The Travelling Minstrels
Eric Dempsey looks at our migrant songsters
Ireland's resident birds have it easy. By late Spring,
many have started rehearsals so that, by May, their songs
are perfected and their territories are well established.
In fact, each morning up to mid-April, they almost have
the entire stage to themselves. They are the only show in
However, from mid-April onwards, Irish birds find themselves
competing at dawn with a new assortment of singing strangers,
the migrants. Some of these strangers have flown over 9,000kms
to get here. Many will have crossed the Sahara Desert, running
the gauntlet of Mediterranean hunters who kill millions
of migrant birds each year. To reach Ireland, the birds
will have crossed the open sea, a most dangerous undertaking
for any migrant. They reach our southern shores and slowly
work their way into the country.
On arrival, they are eager to establish territories and
attract mates. Any male migrant, worth his salt, knows what
he has to do; start singing. They are so keen to sing, that
many begin doing so as soon as they make landfall. Headlands
and coastal stretches echo with the songs of migrants and
for good reason. Our summer migrants do not hold territories
on their wintering grounds and don't need to sing until
they reach Ireland. It is as though they are bursting to
announce their successful arrival. They have waited a long
time and have flown a long way to sing! For young birds,
hatched the previous year, this will be the first time they
will ever sing.
The arrival-times, and departure-times, of migrants are
staggered. In spring, Ireland is like a huge international
airport. In the departures lounge, there are geese, ducks
and waders, preparing to depart for their breeding grounds
further north. In the arrivals hall, are warblers, Swallows
and Cuckoos. Some arrive on long haul flights from Africa,
others on shorter flights from southern Europe. Gradually,
the migrants move inland and establish territories in their
respective preferred habitats. It is then that the dawn
chorus has its full quota of singers.
One of the first migrant singers to arrive is the Chiffchaff,
a small warbler named after its repetitive 'chiff-chaff'
song. The first Chiffchaffs are usually heard towards the
end of March. Their more brightly coloured cousin, the Willow
Warbler, doesn't arrive until well into April and the delicate,
descending notes of its song add a touch of class to the
dawn chorus. Chiffchaffs seem at home in a variety of habitats
from city parks to remote mountainous woodlands. Willow
Warblers prefer hedgerows and copses.
Another warbler has become more common in Ireland, over
the last decade; the Blackcap. Our breeding Blackcaps come
from the Mediterranean while those which winter in Ireland
return to their breeding grounds in central Europe. Blackcaps
like woodland which has dense undercover from which to sing.
Their rich, explosive songs are easily heard but the singers
can be frustratingly difficult to see.
In reedbeds and wetland fringes, other migrants, the Sedge
Warblers, can be heard from mid-April. Great mimics, they
are the jazz musicians of the bird world, using a range
of grating, scratchy sounds intermingled with notes borrowed
from other birds. No two Sedge Warblers ever sing the same
song. It seems that the greater the repertoire, the better
the chances of impressing a female.
Swallows are probably the best known of our summer migrants.
With amazing navigational skills, they not only fly from
South Africa to Ireland, but find their way to the exact
same nesting site each year. Males arrive first and begin
singing. Their twittering songs, the real sounds of summer
in the Irish countryside, are delivered in flight or from
Alas, the song of another migrant, the Cuckoo, is no longer
as common in our countryside as it once was. That 'cuc-koo'
call of the male is the most easily recognised of all bird
songs. Cuckoos are the last of the summer migrants to arrive.
They don't need to worry about nest building, leaving that
to their host birds, which incubate their eggs and raise
Finally, there is the Swift, a bird not usually regarded
as a singer. However, for people living in towns and cities,
their piercing calls, delivered during high-speed aerial
chases and displays, are sounds which mark the turning of
the year. Usually arriving en-masse in early May, the performances
of these aerodynamic, all-dark birds are probably the most
impressive of all.
So, get out there and appreciate the songs of our summer
migrants. Remember, the tickets for the dawn chorus are
free, you can get the best seats in the theatre and you
are witnessing a world première. Miss this show and you
will have to wait another year for the travelling minstrels
Eric Dempsey is a wildlife guide, writer and broadcaster.
He runs the Birds of Ireland news Service and is the author
of the best-selling Complete Guide to Ireland's Birds.