Caught by the River

Birdsong in a Time of Silence

Chris Watson | 20th April 2021

Steven Lovatt’s ‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’ — a lyrical celebration of birdsong — is published by Penguin. The book teaches a valuable lesson; how to find detail in the seemingly ordinary, writes wildlife sound expert Chris Watson.

Currently my favourite afternoon drink, pre-sundown, is Mr Eion’s breakfast tea which is a robust blend of Kenyan and Assam leaves. Armed with a fresh brew in a large mug, I sat down in our back garden after lunch on Monday March 22nd 2021 to begin reading this book. The title was a clear mark as it referenced a period that was then still with us. I also appreciated the urban silhouettes under the lowering clouds of Katie Marland’s cover as they were familiar from my own local daily lockdown safaris. Before taking a sip I was absorbed into the friendly and engaging style and nodded my way through the first chapter before reaching for my tea, which by then had gone cold. Returning with a second brew, I paused to listen to the blackbirds arguing behind a hawthorn bush by our fence, before returning to read about — blackbirds.

This event introduced a period of synchronicity which lasted over the four days I took to read this book. Chapter two introduces the blackbird, a species which is very special to me. It was my mother’s favourite bird and I played a recording of blackbird song I made in my parents’ garden at her funeral. I was carried along with the author’s notes and observations during a time when I was out in my garden in the company of blackbirds who had overwintered here and were now, both on the page and in the bushes around me, beginning to nest.

Garden blackbird, recorded by Chris Watson

Wrens, skylarks, jackdaws, robins, woodpigeons and goldcrests (which I learnt are also called kinglets): each species’ habits and haunts are revealed to us during the author’s daily walks. What was significant to me was the engaging narrative woven around the songs, signals and calls of these birds, all of which we share our urban spaces with and yet are so often overlooked or un-listened to. The valuable life lesson of how to find pleasure, interest and detail in the seemingly ordinary is generously shared throughout this book.

Later chapters follow a personal journey through birdsong and bioacoustics with aide-mémoires, anecdotes and most satisfyingly of all, poetry. John Clare always seems to nail it and with others the author eloquently demonstrates how the cultural significance of the natural world, and birdsong in particular, connects us all. The description of the evolution of Australian birdsong was enlightening and I was reminded of my own recording of a lyrebird, and how Aboriginal myth recognised its complexity and connections to that ancient landscape.

Lyrebird, recorded by Chris Watson

I emerged from Birdsong in a Time of Silence as the author does from his winter woodland, reflecting upon an extraordinary time when many us rediscovered the opportunity to marvel at what’s on our own doorsteps. I recommend reading this book in a park or garden now, during Spring, and letting the soundtrack to the seasons unfurl from the pages to surround you.


‘Birdsong in a Time of Silence’ is out now and available via, or direct from your local independent bookshop.