Tuesday, 8 December 2015

The Singer In The Woods





Every Spring, 16 million birds arrive in the UK. The general direction of migration is North-South and most of them come from Africa. There are 10,000 species of bird in the world and about 4000 of them are regular migrants. The total that leave Africa to fly to summer breeding grounds in Europe is 5 billion, with another 3 billion making the journey from the Caribbean and America.

In the UK, this mass Spring migration begins in March when the Wheatears arrive. They are swiftly followed by the Warblers (Blackcap, Chiffchaff and Willow) and Ospreys who fly up from Western Africa and cross England to reach their breeding grounds in Scotland in March (we are on an Osprey flight path here but I have yet to see one of these magnificent creatures fly over, or- better still- pause to take a breath on one of the Osprey resting platforms that have been built in the river valley).

Swallows arrive back in this country in early April, flying up from the far end of Africa, and Whitethroats, House Martins, Hobbys, Cuckoos and Nightingales come in from mid April, with Swifts following at the end of the month. By May things are tailing off, with the Corncrake (once common among hay meadows and now only found in the Hebrides), the Wood Warbler, the Nightjar, Turtle Dove and Spotted Flycatcher all here by the month's end. About 50 British breeding bird species are summer visitors.

There is one bird whose migratory flight takes the prize for the longest distance covered in one go: the Bar-Tailed Godwit takes off from its winter quarters in New Zealand and flies  8000 miles to its breeding grounds in Alaska in 8 days. It represents the biggest single species journey. I was lucky enough to see Bar-Tailed Godwits this year on the coast - they are very quiet and unassuming looking birds so to know they are tough enough to make that kind of journey astonishes me.

These summer breeders make the return journey back to Africa in the late summer or autumn. Some, such as swallows, take their young with them and some, like Cuckoos, leave their young to make their own way, the adults having left the UK in June. 

Our winter visitors begin to arrive as the summer ones leave. These species come mainly from Northern and Eastern Europe where it's colder, to over-winter in warmer lands. Their numbers are affected by the weather so fluctuate from year to year. Species like the Waxwing (Scandinavia), Fieldfares, Redwings, Bramblings and many ducks, geese and waders. We get large flocks of Fieldfares flying over here at night (a common occurrence during migration even though it feels counter-intuitive). I often hear them calling as they go over the house.

There are some birds who live here all year round whose cousins breed in Eastern Europe and migrate here for the winter if the weather is bad or food scarce. Starlings, Robins, Chaffinches, Great Tits, Siskins, Jays, Wood Pigeons, Blue Tits, Gold Crests (from the Baltic and Russia) can all come in from the East to spend the winter. Our Goldfinches can also leave our shores in large numbers to spend the winter in Spain if the weather is bad.

Present migration routes date back to the end of the last Ice Age, some 12,000 years ago. When the ice melted, new food sources were revealed and if you had wings you could move to take advantage of them and then escape back to the warmth when the season began to close down and food (mainly insects) became scarce again. Most of our summer breeders are passerines (song birds) and insect feeders for that reason. But the instinct to migrate is far, far older than 12,000 years. It is thought to go back millions of years to the time of the Reptiles (the distant ancestors of birds). It can be seen among reptiles today- the Leatherback Turtle crosses the Atlantic every year in its search for Jelly Fish.

I've been much more aware of our summer breeding birds this year. The dogs and I have spent many happy hours wandering through the woods listening to them singing, noticing who's just arrived and who wasn't there the day before, and day dreaming about the places they've been and the things they've seen and marveling, quite frankly, at the enormity of their achievement in flying all that way. 

There is a particular hedge on one of our walks where a Whitethroat took up residence this spring. He would perch on a branch of hazel and sing his heart out (it is only the males who sing: to attract females). We got quite used to one another and he would remain on his perch and open his throat and out would come this gentle little song while I stood on the lane a few feet away and watched and listened. 

Likewise, a little further on into the wood there is a place where the Blackcaps sing, and this year, for the first time, Swallows have swooped and dipped and called regularly over the house. Cuckoos arrive here every April and sing until June and just down the road opposite Ma's house, a population of Nightjars have taken up summer residence. We went to watch them displaying one evening this summer and stood spell-bound listening to the extraordinary churring noises the males produce. They have cryptic camouflage because they are ground-nesting birds and so you don't see them by day at all - by far the best way to watch them is at dusk when they start to display.

So, I have been blessed this year with avian encounters. But there is one bird I have never seen nor heard that I would love to. A small, nondescript, buff/grey creature who you would in all likelihood overlook if you didn't know what it was you were seeing. But if you heard him sing.....well, then the hairs would stand up on the back of your neck and goosebumps would pimple across your skin.....

 

The UK breeding population of Nightingales fell 53% between 1995-2008 (BTO Breeding Bird Survey data) and the range continues to contract towards the far south-east corner of the UK. There is one site near here that has Nightingales. The land owner cleared it of trees and scrub after the birds left this summer, claiming he didn't know the damage it would do to the habitat required by the birds for breeding. Call my a cynic but I find that hard to believe. I'm not sure why people continue to behave in this way with all the evidence laid out before us of the damage we are doing, not just to the natural world but ultimately, through it, to ourselves. If I owned a wood where nightingales flew in from Africa to sing every spring I would hold it dear to my heart and take the guardianship of such a place seriously. I wonder sometimes why they don't feel the magnitude of what they have.

So anyway, the Nightingale's song is on my list to listen to, out in the wild, for 2016. They are famous for singing at night but they do sing during the day. The richness and complexity of the song is thought to be an indicator to the female of the attractiveness of the male as a prospective mate- the wiser and more experienced you are, the more complex the vocal arrangement of your song (note to tone-deaf husbands- get practicing :o) ).

Hope that's all of some interest/ use. If you want to know about the state of British Birds I heartily recommend Michael McCarthy's excellent book Say Goodbye To The Cuckoo.

CT :o)

 

48 comments:

  1. Wow you know a lot about birds, I am thinking of getting some more bird books, re lack of birds in the garden, on Sunday a Great Tit popped over just for a minute and the Robin now has a girlfriend, lovely birdsong, x

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    1. Great news about the Great Tit and the Robins- it sounds like you are starting to get there. I'm sure more will be along. It took three years for us to get sparrows here and now we have a colony of 30, so hang on in there :o)

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    2. I won't give up, I have wasted lots of food, but I have to make sure it is nice and fresh for them x

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  2. I never knew what a Nightjar was till recently. Always had wondered. All I know is my feeder is a very active place outside my window. I put a feeder up at my city house and not a single bird has found it in 2 weeks though I moved it once.

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    1. Just shows there are fewer birds in cities, although some species (swifts for one) are often more visible in towns. I love watching the garden birds at the feeders.

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  3. We have woodland a few miles from us with Nightingales. My greatest spring look to, is spending as much time as poss there.
    As for the arrogant, selfish moron who cleared the woods.............Ignorance is no excuse!
    All woodland should be listed and protected, with huge fines and imprisonment dealt to those who dare to abuse such places. Owners and local authorities alike.

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    1. I'm envious of your nightingales- do you hear them singing? I hadn't appreciated how like song thrushes their call is.
      As for woods and protection, I often feel the public at large has more appreciation of them than some landowners and government. Such special places. Thank you for the comment, Irene.

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    2. Yes, we do hear them sing and it is spine tingling. It is crystal.

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    3. You are the person I envy most in the world right now :o)

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  4. Amazing, they're all so small and yet they manage to have the energy to go so many miles. :-)

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    1. It is extraordinary, isn't it? And not just once a year they do it, but twice!

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  5. Yes it was of interest, and like you I've never heard a nightingale.
    Briony
    x

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    1. I hope next year we both get the opportunity :o)

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  6. Prior to me being born (I'm 42) there were nightingales in the fields/wood behind my parents house. I can't remember for the life of me what the farmer did but they never returned. My father spoke of the sound often - alas I've never heard them. I hope you get the chance xx

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    1. Habitat loss is a major problem. I just hope enough can now be done to halt it before we lose these iconic birds from our shores for good. xx

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  7. I have never heard the nightingale either. One of my favourite birds is the common rook. We have a rookery down the lane from us and each morning they pass on their way up the dale in their thousands. This morning as they passed I happened to have already put my hearing aid in and the wonderful noise they made calling to one another as they passed almost touching the bedroom bay window made my day.

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    1. We have a rookery here too- just outside our friends' cottage and the noise drives them mad! Did you know rookeries can be very ancient things?

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  8. What a glorious song. How devastating that the nearby wood has been cleared. I'm with you, if it was mine I would treasure it. It's appalling how people behave. Shame on them. I loved reading about the different migratory journeys. The bar-tailed godwit is quite amazing. I'm always asking the biggest boy which birds are here all the time, and which are migrants and where they're from. So thank you for giving me some information. There's an occasional osprey sighting at the wetlands place we visit on the Severn Estuary, as they fly over on their way. We've never seen one there though, it's very brief I think. CJ xx

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    1. I was thinking about your lad as I typed this post this morning. It's so wonderful he is so interested in birds- the next generation and all. xx

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  9. I have always longed to hear a nightingale sing. I discovered there are 2 locations close by where they are found. We did go and search for them one evening without any success. It started to get so dark in the woods that even Tavi started to get frightened of the dark! Sarah x

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    1. There is something special about being in a wood after dark. It has an energy all of its own. Hope you do get to hear nightingales sing next year too xx

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  10. I'm obessed by the arrival of swifts, and the emergence of brimstones. Spring does not begin until the first brimstone is seen. We still do ok for swifts in this town, although house martins are not as common as they were

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    1. We get Swifts in our local town- I love to hear them. Holly Blues and Green Hairstreaks are my spring-markers.

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  11. oh, CT! that song!! it really does make you go all goosepimply! and, i confess, to having something in my eye.

    i'd like to personally kick that half-wit landowner who tore down the woodland somewhere that won't be forgotten soonishly. ignorance is no excuse! and not just for the nightingale's sake....for every other creature that depended upon that patch for shelter and sustenance.

    i hope very much you hear your nightingale next year...

    xoxo

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    1. A really beautiful sound, isn't it? I am going to be going everywhere with my ears well and truly open next Spring now! :o) xX

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  12. I really enjoyed this post CT. I've been lucky enough to see all these birds and hear nightingales and nightjars, mainly because I worked for the RSPB in my twenties and because I had a bird-watching boyfriend who showed me all these wondrous creatures. I hope you do hear a nightingale - it is magical, awe-inspiring and momentous. Curses on that farmer chap. Sam x

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    1. How fabulous! He sounded like a great boyfriend to have :o)

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  13. Such an interesting read, thank you for sharing.
    I have just started feeding the birds in our garden again (now the rats seem to have disappeared!) I was so excited this morning to see blue tits on the peanut feeder! We have a robin who has also started visiting now. They do have to share with a large colony of jackdaws and some sparrows too.
    I live in a town that has a good amount of new woodland around it and fields too. I saw a yellow waxwing in a lane between houses and a field, I was so happy!

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    1. It's always lovely to hear other folk's bird tales. The feeders are busy here too- we had a frost last night and they were all waiting on the empty coconut this morning staring crossly at the kitchen window. Suitably chastised, I hurriedly refilled it!

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    2. Please excuse my tired brain CT, I meant a yellow wagtail not waxwing!
      I hope your garden birds are looking at you more favourably now!

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    3. I thought that was probably what you meant :o)

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  14. My mum always talked about Nightingales singing when we were growing up. When we lived in Hampshire, just outside Alton, in one of the villages, our long garden went down to a steam railway (The Watercress Line) and then farmer's fields beyond. Often mum would say she could hear nightingales. As a teenager the whole thing went over my head (!!!!!!) but now its lovely to hear and actually I remember the sound. Very persistent sound...firm and strong but so utterly sweet. So thank you for bringing back a wonderful growing up memory. xxx

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    1. I know the watercress line- we're only a few miles down the road from there. Small world, heh? A nightingale's song has to be right up there when it comes to fantastic memories from childhood. Lucky you xx

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  15. Oh and just to add...I wondered why the sound of nightingales was so familiar and why Ive heard it more recently. That is because they were introduced into Australia in the 1800's, along with other European birds.
    So come on down to Oz, you may get to hear one!! xx

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    1. That might prove to be an essential conservation tool if the UK keeps slamming its nightingale habitat. x

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    2. Yes perhaps introducing other species elsewhere in the world will eventually be an advantage...if they don't thrive in one country they can be re introduced from another, providing habitat is re established.
      It seems to work with animals and plants but not necessarily with humans :-| x

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  16. Thanks for such a pleasant and sophisticated moment shared! There is nothing more beautiful and exquisite than a nightingale song. It's just like a river's whisper. So serene and calm.
    Thanks,
    Jane
    www.writers-house.com place of visit

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Jane. I love the phrase 'a river's whisper'. Beautiful.

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  17. I have thrush! Hehehe but yes I have seen a thrush in my garden eating a snail! I wanted to rush out, pick it up and kiss it! I too have never seen a nightingale.

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    1. They've just started singing here again, the Thrushes. Lovely song :o) x

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  18. It really is incredible to think of all of those different birds travelling back and forth to and from this country and to the same places each time. They are amazing animals aren't they! xx

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    1. Extraordinary creatures. And so small too! x

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  19. I enjoyed reading this post this morning. We have Nightingales who return every year to the ancient common next to my allotment to breed so us bird-watching allotmenteering folk are a bit blasé about their song and sometimes I think I almost prefer the sound of blackbirds singing in my garden at dawn and dusk. There is also a string of former stew ponds, a relic of when the land was owned by monks, and I've been very lucky to see Ospreys refuel from these well-stocked ponds on their way up to Scotland . Amazing sight. It's been a good year for me this year. I've seen Great Bearded Tits at Oare and a Spoonbill at Pagham and I'll never forget seeing and hearing the Nightjars under a hay making moon on one of the warmest nights of this year. Our natural world is amazing isn't it?

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    1. A Blackbird song is magical. I could listen to them all day. Somewhere on the blog I did post a blackbird singing in our tree. Envious about your nightingales and the Osprey. AND the bearded tits- I looked for them last year in Hampshire and Cambridgeshire but no luck.

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  20. What a fascinating post, CT. I love to read about birds' migration. I was just telling CJ recently about the sandhill crane migration that passes over where I live every year. The cranes go to an area in far southern New Mexico called Bosque del Apache for the winter and return in spring, flying directly over my city. I've been fortunate enough to be standing outside during a large flight of them two different times. They're extemely loud, between the calling and the beating of wings. I used to watch the Canada geese every year as a child in New York too. Thanks for sharing, this was really informative and interesting to read.

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    1. Wow, your Cranes sound amazing. I bet that is a sight to see.

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  21. We don't have Nightingales in Brittany but I'm rather pleased, because they make such a racket they drown out any other birds! I do enjoy them up to a point when I'm in Nightingale territory for the amusement factor of their loony tunes! Not much here in the way of winter birds - only Fieldfares and occasionally Redwings, usually when the weather is harsh. I still have Chiffchaffs in the garden! xx

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    1. Just goes to show human beings are programmed to appreciate scarcity value. I can't imagine ever getting tired of hearing Nightingales, but then our Cuckoos have been known to drive me to distraction in the past! xx

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x