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March birds

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

March is a good month to identify common countryside birds and their songs, with most native woodland and countryside birds now in full voice. They are loudest and most persistent when trying to establish territories and attract mates, when they need to make themselves heard at a distance. Once territories are established, they only have to sing loudly enough to defend their territory against their immediate neighbours. The lack of foliage also makes them (relatively) easy to see. However if a cold wind blows from the north or east the amount of birdsong falls off markedly (see Exceptions at the bottom of this page for some examples).

You can still hear lots of robins making their twittering song during the month, especially at dusk. However the most dominant song is the see-saw ("teacher teacher") of great tits, now at its most urgent and prolonged. It is accompanied by a range of other calls, including one that sounds like "see-choo-choo" and a single or rapid series of strident "tseeps". (The more different sounds a great tit can make, the more mating success it has, apparently.) Being used to singing as early as December, both these species are less likely than other birds to fall silent in cold weather.

The diminutive coal tit (often found in conifers) produces a similar song, though with an emphasis on the second note - "too-TWEE too-TWEE too-TWEE" - while the mating call of the blue tit (another cold weather stalwart) is a soft repeated note. If you hear this, make sure it is not coming from a nuthatch. It has various different calls, one of which is a trill sounding a bit like the blue tit, only with more emphasis, and another of which is a string of notes with a halting 'de-wit de-wit' or "wit wit-wit" rhythm. Its main mating call, however is a "wee wee wee", either delivered loudly in a slow measured way (the bird has to stop and tilt its head back to do this) or more rapidly as a run of notes. All of these can be heard throughout the month but increasingly so towards its end, when nuthatches become one of the most vocal birds in woodland.

Chaffinches continue their cascading song, though they are not quite up to their full intensity yet. You maybe only hear them once or twice a day, though more if the weather is warmer. (This once common bird also seems to be getting more localised in the south east - that is, present in some places and absent in others.) In addition, chaffinches occasionally make "chink chink" calls (similar to ones also made by great tits) and a sort of metronomic repeated "wheep" (about one wheep per second). Sometimes this repeated call (known as a "rain call", though it doesn't necessarily or even usually happen when rain is due) has a raspy quality while sometimes the tone is softer. Sometimes two males exchange wheeps monotonously from opposing perches. Later in the month the softer wheep may be coming from a chiffchaff, which has a similar call (see below).

The nasal "squeezh" which is the mating call of the greenfinch is also in evidence near human habitation throughout the month (though sadly it seems to be less common than it used to be) and they also make a range of trilling sounds. They are fairly easy to see as they tend to perch on the top of trees or bushes. In addition you can see (or more usually hear) the demented twittering of goldfinches. This is still generally coming from a family group earlier in the month, but in the second half is more likely to be a lone male, usually in a high perch in a treetop, as it as at this time of year that they start to set up breeding territories. (The sound they make is pretty similar in either case: ie, a lone male singing sounds like several birds twittering away.) Sparrows also live communally and can be heard cheeping from inside a bush, almost always near human habitation. But again the source of the noise can turn out to be just one male.

Song thrushes continue to sing, their song easily identifiable because they repeat a whole range of different phrases. But they seem to be less common than they were back in the winter - you typically hear one or two a day. This may be because earlier in the winter they are competing for territory but now have settled that issue. Just occasionally you come across a concentration of them at dusk, when they seem to be competing with blackbirds to be the last bird singing as the light fades (a contest they normally win). You may also hear the much less common mistle thrush, which produces a kind of clipped blackbird song with phrases of just four or five notes, and which always sounds as if it is a long way away even when it is not.

Not often noticed but heard near houses, and sometimes in more rural areas, are dunnocks, whose song is like a squeaky supermarket trolley wheel and who are visually often confused with sparrows due to their dull brown plumage. They are a bit less vocal in March than are in February - or perhaps there is just a bigger variety of birdsong so their fairly quiet song is less noticed. The same would definitely not be said of the loud trilling riff of a wren. They can make this at any time of the year, but in March it reaches its greatest intensity, with some birds making a whole series of them in a row.

You continue to sometimes hear wood pigeons ("hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo") and collared doves ("hoo-hooo hoo"), the latter generally near houses, the former both near houses and in woodland, as well as the throaty "woo" of the stock dove (only in woodland, though this can be suburban woodland). Listen out too for the laughing call of the green woodpecker (known as a "yaffle"), a regular sound in March, and the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker: it also has a chik...chik call which is easy to confuse with one of the calls made by blackbirds.

Above grassland and arable fields skylarks can be heard twittering – a summer sound that rather seems out of place at this time of year. Once the latter part of the month also was filled with the strange cry of a lapwing over arable fields, which accompanied their amazing display flight, in which they suddenly tumble downwards - the reason for their name. Nowadays you mainly have to go to a nature reserve to see this (try RSPB Otmoor, near Oxford), though you may just see it in the ordinary countryside.

In contrast, very prominent in the soundscape - and very evocative of spring - are the measured and melodious phrases of blackbirds, which can still be somewhat tentative early in the month but are in their full stride by its end, as more experienced males join the newbies who are the ones generally singing in February. Blackbirds can be heard at any time of day, but mid afternoon onwards seems to be their favourite time for piping up. By mid month there can be several singing at once at dusk, either near habitation or in woodland, creating a wonderful layered effect. Blackbirds should be laying their eggs during March, and the same is true of song thrushes. Nuthatches follow in early April, with robins, great tits and dunnocks laying during April, blue tits any time from April to early May, and chaffinches not till late April or early May.

Beautiful though blackbird song is, however, the most exciting moment in March is when you hear your first chiffchaff, the first summer migrant bird to arrive (in this case from the Mediterranean). Its ponderous three note song is typically first heard sometime in the third week of the month, though occasionally one hears it before that. These earlier singers may be one of the small number of chiffchaffs who overwinter here, who jump the gun a bit by piping up on a mild day. You can tell when the main wave of migrants turns up, however, because chiffchaff song is suddenly everywhere. They are an unfailing harbinger of spring: once they are here, the weather never goes back to being wintry. As mentioned above, they also make a soft repeated "wheep" call that is very similar to one made by the chaffinch.

By the time the chiffchaffs arrive, other winter visitors have departed. Fieldfares and redwings - flocks of Scandinavian thrushes which winter here - may still be seen on arable fields and in suburban parks in early March, but have generally departed by mid month. The same is true of siskins from the continent - a bird more common in Scotland and Wales, but still occasionally seen in the south east. Their lively chatter alerts you to their presence as they feed on alder trees.

In most years blackcaps also arrive from the continent in the last few days of March - their song is a more confident version of the dunnock's, with a characteristic mumble at the beginning when they seem to be struggling to find the beat.

Exceptions to the above include March 2013, when intensely cold easterly winds set in from the 10th and lasted into April. The effect was to take birdsong back to early January levels, and by the end of the month to silence it almost entirely. Blackbirds did not really start singing, except in very isolated cases, and the song thrushes, mistle thrushes and chaffinches stopped by mid month. Dunnocks kept going till the end of third week, as did wrens, but great tits and blue tits were only occasionally heard. Many days the only song was from a robin or two, with perhaps the occasional greenfinch or goldfinch. Chiffchaffs did not appear until 10 April, and fieldfares and redwings were still stranded in the UK until at least the end of March.

In 2018 a week of snow and intensely cold easterly winds hit at the end of February just as chaffinches, wrens and greenfinches were starting to sing: there was a three day repeat of this weather two weeks later. The effect was to reduce birdsong to winter species for much of March - robin, great tit, blue tit and dunnock, with blue tits even singing in the snow. Blackbirds remained subdued until the last week, and song thrushes, chaffinches and greenfinches only started singing tentatively at the month's end. Chiffchaffs did not appear until 31 March.

More March pages:

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