds, blackbird song was worryingly scarce in 2022 and 2023. But in the second half of June 2023 there seemed to be a definite pick-up in some rural areas, perhaps coinciding with the end of a drought, which made food more available and so prompted a further brood.)

Also heard particularly in the last third of the day, though also occasionally at other times, is the song thrush. It is a rare evening even at the end of the month when you don't hear at least one, but there is none of the intense competition between rivals one hears earlier in the year. They are often the last bird singing as the light fades.

Another bird which is still vocal, though less so than in May, is the chaffinch. Its song can be heard fairly frequently early in the month but usually only once or twice a day after that. It also makes a repeated, metronomic "hweet….hweet…..hweet" call, one version quite harsh in tone (recording) and another softer (recording).

Chiffchaffs make a very similar call to the softer chaffinch one (recording), so often only a sighting of the bird (or hearing the distinctive "chink chink" call of the chaffinch mixed in with the hweets) can settle which you are hearing. Chiffchaff song - the ponderous "choff-chiff-chaff" which gives the bird its name - is often at a low level early in the month, only to pick again in the second or third week, providing weather conditions are favourable, as the birds have a second brood. At such times singing can be very persistent and competitive, and may remain so till late in the month.

Greenfinch numbers have declined noticeably in recent years, but those that remain are reasonably vocal in June, nearly always making their trilling and wheezing song near houses, and being fairly easy to spot as they sing from the top of trees or bushes. Goldfinches continue to twitter away: they have a noise they make when in communal flight, but generally this month it is still single males singing on high perches.

One very prominent song is that of the blackcap, which is vocal throughout the month. On arrival in this country in late April and early May it starts with a series of mumbling, hesitant notes before ending with an emphatic riff. But by June it often seems to have abbreviated that to just the final flourish. Don't confuse this with the short and scratchy song of the whitethroat which is particularly found in scrubby areas and along hedgerows in farmland. It also has a display flight where it flies up into the air and lands again, which is accompanied by a longer version of the song.

To complicate things further, dunnocks have a similar song to the blackcap's, only less emphatic and a lot quieter. They are more commonly heard in early spring, or perhaps easier to notice then, but can be heard occasionally throughout June. As they are notoriously promiscuous birds I can only speculate that perhaps they are going for a second brood at this time of year.

Very occasionally in the first week of June you might also hear a garden warbler - a demented, speeded-up version of the blackcap riff. Despite its name, this bird lives in trees and scrub, not gardens. Willow warblers are not at all common in the south east, but might be heard in scrubland until late in the month; their song is a descending series of notes, not dissimilar to chaffinch song without the final flourish. Also in scrubland you may hear a lesser whitethroat, which has a very different song from its more common cousin, being a staccato run of notes which can sound a bit like a chaffinch or a yellowhammer (see below) not completing its song.

On scrubby clifftops or downland near the sea (as well as occasionally inland) meadow pipits do a characteristic rising and descending display flight with a piping song to match. If you follow the sound you can see them perched on top of prominent bushes. On the same kind of perches you may see a stonechat. It has a short song riff that sounds rather like that of a whitethroat, but more distinctive is its call, which sounds like two stones being bashed together (hence its name), interspersed with a "tseep" now and then. In the same habitats the twittering song of the linnet could possibly be mistaken for that of a goldfinch or skylark. They live in excitable groups and have a characteristically bouncy flight low over bushes

A bird which sounds like a rather strangulated whitethroat is the corn bunting: once a common farmland bird, it seems to still have a refuge on the South Downs and Dover clifftops. Downland both by the sea and inland is also a prime place to spot - or at least hear - skylarks, who twitter away high the sky, singing myriad notes per second, too fast for the human ear to hear properly - one of the most evocative sounds of the summer. In places - try the grassland inland of the coast path from Beachy Head to Birling Gap - there can be several singing away at once. Skylarks are also surprisingly common over arable fields, presumably nesting among the crops.

Also sometimes seen on downland, but more common on farmland, are yellowhammers - as colourful as their name suggests but surprisingly well camouflaged against hedgerows. Their song is a rapid series of notes followed by a very distinctive long "eee", but they sometimes leave out the "eee". If you follow the sound to its source, the birds are not that hard to spot, as they tend to sing from prominent positions.

Meanwhile, you may see swallows swooping for insects, or are they house martins? Both birds were reasonably common in the south east up to 2017 but then suffered a catastrophic year in 2018 due to weather problems on their migration route and have suffered further declines since. Both have white bellies and both fly pretty fast, making identification hard. Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish them is that swallows quite often fly very low - sometimes only half a metre above the ground - turning sharply and unexpectedly with great skill and even dipping into ponds to drink while on the wing. They also have a long forked tail and a dark throat, if you ever get that good a look at them.

House martins, by contrast, are more sociable, nearly always appearing in chattering groups (though in recent years the groups seem to be getting smaller and smaller - and towards the end of June swallow juveniles may start to fledge and also form excited groups...). As their name suggests, house martins are nearly always seen near buildings, where they nest in colonies' and tend to fly at roof top height, in a sort of "flap flap glide" flight rather than the smooth swoop of the swallow. They have a stubbier tail and a white patch on their rumps (the bottom of their back). The two species also have different calls - the house martin's having a staccato rasping quality while the swallow sounds like a squeaky bath toy being rapidly pressed.

Often lumped together with these two, but in fact from a quite different family of birds, is the swift, which has distinctive swept-back wings and entirely dark plumage. This is another species which seems to be getting scarcer and scarcer in the south east - 2023 being a particularly awful year, when they seemed to be almost extinct in our region. They are generally seen high in the sky, particularly over ancient towns with convenient church towers to nest in (only Sandwich and Winchester in 2023) - though also, oddly enough, suburban North London - but can sometimes come quite close to the ground in pursuit of food. Their distinctive screaming call is usually what alerts you to their presence. They spiral upwards into the sky at night to sleep on the wing, and even mate in the air. The only time they ever land is to raise young.

Other birdsong in June includes the sudden trilling outburst of the wren, which can be heard reasonably regularly - usually in single outbursts, though sometimes in repeated runs - and the incessant cheeping of sparrows, always found near houses. You quite regularly hear the "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" song of wood pigeons - a very summery sound - but make sure you are not hearing the very similar song - "hoo-hooo hoo" - of the collared dove. Both are usually found near houses, the collared dove almost exclusively so. In woods you can also hear the throaty "woo" of a stock dove.

Early in the month you may hear the laughing "yaffle" of the green woodpecker: after that it occasionally utters an abbreviated or flat-toned version of it as an alarm call. Great spotted woodpeckers have by now ceased drumming, but now and then make a "chik...chik" sound, and you may just hear the "de-dit" (or "wit-wit") call of a nuthatch. Nightingales are not impossible early in the month if you are in wooded areas of Sussex and Surrey, and cuckoos may crop up even later (I heard one on 21 June in 2022, and on 25 June in 2020 and 2023).

If you are in Seaford in Sussex then June is the month to see a colony of kittiwakes, seagull-like seabirds that nest on the white cliffs at the eastern end of the beach - a sight one normally only expects to see on remoter Scottish and North Sea coasts. In unfrequented corners behind the beach between Seaford and Newhaven, or at nearby Cuckmere Haven, you may also see ringed plovers on the shingle. They nest in this habitat but are so well camouflaged that you only spot them when they move, or when their thin piping alerts you to their presence.

In marshy areas with lots of reeds - or in reed-filled ditches - the scolding, rhythmical song of the reed warbler can be heard. Much rarer (usually only found on wetland nature reserves) is the more rambling and scratchy song of the sedge warbler, which usually sings from a bush near reeds. In similar wetland habitats, as well as sometimes along quite ordinary rivers, the explosive riff of a Cetti's warbler is unmissable once you get you learn to recognise it.

Look out also in reed beds, as well as in arable fields nearby, for the reed bunting, which looks rather like a sparrow, perches on top of a reed, bush or stalk, and has a simple song that is memorialised as "tree tree top of the tree". At least early in the month in some marshy locations (such as Romney Marsh, near Southease or Oare Marsh near Faversham), what you think is a bird singing may be a marsh frog, an invasive foreign species.

More June pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2023 • All Rights Reserved

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