Thursday, March 5, 2015

Learning to listen to nature

As spring gets underway, the birdsong in my garden has ratcheted up a notch or two and the noise got me thinking about how I watch wildlife and the techniques that help me spot species when I'm out and about.

People often say I'm lucky when I see something. But it's not just down to luck. It's mostly patience. And listening. In fact listening is the key. 

Identifying the sounds isn't as difficult as you think. If you are by a river or stream, try and identify the sounds around you.

A loud piping call is the sound you hear before a kingfisher flies past, whilst an unusual birdlike whistle alerts you to a female otter keeping in constant contact with her cubs.

Often, if an otter is nearby, you may also hear the call of a crow, seagull or magpie as they scavenge from the otter’s fishy catch.

Grey wagtails are also very vocal. Listen out for their ‘chiswick’ call above the sound of crashing water.

Knowing the specific calls of different species, gives you a much greater chance of encountering the creature in question. There are many ways to learn bird calls. Some swear by identification CDs, but I prefer the old-fashioned way of learning in the field and gradually building up my knowledge.

If I hear a bird call or song that I don’t know I hang about keeping my eyes peeled, looking for where the new sound is coming from.

Even after years of practise, I still get caught out once or twice a year with a species I don’t know so well. And sometimes I get a surprise when one bird mimics another.

Each bird and animal has a repertoire of different calls and songs: a bird will use one call to announce its territory, another to raise the alarm, and yet another as a contact call between adults and their young. This means it can all get quite complicated. But these different sounds also give you a greater opportunity of seeing other wildlife.

A bird’s alarm call is particularly useful because they can alert you to the presence of both predators and their prey.

A rabbit that thumps its back leg to let other rabbits know that there is a fox or stoat on its way, also gives you the heads up on this opportunity to see the predator.

A bird’s alarm call is a clear signal for other birds to take cover. You can generally make out what sort of predator is lurking by the position of the calling bird. 

If the bird is visible at the top of a tree or bush, a ground predator such as a stoat, rat or fox is nearby. 

But if it’s well hidden in dense undergrowth, then an aerial attack is most likely - possibly from a sparrowhawk or other bird of prey.

In summer, swallows are always the first to spot a sparrowhawk on the prowl, and they usually raise the alarm. A swallows urgent call sets off a chain reaction from all the other birds in the area.

It is well worth learning as many calls as you can. Knowing the sounds can tell you so much about what is happening around you.

If you’re a beginner, don’t be put off by the immensity of the task. We all know the hoot of a tawny owl, the coo of a wood pigeon and a cuckoo’s call.

From these bigger birds it’s not so big a step to then being able to identify finches and other smaller birds.


  1. A superb post with magnificent illustrations. I had a Sparrowhawk in the garden today in Suffolk. I was alerted to its presence by a raucous noise. Once it had gone, there was utter silence. I think the Magpies were the ruffled ones - wonder if that sounds (more than) likely ...

  2. Small bird alarm calls have alerted me to the presense of owls that otherwise I would not have seen in many different countries, and once in Alaska, Common Redpolls alerted me to the presense of a bear. Great paintings

    1. Great story! Just shows that listening to world around you tells you so much