It’s May and Spring is well and truly underway. Many of our resident birds (ie. species that are here the year round, such as Blackbirds, Robins and Blue Tits) have already raised young and in some cases are now on their second brood. Meanwhile, birds such as warblers, flycatchers and Swallows which arrived in April are now building nests and settling down to lay eggs.

Although some of the migrants we are currently seeing on Teesside will be continuing their truly epic journeys after resting a few days, many are now setting up territories and looking for mates in the parks, gardens, ponds and fields around us.

While some of these birds are very colourful and easy to recognise, like the male Redstart or Pied Flycatcher, which you might be lucky enough to see in a wooded valley in the North York Moors, many others are fairly drab coloured and difficult to see. In these cases it is usually their distinctive songs which give away their presence.

Male Common Redstart. Photo by Richard Prior

Let us imagine a walk through one of the many little nature reserves that we are blessed with in this area. As we enter along a woodland path, we hear the regular, metronomic song of the Chiff-chaff, which sings its name over and over from the top of a tree. When we stop and listen to it, we hear the lovely, flutey, thrush-like warble of a Blackcap. Both of these are relatively short-distance migrants, and have been here for several weeks already but the next song we hear is made by a really long-distance traveller. It is a Willow Warbler singing a descending cadence like a stream tinkling down a hillside. Although they look very similar to Chiff-chaffs (small and greeny-yellow) their song is completely different.

Moving out into more open habitat we hear a continuous guttural er-er-er-ee-ee-ee-unh-unh-unh – repeating each note a few times before trying a different one. The regularity of the song and the fact that it is coming from the reeds lining a pond tell us that this is a Reed Warbler – a plain brown bird, about the size of a Robin. Reed Warblers can be very hard to catch a glimpse of as they often sing from deep within reedbeds. However, their close relative, the Sedge Warbler is sometimes more obliging. Not only are they more distinctively marked, with yellowy-buff underparts and a clear eyebrow of the same colour, but they tend to frequent the shrubs at the edges of the reeds and are less shy. We hear one now in a small willow – quite similar to the Reed Warbler’s song but more varied and not so regular, with squeaks and whistles, speeding up and slowing down.

Male Common Whitethroat. Photo by Richard-Prior

In the next bush, a rapid burst of scratchy song tells us that there is a male Whitethroat defending his territory from rivals and trying to attract a mate in the process. He makes it easy for us to see him by flying up and singing in the air for a few seconds before descending out of sight again.

In a quiet moment while the other birds are not singing, we realise that all the time, in the background, there has been a sound which is more like a bicycle wheel or a fishing reel, or perhaps some kind of insect, than a birdsong. Stopping now we suddenly hear it clearly – it’s a Grasshopper Warbler (another streaky brown bird) singing from a hidden perch in the middle of a weedy field.

Sedge Warbler. Photo by Richard-Prior

Although there are other more visible birds around us – like the Swallows and Sand Martins swooping overhead and the ducks and grebes on the water, because we were bird-listening as well as bird-watching our experience has been so much richer.

So, next time you are outside and think there are not many birds around, try stopping and listening. Even if you don’t know what the exact species are, why not see how many different songs you can hear? You might be surprised.

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All photos © Richard W Prior used with permission.