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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 courtship mode. 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 tends to be in suburban green spaces, scrubby areas, ancient woodland and wildlife reserves: 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 are particularly noticeable in ancient woods, in suburban green spaces and near rural houses.

Once there was a particular increase in blackbird song from around 3-4pm till dusk, creating a lovely layered effect, but since 2022 this seems to be less true. In places they dominate the soundscape about an hour before sunset however. Very occasionally at this time they resort to tup-tup-tupping competitions instead, which may be 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. Its lovely song takes one phrase, repeats it two or three times, then does the same to another and another: the variety of phrases is what attracts the females. At dusk it sometimes seems to be competing with blackbirds as to who will be the last to shut up.

The cascading song of the chaffinch is also at its best in May, though worryingly in recent years it has become quite localised in the south east - ie common enough in some areas, but absent in others. Chaffinches lay their eggs during the month, so their song becomes maybe a bit 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 - but 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, as is Ashdown Forest and Black Down near Haslemere.

Chaffinches also make a metronomic wheep!... wheep!....wheep!... 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 wet weather) 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 species can engage in duels with other birds where they swop "wheeps" for prolonged periods.

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 by end of the first week, though you may hear one till mid month. 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. Very occasionally you may also hear coal tits in May.

Robins are another bird that time their young to coincide with the caterpillar peak, so their song is 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. Often this is in short bursts as if they have no time for more developed songs. At dusk they can still be quite competitive, still singing even when it is almost fully dark. (In other words, they beat both blackbirds and song thrushes to be the last bird singing!)

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, when you occasionally hear a kind of half yaffle, or a flatter-toned version which the bird uses 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.

The dunnock's squeaky supermarket trolley song sounds similar to that of the blackcap, which can be heard all month. It is louder and more confident than the dunnock's song, and may start with mumbling notes. As the breeding season goes on, it is more and more inclined to omit those, however, and just utter the final triumphant flourish.

Just to make life confusing, the common 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 this month. 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 any of these 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 in. 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 cuckoos include the New Forest, the Hurtwood south of Gomshall, and the Haslemere area, as well as nature reserves such as Otmoor near Oxford, Pulborough Brooks in East Sussex, and the Knepp Wildlands south of Horsham. In 2021 I also heard one singing persistently on Epsom Common.

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 influx in May. Worryingly, though, both species have shown a noticeable decline in numbers in the south east 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.

House martins seem to be doing particularly poorly, though there is one thriving colony nesting in the visitor centre in Denbies Vineyard near Dorking. It is worth noting that at this time of year you only see the breeding adults: from July or so onwards there are newly fledged young to swell numbers.

If you do get to see them, telling the two species apart can be difficult, 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.

House martins, by contrast, are more sociable, nearly always appearing in chattering groups, and nearly always seen fairly close to 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 Winchester, Sandwich, Wye or Thame), 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.

Swifts are amazing birds, spending up to four years in the air after fledging, 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 seen sharp declines in numbers in the south east in recent years.

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 the top of bushes or trees, though sometimes from a television aerial or chimney pot on a house). 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 or linnets.

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. 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. Sadly, they are yet another once common bird that is now getting very rare.

Also on downland and and over arable fields skylarks trill invisibly overhead, and on wilder downs or coastal cliff tops 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 scrub and downland - often, though not exclusively near the coast - 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 linnets, the males with red breasts, 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. Their song has been described as "tree tree top of the tree". Cetti's warblers, by contrast, are hardly ever seen, but are commoner than you might expect in and around wetland areas once you 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 be 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 RSPB wetland reserves such as Otmoor near Oxford or Pulborough Brooks in West Sussex, but you may just see one in the normal countryside. They traditionally put their nests in newly ploughed fields and relied on the crops to grow up to hide them: the author saw one in just such a habitat in Hertfordshire in 2022.

May also used to be a good month to hear turtle doves in scrubland. Nowadays you need to go to Knepp Wildlands or RSPB Otmoor to hear them.

Easier to hear are nightingales, for which this is the best month, and which are found in Sussex and the wooded southern parts of Surrey. Good sites include Knepp, Abbots Wood near Polegate, Oaken Wood near Chiddingfold, Bookham Common near Leatherhead, and Pulborough Brooks RSPB. Though the males sing at night, they practice by day, so if you are in the right place you can hear them going through their amazing vocal gymnastics. Later in the afternoon, if you are lucky, you may even get a full performance.

More May pages:

© Peter Conway 2006-2024 • All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Peter, I didn't know you had written this section on birds and botany.
It is a delight to purloin your knowledge first hand on a walk but the coincidence of crossing paths is not a given. Discovering your pages here is a delightful find for this incognoscenti. Thank you. I look forward to reading them in more depth and, who knows, I may prosper in my learning and be able to identify more than an occasional bird myself.
Ever, Carrie

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