A morning of song: The dawn chorus

Paul Hunt

Jo Humphreys talks us through her morning listening to one of nature's most beautiful symphonies, the dawn chorus.

It feels like life has come to a standstill and what was formerly a bustling world has gone quiet. For many of us it been an anxious and stressful time. However, it’s reassuring to see that nature continues as normal and is still there for us. 

One of the positives I’ve personally drawn from the events of the past few weeks has been less traffic noise from the nearby road and motorway. This has provided a unique opportunity to fully embrace, take notice of, and appreciate natures spring soundtrack; the dawn chorus.

What is the dawn chorus?

For birdwatchers, spring is a great time; there’s a crossover of migrants as some are leaving for their breeding grounds in other countries, while others are winging their way back to the UK to breed here. Many birds have found their voices again after the long winter months and have started to sing; a determined display to claim a territory and find a mate so they can begin the process of raising the next generation. This is what we call the dawn chorus.

When can I experience the dawn chorus?

Late April to early June is the best time to hear the Dawn Chorus. The first songsters begin singing about an hour before sunrise, with the peak being half an hour before, and half an hour after sunrise. And this is where we begin…

Song thrush

Song thrush by Karen Lloyd

4:40am

I’m awake. It’s still dark outside and it seems I’m not the earliest up. The song thrush has beat me to it; the bold, varied phrases of its song ring through the still early morning air. Each phrase is repeated three or four times before moving on to the next verse.

Blackbird by Amy Lewis

Blackbird by Amy Lewis

4:50am

By the time I’ve got my brew and taken up position in the garden, the song thrush is accompanied by other vocalists. The blackbirds fluty, mellow song and the robins whistling melodies. Although I can identify these individuals, I can hear that other, more unfamiliar voices have joined the chorus. I can’t quite pick out who’s who but it provides a welcome relief to the rumble of the nearby motorway.

Robin by Dave Steel

Robin by Dave Steel

5am

I can’t hear the song thrush clearly anymore - instead I’m surrounded by a variety of bird song. I can still pick out those fluty tones of the blackbirds that seem to be the consistent undertone. On top of that are the delightful melodies of the robins, with the occasional interjection of the short warbling song of dunnock.

Wren by Andy Rouse/2020VISION

Wren by Andy Rouse/2020VISION

5:10am

There’s about half an hour until sunrise; we’ve entered the peak window for the chorus. The sky has lightened and the symphony is growing. A wren has added its voice; an explosive, trilling song that seems remarkable for a bird so small. I’m still trying to pick out individual songs, but I find I drift from concentrating on that to just enjoying the moment and letting the ever increasing orchestra of birdsong wash over me.

Male mallard duck by Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

Male mallard duck by Andrew Parkinson/2020VISION

5:15am

Three mallard ducks have flown over, quacking as they go. That’s their contribution to the chorus! 

Great tit by Gillian Day

Great tit by Gillian Day

5:18am

Nearly half an hour in and the first great tit has joined the chorus, belting out his repeated phrase of “tee-cher, tee-cher, tee-cher”. A song comparable to a squeaky bike pump, yet not unpleasant.

A person standing barefoot on lush green grass

Photo by Matthew Roberts

5:20am

30 minutes have flown by. The only thing reminding me I’ve been sat outside for so long is that I’m starting to feel the slight chill in the air (I’ve resorted to swaddling myself in a blanket).

I live next to an arterial road so even with the reduced traffic we still get vehicles rumbling past. Yet, we’ve had several minutes of quiet now. The breeze is rustling through the trees and I’m starting to get a real feel of this dawn chorus.  It’s loud and there are many voices, but it's calm. There are lots of elements, but none are chaotic. I close my eyes and listen to the bird song surrounding me, and I recognise that I feel relaxed.

Wood pidgeon by Gillian Day

Wood pidgeon by Gillian Day

5:39am

It’s sunrise and after a brief lull, the chorus is back in full swing with some new characters. Goldfinches have joined in, adding their chattering, whistling song. I’ve started to hear the distant crowing of, well, a crow. Yet, not all birds display through song alone. Woodpigeons have begun displaying overhead with their no less charismatic display flight. A steep ascent before reaching the peak, where they loudly clap their wings a few times over their back, before gliding gently down.  A different, but appreciated addition to the chorus.

Goldfinch by Gillian Day

Goldfinch by Gillian Day

5:45am

Almost an hour in, I notice the original singers (song thrush, blackbird and robin) have gone much quieter. I can barely hear them anymore. Likely they are now treating themselves to a hard-earned breakfast. It makes you wonder if there is truth in the age-old phrase, “The early bird gets the worm”.

Instead, the smaller, subtler singing birds have started to take centre-stage; the goldfinches and blue tits are the clearest voices in the choir, interspersed with the not-so-subtle song of the wren.

Starling by Ian Rose

Starling by Ian Rose

5:55am

I’m starting to hear and see the first signs of our residents starlings rising in the soft, early morning light. Rather than singing their distinctive song of whistles, rattles, clicks and squeaks, they’re half-heartedly chattering to each other. They’ve already established their nesting territories and pairings; they’ve got young, hungry mouths to feed instead.

6am - the dawn chorus is reaching its conclusion

It isn't an emphatic final crescendo; more a gradual quietening. The song will not fade completely. Birds still sing throughout the day to maintain their territory and try to serenade a passing female, but it won’t be a repeat of the orchestral performance of the dawn chorus.

I’ve noticed over the course of the past hour or so that I feel a lot more calm and relaxed. The stress and anxiety of the present uncertain times has gradually ebbed away. I hadn’t consciously thought about it, but the act of listening and watching the dawn chorus is a very mindful experience and helps us engage with the Five Ways to Wellbeing: take notice, connect, be active, keep learning, and give. I know it’s not easy to leave the comfort of your bed in the early morning, but experiencing the dawn chorus, even just once, is a memorable experience guaranteed to put a smile on your face and help you feel connected to the natural world around you.

Bringing nature to you

Our award winning ecotherapy project, Myplace, has recently launched their brand new online sessions so you can experience the benefits of nature from home - and its completely free.

If you or someone you know could benefit from this programme, visit our Myplace page for more information and to make a referral.

Learn more about Myplace