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Dawn Chorus 2016
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The call went out on Friday: a Dawn Chorus walk with resident bird watcher Ray Reedman, at 5.30 tomorrow. Yes, that was 5.30 the following morning! I thought I'd go - it's always a pleasure, it's on my doorstep, and at such short notice it's bound to be thinly attended. What a surprise then, to find a party of 16 ready and waiting at sunrise. As we gathered at the feeding station on Maiden Erlegh Lake, our guide introduced the topic of birdsong. He explained that its function is to establish and defend territory, and to attract a mate, and so the season for song concludes in June. He added that at this time of year [end of April] there are two distinct populations of songbirds: recently arrived seasonal migrants from Africa, and the resident birds that are, for the most part, already nesting. We would hear both today.
Our route took us downstream from the lake, through woods strewn with bluebells and ramsons, and with trees bursting into leaf. All around us was the song of wrens and robins, the latter perched boldly on the lower branches and the former flying up through the ivy clad trees from their habitual habitat in the undergrowth to sing from the canopy. Claiming a patch typically 100 yards across or more, was the song thrush, a bird greatly diminished in numbers nationally, but healthy enough in Maiden Erlegh. Its repetitious call allowed us a second chance to catch it, and as we walked down the wood, it was balanced by that of the mellifluous blackbird. A jackdaw flew overhead, then a rook - probably flying out from the rookery at Sonning Cutting. As we passed the pond, the loud quacking of a female mallard drew the comment from Ray that until the eighteenth century these were known as 'wild ducks', while the quieter males were known as 'mallards' and treated a different species! A richly coloured jay flapped through the trees, silent in its search for nests to rob, while great tits flitted in the bushes along the wood's perimeter. Blue tits were conspicuously absent, as their nesting was well under way. Ray paused to point out the value of dead wood in providing nesting places and sources of food for birds. On a previous such walk, we had seen several spotted woodpeckers in this part of the wood, but this year there were none. (We did, however, hear the yaffle of a green woodpecker later on the walk.)
We emerged onto playing fields by the Gemini Oak and skirted along gorse-covered margins while listening for the blackcap, (or possibly the garden warbler), and the chiffchaff. Ray described the sound of the common warblers and explained the quirky origins of their names. Alerted by its harsh call, he also put in a plea for the beautiful but much maligned magpie; like the sparrow hawk and other predators, it occupies an important niche in the balance of nature and the abundance of small birds around us indicated little harm to the population as a whole.
Passing the huge lime tree near the playground we caught a glimpse of a nuthatch, and pausing by the playground, saw long tailed tits twittering their way along the edge of the wood. A hedge sparrow or dunnock (meaning 'brown' and 'small') repeatedly flew up to a branch and down into the bushes again. And there at last was the elusive chiffchaff, right up in the branches, distinguishable by his rapid movement and tail flicking. A crow flew by, completing our tally of corvids, though its cawing could hardly be called a song.
Down by the lake the usual array of waterfowl was visible, and some cases audible: Egyptian and Canada geese, mallards and mandarins (and two recently arrived feral ducks), coots and moorhens and a mute swan. A single tern, visiting for the summer, traced its jerky pattern overhead and the family of great crested grebes had returned and was nesting. As we walked along the lakeside path Ray listened for the call of a stock dove near the island it usually favours, but on this occasion was disappointed. There were woodpigeons in abundance and a couple of collared doves - a species that settled in Britain in the 1950s and prospered prodigiously, but is now suffering from the booming pigeon population. Then at last, off the path in Oak Wood, we saw a blackcap! Time was up and pausing to admire a fearless robin just inches from us, we returned to the Interpretation Centre for coffee and croissants.
Ray's forthcoming book, Lapwings, Loons & Lousy Jacks: the how and why of bird names, is due out on 1st August at £17.99. More details here.
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