The art of bird listening

Toys Hill on the North Downs, Kent

Toys Hill on the North Downs, Kent


“THERE’S A BLACKCAP over there,” Anne said. We were in the car park at Toys Hill, part of the National Trust’s Kent portfolio, at the start of an early spring breeding bird count, and Anne had her head cocked to one side, listening.

Even before we left the car park, she had identified a coal tit, several robins, a couple of wrens and a blackbird by their songs.

And it was just as well that Anne has a remarkable ear for birdsong, because once we were in the woods, the spring leaves on the beech trees glowed like jewels hiding the breeding birds from sight. We barely lifted our binoculars once on a walk that took an hour and a half; there was little point - we would have just been staring into a tangle of luminous greenery.

It was nine in the morning - a little late to listen out for birds that had been in full song four hours earlier, at around five. But, then, birds rise earlier than humans as a rule, and sing most enthusiastically at a time when their songs carry further in the still air.

A crow cawed as it flew overhead. A woodpecker - probably a great spotted - drummed on a dead tree, and in the distance a nuthatch whistled its rising call.

It’s a tricky business, this bird listening. If you really want to hear a willow warbler, for example, then that will bring cognitive bias to your listening skills: you have to be more impartial than that. You mustn’t jump to conclusions too soon. You have to listen out for repetition

A blackcap’s song is a melodic warble and a clear identifier for those who know, but single chinks and pings are more difficult - and, anyway, birds borrow phrases from each other. You end up thinking: “Probably a great tit. Maybe.”

On this occasion, the birding was mildly disappointing - perhaps because Toys Hill is a haunt of dog walkers, or (more likely) because on what was International Dawn Chorus Day 2019, we had started rather late.

There were plenty of robins - both sexes sing, but even accounting for that it was surprising to hear them in territories that were so tightly packed. There were plenty of blackcaps too - they’re one of the species, along with the nuthatch, that is actually on the increase. But there were a lot of woodland birds missing, and nothing at all that was unusual - and there were silent spots in the woodland, where bird life seemed eerily absent.

It’s a sign of these grim times: the breeding woodland bird index for the UK fell by a quarter between 1970 and 2017, with populations of woodland specialists like the lesser spotted woodpecker, spotted flycatcher and willow tit collapsing by more than 80 per cent over the same period.

Even so, the woodlands of Toys Hill are a good place for humans to practise what the Japanese call Shinrin-Yoku, which literally translates as ‘forest bathing’, and is said to have all kinds of health benefits, especially for the cardiovascular and immune systems.

Proof, were it needed, that you should get out more.