Most people think the best time to go about learning bird song and calls is the spring. After all, it is in the spring that the parallel world of the birds most strongly impinges on our world, through the dawn chorus and general bird activity connected to nest-building.
However, anyone who has tried to do this will testify as to its near impossibility. Many of the birds you will hear in the spring are summer visitors, so you’ll not hear them again till the next year, which makes the song difficult to remember. There are just far too many birds in the dawn chorus, as well, and it is difficult to pick out individuals against the noise.
Presumably, birds themselves are good at hearing and locating other individuals of the same species, otherwise this method of attracting a mate would be a singularly stupid one. But, for them, it must be as easy as telling a dog from a frog.
But we don’t hear/see it like this.
And it’s not a good place or time to start.
While I’m about it, don’t get one of those discs that have all the bird songs, because it’s the same problem. Just too many birds.
These guides are really difficult to use. You hear a bird on your walk. You really concentrate, and commit the song to memory. You get home, and listen to the disc, and the first song you hear completely wipes out all memory traces of the bird you heard on your walk. Now, they all sound like the bird on your walk.
No, that is not the way.
All you need are curiosity and at least one ear. No binoculars, no eyes, no field guides.
And this is the perfect time of the year to start. The summer visitors have gone to warmer climes, and no-one is struggling to get their voice heard above all the others so they can get a breeding partner.
The countryside is relatively silent.
When it happens, bird noise stands out clearly, and you have the whole winter to let it sink into your memory, so that, by next spring, you will have absorbed many of the songs and calls of our resident species, and you will have become attuned to the network of wild lives around you as you pass through the world.
At this time, and for the rest of the winter, robins are singing their mournful little song. Their song can be described as wistful and sweet, and it is one of the very few birds that sings all year. Their song is the song of November twilight.
So, if you hear a sad song coming from a bush nearby, stop and listen and wonder at its fragile beauty. Let it sink in. You have got a robin. There will be more, and soon you can identify it.
It is not singing for a mate. Robins are very territorial, especially in the winter, when it needs as much access to food as possible. Failure to hold a territory in winter would mean starvation.
So the robin is singing to get and hold a food supply.
The robin makes another sound, which is its warning or alarm call. You will hear it everywhere. It is a string of sharp ticks, like the sound of someone slowly winding up a cheap clockwork toy.
This sound is often a good guide to the lurking presence of a cat. Once you have tuned in to it, you will hear it everywhere, just as, when you learn a new word, you see it everywhere.
You are starting to read the landscape like a bird. Be aware that these birds are as wild as any animal on an African savannah, so just be still and listen and let the ancient wild heart beat in your heart for a bit.