We walked through wildlife-friendly woods and fields (Jake somehow finds time to successfully apply for agri-environment subsidies as well as getting his hands dirty on the land). Everyone knew at least a few birdsongs, and knowledge was freely shared, starting with the repeated incantations of song thrushes and lazy fluting of blackbirds . A mistle thrush piped up, similar in timbre to blackbird but with shorter, "unfinished" phrases and less clarity. Wren song was identified by its loud succession of different trills; the farm worker located a pair of bullfinches from their soft whistling, and we contrasted their meticulous minimalism (bullfinches have been shown to have perfect pitch) with the seemingly random improvised cascades of robin song. We discussed the difference between the "bicycle pump" song of great tit, and the similar song of coal tit, a bit thinner with a distinctive upward slur. Someone mentioned the useful tip that if you hear something you can't identify in a wood, it is probably a great tit. We marvelled that tiny long-tailed tits have been shown to identify their numerous brothers, sisters cousins individually by call.
A great spotted woodpecker came over to check us out, its normal staccato alarm call extended into a series of buzzes as it broadcast news of our unusual procession through the wood. As we walked along thick hedges and seed-rich field margins one species in particular was noted for its absence-a few years ago there were sixteen purring turtle doves holding territory on the estate; now there are none, reminding us that not everything can be resolved by producing ideal conditions at a local level.
In all we recorded 41 species, but though plenty of binoculars were raised we saw just 20 of them, highlighting the importance of sound in locating birds at this time of year. Only a few birds were better seen than heard; male and female reed buntings flitted within the bushes and reeds in silent anxiety, peering at us through the vegetation at close range. However, most species were engaged in some form of territorial song, so we could build up a reasonable sense of breeding numbers in the area. Achieving this by sight alone would have taken far longer and involved much more disturbance, and surely less pleasure.
Afterwards over bacon butties in Raveningham Barn we discussed how we could all increase awareness of birdsong, and how this could enhance management practice and general enjoyment of the countryside. For me perhaps the most exciting thing was the way that birdsong seamlessly brought together people with such a wide variety of interests in, and knowledge about the land.