A Dawn Chorus Blog by Sarah Stannage, CRT Director
My daughter Lottie (aged 5) and I decided to head out to the Countryside Restoration Trust (CRT’s) Twyford Farm in the Ashdown Forest to experience something truly magical as part of International Dawn Chorus Day.
On the Saturday we stayed overnight at the Farm’s B&B run by CRT Tenant Farmers Liz and Bob Felton, who greeted us with a wonderful and warm welcome along with Bruce and Colin – the farm’s working sheep dogs who immediately became my daughter’s best friends. After breathing in the views from Bellflower Cottage and watching Bob feed the sheep and lambs we settled in for the night and set the alarm.
It’s 4.15am. We are awake, just. According to my weather App it’s quite a mild ten degrees centigrade outside so we’re dressed in our coats and wearing our wellies we meet up with Dr. Vince Lea, CRT’s Head of Wildlife and five other CRT Friends to hear the springtime twittering, tweeting and chirping of the wild birds. According to Vince the Dawn Chorus is all to do with territory and raising chicks. The male birds want to show off to any females in the area and warn their rivals by letting them know that they have found the best patch of delicious take-away food! Without a doubt singing is really hard work, so only the strongest males are the ones that can boast and sing the loudest. And it’s this that shows the females which male is best placed to feed hungry chicks!
4.30am As we head out to the farmyard the wren is definitely the first bird to sing out followed by a distant pheasant, usually it’s the robin that starts off the chorus but as we head towards the lake and stop by the running stream we can hear an abundance of robins. This burst of singing seems to awaken the fields, lake and woodland around us. Then a song thrush, a few notes lower than the robin starts up with its repeating phrases. Within just a few minutes a chiffchaff, singing its common name joins in, the sound of which for some reason makes my daughter giggle. It’s almost impossible to identify individual birds given the cacophony of notes, melting and merging together. The Dawn Chorus has started.
4.35am The animals seem to join in, I spot a chattering grey squirrel and a silent but boisterous hare emerge.
4.39am There is a rich chorus of farmland and woodland bird species now; robins, song thrushes and blackbirds have a backing group of blackcaps and plump woodpigeons. The thrushes are joined by a chiffchaff, so now there are resident and migrant birds in unison. Everything is singing at once! This is the dawn chorus. We can just about make out a woodpecker with its distinctive drumming somewhere in the distant trees, possibly a lesser spotted woodpecker, a very rare bird, was subject to much debate within the group.
4.44am Rather belatedly a woodland specialist, wakes up and joins in the chorus although it’s really difficult now to identify individual songs as the soundscape crescendos. There’s also a pied wagtail feeding around the farmyard not singing anymore as they had already made a nest in the engine of Farmer Bob’s tractor and the chick’s hatched this morning. They should fledge in a further 14 days when Bob can use his tractor again. The sparrows are close to the barns, they like to make the most of the cattle feed available and it’s a great example of how traditional farming practices support nature.
4.55am There’s enough daylight now for me to see my child’s face and her look of total wonderment. The chorus is still ringing out across the woodland and meadows although I can hear the song level reducing as the light level rises.
We stopped three times at the same point at the outflow of the lake, where the woodland and wetland habitats combine to create some of the richest habitat on the farm. In the darkness of the first stop, only Robins were singing, but none were heard at all half an hour later when Song Thrush and Blackbird dominated. An hour later still, and those species had given way to Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Chaffinch and Wren.
6.30am What greater privilege could there be than to be walking amongst friends and hearing the rising birdsong in the annual renewal that is spring. We’re off for some breakfast and a quick nap before helping volunteers and Liz and Bob get ready to welcome visitors and local families to take part in Bluebell Day.
This was truly an incredible experience and something that will stay with my daughter and I forever. The sad fact is less than 10% of today’s children have access to wild spaces compared to 40% a generation ago (Source: Wildlife and Countryside LINK). My heart sinks further at the thought that very few children or even adults have ever heard the Dawn Chorus.
We are working hard at the Countryside Restoration Trust to address this issue and reconnect people of all ages, including children, with the wildlife on our farms. Please support our work to protect the farmed countryside, its wildlife and the people with the knowledge and skills to look after it. When you join as a CRT Friend, you will receive invitations to free events like this including the Dawn Chorus walks next year. Your support will also help us nurture the experiences, the memories and childhoods of future generations to come.
I would like to extend my thanks and admiration to Dr. Vince Lea for sharing his knowledge and insight into the special world of birdsong at dawn. A special thank you also to ornithologist Roger Buisson and trusted volunteer Brian Lavers for their support during the Dawn Chorus events at our other CRT’s Lark Rise and Pierrepont farms.
The Full Cast from Dr. Vince Lea. In Order of Appearance! From 4am to 6:30am:
Wren (That’s when Lottie and I arrived)
Chaffinch (at 5:30)
Blue Tit (probably the commonest bird in the woods but not making any noise)
Lesser-spotted Woodpecker (I’ve checked recordings and am convinced this was the one drumming – it’s a very rare species in Britain <3000 pairs estimated nationally)