Wednesday 18 July 2018

Hear the Dawn Chorus during May: How to identify birds by their song

Tomorrow, nature lovers everywhere will be up with the lark to listen to birdsong on International Dawn Chorus Day. From cities to suburbs, birds will sing out in early morning harmony - and you don't have to go further than your own garden to experience the music, as our reporter discovers

A Robin on grounds of Rathfarnham Castle. Picture: Caroline Quinn
A Robin on grounds of Rathfarnham Castle. Picture: Caroline Quinn
Peter Bagshaw and Catherine O'Connor of the OPW at Rathfarnham Castle. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Arlene Harris

As the sun creeps slowly over the horizon and the sky turns from inky black to shades of orange, red and yellow, anyone witnessing the dawning of a new day can't help but marvel at the spectacle. But daybreak is not just about the appealing visuals - it has a stunning soundtrack, too.

No matter where in the world you happen to be, the arrival of the dawn is heralded by a spectacular chorus of birdsong. Tomorrow, May 6, is International Dawn Chorus Day, when we are encouraged to set our alarm clocks to go off in time to witness one of nature's best performances.

Don't presume, however, that this event is one that only those in rural settings can enjoy. Peter Bagshaw, tour guide at Rathfarnham Castle in Dublin, says birds are everywhere and always start their day with a song, whether they are living in a forest in Clare or a lone tree on an inner city street in Cork.

"The great thing about birds is they are literally everywhere, but although we see them all the time, many people pay little attention," he says. "It could be the pigeon foraging for discarded chips in the city or the thrushes in a lush garden digging for worms - they all have their own song and when you take the time to listen to them, it really is a magical thing."

International Dawn Chorus Day reportedly started in the 1980s, when environmentalist Chris Baines asked a group of friends to join him for a 4am birthday party so they could enjoy the birdsong together. Over the years, what began as a small private event in the UK became an annual global celebration.

As day breaks tomorrow, Peter Bagshaw will be sharing his love and knowledge of birds with fellow enthusiasts on a special guided walk in the castle grounds. Even though the early hour might seem ungodly to some, Bagshaw says the experience is well worth losing a bit of sleep over.

"It may seem very early, but I will be there to meet with participants at 4am and together we will walk into the park to simply stand and listen as the symphony unfolds," he says. "The spectacle usually starts with the early worm eaters, such as the blackbird, robin and thrush and an hour or so later, the insect and seed eaters [such as the great tit, chiffchaff and blue tit] will join in.

"The beautiful sound of their singing is continuous from the beginning, with different birds joining in over the course of the early morning. It's almost as if they hand over the job to newcomers as the first songs are replaced with more and more different sounds until about 7am. Of course, people don't have to stay for the whole three hours but for those that do, they will not be disappointed. Afterwards we will convene in the Tea Rooms for a hot drink and a chat about what we have heard. People are often very surprised that there are so many different types of birds to be heard in a fairly built-up area."

Up to 30 different species will belt out a tune in the early morning air and Catherine O'Connor, who manages the guide service at the castle, agrees that the dawn chorus has to be heard to be believed.

"In an urban area it can be hard to imagine there is still so much nature surrounding us," she says. "The dawn chorus walk is an opportunity to enjoy an urban space in the quiet of the very early morning before the noise of the surrounding city invades the space. Of course, early morning birdsong is a thing of beauty and wonder in itself, but to know that it is happening right here in the city, that the birds will sing no matter what their surroundings, makes it all the more special."

The dawn chorus walk at Rathfarnham Castle is part of the Bealtaine Festival - the national event which was established in 1995 to bring art and creativity to the entire country, in particular the older sector of the community. But Brian Caffrey of Birdwatch Ireland says the dawn chorus is something which will appeal to everyone no matter how young or old.

"People of all ages will be just amazed by hearing the birdsong first thing in the morning," he says. "It's quite incredible to set out while it's still dark and quiet, and then the first bird will begin to sing and will be joined quickly by countless others. And before long the symphony starts to unfold and the singing gets louder.

"We are all so busy in our lives and don't often take the time to appreciate what's right under our noses. No matter where we are in the country, these birds are all around and throughout the month of May there are dawn chorus events in many, many locations. Not only is it an amazing experience, but there is also an educational element to it. So much can be learned in one morning.

"I would encourage people to make the effort - wrap up warm with a woolly hat and coat and perhaps bring a flask of tea. The hardship of getting out of a warm bed is so worth it when you get to experience one of the most spectacular wonders of the natural world - it's something you and your family will remember for a long time."

Having changed its identity several times over the centuries from a fortified house, to a Georgian mansion and even a Jesuit residence, Rathfarnham Castle has been run by the Office of Public Works since 1987. Since then an extensive programme of preservation and restoration has been carried out. In 2014, archaeologists discovered a trove of late 17th- and early 18th-century objects, many of them high-end luxury items including glass, porcelain, coins and monogrammed wine bottles.

During opening hours, visitors can see the beautiful 18th-century interiors including the Gilt Room, The Painted Room and the very elegant Ballroom either by self-guide or with on an official guided tour. And while the interior of the estate is steeped in memories, artefacts and the essence of inhabitants long gone, the well-tended grounds are home to residents who are very much alive.

Under the care of South Dublin Council, the park itself is buzzing with activity - first and foremost the array of birds visible and audible to everyone who takes the time to seek them out. But behind the scenes there is also a lot of other life going on with squirrels, rabbits, foxes and pipistrelle bats living harmoniously with the other creatures who call the grounds home.

Peter Bagshaw says increasing numbers are beginning to appreciate the wildlife we have on our own doorstep. "I definitely think more people are watching or spotting birds and animals in their local environs. There aren't any figures as such to show this increase, but I have seen more of a realisation amongst people of the beauty of the creatures which live amongst us all the time.

"This time of year is extra special as there is so much activity going on, particularly with birds as they are at their peak. During these early mornings they will fill the air with their songs over and over again."

Listening to an early morning symphony may possibly be the start of a lifelong interest for nature-loving children. In fact, Bagshaw developed his own love of birds as a child. "When I was nine years old, I read a book by Enid Blyton called Island of Adventure and one of the characters was mad about birds and gave such wonderful descriptions of them that I became hooked myself," he says. "As I got older, I continued to be interested and started birdwatching and listening out for the different songs each bird makes."

And although it will take a little more than one dawn chorus to identify all of our native species, Bagshaw says most of us know a lot more about birds than we think.

"It seems impossible at first to detect different birds from a cacophony of sound, but with a lot of practice, it becomes easier," he says. "Everyone knows the sound of the cuckoo for example, and most will know what a cooing pigeon sounds like. But if you spend enough time just standing still outside, you will start to recognise the other more common birds, too.

"And while a lot of people tell me that they don't know anything about the different species, I would say that pretty much everyone could name at least a dozen birds."

Spaces on the Dawn Chorus Walk at Rathfarnham Castle are limited. To book, call (01) 493 9462. For dawn chorus events across the country, see birdwatchireland.ie. For a list of Bealtaine festival activities, see bealtaine.ie

How to identify birds by song

Brian Caffrey of Birdwatch Ireland says that you only need to go as far as your own back garden to listen to the dawn chorus. Here, he describes how to identify some commonly found birds by their song.

Blackbird:

This is a very gentle sound which sounds a little like a flute.

Thrush:

Very similar to the blackbird but has seven or eight repetitions, almost like a flute laughing.

Chaffinch:

This sounds like a bowler in a game of cricket who starts off running gently then takes off with a flourish at the end.

Wood pigeon:

These birds have a distinctive five coo sequence which is different to the collared dove which only has three - the coos sound out a phrase that sounds like "Take two John (brief pause) take two".

Magpie:

Very distinctive sound a bit like a machine gun going off.

2018-05-05_lif_40481385_I1.JPG
A Robin on grounds of Rathfarnham Castle. Picture: Caroline Quinn

Robin: This is difficult to explain but sounds a little like a jangle of keys.

Great tit: This bird has a distinctive rhythmic song which sounds as if it's saying "Teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher" over and over again.

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