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Rising with the Lark – A Peatland Dawn Chorus

When most of us think of the dawn chorus we imagine the marvellous sounds that filter through our bedroom windows on spring mornings. The rich and fluty tune of a blackbird, the triumphant symphony of the tiny wren or perhaps the unmistakable song of the resident robin. But the dawn chorus doesn’t stop at the garden fence. As the day breaks across the country, song will erupt on even the remotest moors and bogs, often far from human ears. In this blog, Jack describes what we could expect to hear in a peatland dawn chorus and how these sounds are shifting in a changing landscape.

The bubbling and far-crying song of the curlew echoes across the rugged hill and is the sound that forms the core to our romantic soundtrack on a wild and windswept peat bog. Known to many in Scotland as the Whaup, the Curlew is Britain’s largest wading bird and is recognised by its characteristic downcurved bill. The curlews mournful trill exemplifies wild places and elicits a range of emotions - perhaps because of its strangely haunting beauty but also because it is a reminder of tragic loss and decline. The Curlew is one of the UK’s most endangered birds, with declines exceeding 50% in Scotland since 1995, and one that is becoming an ever-rarer sight in Galloway.

As the curlew arches up over the bog, so too ascends the skylark. A thrilling and endless song begins with it and as the skylark gains height, so the song seems to rise in complexity. Up and up the skylark goes until it is but a speck in the sky, but its song still pours down from above. The skylark may be a small and brown bird, but when it comes to singing this bird goes the extra mile. Their intricate song flights can last for up to an hour and the birds can reach a height of 300m. To many, skylarks are the unequivocal sound of a spring day and to me they have been a familiar accompaniment to many field surveys.

Whilst the skylark is a master lyricist, professional percussionists can also be heard performing and their sound reverberates across the moor. Unlike most birds, common snipe don’t use their vocal chords during their acrobatic display flight, but instead produce a remarkable ‘drumming’ noise using their tail feathers. As Snipe swoop downwards their stiff outer tail feathers vibrate rapidly as air rushes past them, producing a vibrato humming noise which rises in intensity as the snipe quickly tumbles through the air. The sound has been likened to those made by farmyard animals, and accounts for many of the bird’s vernacular names such as ‘horse gokk’ and ‘little goat of the frost’.

The dawn chorus is all about performance, and no bird takes performing more seriously than male Black Grouse, who each morning take to the lekking stage to strut their stuff to prospective females.

Despite its apparent gentle nature, the soothing and bubbling dove-like song of a displaying black grouse can carry for more than 400m. During a lek, black cocks perform a highly ritualised display. Males parade around whilst fanning their white tail feathers, flare their crimson ‘eyebrows’, and even combat with rival males. Black grouse were once widespread across the UK but have declined drastically, a symbol of how land use practices such as forestry, over-grazing and wetland drainage have affected upland biodiversity. Black grouse can still be found in Galloway, with small leks scattered across the region.

Our dawn chorus wouldn’t be complete without a few more characters. The distinctive two-syllable song of a cuckoo resonates across the open ground, a sure sign that summer is on its way. The meadow pipit, a key host-species for the cuckoo, performs a parachuting flight with a cascading whistling tune. Stonechats perch on fenceposts flicking their tails and chinking like a pair of pebbles, and golden plover haunt the moor with their eerie cries.

The dawn chorus is all about performance, and no bird takes performing more seriously than male black grouse, who each morning take to the lekking stage to strut their stuff to prospective females.

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