When I started birding in the late 1950s, I had no optical aides, I just looked. Binoculars were out of my reach financially and anyway, apart from some heavy relatively expensive military surplus or 2x magnification opera glasses, were not readily available. Initially I spent much of my time identifying species I could see and learning how to get as close as possible without spooking them. My book of reference was the I Spy Birds booklet and later The Observers Book of Birds. Quite soon I realised that I could get a quicker ID if I knew the calls and song of each species. I have never really got to grips with deciphering the attempts to spell bird song and calls in books except for the obvious ones such as the onomatopoeic Chiff Chaff song that makes that species easy to separate from the similar Willow Warbler. Back then though three species of phyloscopus warbler were frequently encountered because Wood Warbler bred in many wooded areas around Newbury. With tutoring by my schoolteacher mentor Lew Lewis, I began to listen more to confirm species ID. His trips around the area cemented the vocabulary of many common and not so common species for me.
I can’t remember when I first identified Marsh Tit, I suspect I assumed them to be the black, brown and beige tits I saw in woodland. It never occurred to me at the time that some were Willow Tits. I don’t recall the latter being in the I Spy book and it has just a short paragraph at the bottom of the page describing Marsh Tit in my version of The Observers Book that I still have. It says it’s identical to Marsh Tit , is scarce and generally replaces it in Scotland? I can remember my first positive identification. It was on a trip to the North Hampshire Downs with Lew Lewis and some other schoolboys. We walked into a hidden valley, just one track along the valley bottom and no roads within ear-shot. Some of the hillside had degenerate elder scrub, its soft wood ideal for a bird that excavates its nest. Lew Lewis noted the harsh calls coming from a bird that looked like a Marsh Tit telling us that it was a Willow Tit. Further along the valley in the high woodland he singled out a different call and we noted it to be coming from an individual that looked the same as the Willow Tit, but the different call meant it was a Marsh Tit.
Many species have a more varied vocabulary than is given in most field guides. Once almost as common in our area as Marsh Tits, I have heard Willow Tits calling similar to the pi-chu of Marsh Tit and the latter make a call similar to the harsh sounding contact call of Willow Tit and both making other calls; if you are familiar with their calls and tone the difference is easily discernible. Coal, Blue and Great Tit all have individual calls and song, and with patience the differences soon become familiar. Great Tit seems to have a vast vocabulary, and recently at the Bagnor feeder I thought there to be Marsh Tit calling only to find it was a Great Tit. For me if I don’t know the call it’s usually a Great Tit or something unusual. One of my favourite species is Blackcap and spring has not started until I hear them singing along woodland margins. Garden Warbler can confuse some but to me the Blackcap song is structured and melodic whereas Garden Warbler song, although similar, sounds in a hurry, has little structure and no melody. Blackbird and Robin song must be known to most, even many non-birders and the Song Thrush repeats every phrase three times. Sedge Warbler and Reed Warbler can also confuse. To me the Sedge Warbler song sounds a bit erratic and scatty and the Reed Warbler slow and steady. When I started surveying Speen Moor in the 1970s I spent much time trying to see what was making a tuneless rattle in the dense hedgerows until I read somewhere that the Lesser Whitethroat song was similar to Yellowhammer but with no
Lew Lewis also instilled in me the need to survey the local bird population and I mostly count every individual I see whenever I am birding and spend most of my time visiting the same few local sites. Even when abroad, I find a regular walk and count every bird. This is a slow process if you need to see the ID features of each individual and many remain unidentified. I do two BTO Breeding Bird Surveys (BBS), one at Winterbourne (since 2002), the other at Clapton (since 1992, not all by me) near Kintbury. The BBS requires two visits in spring, one around the end of April and the other around the beginning of June. Each site area is a one kilometre square, and two parallel transacts divided in 200metre sections are slowly walked often pausing. Each bird detected is recorded, how it is ID’d (call, song or sight), how far away is it (up to 25m, 25 to 100m and over 100m) and there is a separate category for those in flight. This information is recorded on a sheet with the appropriate columns, using standard codes (BT=Blue Tit, B=Blackbird etc) and the data input via a computer portal to a database at the BTO. Without knowledge of calls it would be a long process but having call recognition ability (and I am always learning), the time is much reduced. I can do each of my surveys, a little after dawn, in about an hour and a half including moving between transacts. Probably the easiest is the Clapton Square which is mostly open farmland; not much to be seen in and around arable crops these days. The hardest are the transact portions in woodland at Winterbourne.
Some species, once regularly encountered, are less familiar now and not hearing calls so often means I sometimes am not sure of the species. On my phone I keep a digital copy of the Collins Bird Guide which has recordings of the unique call/song of each species. If unsure I can usually remind myself of the species. This year it took a while to locate a bird whose song was familiar but that I couldn’t place. After checking on my phone I eventually found it to be a Treecreeper, an unexpectedly tuneful song for such an unobtrusive species. It took me a while to find the singer as I first checked out outer branches before locating it singing from the tree trunk. On another occasion on an April visit to one of my favourite destinations, Puerto Pollensa, Majorca, walking through the small reserve in town, I heard what I thought was a Great Reed Warbler singing from the middle of a bush. To confirm I played the song on my phone, I thought I was having trouble stopping it playing until Kay pointed out it was the real bird responding, not the phone!
Recently I realised that I do as much counting and identifying with my ears as I do with eyes. Sadly, now well into my seventies, my eyesight though still good is not what it once was, and my hearing also is not as sharp at the top end. I can still hear Goldcrest song but have to concentrate to pick up the higher pitch of Firecrest song.