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The dawn chorus, London Wetland Centre, Barnes, May 2nd 2010

May 2, 2010

This blog is billed as ‘A year of live music in London and beyond’, so here’s a musical change of perspective for you – the dawn chorus, given to us by Mother Nature for free rather than promoted by Live Nation (plus booking fee). I get a great deal of pleasure out of birdwatching and now’s the time of year when one of the natural wonders of the world is upon us. All northern hemisphere birds are now breeding or about to breed, so birdsong is at its height and the best time of day for hearing it is as the sun comes up.

The London Wetland Centre is on the site of the former Barn Elms reservoirs in southwest London and over the last ten years and more it’s been turned into an oasis for wildlife in the heart of the city. We visited back in the winter to see the rare bitterns that were wintering there, but now that spring has sprung, I wanted to get out there and hear the symphony of sound.

As I left the house at just after four in the morning, blackbirds were already singing. Paul McCartney got it right with ‘Blackbird singing in the dead of night’ – they do indeed sing all night long sometimes and are always the overture to the full dawn chorus. By the time I arrived at the Wetland Centre at 4.45, they’d been joined by robins and, to my surprise, a solitary lapwing.

Next to join the chorus were great tits, wrens and woodpigeons. By this time, it was possible to tell where particular birds had their territories, such was the density of singing among the willows and scrub. And then the lovely tune of the blackcap struck up. It’s just about the most ‘melodic’ song of any British bird, barring the elusive nightingale, and got a mention in the wonderful song Commune by Roy Harper, himself apparently something of a birder.Near the extensive reedbeds, the water-loving birds started up – sedge warblers, reed warblers and reed buntings – all the time ‘backed’ by squawking moorhens, coots, ducks and geese. Then in the thicker bushes, it was good to hear the explosive song of a Cetti’s warbler and the simple refrain of a lesser whitethroat.

After a reviving coffee and a veggie sausage sandwich, it was off again round the back of the lagoon and nearly all the other birds had joined in the chorus – blue tit, chaffinch, greenfinch, dunnock and more. It was now getting hard to distinguish individual songs from the ‘ensemble’, but it’s a pleasure just to listen and not ‘dissect’. It’s interesting that even birdwatchers find it difficult to describe a lot of birdsong – ‘It’s a sort of metallic wheezing sound, with a reedy trill at the end…’ – which is not much different from trying to describe human-generated music. Very often, there simply aren’t the words, but the unattributable quote ‘Writing about art is like dancing about architecture’ expresses this thought too strongly. There are things you can say – and write – about music, but sometimes silence is golden. Sit back and listen to two minutes of the dawn chorus as recorded in the New Forest.

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