The Travelling Minstrels

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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 town!

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.

Chiffchaff (photo by David Dillon)

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.

Blackcap

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.

Sedge Warbler (photo by Colum Clarke)

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.

Swallow

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 a perch.

Cuckoo

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 their young.

Swift

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 to return.

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.

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