It's a real disappointment that, because of the Covid-19 outbreak, this year’s International Dawn Chorus programme won’t be able to go ahead in May as planned. We at RTÉ, as well as our colleagues across the EBU network, have been hard at work preparing for the big day, as have so many experts working for our BirdLife International conservation partners throughout the continent. I want to personally thank each and every one of you for your support and dedication.
I have no doubt that the International Dawn Chorus will return, bigger, better and stronger than ever. Until then, don’t forget that, for the birds at least, life goes on as normal. They know nothing at all about the current challenges that we humans face, and they are still going about their business: building nests, staking claims to territories, laying eggs and, of course, singing.
There is something wonderfully uplifting about birdsong. It has a great ability to calm and relax us. While so many of us are cooped up indoors, isolating ourselves from others and trying our best to get though each day, spending some time enjoying nature can really help. Listening to birdsong is something that anyone can do it from their own garden or out of their bedroom window, and it’s an especially lovely activity to do with young children.
Right now, the dawn and dusk choruses are getting stronger every day. It’s not necessary to know the names of the birds that are singing, or even why they are singing: we are simply asking people to immerse themselves in their world and to enjoy a wonderful, free, natural concert that can’t be cancelled. In these difficult times, we can take great comfort from the fact that nature keeps on doing what nature does best: surviving. The signs of new life and of hope are everywhere around us. reassuring.
Please click on the link below to enjoy the a recording of the dawn chorus that I made at Cuskinny Marsh Nature Reserve in Cobh, Co. Cork on Friday 3rd May 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. For further information about Eric and his work, visit www.birdsireland.com.