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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 - indeed this is possibly the month when they are singing most intensely. However, they are less noticeable than earlier in the winter because there is now other birdsong to catch your attention.

A more prominent song is the piercing see-saw of great tits, still at its most urgent and prolonged. Often described as "teacher, teacher", there are in fact lots of variations on this: see February birds for more detail. The more a male can do, the more attractive he is to females and the less likely rival males are to encroach on his territory. Being used to singing as early as December, both these birds are less likely than other species to fall silent in cold weather.

The diminutive coal tit (often found in conifers) produces a similar song to the great tit, though with an emphasis on the second note - "too-TWEE too-TWEE too-TWEE" - while the mating song of the blue tit (another cold weather stalwart) is a soft repeated note.

Somewhat similar to, though a lot more forceful than, the blue tit song is a trill made by nuthatches, who also have a whole range of other calls which are essentially the same song slowed down. One, which they do all year, is a string of notes with a halting 'de-wit de-wit' or "wit wit-wit" rhythm, while another is a penetrating "wee wee wee", either delivered 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.

Also 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 (though worryingly this has been less common since 2021, particularly for some reason in suburban areas, which used to be a blackbird stronghold).

Song thrushes also continue to be heard, their song easily identifiable because they repeat a whole range of different phrases. But they seem to be less frequent 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, or that in the winter you hear young males practising who are then unsuccessful at getting a mate. 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, though robins last longer than both of them.

You may also hear the less common mistle thrush, which produces a kind of clipped blackbird song with often-repeated phrases of just four or five notes, and which always sounds as if it is a long way away even when it is not.

Another March birdsong is the cascading riff of the chaffinch, though they are sadly becoming very localised in the south east - that is, present in some places and absent in others. They are still gearing up for their mating season and are more frequently heard in warmer weather and towards the end of the month.

In addition, chaffinches 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. Occasionally 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).

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 often visually confused with sparrows due to their dull brown plumage. They are arguably a bit more vocal in March than are in February - but less noticed given the bigger variety of birdsong this month.

The same could definitely not be said of the trilling riff of a wren, which is astonishingly loud given that it comes from such a tiny bird. They can make this sound at any time of the year, but in the second half of March it reaches its greatest intensity, with some birds making a whole series of them in a row.

All of this is still part of the competition for territory and mates, but things are beginning to settle down for the native species in March, with attention turning to nests and young. Blackbirds should be laying their eggs during the month, and the same is true of song thrushes. Nuthatches, robins, great tits and dunnocks follow in April, blue tits any time from April to early May, and chaffinches in late April or early May.

Other birds that you may hear in March include the nasal "squeezh" and trilling sounds of the greenfinch, heard throughout the month. Once a farmland bird, these days they are almost exclusively found near human habitation, and sadly are getting quite rare there: you typically only hear one or two a day. They are at least fairly easy to see, as they tend to perch on the top of trees or bushes.

In addition you can 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.

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; also 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 fairly regular sound in March - and the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker, which is not as frequently heard as one might expect, given that this is a still a common bird. Great spotted woodpeckers also make 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 bare 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 the RSPB reserves at Pulborough Brooks, or Otmoor, near Oxford), though you may just see one in the ordinary countryside. In wetland you may hear the startlingly loud outburst of a Cetti's warbler.

The most exciting March birdsong of all, however, is the rather ponderous three note song of the chiffchaff. That is because it is first summer migrant to arrive (in this case from the Mediterranean), and unfailingly signals the start of spring - once it turns up, the weather never goes back to being wintry. Typically you hear your first one in the third week of the month, though occasionally before that.

Be careful of early singers, however, as a small number of chiffchaffs overwinter here and may jump the gun by piping up on a mild day in early March. The way to tell that the migrants have definitely arrived is that suddenly chiffchaff song is everywhere. 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 left 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 very decisive finish, but often a long mumbling start when they seem to be struggling to work out their riff. Again, you may just hear the occasional overwintering bird trying its luck earlier in the month.

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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