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May birds

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Picture: a great spotted woodpecker juvenile takes a peek out of the nest. Click here for more May bird photos. For more information and sound clips of the birds mentioned here, see the RSPB website.

Birdsong is still at its most intense for most of May, though it usually slackens off towards its end - or some years as early as mid month. Males sing most frequently - and loudest - when they are setting up territories and trying to attract a mate: at this time they have to project their song over a long distance to ward off rivals. Once territories are established and pairs formed, singing is only required to maintain existing territory boundaries, and so doesn't need to be so loud or persistent. Later still when there are young to feed there is less time to sing.

In May many overwintering natives are already reaching this last stage, but others - among them new migrants - are still in the courtship phase. That means that you can still experience layers of birdsong if the weather is fine, both by day and (particularly) in the early evening. This varies considerably from place to place, however. The best concentrations of song tend to be in suburban parks, woodland and wildlife reserves, as well as scrubby areas in the country: on farmland it is really evident how modern agricultural methods reduce avian populations. While you can hear lots of birds, it is much more difficult to actually see them, however, because foliage now hides them from view.

If you can get up early (or perhaps stay up late), this is also a good month to hear the dawn chorus. Song thrushes apparently start singing first, in the pre-dawn, and then come blackbirds, wrens and robins. Chaffinch and blackcap and others often don't start until it is full light. Once it is light enough to see food, there is then a "breakfast gap" followed by another burst of singing.

One bird that is very vocal all month is the blackbird, whose lovely unhurried song is sung by males perched high on trees and rooftops. They can pipe up at any time of day and, with the exception of intensely arable areas, it can sometimes seem in the first half to two thirds of the month as if they are singing all the time and everywhere. There is a particular increase from around 3-4pm until dusk, and in favoured areas - ancient woods, villages, suburban areas - this creates a lovely layered effect, with song stretching off into the distance. Only towards the end of the month does the song start to become more thinly spaced, though there is still usually a late afternoon and early evening chorus. Very occasionally towards dusk blackbirds resort to tup-tup-tupping competitions instead, or these may be tactics to scare off potential predators from their young.

Keeping blackbirds company is the song thrush, which can be heard at any time of the day, but particularly in the late afternoon and evening. At dusk the two species sometimes seem to be competing as to who will be the last to shut up (song thrushes usually win).

The cascading song of the chaffinch is also common throughout May - or should be. In recent years it has not been as widespread as it ought to be in the south east, and seems to be becoming quite localised - ie common enough in some areas, but absent in others. Chaffinches lay their eggs during the month, so their song is in any case less intense towards its end, though still regularly heard.

It is worth checking that what you think is a chaffinch is not a willow warbler, as their song sounds quite similar to the casual ear. Willow warblers sing a descending scale but without the flourish at the end that the chaffinch has. They are found in wilder places - scrubby downland, low woodland - rather than in farmland, though they now seem to be very rare in the south east of England. The lower slopes of Pitstone Hill near Tring are one good place to hear them.

Chaffinches also make a metronomic tseep!... tseep!....tseep!... that can go on for ages. There are two versions of this - a rather harsh, raspy one (clip: known as a "rain call", though as far as I can tell it is not usually associated with particular weather conditions) and a softer toned one (clip). The latter sounds 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 it is often not possible to tell which is doing it. Both can engage in duels with other birds where they swop "tseeps" for prolonged periods, though a harsh tseep answered by "chink chink" may be a male and female chaffinch calling to each other. The ponderous song of the chiffchaff (which sounds like its name) also continues to be heard most days throughout the month, though it is less frequent than it was in early April, when they were newly arrived from their migration and competing for territory.

Other birds that were vocal earlier in the spring are now piping down. Blue tits have generally stopped singing end of the first week, while great tits mainly utter brief snatches, though they can occasionally be heard singing with gusto or having a see-saw contest with a neighbouring male even late in May. Both species now have young, timing them to coincide with the peak in caterpillar numbers in the second half of the month. Being in pair bonds, they do not even make the cheerful contact calls they make the rest of the year when feeding in groups.

Robins also time their young to coincide with the caterpillar peak, so their song is also much less common in May than it was earlier in the year, though they can sometimes be heard singing right to the end of the month, particularly at dusk and often in short bursts as if they have no time for more developed songs. The loud trilling outbursts of wrens are heard most days but are again nothing like as frequent as they were in late March and early April. You can also hear the "laugh" (known as a "yaffle") of the green woodpecker, but it tails off in the second half of the month, or changes to a rather flatter-toned version which the bird uses later in the summer.

Sounds which you might just hear in the first week or so, but which have usually stopped in April, include the haunting song of the mistle thrush, which sounds far away even if it is not, and the drumming of the great spotted woodpecker. You can still occasionally hear the woodpecker's "chik...chik" call later in the month, however. The various calls of nuthatches also end in the first week, if they have not already done so in April.

Dunnocks quieten down and focus on raising their young in May, though they can occasionally be heard (and seen) singing right to the end of the month. Indeed, there may even be a renewed flurry of song around this time, perhaps because these notoriously promiscuous birds are having a second go at breeding. Their squeaky supermarket trolley song sounds similar to that of the blackcap, but the latter is louder, more confident and starts with mumbling notes: it can be heard throughout the month.

Just to make life confusing, the whitethroat, a summer visitor active throughout the month in shrubby territory and hedgerows between open fields, also has a similar song, albeit much shorter than the blackcap's and more scratchy. It only arrives in late April or early May and so is very vocal. It has a display flight where it flies up into the air and lands again, which is accompanied by a longer version of its song.

This longer display song of the whitethroat sounds fiendishly similar to a garden warbler, whose outpourings are like a speeded-up, perhaps even demented, version of the blackcap's but with some scratchy notes like the whitethroat. They are not the commonest of birds, remaining hidden in trees and scrub. If you catch sight of one you might mistake it for a chiffchaff, as they are quite nondescript in appearance, with a lighter belly. Despite their name they are not a garden bird.

There is also a lesser whitethroat, with a quite different song to either of these two birds - a staccato run of notes which can sound a bit like a chaffinch or yellowhammer not completing its song.

Dunnock nests are favourite targets for the parasitic cuckoo to lay its eggs. Sadly these birds have suffered major declines in the south east, but you can still hear them occasionally in May, with some of them apparently not arriving from Africa until this time. Good places for them include the New Forest, the Hurtwood south of Gomshall, and the Haslemere area, as well as nature reserves such as Otmoor near Oxford, Pulborough Wild Brooks and the Knepp Wildlands south of Horsham. In 2021 I also heard one singing persistently on Epsom Common and another at Darlands Nature Reserve near Totteridge in North London.

Other summer visitors include swallows and house martins, where the few that turned up in late April are supposed to be joined by a further big influx in May. Worryingly, though, both species have shown a noticeable decline in numbers in recent years, with a catastrophic drop in 2018 due to poor weather on the migration route, and further poor showings in the years since. Numbers in 2021 and 2022 were particularly miserable, raising the fear that they are on the way to becoming extinct in this part of the world.

If you do get to see them, telling the two species apart can be difficult in flight, with both having white bellies and flying pretty fast. 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 like a jet fighter 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 2022 all but one of the groups I saw were just three or four birds), and nearly always seen fairly close go buildings, where they nest in colonies. They tend to fly at rooftop 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 and the swallow sounding like a squeaky bath toy being rapidly pressed.

Often lumped together with these two, but from an entirely different family of birds, is the swift, which has distinctive swept-back wings and entirely dark plumage. They generally are seen high in the sky, particularly over ancient towns with convenient church towers to nest in (try Wye. Winchester or Sandwich), as well as over Walthamstow Wetlands in north east London, but can sometimes come quite close to the ground in pursuit of food. Their distinctive screaming call is often what alerts you to their presence. They are amazing birds, spending up to four years in the air, and landing only to raise young. Among the activities they can do while on the wing are mating, sleeping (they spiral up into the air and fly downwards in big curves) and collecting nesting material - floating wisps of grass, leaves and feathers, which they cement into a nest by using their saliva. Sadly, like so many other birds, they have shown sharp declines in numbers in recent years, with the count in 2022 seeming to be the lowest yet.

Near houses you can hear the twittering of sparrows, once very common and now maybe making a bit of a comeback. Greenfinches are also almost exclusively found near habitation, where the males are easy to see as they sit on high perches making their "squeezh" of a mating call, though this is another bird that was once common and is now much reduced in numbers. Goldfinches sing from similar positions. Their song sounds almost identical to the communal chatter they make in winter, though it is usually lone males singing at this time of year (often from a television aerial on top of a house, though also on the top of bushes and low trees). In addition, they occasionally twitter excitedly as they fly past in small groups, a sound which is easy to confuse with that made by swallows.

Around habitation - in villages and more rural suburbs - is also where you hear the cooing of collared doves - "hoo-hooo hoo": look for them on chimney pots - or the "hoo-HOO-HOO-hoo-hoo" of the wood pigeon. The latter can also be heard in the countryside, and both birds sing throughout May, though not with any great intensity. A bit less common and much more inconspicuous is the repeated throaty "woo" of the stock dove, more of a woodland bird.

In fields with hedgerows or on scrubby downland or clifftops, listen out for the quiet but penetrating song of the yellowhammer, which is a rapid series of notes a little bit like a blue tit's mating call, followed by a long drawn out "eee" - but the bird not infrequently leaves out the "eee". (One can get quite tense wondering if the wretched thing is going to finish the phrase or not!). As you might expect, yellowhammers have lovely bright yellow plumage on their heads and breasts, and they usually perch prominently on a bush. But they are nonetheless remarkably difficult to spot.

Also on downland and and over arable fields skylarks trill invisibly overhead, and on wilder downs you can sometimes see or hear meadow pipits, with their accelerating trill and parachuting display (that is, they fly up and then glide downwards, singing as they go). In coastal scrub and downland you may just hear stonechats, with their frequent "tchack" calls (and a short song riff which sounds a bit like that of the whitethroat), and red-breasted linnets, who have a rapid twittering song a bit like that of the lark or goldfinch, and who fly low over the ground between perches on bushes.

On shingle beaches (eg the area behind the beach at Cuckmere Haven or between Seaford and Newhaven) look out for well-camouflaged ringed plovers, who nest in such places and give their location away with a thin piping call. On the chalk cliffs at the eastern end of Seaford beach in Sussex there is also a large colony of kittiwakes nesting at this time of year - seagull-like bird which normally only breeds on remoter Scottish islands and North Sea coasts.

In reed beds and reed-filled ditches you may hear the scolding, rhythmical song of reed warbler, another favourite target of the cuckoo. The more rambling and scratchy song of the sedge warbler is a lot rarer and usually comes from a bush near marshland. If you are near Romney Marsh or Southease, however, what you think may be either of these birds singing might in fact be a marsh frog, an invasive species that lives in ditches and which unlike our native frogs has a loud croak that can sound somewhat bird-like.

Reed buntings are also occasionally heard in reed beds, as well as on adjacent farmland, and unlike reed warblers they perch in full view. Cetti's warblers, by contrast, are hardly ever seen, but are commoner than you might expect in wetland areas if you can learn to recognise their explosive riff.

Some other birds that once were common in May and which might just crop up, include the corn bunting, which looks like a large yellowhammer but without any yellow plumage. These birds, with a scratchy call a bit like a whitethroat's, have all but disappeared now from the arable farmland that used to be their home, but the South Downs and the cliff tops between St Margaret's Bay and Kingsdown seem to places where they are holding out. Lapwings used to be a farmland bird too, with a very distinctive display flight which involves dropping out of the air while uttering an evocative cry. These days they more or less only breed on wetland reserves such as Otmoor RSPB near Oxford, but you may just see one in the normal countryside. (The author saw one in 2022 on a very ordinary arable field in Hertfordshire.)

May also used to be the month to hear turtle doves in scrubland. Nowadays you need to go to Knepp Wildlands or to Otmoor to hear them. Nightingales are found at Knepp too, as well as at Abbots Wood near Polegate, Oaken Wood near Chiddingfold, Bookham Common near Leatherhead, and Pulborough Wild Brooks. Though the males sing at night, they practice by day, so if you are in the right place you can hear them.

More May pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2022 • All Rights Reserved

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