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Chris Watson's Ynys-hir dawn chorus diary

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Jeremy Torrance web producer Jeremy Torrance web producer | 13:48 UK time, Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Guest blogger: Ace sound recordist Chris Watson was up in the wee small hours to record the dawn chorus here at Ynys-hir this morning.

Tuesday 31 May

0235h Woken up by hail rattling on my bedroom window.

0240h Alarm ringtone gets me out of bed.After a stormy and very cold night the weather miraculously clears as I drive into the reserve and I can see starlight through the tree canopy. The wind has dropped and in the woodland it's calm, still and very quiet. The microphone cables and connectors are really wet so it's an anxious moment when I plug in to listen if everything is still working after an over night soaking. The system powers up and through my headphones I hear... virtually nothing.

Woodland at Ynys-hir

Ynys-hir's beautiful woodland

0329h This is exactly what I was hoping for, a deep sense of quiet and a perfect background for what I'm hoping will unfold over the following 90 minutes. There are a few distant calls from far off. Canada geese across the salt marsh, mallards, teal and a moorhen on one of the ponds.

A tawny owl hoots way down along the ridge and almost in reply I hear the distant strangulated calls of a vixen.

0344h I'm completely startled out of my concentration on distant sounds as a branch snaps and falls to the floor, any echo is swallowed up quickly by the muted woodland atmosphere.

Ynys-hir woodland

0350h Simultaneously a wood pigeon, tawny owl and redstart sing and within moments other woodpigeons join in. I also hear a redshank displaying out across the estuary. Canada geese take flight.

0401h A robin is the first bird to sing near the mics and others answer quickly. This burst of songs seems to awaken a song thrush into replying, its two note repeating phrases are a register lower than the robins. The chorus has begun to take shape. Within a few minutes it's becoming difficult to indentify individuals as the accumulating notes melt and merge.

0414h A blackbird, my current favourite songbird, leaps from the left hand side of my headphones and then rattles an alarm, possibly in response to a nearby grey squirrel I keep hearing chatter.

0418h A rich chorus of resident species now; robins, song thrush and blackbirds with a lower backing of woodpigeons.

0420h cut for a passing military jet.

0424h The thrushes are joined by a chiffchaff singing its common name, so now resident and migrant birds in unison. A blackcap now off to the right. Everything is singing at once! This is the dawn chorus, even an unusual tawny owl call somewhere in the canopy and distant ravens way off overhead.

0438h Rather belatedly a wood warbler, one of Ynys-hir's woodland specialists, wakes up and joins in the chorus although it's really difficult now to indentify individual songs as the soundscape is so dense. There's also a pied flycatcher singing in there somewhere...

0450h There's enough daylight now for me to read my scribbled notes and although the chorus is still ringing out across the woodland I can hear that the energy level is gradually waning as the light level rises.

0500h The chorus has peaked - what a fabulous experience and something that will stay with me throughout the day.

I'm off to try and record some individual songs and look forward to breakfast.

Chris is an acclaimed, BAFTA-winning wildlife sound recordist, responsible for capturing the sounds of the natural world for programmes such as Autumnwatch, Life In The Undergrowth and Life Of Mammals to name just a few. We'll be featuring his dawn chorus recording later in the series.


  • Comment number 1.

    A couple of questions:

    1 - How should bird nest boxes be fastened to a tree? By Nails or by wire?. Most nestboxes have a hole for a nail but is this good for the tree? Also, as the tree is unlikely to be flat and smooth, the nextbox will not fasten securely and wobbles around.

    2 - A question for Wing Commander Packham - How have Dartford Warblers fared last winter. I know that bad winters cause populations to nosedive - Is this the case in the New Forest/Dorset?..THanks Chris :-)

  • Comment number 2.

    Hi, I agree with leaving and keeping an eye on young that seem abandoned. But when you do get involved it is a great pleasure to bring up and release young that you have nurtured.
    My dad while cutting the hedge at the bottom of our garden accidentally cut the top off of a wrens nest, we recovered left alone and kept watch from inside the house, no parents returned so took nest indoors along with six young, returned to its sight next morning, minus one, kept watch again still no return of the parents so we decided it was our turn to become mummy and daddy wren, for the next two weeks we fed them through out the day they slept all night, once they started to fly we introduced them to the great outdoors where they followed us around the garden to the sound of the tapping on the side of a saucer which their food was on. their constant chirping brought a mother wren from somewhere she took over some of the feeding for few days until she got fed up as the chicks didn't open their beaks to a beak as they were only used to tweezers. After about four to six weeks they decided one by one they were big enough to go into the world, they came back to their house every night for a warm and their wax worm go to bed snack. Then eventually they all left, we did see a few wrens around the garden but if they were the same one's who knows. What a fantastic experience and glad we took charge as five wrens survived.:-)

  • Comment number 3.

    Over the past few weeks, my brother Gavin and I have become fascinated with the birdlife on the pond in our local recreational park in Scone near Perth. The most abundant species we see on the pond are mallard ducks, but we also have a boisterous and raucous band of black-headed gulls, three herring gulls and a pair of moorhens.

    So far the mallards have produced three broods of ducklings: one of 13, one of 10 and one of 9. Out of the first two broods, there has only been one survivor. We refer to this individual as the Orphan, because he/she is on it's own. We think the herring gulls are primarily responsible for the demise of its siblings, although there is also a crow which hangs around on the periphery. But we have seen the herring gulls either swallowing ducklings down or attempting to swoop down and pick ducklings off the water, so they are definitely the prime suspects. Incidentally, the Orphan looks like he/she will survive okay and I'm hoping it will grow up to be a female because there is a marked gender imbalance on the pond in favour of the males.

    The third brood of nine are probably the ones I have felt closest to of all because, believe it or not, I saw them being conceived no more than four feet in front of me on the bank. Crikey, he was a bold drake (or maybe a bit desperate because the drakes outnumber the females by a ratio of about 5:1) because he paid absolutely no attention to me and just got stuck in so to speak. Unfortunately, there are only four remaining survivors from the original nine. Those damn herring gulls are a pest! But mother duck seems to be a really good mother and she seems to have an ally in the band of black-headed gulls and, of course, among the local passers-by.

    One day, she had her ducklings over where the locals like to feed the ducks and one of the herring gulls came swooping in trying to pick up one of the ducklings (which thankfully was unsuccessful because there were children present) and in came the black-headed gulls and they started mobbing the herring gull until it flew away! Amazing!!!

    I am hopeful that there may be more pitter-patter of little webbed feet still to come, because I witnessed another incident where another female mallard I've been watching was jumped by no fewer than ten drakes. She had been really flirty for several days beforehand, teasing any drake who would bat an eyelid at her, almost daring them to chase her. Then last week, they caught up with her in no uncertain terms and I saw at least one of them mounting her once they got her pinned down. Anyway, I shall keep you all informed of developments on this front.

    I mentioned earlier, we have a pair of moorhens on the pond and they did produce a brood of six or seven chicks, but unfortunately, I think the herring gulls polished them all off within a week or ten days. I keep hoping they'll breed again, but so far I haven't seen any evidence of this happening as yet. I will, of course, keep you all informed if there are any further developments.

  • Comment number 4.

    ditto is… riding the Ghost Train
    ditto.tv wrote a blog about Chris Watson and his astonishing life. If you want to read it, find it on http://www.ditto.tv/blog/2012/01/ditto-is-riding-the-ghost-train/



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