Beginner’s guide: five steps to identifying bird song

Jess Price, from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, on how to brush up your identification skills. 

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It is definitely an understatement to say that the weather hasn’t been great this winter. However although it’s been extremely wet, it hasn’t actually been that cold. This means that on days when we finally get a break from the rain, it can start to feel that spring might be on its way. I have really started to notice the birds singing, and I even saw a toad yesterday.

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Now I don’t know how long this mild spell will last, but whilst it’s here why not make the most of it and brush up on your identification skills. Song is a fantastic way to identify bird and standing outside listing to the cacophony of sounds coming from gardens, parks and woodlands can be a wonderful experience.

My own bird song identification skills are not as good as I would like, but by following some tips and tricks that I’ve come up with to help me, I hope to improve. Why not try some of these yourselves?

1. Get an early start

In the south singing birds really hit their peak in late April and early May. Walking through woodland at dawn can be a fabulous experience, but for those of us trying to identify birds it can be pretty overwhelming. In January and February a much smaller number of species are singing so by starting to learn songs now you can work you way up to the full dawn chorus in a few months time.

2. Take baby steps

Take the time to learn just a couple of species really well before adding anymore. For most people the easiest birds to start with are those that a regularly heard singing in gardens and parks such as robin, blackbird, wren and dunnock. Once you can confidently identify these, try adding in some others.

3. Visualise

It will really help you to remember a song if you associate it with something you can visualise in your mind. For example when I hear the descending song of a chaffinch I always see a cricketer running up to the crease and bowling a ball with a flourish. This particular association may not work for everyone, so when listening to a song spend time thinking about what will work for you.

4. Embrace technology

There is now a huge range of bird song phone apps, CDs and websites available to help you. Before you go out into the garden, spend 10 minutes listening to two or three species that you think you might hear. This will be even more effective if you can refer to the description of the song and picture of the bird in your bird guide at the same time. You might even like to annotate this with little notes of what the song reminds you of. The website Xeno-Canto is great resource.

But remember that listing to a recording is very different to hearing a bird outside with leaves rustling, dogs barking and other birds singing. So make sure you spend lots of time outside just sitting and focusing on what you can hear.

5. Spend time with an expert

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I can be very hard to feel confident with your identification skills when there is no way to check if you are correct. This is when walking around with an expert can be a huge help. I am very luck to work for the Sussex Wildlife Trust where birders seem to grow on trees, but you might like to join a local birding group or attend one of The Wildlife Trusts’ fantastic bird courses.