Morning Song: Devonshire ornithology

It’s the peace of Hillfield Village that so many of our guests remark upon. And we are incredibly lucky to be tucked away in a quiet valley where the skies are dark and the traffic is little more than the odd car or occasional tractor.

At this time of year, when the air is still, I like to get up when it’s still dark (we’re talking 4.30am) make myself a cup of tea, sit out on the terrace and wait. Wait and listen to the sleepy quiet when everyone else is tucked up in their warm, comfortable beds.

After a while, a bird begins to sing. A single blackbird. Then gradually, with the gathering light, he is joined by a second blackbird, then a robin, a song thrush and other (for me) unidentifiable songsters. Layer upon layer of birdsong builds to a point when the sun is up and the din subsides as birds peel off to fly in search of food.

Realising how little I knew about the dawn chorus (let alone be able to identify the different songs of individual species) I set about finding out more about just three of the species singing their little hearts out at Hillfield Village.

This month and next is the time when the dawn chorus is at its most spectacular, as it is the height of the breeding season when male birds sing to attract a mate. It’s the fittest and most well-fed males who produce the strongest songs, and the females choose a mate who sings the best – for such a male is more likely to look after her chicks, have the better territory and pass on the strongest genes. It’s around an hour before sunrise that the first birds begin to sing, and in the still dawn air the birdsong can carry up to 20 times further than at other times of day. Blackbirds, song thrushes, skylarks, robins and other worm-eating species tend to be the first to sing in the morning, to be joined later by smaller birds such as wrens and warblers who are more vulnerable to predators in the darkness and to the chill of the pre-dawn air.

I have gathered information about, and recordings of, the birds I heard in full song as the light gathered that morning:


The blackbird takes up a position to sing from a high point – halfway up a tree or on a roof. The song of the blackbird (Turdus merula) is described as “often two to three seconds long with a similar interval before the next burst, and is rich and mellow with a languid delivery and fluted quality.” To listen to blackbird song, go to this British Library recording:


Usually the robin (Erithacus rubecula) can be heard singing its musical warbling song from strategic perches. The notes of the robin’s song are notably high-pitched with each phrase ending with an echo like cadence.

In the 1960s, David Lack made an extraordinarily detailed study of the robins at Dartington and his findings were published in his book ‘The Life of the Robin’. To here a robin in full song, go to:

Song Thrush

The male song thrush, or Turdus philomelos usually sings from a tree. Repetition is a characteristic of its song which consists of a large repertoire of up to 100 short phrases, each repeated loudly and clearly three or four times. Notes sung vary from musical whistles through to harsh rasping and chattering sounds. Sometimes they mimic other birds’ song. Listen to the song thrush here:


If you’d like to know more about birdsong…

Don’t miss sound recordist Chris Watson’s exhibition Ebb and Flow: Seasonal sounds through the Devon Year at RAMM in Exeter, where you can listen to the sounds of spring as recorded at different sites in Devon over 2014. Until June 21 2015.

Join Dr Richard Billington from the University of Plymouth on 6 June when he will lead a Dawn Chorus through Plymbridge Woods to hear and identify the songs of the woodland birds.

6 June 5am-7am.

To book visit: