Wagtails – Home and Away

It has been a long time since I last wrote here – after graduating I went on a long trip to Africa with a Born Free project and immersed myself in the wildlife there, returning only last month. My home-coming was perfectly timed in autumn, easily my favourite season, and I was delighted to see jays, robins, and hedgehogs to welcome in my first few days.  Even magpies and rats looked positively exotic having not seen them in so long!

The similarities, more than the differences, between British and African wildlife was what startled me most, most particularly the ubiquitous presence of pied wagtails in the game reserve I lived and worked in. I’m not entirely sure of the difference between a pied wagtail and an African pied wagtail – both are domestic breeds rather than migratory so it must be more than mere geography – but they are certainly alike in their ability to take over a place.

The African wagtails were building a nest in the roof of my house. The roof was a sheet of corrugated iron over walls made of thick clay-mud, and provided perfect nooks and crannies for the birds (and, judging by the loud chattering that kept me awake most nights, for bats, too). Of course in Britain the birds are less welcome to be swooping in arcs over the dining table, but they are still easily found – I lived happily with the birds in Malawi because they reminded me so much of home.

There are three species of wagtail in Britain – grey and pied, which are here all year round, and yellow, which is a summer visitor.

Pied wagtails are the most common as they are less restricted to water environments than the other two, therefore you can see them in parks, churchyards, city hedgerows, and gardens as well as along rivers and streams. They are sprightly and cheerful souls, and can be seen dashing around in search for food when not standing and frantically bobbing its tail up and down. They are also curious, and very friendly – I worked in a café in Birmingham to save up money for my travels, and on my walk there would pass a church. The café would often let me take home the croissants and pastries which didn’t sell that day and I would scatter some of the crumbs for the birds in the churchyard. Soon, a young (with pale grey/brown markings rather than black) wagtail caught on to what I was doing and would always fly down to my feet whenever I walked past, waiting for the crumbs, and often following me all the way home. They make a characteristic ‘chi-sick’ sound, which has led to Bill Oddie nicknaming the birds Chiswick Flyovers.

Grey wagtails, though not rare by any means, are harder to spot, not in the least thanks to a very misleading name – they are far more distinctive than it suggests, with slate-grey/blue upper parts and long lemon-yellow tail. They are badly affected by harsh winters. Yellow wagtails are fairly easy to spot if you catch them at the right time in summer. Both of these species love water, and aren’t picky about it; they are just as likely to gather around an urban settling tank as a lake or channel. They are beautiful to watch on the water, their characteristic long swoops picking up huge dragonflies and skaters without a single pause or break, and flick up the water in sunlit droplets.

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For anyone interested in reading about my stay in Africa, in which I lived and worked on a rural game reserve, I wrote a blog there at www.apassagetoafrica.tumblr.com. It has lots of pictures of the wildlife and birds I encountered there, and I learnt a lot about the conservation work and issues going on in that part of the world, and the amazing animals that live there.

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The Dawn Chorus

My hands have been itching as if they were covered in nettle stings to get back to writing here; after reading a small library of books, amassing a minor financial crisis of library fines, and spending more time in the glow of a Microsoft word document than any human should ever feasibly have to spend, 15000 words were finally written, handed in, and rewarded by delicious freedom.

One up-side to a month of late nights and early mornings spent at my desk has been catching the birds greeting the early hours of the morning with crisp and delicate music. The dawn chorus occurs when songbirds sing at the start of a new day: it’s especially noticeable in spring, when the birds are either defending a breeding territory or trying to attract a mate. They sing at dawn because the air is calmer and sound transmission is good: a time of night that is usually characterised as bathing in rich silence becomes a cacophony of sound and melodic trills.

The little birds work as a kind of feathery orchestra – each species has its own place to come in, so as the hours progress the different voices and melodies layer on top of one another. The order begins with blackbirds and ends with goldfinches, going through robins, wrens, thrushes, warblers and pheasants. David Attenborough is currently doing a really great radio series about different bird-calls, which you can catch up with online if you can’t face the 5:58am broadcast:Wren

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01s6xyk/episodes/player

Most of what I know about the dawn chorus has come from my dad – he organises wildlife walks in a park back in Birmingham, and runs a dawn chorus walk in the early hours of a May morning. He really knows everything there is to know about nature, and I always make sure to ask him lots of questions.

The chorus starts as early as 4am (I can only assume the little birds have a bottomless supply of coffee to get them up so cheerfully) – but what, and why, are they singing? In general, only the male songbird sings, and his song has one of two poetical lyrics – “come here!” or “go away”. For all its prettiness, the notes pinging together like tiny coins, the dawn chorus is brutally competitive; full of plagiarism, trickery and feathered egos.

In order to attract a mate, a male bird has to obtain and defend a territory – a male claims his territory by singing in it and letting other males know to stay away. He throws down the gauntlet with a string of notes before leaving gaps to wait for replies to his challenge, so that he can locate other males and defend his territory to any strangers nearby. Some species, like chaffinches and great tits (snigger) use a number of voices and choruses to convince other males that there are lots of birds in the area. Some birds even mimic the calls of other species to increase the complexity of their songs (and desirability of them as mates) and to show the female that they have survived enough breeding seasons to have heard these other songs. Some migratory birds even mimic their international cousins; marsh warblers may mimic the sounds of 70 or so species, telling the females where they have spent the winter.Image

When male songbirds are advertising for a mate rather than marking territory, they sing songs that are longer and more complex (the territorial calls are more repetitive). It becomes an energy-intense activity that indicates his quality and fitness. Males will constantly develop and re-develop their songs in order to have the most complicated – and therefore most desirable – tune. Wrens, for example, have songs that contain over 700 different notes per minute and can be heard 500m away.

The new dawn chorus is probably my favourite part of spring, a sure sign that winter is wheezing its final breaths and nature is beginning to wake up with all the colours and sounds of a new season. Waking up at 4am may seem like a rather hellish suggestion, but it’s worth catching the chorus on a morning when you can’t sleep or are feeling particularly lively. I find it surprising that there hasn’t been a piece of music or a work of art based on the dawn chorus – it is masterful how the layers and layers of calls rise and fall past one another piling up like coloured grains of sand as the sky changes colour along with it. The little birds wake up the colour in the world, coax the sun out over the hills and expand the dark pocket of night into daytime sky.

“a light broke in upon my soul
It was the carol of a bird;
It ceased – and then it came again
The sweetest song ear ever heard”
Lord Byron