Week 5 – Yellowhammer to Linnet

Yellowhammer (Emberiza citrinella)

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I’ve mentioned before that I have mixed feelings about the mnemonic trick of putting words to birdsong. It doesn’t really work for me. But we are obliged by law to say that the yellowhammer sounds as if it’s singing ‘A little bit of bread and no cheese’.

So now I have.

Let’s have a listen. Here’s a nice example of the yellowhammer’s song.

(recording: Martin Sutherland)

So it has rapid short notes followed by one or two rather more drawn out ones to finish.

Here’s another one.

(recording: Martin Sutherland)

Count the syllables and you’ll notice (if we insist on playing this game) that that one seems to want ‘a little bit of bread and butter and no cheese’. Sometimes, too, they leave out the ‘no cheese’ bit just to keep you on your guard.

But you get the idea. Fast and chirpy, slightly rising, then a longer, lower note. I heard one two years ago in Dorset that sounded as if it was singing the french horn cue at figure 15 in Gershwin’s An American in Paris. So there you go.

You’ll find all the bread and none of the cheese here.

Wagtails: Pied (Motacilla alba), Grey (Motacilla cinerea) & Yellow (Motacilla flavea)

How likely you are to see these three members of the wagtail family depends on where you are, and to an extent when.

But in all probability the one you’re most likely to see and hear, I’ll venture, is the pied (or white) wagtail – black and white and relentlessly perky.

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Pied wagtail

The pied wagtail is known to London birders as the ‘Chiswick flyover’, because, well, it often flies over you while making this sharp double sound.

(recording: David Darrell-Lambert)

Pied wagtails hang out in various habitats. If I visit a motorway service station and don’t see one, I usually write a strongly-worded letter of complaint to my MP. Listen out for them as you walk down the high street.

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Grey wagtail

Grey wagtails, on the other hand, are closely associated with fresh water. If you hear this call (similar to the pied wagtail, but slightly slower) by a stream or lake, look down and you might see one on a rock or flying low over the water.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

Which isn’t to say that you’ll never find a pied wagtail near water, by the way. Birds, like life, are confusing, infuriating and hard work, but ultimately worth it.

Yellow Wagtail © Chris Gomersall 2020VISION
Yellow wagtail

Finally, the yellow wagtail, a summer visitor, is more likely found in lowland pastures or fields and such like. They like hanging around cattle. Who doesn’t? It’s call is more of a single note. Psiit! Or something.

(recording: Stanislas Wroza)

All the pied/white wagtail sounds.

All the grey wagtail sounds.

All the yellow wagtail sounds.

Owls: Tawny (Strix aluco), Barn (Tyto alba), Little (Athene noctua), Short-eared (Asio flammeus) & Long-eared (Asio otus)

Britain has five species of regularly occurring owl. They are, of course, basically nocturnal, so might require a bit of seeking out, but both little owls and short-eared owls both hunt in the daytime, and no doubt the calls of tawny and barn owls will be familiar to those living in the right place.

Tawny owl

The tawny owl’s famous ‘too-wit too-woo’ is in fact two birds uttering contact calls: generally female ‘kee-wick’, male answering ‘hoo-hoo’.

(recording: Ireneusz Oleksik)

The male also does a longer version of the ‘hoo-hoo’ as its song.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)
Barn owl

The barn owl is known in some areas as the ‘screech owl’. Guess what kind of sound it usually makes? Imagine encountering this on a dark and lonely night.

(recording: Brickegickel)
Little owl

The little owl’s sharp call has a mewing quality, also a hint of complaint. It’s not a soothing sound.

(recording: Bart Gras)
Short-eared owl

If you’re lucky, you might encounter a short-eared owl out hunting during the day. It’s mostly silent, but should you hear its soft repeated hoo-ing, count yourself very fortunate (I haven’t – they’re not big in West Norwood).

(recording: Lauri Hallikainen)
Long-eared owl

Even softer is the long-eared owl’s patient, gently insistent hoot. It repeats its simple message in the hope that someone will take notice.

(recording: Stein Ø. Nilsen)

Siskin (Carduelis spinus)

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Say hello to the siskin – the green finchy one that isn’t the greenfinch. The siskin’s song is an impressive sequence of slightly scratchy and twittery chat, with the occasional break for a cough and a wheeze. It’s also one of those birds that throws some mimicry into the mix. This, from the recordist, gives you some clue as to the range of imitations in the recording below:

Bird mimics the calls of: Swallow 00:0.817, 1:43.328, Nuthatch 00:3.596, 00:31.556, 00:53.476, 1:11.058, 1:23.573, Great tit 00:04.891, Starling 00:06.171, 1:21, Common redpoll 00:15.740, 00:54.286, 1:26.987, Great spotted woodpecker 00:17.953, 00:39.483, 1:14.719, Goldfinch 00:21.695, 1:18.427, Crested tit 00:32.218, 1:10.022, 1:15.530, Crossbill 00:39.928, 00:47.660, 1:36.900, Magpie 00:51.621, Icterine warbler 1:16.056, Linnet 1:21.358. (PS I did not identify those imitations myself, and on listening to it again find myself even more confused.)

And here’s a recording with some calls and a bit of song.

(recording: Mikael Litsgård)

Siskin-fanciers can gorge themselves on siskin noises here.

Reed warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus) & Sedge warbler (Acrocephalus schoenobaenus)

Reed warbler
Sedge warbler

You’ll find both these birds in a reed bed near you from about mid-April, so it’s a good idea to get their songs in your head well before spring in order to be properly prepared for the confusion and misidentification they’ll bring when you hear them in the flesh.

Their songs, I’m afraid, are easily confused. Both have a chattery, scratchy quality not exactly in keeping with the name ‘warbler’, which implies something more melodious. This is the reed warbler’s song. Comparatively slow and regular, with repetition.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

And this is the sedge warbler’s. It’s more frenetic, jumping about in pitch and tone. And listen out for squeaks and whistles

(recording: Lisa Boocock)

One way of remembering the difference is:

Reed = Regular, Rhythmic, Relaxed

Sedge = Sfrenetic, Sfast, Srandom.

Hope that helps.

Annoyingly, because that is the way of birds, they also make a variety of calls.

Here’s one example of a reed warbler’s call.

(recording: Jerome Fischer)

And this is a sedge warbler, annoyed by something.

(recording: Twan Mols)

You can fill your ears with the sounds of the reed warbler here.

And the sedge warbler here.

Cetti’s warbler (Cettia cetti)


The Cetti’s warbler barely existed in this country when I was young. But it started breeding here in the seventies, and now if I don’t hear one chacking from the reed beds when I visit a nature reserve it‘s a bit of a disappointment. It has an explosive song that usual!y begins with a single chack, and develops from there.

(recording: Stanislas Wroza)

They’re quite the little skulkers, Cetti’s warblers. What they tend to do is shout at you from a reed bed, then, while you’re looking for where the shout came from, they nip out and fly invisibly to a spot ten yards behind you and shout from there. Nice.

You can find more Cetti’s warbler sounds here.

Linnet ( Linaria cannabina)

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Here’s a heartwarming little number to brighten your day. I don’t see them as often as I’d like, but the call or song of the linnet always puts a spring in the step.

Like other members of the finch family, the song has a pinging, chattering, warbling quality, with squeaks and sproings and so on. But there are often gaps, unlike the incessant flow of the goldfinch, for example.

(recording: Patrick Åberg)

In winter you might come across sizeable flocks of linnets. They’re a terrific sight as they bounce skittishly away from you. Here’s a mixture of calls from a flock.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

You can find more linnet sounds here.

Ready for more? Week 6 is here.

The Twitter Birdsong Project is a free resource. However, if you enjoy it and would like to support it, you can buy me a coffee.

The recordings on this page were made by various people, and are used here under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. These and many more can be found at the excellent resource xeno-canto.org

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