Dawn Chorus, Stiffkey, Norfolk.

Stiffkey, Norfolk.

Just after dawn, May 19th.

I’m in my tent, woken by the first light glowing through the canvas, and I’m listening to the dawn chorus.

I am on the edge of the land, at a place where it meets salt marsh before giving way to sea. I am on the edge of night, at a time where it meets the day.

It feels a little uncanny, a little magical even, to be on all these edges at the same time.

Nearest, in the woods around us, two Tawny owls are hooting their dark calls back into the night. They are making the “two-oo” noise which means they are both males, the females make the “two-it” sound.

Furthest, over the marsh and next to the sea, are the Red Shank and Oystercatcher, trilling towards the approaching day, their high pitched calls carrying over the sounds of the waves they are near.

Around us are Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons, Goldfinches, Whitethroats, Blue Tits and warblers, each with their own voices and melodies.

I stay inside, picturing these birds, imagining the natural world waking up all around me.

I however, fall asleep again.

Later we walk to Blakeney, the dawn chorus seems to have been extended from the usual first few hours of light to the whole morning, the birds taking advantage of the first good weather for a while.

We briefly hear a Cuckoo “cuckoo-ing”, the classic summer bird call we all learn as children. We listen to the Brent Geese honking out on the marsh. We listen to Yellowhammers sing their “little-bit-of-bread-and-cheese” refrain from the tops of the fittingly yellow gorse bushes. We listen to Whitethroats, visitors from beyond the Sahara, small birds that will have lost perhaps half of their weight in migration but who seem to lose none of their desire to sing their hearts out as soon as they arrive here.

It’s tempting to hear joy in these songs but of course birds don’t sing because they enjoy it. They sing to maximise their chances of reproducing. Some of their songs are to attract mates – a loud song conveys health and vitality. Others help them establish territory, the best territories with the best nesting sites and best food supplies offer the greatest chance of breeding success.

Given the short lives of many of our songbirds they may only have sixty dawns in which to sing their way to passing on their genes. What sounds so pleasing to us is really the desperate, uncertain sound of one generation trying to ensure the creation of the next, of the present conjuring up the future through song.

This shouldn’t stop us from enjoying these reproductive imperitives though. The Dawn Chorus is a glorious reminder of the nature that surrounds us all. If you get the chance this month or next, get up early and take the time to listen to one of the highlights of the British natural calender.


This month saw international dawn chorus day.

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