Caught by the River

BBC Radio 4 on International Dawn Chorus Day

6th May 2017

Songbirds Special Stamps issued by Royal Mail to coincide with IDCD 2017

Tim Dee reveals how Radio 4 will be marking this year’s International Dawn Chorus Day:

For six-and-a-half hours tonight – from 0030 until 0700 on the 7th May – BBC Radio 4 is priming its transmitters and turning over its schedule to eavesdrop on the spring dawn chorus as it wakes and sings across the northern hemisphere. We will hear thousands of birds. It is to my ears the greatest song of the earth. Tomorrow – 7th May – is International Dawn Chorus Day. From just after midnight until long into daylight, Radio 4, in the form of Brett Westwood and an assembly of singing birds, will be broadcasting live from Ham Wall RSPB reserve on the Somerset Levels. Human talk, poetry, and song will blend with and respond to the same from the avian world. And the Somerset dawn, immanent and audible even deep in the night, will hook up with the wider continental dawn as it rolls westwards.

RTE, the Irish broadcaster, has been over-hearing and co-ordinating a pan-European radio dawn chorus event for a number of years. The BBC is joining in properly for the first time this year, as are several radio stations in India. Last year, as we contributed to the Irish production, we heard the chirrups of the sparrows of the Sparrow Hills of Moscow waking up, then a man going after a lekking capercaillie in Norway, another chasing a bluethroat on Texel in the Netherlands, and much else besides; come 0430 we were contributing our own wall of sound from a Somerset reed bed. This year Radio 4 is taking and broadcasting all of our noises, with a judicious sampling now and again from the unfolding international symphony.

I urge your attention. If you cannot stay up late or get up early, then the iPlayer can help. A programme of highlights will also follow on BBC Radio 4 at 1630 on 7th May.


Why should you listen?

Perhaps they’ve woken you and you have no choice.

‘The sun shone, having no alternative on the nothing new,’ wrote Samuel Beckett, in Murphy in 1938 (the first words of his first published novel). But, I don’t buy the same old, same old. Every minute of the earth’s day, somewhere, the first splash of sun is lifting a sky; somewhere, the living things that the warmth hits are waking into life; somewhere, a bird is opening its beak and answering the light. It is always dawn somewhere, yes, but every dawn is different.

Perhaps the wild music has got to you.

Knowing what the dawn chorus means to the birds doesn’t fully explain why it can mean so much to us. Each of its singers has a job to do and yet we, as we wake into our days (the unpeeved among us), hear their work, made every morning through the spring, as a gift, a boon, like a half-finished heaven sung over our world.

First light for many of us means getting up and going to work, but somewhere (from our pineal gland deep enfolded in our brain or our serotonin receptors? Or our waking dreams or ancient memories?) we respond to the dawn’s deepest truth and we rise to the new day too, a new start, another go at building life. The light comes back and it sings. We hold onto this warm fact through the down time and the dour times, the half of the year when morning after morning is grey and dawn each day is a bed-blocker loathe to rise, until a low watt light musses with the dark and we might stir, fall out of bed, and drag a comb across our head…

The best dawns are those the birds sing.

Once a day the earth spins on its tilted axis. We face the sun, spin on, and face away. So are made our day and night. Once a year our spinning ball orbits the sun. So, in this passage, come summer and winter. Spring is dawn to the year (dawn the spring of day), autumn its dusk (evening the fall). Every day the prime mover, the engine for almost all life, comes in the appearance of the sun above the eastern horizon. We register each dawn of the daily round as new. It enters at our eyes and on our skin, the stuff of life. Begin again, it says, again.

The dawn chorus reaches its peak in the British Isles in May.

Be May: this month around the northern hemisphere when the night is being chased away to almost nought, when the last blackbird is kept from the first by little more than forty winks, when spaces down below darken but the light never fully quits the sky. And think of this. In its nest at Ham Wall, just twenty days old, still putting on feathers and yet to fly, a young male willow warbler hears its father sing and, at the edge of its hearing, perhaps one or two other neighbouring birds making the same tunes. The sounds drill into its brain. It leaves the nest, flies for the first time, and finds its way alone to a scrubby field edge at Choma in Southern Zambia. There it joins a gang of others who forage in a loose association, some of the birds (perhaps the older ones) sing a few snatches of song once in a while, and the singing seems to keep the birds together. In March the warblers scatter and head north, alone once more, and songless. In mid-April having navigated the sands of the Sahara and the salts of the Mediterranean and the Channel, the bird that hatched at Ham Wall less than twelve months ago is back in the trees where it began. The light drills into its head, as its father’s song did last year, and it opens its beak as others do and as the dawn opens the day, and it sings willow warbler for the very first time. Its first phrases are creaky and errant but after a few tries (I’ve heard this), the bird finds its voice, crying, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, what I do is me, for that I came.

All that comes down, as another commentator said (tending to bathos rather than poetry), to either fuck off or fuck me. Male birds sing to stake territorial claims and to advertise and secure their sexual needs. Singing is a male thing; almost all birds call (that is their talk) to one another, only (with few exceptions) male birds sing (that is their performance), at male rivals or at female partners. The dawn chorus has all of this: song-birds – the smaller species (who mostly learn their songs by listening) – singing, others (who mostly inherit their vocalisations) calling, even supposed mute swans doing their best. The world has woken and the birds are working.


On Saturday night through to Sunday morning, the microphones of the BBC Bristol Audio Unit hope to pick up everything that is said at Ham Wall.

From his reed bed HQ, Brett (who with Stephen Moss has just published Wonderland – a book about what is happening day by day through the natural year) will be joined by Tristan Gooley, expert on natural navigation, star reading, and night sight; Adam Nicolson, writer on arcadias – and nurturer of some on the Shiants and at Sissinghurst – and new author of The Seabird’s Cry, a modern history of our marine birdlife (also possessor of one of the most generous laughs imaginable); Mark Cocker, naturalist, conservationist, Guardian country diarist and writer of many books including Birds Britannica (also possessor of some of the finest listening ears I’ve ever witnessed in action); Jenny York, of Cambridge University and currently working on cuckoos, who knows how birds sing and why; Alexandra Harris, who teaches at the University of Liverpool and is the author of Weatherland and Romantic Moderns (as well as a wonderfully seasoned broadcaster) who will talk about the human history of the dawn, the waking nights of old, literary serenades and aubades; Paul Farley, poet and writer and keeper of The Echo Chamber at Radio 4, who will bring an anthology of modern poems about getting through the darkest hours; and Hanna Tuulikki who, with two fellow singers, will be singing to the dawn and its chorus; Hanna is a modern Orpheus, a totally charming artist whose work often involves singing birdsong back to the birds; see – hear – her project called Away With the Birds, or her sublime performance of mad King Sweeney as a cuckoo in cloud-cuckoo-island. And, last but not least, joining the flock to share the enthusiasm will be two keen nature boys and great male song-birds: Jimi Goodwin of Doves and singer-songwriter Will Young, veteran of the first Pop Idol, a talent contest like every dawn chorus.


Who knows the best dawn chorus?

Perhaps it’s the blackbird at the dark end of the street; perhaps it’s the robin that silvers the frost of a new year daybreak; perhaps it’s the midsummer pixie-rock of storm petrels at Mousa broch which ceases as daylight surges from the northern sea; perhaps it’s the booted feet of herring gulls across a Cornish cottage roof; perhaps it’s a swallow fly-past at your window; perhaps it’s the pigeons softening the hard walls of your town; perhaps it’s the rasp of corncrakes on Coll troubling any sleep until first light; perhaps it is the first singing of new returned willow warblers, throughout the world that remains green, tumbling out of themselves into rounds of sweet spring tones; perhaps it’s Marcus Coates’ superb transport of an English bird chorus into the mouths of human singers via slowed-down sound and speeded-up film; or perhaps it’s the great joined song that we heard at Ham Wall these days last year as we rehearsed our show and that will come tonight: the sedge warblers at their sewing machines, a tawny owl shadow boxing with a cuckoo, the dungeon squeals of water rails, narked grey herons, bitterns whose booms are felt in the chest and not at the ear, the fruit of blackbird and blackcap, the rifled air of blue and great tits, dunnocks, reed warblers, reed buntings, wrens unlimited, song thrushes, chiffchaffs, greenfinches, duck dreams, the basic coot, all of them altogether in one ecstatic music.

Captain Beefheart said, somewhere, that if you’ve got ears you got to listen. My right needs help these days, and I am mostly down to one, but I will be. Join me and try it.


Tim Dee is one of the producers of the Dawn Chorus on BBC Radio 4, which is on air from 0030-0700 tomorrow morning, 7th May. He’s also the author of The Running Sky and Four Fields. See his previous posts on Caught by the River/follow him on Twitter.