Week 8 – Wood Warbler to Swift

Wood warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix)

Wood warbler

Following on from the cuckoo at the end of Week 7, here’s another sound you’re much less likely to hear than in Days of Yore. The exact reasons for the wood warbler’s decline aren’t known, but the fact remains its population in Britain has reduced by something like 60% in 20 years.

The wood warbler’s accelerating song has often been likened to a spinning coin coming to rest. It is a wonderful noise, and worth seeking out.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

The call also has a silvery, whistling quality, even if less expansive and with a sharpness at the beginning.

(recording: Rob van Bemmelen)

You can find more examples of the wood warbler’s song and calls here.

Herring gull (Larus argentatus), Black-headed gull (Chroicocephalus ridibundus), Lesser black-backed gull (Larus fuscus), Great black-backed gull (Larus marinus) & Mediterranean gull (Larus melanocephalus)


‘Yes. You have a problem?’


‘They’re birds, aren’t they?’

‘Yes, but…’

‘And they make sounds, don’t they?’

‘I know, but…’


The first thing to say is that I have made my peace with the word ‘seagull’. Gone are the days when my first reaction to hearing the word would be ‘Well, actually, strictly speaking there’s no such thing…’

herring gull
Herring gull

I suspect the bird most commonly thought of as a seagull is this one, the herring gull. Big, beaky, chip-stealy. You’ll be familiar with the herring gull’s song, no doubt. The sound of the seaside.

(recording: Terje Kolaas)

Also often tagged with the name ‘seagull’ is this one, the black-headed gull. (‘Well, actually, it’s more chocolatey than black…’)

Here are two black-headed gulls, coyly described by the recordist as making ‘sounds of dispute’. Not being funny, but pretty much every sound black-headed gulls make is a sound of dispute. They’re just kind of shouty by nature.

(recording: Jorge Leitão)
Lesser black-backed gull

You might think (and hope) it ends there, but OH NO. There are loads more. Here’s the lesser black-backed gull. Think it looks like a herring gull? Look at the yellow legs (NB This does not make it a yellow-legged gull. That’s something different. Don’t get me started.)

The lesser black-backed gull makes these noises and a load of others. They’re still squawks, right enough, but generally lower than the herring gull.

(recording: Patrik Åberg)

Next up, the great black-backed gull. Here’s one looking furious (great black-backed gulls always look furious). It’s the largest of our gulls, and has a call that is more of a bark than a squawk.

(recording: Niels Krabbe)
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Mediterranean gull

And finally, I’m very fond of the Mediterranean gull, not just because of its black balaclava (properly black, unlike the impostor the black-headed gull).

The Mediterranean gull’s call is rather sweet, especially if you compare it to the harsher squawkings of some of its relatives.

(recording: David Darrell-Lambert)

Feel free, by the way, to keep on calling all gulls ‘seagulls’, but only if you also start calling all your male friends ‘Dave’. It’s only fair.

If listening to gulls is your thing (it takes all sorts), here they are: Herring gull, Black-headed gull, Lesser black-backed gull, Great black-backed gull, Mediterranean gull.

Curlew (Numenius arquata) & Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)

I have neglected the waders. What a terrible person I am. In a bid to rectify the situation, let’s start with the largest of them, the curlew.

Call it haunting, call it evocative, call it melancholy, call it what you will, the curlew’s bubbling call is one of the great bird sounds.

(recording: Tero Linjama)

As well as the bubbling sound, the curlew makes a rawer call in flight, a rising wail. This recording has a variety of sounds.

(recording: Stein Ø. Nilsen)

Related to the curlew, and often confused with it, is the whimbrel (its curved bill is shorter than the curlew’s). The whimbrel makes this rapid, rippling whistle.

(recording: Frank Lambert)

Find the full range of curlew sounds here.

Whimbrel fans go here.

Oystercatcher (Haematopus ostralegus) & Redshank (Tringa totanus)

Sticking with the wader theme (the last thing you want is a backlog of waders), here are a couple of the commoner ones.

One of the problems with identifying wader sounds, I’ve found, is that they’re mostly a variant on the high-pitched ‘pyooo’ sound. These two birds are perfect examples, but once you’ve got them, you’ve got them. Until you haven’t. In which case you haven’t.

First, the distinctive and exceptionally endearing oystercatcher. Piebald plumage with a carrot nose.

Here’s a good example of the oystercatcher’s vocalisations. A shrill ‘ker-pwEEP’. Speeds and articulation may vary, but listen out for that penetrating shrillness.

(recording: brickegickel)

The redshank is another common bird of coastal marshes. Like the oystercatcher, it’s a noisy bugger. Its call is very slightly less shrill (more ‘piping’, I’d say), a bit lower, and has a very slight downward inflection, as opposed to the oystercatcher’s, which feels slightly ‘up’.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

So those are two noisy waders. Plenty more where they came from.

Oystercatcher sounds.

Redshank sounds.

Golden Plover (Pluvialis apricaria) & Grey Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)

At the risk of overloading you with ‘pyoo’ sounds, we’ll have a listen to two more waders before drying ourselves off with a more conventional songbird.

Plovers are wonderful things. There are quite a few different kinds: golden, grey, ringed, little ringed, long-haired from Liverpool.

We’re eight weeks in. I think I’ve earned the right to the odd terrible pun.

The golden plover is a deeply endearing bird. Their plumage, when caught in bright sunlight, does have a gently glowing, burnished quality. Their song has something about it of the cat that has given up all hope of ever being fed. Plaintive, lonely, hopeless.

(recording: Janne Bruun)

Their cousin the grey plover is included here partly for completeness and partly because of its excellent scientific name: Pluvialis squatarola.

The grey plover’s call – guess what? – is a sort of extended ‘pyee-ooo’.

(recording: Patrik Åberg)

Wader calls are a bugger to learn. Might as well not bother, really. But there is something deeply evocative about these sounds, so worth visiting, I think. Go to coastal watery bits to overdose on them.

Golden plover sounds.

Grey plover sounds.

Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos)


Now for something more melodious –  the most poeticised birdsong in the English language.

Here’s the nightingale’s song. I’m not going to attempt to describe it. Just Google ’nightingale poetry’ if you need to know more.

(recording: Jarek Matusiak)

What I would say about the nightingale’s song is that recordings don’t quite do it justice. Whenever I’ve heard one I’ve been struck not just by the volume of the song – as if the bush containing the nightingale has been transformed into an amplifier turned up to 11 – but by its richness.

Mention of the nightingale gives me an excuse to share this ‘Scale of Merit Amongst British Singing Birds’ compiled by Daines Barrington.


There’s much to unpick there, not least the blackcap’s nickname ‘Norfolk Mock nightingale.’ But what jumps out at me is the low esteem held by Barrington for the blackbird. Only four points to the blackbird for ‘mellowness of tone’? Come off it.

Feast yourself on nightingale song here.

Swift (Apus apus)

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This is one of the most anticipated sounds of the year. In this house, at least.

Separate it from the associations with this most remarkable of birds, it’s not an intrinsically beautiful sound. But when I first hear it, in early May, it does Things to the soul.

It’s the speed. It’s the distance they’ve come. It’s that they’re evolved for continuous, screaming, flickering flight. Come June and July you’ll find me standing outside the back door late into the evening, gormlessly watching their swooping switchback flight.

Here’s a good recording of swifts. You can hear wing beats as well, which will give you some idea of their sheer velocity.

(recording: Mats Rellmar)

More examples of the swift’s calls are here.

Ready for more? Week 9 is here.

This 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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