In search of springtime birdsong in Cheshire
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 April 2019
Adam Linnet from Cheshire Wildlife Trust celebrates the feathered friends who put a song in his heart at this time of year.
The saying goes that “One swallow does not a summer make”. There’s a lot of truth in this, mainly because swallows return in late March or early April, which is very much spring and not summer. But it’s also true that one swallow does not make a spring.
Spring is a culmination of a huge range of wildlife returning to life, or to life in the British Isles after wintering abroad in some cases. For many naturalists, spring is their favourite time of the year. The thrill of hearing that first chiffchaff of the year, or finally remembering how to separate blackcap and garden warbler on song alone, all make spring a wonderful time to go exploring the Cheshire countryside; which is exactly what I did this time last year.
In early May 2018, I set off across the county to go and find some returning migrant bird species. There are certainly plenty to choose from, with a plethora of species returning from their continental, or even African, wintering grounds.
I start my day in the upper Dane catchment, around Wildboarclough. My first target is probably my favourite bird species, the pied flycatcher. These gorgeous birds spend their summer over in Africa, heading back through Europe before returning to the UK. They are only found in mature woodland, favouring oaks, like those found in the cloughs of the Peak District. Sadly, they have suffered large declines in recent decades, owing to the mismanagement of woodland; tidying up deadwood or allowing holly to dominate the once open understorey where pied flycatchers tend to feed.
I soon come across a singing male – his slow, almost mournful song, being projected from a prominent dead branch of an oak. He is black and white, looking rather dapper in the mottled sunlight streaming through the canopy of still young oak leaves. I enjoy his song for several minutes before wandering on.
A little way downstream I hear the rattle of a redstart. Just a bit more colourful than pied flycatchers, male redstarts have a striking black, blue and white head pattern, with a bright red chest and rump. He’s singing from a mature oak tree along a hedge-line in an adjoining field. This tends to be their preferred place, on the woodland edge or in clearings inside woodland. It’s a great start to my day and I head downstream, over to Swettenham Valley to pick out some other migrant species.
From the car park at the Swettenham Arms, I head through the arboretum and into our Swettenham Valley Nature Reserve. The distinctive two-tone call of a chiffchaff rings out from the plantation woodland. If you’re a birding beginner, chiffchaffs are a godsend, as they simply say their name: “chiff-chaff,chiff-chaff”. I soon hear its close relative, the willow warbler. Despite looking incredibly similar, their songs are very different. Willow warbler songs are a bit more complex, with a song that descends down the scale rather than the onomatopoeic song of chiffchaff. These two species are some of the first to return each spring. Hearing their song for the first time each year fills me with joy. This might sound odd, but it’s like seeing old friends after a long absence.
I continue further down the valley, hearing two species that are the hardest to separate by song alone. A blackcap and a garden warbler are singing about 20 yards apart from the scrubby hedgerows alongside a block of woodland. Telling which is which can be tricky, but it gets easier with a bit of practice.
Blackcap song is slightly more melodic, with longer, richer notes than garden warbler. On the other hand, garden warbler song is faster with less breaks and it lasts for longer. It’s as if it is full of song it wants to get out but in the excitement it forgot how to stop again. On sight the two could never be confused. The blackcap has, you’ve guessed it, a lovely blackcap, with the rest of the bird being grey. The cap is brown in the females, but sadly, Victorian natural historians didn’t quite grasp gender equality when it came to naming things. The garden warbler is a bit of a misnomer, as it’s unlikely to turn up in your garden. It prefers areas of young scrub and areas of bramble. To look at it’s quite non-descript, with very few features. It has no striking plumage, no bright rump, no wing bars. In fact, its main feature is its lack of features! But it is no less lovely to see and hear, a real sound of summer when it sings from the hedgerows alongside a hay meadow in full bloom.
My final destination for the day is Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Bagmere Nature Reserve. Sadly, public access is limited due to the dangerous nature of the site; an old peat basin, now a mere with rafts of floating vegetation which are easy to fall through if you don’t know your way around. Here I pick out the reeling of a grasshopper warbler. The sound it emits is very similar to a grasshopper, but it lasts for much longer. Sadly, I don’t see the bird. They are notoriously tricky to locate. Not only do they sit deep within dense vegetation, but they also turn their head as they sing, throwing their voice so they are hard to pinpoint.
I eventually give up trying to see it and continue into the area alongside the reedbed. From within the reeds comes a mix of harsh tacks, clicks and trills. I know they are coming from two species, both reed and sedge warblers breed here. Luckily, I know that while the sounds both species make are alike, the rhythm they sing to are different. Reed warblers are very rhythmic; you could set a metronome to them. Sedge warblers are a bit more freestyle, their song containing fast phrases and slow sections. I see neither species well, the only visual sign they are there is the reed stems swaying as they leap from one to the other.
I finish my day heading home, happy to have seen or heard many of the bird species I set out to see. But even happier to know that they have made it safely back to our shores. Happier still that our reserves are in great condition, ready for those birds to set up home and produce the future generation before beginning the return leg of their journey come autumn. It can be hard work managing nature reserves. Plenty of sweat is spilled in doing so, but it’s days like this that make it all worth it.
* For more information on the birds mentioned, go to cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/wildlife-explorer. And you can find out more about the Trust’s nature reserves at cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves.