Birdsong tours at the London Wetland Centre
The dawn chorus is the best time to identify the tunes of London‘s avian inhabitants. Time Out finds out about the Wetland Centre‘s very early morning guided tours
The London Wetland Centre in Barnes is a wonderful place to duck out of the clamour and cacophony of London for a while – an escape hatch into a haven of calm and natural peace. That’s if you’re a human, anyway; if you’re a bird, it’s about as buzzy and happening as London gets – the city’s hottest ticket thanks to its 43 hectares of pristine habitats and its protected status. You have to get up early in the morning to experience the tumult of all this avian excitement at full pelt, though – stupidly early. The gates will open on Sunday at 4am for the Centre’s annual Dawn Chorus Day experience, but there’s never any shortage of takers for this highly popular event.
According to their resident bird expert Dan Monk, it’s a unique chance to experience something even he finds ‘quite overwhelming’. ‘April and May is the peak time for the dawn chorus, because at the moment we’ve got a mixture of two types of birds all singing at the same time. We’ve got the resident breeding birds, who stay here the whole year, and then the migrating birds that winter in Africa and come to the UK to breed, which are just starting to arrive. The classic migrants are the blackcaps, reed warblers, willow warblers and sedge warblers – they’ve flown a long way to be here and they need to set up a territory and find a mate as soon as possible. But after a month or two it will be all over. Come June, July, it will be very quiet.’
Listen to London's birdsongs
The natives have been welcoming the sun and advertising their wares since January but now the tourists are arriving they’re having to up their game. The earliest risers – generally robins, wrens and thrushes, including blackbirds – are resident birds aiming to establish their sexual prowess in the quiet of the early dawn, so they are the ones you’ll hear first in the early morning. This get-in-first instinct is also why you’ll often hear birds singing at night in London – they’re not simply confused by street lighting (though that may be a factor) but are often choosing to sing when there’s not so much traffic to drown them out.
We seem to enjoy birdsong at a primal level – people choose it as their mobile ringtone and are currently tuning in growing numbers to a digital radio station that plays bird noises 24 hours a day. But few of us, especially in the city, can identify exactly what we’re hearing, which is why the Wetland Centre also runs practical courses on identifying birds by song – the next is on May 10, and they’ve just added an extra date, May 17, due to popular demand. Monk, who runs the courses, believes that practice is the key to learning the songs and, of course, having someone point out which bird is singing is invaluable.
‘When you hear a bird, wait and wait until you’ve seen it – when your ears hear the song and your eyes register the bird at the same time, that’s when it clicks,’ he advises. ‘But there’s no rush, you don’t have to cram it all into your head in one go, just take your time.’
It’s a relaxing skill that more and more people are interested in learning as a way of feeling more connected with the natural world. ‘Our membership has shot up over recent years,’ says Monk. ‘People are realising it’s an excellent way to relax and clear your head. Even if you just tune in to the birds when you’re walking down the street to the shops, it’s good to hear them. You’d certainly notice if suddenly there was no birdsong in your life.’
Hear London birdsong with our audio guide
The London Wetland Centre, Queen Elizabeth Walk, SW13 (020 8409 4400/wwt.org.uk/visit/wetlandcentre). Dawn Chorus: Sun 4am, including a cooked breakfast at 7.30am. Adm £22 (members £20). Identifying Birds Through Song: May 10 10am, May 17 9.45am. Adm £10 (members £9). Booking essential for all events.
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