The Dawn Chorus – spring’s symphony

The Dawn Chorus is a natural phenomenon
Robins are among the birds that join the Dawn Chorus every spring

THE Dawn Chorus is a natural phenomenon that is usually only heard by insomniacs, new parents or nightshift workers but we’ve all got the chance to get involved in a global event to celebrate our native wild birds on May 1 2016.

This weekend marks International Dawn Chorus Day, when people all over the world leap or, let’s be realistic, tumble out of bed in the early hours of the morning to listen to birdsong.

Bird and wildlife groups are hosting events at the best spots where people will get the opportunity to enjoy a symphony of sound that surpasses any human orchestra.

And, for people who don’t fancy getting out of bed in the wee hours, RTÉ Radio 1 and BBC Radio Ulster are linking up with other radio stations across Europe to celebrate what they describe as “this ornithological opera”.

What is the Dawn Chorus?

What is the Dawn Chorus? It occurs when wild birds begin each morning by singing, particularly during the spring months when they are mating.

Experts believe the birdsong reaches crescendo heights during the breeding season as these feathered musicians attempt to attract a mate and defend their territory. It’s a small bird’s version of being butch, I guess!

It wasn’t really until I was pregnant with our first daughter that I started to pay attention to the Dawn Chorus. During my third trimester I experienced pretty bad pregnancy insomnia and if I was still awake as the birds started to sing between 4am and 5am I would often get up and watch a TV programme about American prisoners who trained rescued dogs for re-homing. Don’t judge me, I was pregnant so I found it deeply moving!

As somebody who has always been a poor sleeper, it was only after I first learned and wrote about what the Dawn Chorus is all about that I really started to appreciate it. Now I’ll open the window a notch to listen if I’m going through a bad patch and I find it both comforting and affirming.

Eurovision for birds

So anyway, one of the big events this Sunday will be the collaboration between RTÉ, BBC Radio Ulster, BBC Radio 4, Radio Russia, Norway’s NRK and National Public Radio in the Netherlands, bringing the Dawn Chorus to radio listeners across Europe from midnight until 6am for RTÉ and 7am for BBC Radio Ulster!

It follows on from the very successful 2015 All-Ireland broadcast by Derek Mooney’s long-running RTÉ Radio 1 programme Mooney Goes Wild and BBC Radio Ulster presenter Annie-Marie McAleese.

On Sunday, Derek will be joined by wildlife experts Dr Richard Collins, Niall Hatch of BirdWatch Ireland and author Eric Dempsey, while Anne-Marie is being accompanied by RSPB NI’s Dr Kendrew Colhoun at Tollymore National Outdoor Centre, outside Newcastle, in County Down.

According to Derek, the Dawn Chorus is “ideally suited to radio: indeed, it’s hard to think of anything that is a more natural fit.  More than that, for thousands of people the Dawn Chorus has become a unique introduction to a wider natural world, right on their own doorsteps, of which they were previously unaware.  It is an experience to which everyone can relate and in which everyone can share.”

Anne-Marie compares this weekend’s collaboration to “a Eurovision Song Contest for our feathered friends”. Her team is particularly hoping that they will get the chance to broadcast the sounds of the Great Spotted Woodpecker to the rest of Europe.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
The Great Spotted Woodpecker is now in Ireland

“Up until 10 years ago we had none of the Great Spotted Woodpecker species living in Ireland. However along the east coast there is now evidence of breeding pairs drumming their way through forests – including County Down. A striking black and white colour, both male and female woodpeckers create this noise by striking their beaks repeatedly against a rotten or hollow branch, which acts as a sounding board,” Anne-Marie says.

What to listen for

If you fancy an early start on Sunday, here’s what to expect, according to RSPB NI: “Dunnocks and robins are among the earliest to warm up: to hear the first act you’ll need to be in the stalls early as they start to sing about an hour before sunrise.

“Blackbirds and song thrushes come hot their heels, probably because the ground is wetter in the morning so worms are more active and the ground is softer. Finally, contributing to the crescendo, wrens, tits and warblers come in, with the tiny call of the goldcrest on the stage too. These later arrivals to the choral scene eat insects and are perhaps more sensitive to the coldness of dawn.”

For those prepared to get out of bed, Birdwatch Ireland branches are organising a number of events in the coming weeks to allow people the opportunity to listen to and learn about the Dawn Chorus while RSPB NI events are also taking place.

A special event

And there’s a very special occasion for bird lovers in Derry who will celebrate the memory of local teacher, artist and naturalist, the late Anna Maud Gallagher, on International Dawn Chorus Day.

Anna Maud Gallagher was a teacher, artist and nature enthusiast
Primroses painted by Anna Maud Gallagher

A Dawn Chorus walk will be led by RSPB NI’s Anne-Marie McDevitt at 5am in the grounds of St Columb’s Park, followed in the afternoon by the launch in St Columb’s Park House of the Anna Maud Gallagher – A Life in Nature exhibition, featuring a selection of mounted photographs of Anna’s favourite landscape scenes, originally created in watercolour and oil paint. The exhibition will continue at Central Library in Derry’s Foyle Street from May 16-28. For more details email janehughescello@gmail.com.

Meanwhile, if you’re still trying to decide whether to do an all-nighter with the radio on or set your alarm for 4am then you might be interested to learn that researchers are now claiming there’s a connection with watching the sunrise and regulating your metabolism – so the Dawn Chorus could be good for the soul and the heart!

To read about how you could be breaking the law if you photograph or disturb a nesting bird or its chicks read here.

 

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