An EARLY morning walk at this time of year is rewarded by a joyous variety of bird song, but do you find it just a confusing racket of tweets and whistles?
For years, I found it all too much like hard work to try and sort out who was trilling and who was warbling. But now I have discovered that I can identify most of the perpetrators without needing to see them, and it has added a whole new dimension to bird watching.
I find that now I often see more rare birds after first hearing their call and being able to recognise it as something different.
The best way to learn bird song is to get outdoors and listen. When you hear something singing, use binoculars and don’t move on until you’ve seen it and identified it. The more you do it, the more familiar you will become with the more common species. It is surprising how quickly you are able to recognise the nuances of each song.
No two species have the same song, and songs do not vary much between individuals of the same species, so there shouldn’t be too much confusion.
However, some do cause problems, and I still have great difficulty in separating the similar songs of blackcap and garden warbler, and because they look so different, a sighting is the only way I can be really confident of a correct identification.
Conversely, at a distance, song thrush and mistle thrush can look similar, but their songs are so different that you don’t need to see them at all. The mistle thrush is a monotonous, tuneless repetitive dirge, while the song thrush sings an endless variety of tweets, whistles and squawks, usually in phrases of two or three syllables repeated up to four times.
Some songs are delivered from treetops, like the thrushes, while others like sedge warblers and blackcaps deliver theirs from dense vegetation, which entails a bit of patience from the bird watcher to catch a glimpse.
One of the loudest and furthest-carrying songs comes from one of our smallest birds, the wren, whose strident outbursts echo round dense woodland. Conversely, the tiny goldcrest sings from high in conifer woodlands and its light wheezing call is often missed by those with poorer hearing.
It is a fascinating subject and because it is a relatively short season. I urge anyone keen to learn to start now and sort out the residents before the migrating warblers arrive. A CD can help, and there are lots available.
But there’s nothing quite like the real thing.