Moving to the countryside: Part 32: what the birds get up to behind our backs

… I'm talking about the dawn chorus, the still-staggering wave of spring birdsong which is almost over by the time most of us stir from our beds

Male Blackbird singing in Tree.

It’s mid March and, having survived the wettest, drabbest winter on record in Monmouthshire, we’ve been enjoying a few dry and bright days. In the past, they called it spring. In these days of climate change, we’ll call it Sprintumn.

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The snowdrops are almost over – and we’ve been lucky to have two huge banks of them within the acre of paradise (waterlogged, subsiding hillside). Now the daffs are out and all the buds are on the cusp of exploding. But the most joyous sound of spring is the dawn chorus. I got up early to listen to one from start to finish and it made me realise just how much I miss on a normal day.

4am (or thereabouts) – a single robin starts up. Or he may have been going all night. It’s still dark and I’ve just begun my vigil. But he’s the first bird I hear and his song is a brave, rippling sweetness when dawn still seems far away. In the valley below, street lights along the A40 and in the villages are the only sign of human life. No cars on the road. (Note – to hear each species songs, click on the links below)

Towards 5am the horizon appears – sort of. Darkness and slightly less darkness sort themselves out from one another and become hill and possibly sky. In the garden, the persistent robin is slowly joined by its relatives. There’s a distant mistle thrush (they always sound distant, even when in the tree over your head). It’s a more plaintive song than the robin and it’s soon joined by the strident, more upbeat songthrush who sings from a cherry tree above the chicken run. I see the first headlights of cars.

I doze a little but at 5.15 the first train appears – heading from Cardiff to Abergavenny. I wonder whose job requires them to catch that one. It’s still dark but I’ve noticed great tits and blue tits joining the throng.

By 5.40am – and there are now a fair few cars on the roads – dunnocks (squeaky wheels), blackbirds (not quite the rich notes of April and May but lovely) and a single chaffinch (a cascade of fidgety notes that really suggest summer) in the woods above the house. Woodpigeons call and, as light begins to feel a bit more confident about itself, there’s an undercurrent of crows and rooks cawing from the valley below – mixed in with the bleating of lambs. Even the chickens, waking in their coop, are keen to make themselves heard.

By 6, it’s a proper crescendo. A huge flock of siskins has settled in an oak tree and chatters, almost drowning out everything else. Long tailed tits peep and squeak around the birdfeeders and a male wren tries to break the amplifier by singing its wings off. Dawn breaks officially at 6.20 but still relatively few folk are up. By 6.45, the crescendo has peaked – and by the time I’d normally step outside to feed the chickens – 7.15 – it’s died away. 

Well, not quite. There’s still plenty of song but it’s not as intense. I’ve discovered that the very best of the chorus occurs just before dawn – when I’m asleep. And down in the valley, the roads are busy at 7.30 – at least an hour after the birds’ rush hour.

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It’s something I’m going to repeat on a warmer morning in late spring, when the migrants arrive!