I have grown quite fond of my smart phone – a family hand-me-down designed to bring me into the 21st century. The reason is my new app. This enables me to select any bird and conjure up not only a picture of it but also a recording of its song. March is a wonderful month with our resident birds singing lustily. Towards the month’s end these are joined by migrant warblers, but each year I have to re-hone my recognition skills. Now, in the comfort of my own sitting room, I am delighting in the willow warbler’s wistful tones, in revisiting the knotty problem of reed warbler or sedge warbler, and in learning to distinguish between the songs of blackcap and garden warbler.
I’m also alerted to the fact that it’s not just about singing. Birds declare their territorial rights by other sounds. Go into Strid Woods anytime now and you’re likely to hear a rapid tattoo as a great spotted woodpecker hammers with its beak on a dead branch – a sound that reverberates over considerable distance. I once saw a TV nature programme where the presenter simulated the sequence by knocking a pebble against a tree-trunk and the woodpecker came nearer and nearer to check out the rival. I’ve tried this – but with no success at all! If you were very lucky you might hear the similar – but slightly longer – tapping of a lesser spotted woodpecker. This sparrow-sized red-capped woodpecker used to be fairly widespread. I remember watching a nesting pair in a dead conifer stump in Middleton Woods, and, for many years, there was a good chance of seeing them in the Washburn. Rare now, alas.
Another way to make an impressive noise is by forcing air through stiff tail or wing feathers, and this is a sound which should be filling the air above pastures adjoining our moorland. Snipe are the best-known practitioners of this: they climb high in the air and then descend, tail feathers fanned and stiff, and the resultant “drumming” is loud and quite menacing. Generally such a shy and unobtrusive bird, this small wader with its camouflage plumage in tasteful shades of brown and its long probing bill, can really make its presence felt when asserting territorial rights. On the same moorland sites lapwings are now displaying their aerobatics and, amid their skirling “peewit” cries, making a loud thrumming with their wing feathers.
So – not just song – but tapping, drumming and thrumming to listen out for on my March list.