Sounds of... heathland

Guide
Male stonechat on bramble stem

Birdsong: it is the soundtrack to our adventures, the tunes to which we explore. This is your guide to some of the brilliant birds whose songs accompany you as you head out into the open air this spring and summer.

Male stonechat on bramble stem

The Sounds of… Heathlands takes you into wide open landscapes scented with heather and gorse, where birds fly across big skies.  


This is a land of serenading linnets, calling cuckoos and, if you’re lucky, the unearthly calls of nightjars. We hope this guide will help you identify the calls of these amazing birds and others who sing and shout, as you head out across the heathlands this spring and summer. 


Of course, many of our more common birds also live in heathlands, you can hear their songs in the Sounds Of… Parks and Gardens and Sounds of Parks and Gardens - Tits and Finches pages.   

Stonechat

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The male stonechat looks a like a robin in a balaclava, with a bright orange chest offset by a black head and a white collar. The female is browner, with a more subtle orange breast. 

A bit angry, with four or more shouty notes linked together in phrases of a couple of seconds.

More distinctive is its call which gives the stonechat its name - as it sounds like two stones being rubbed together.

Meadow Pipit 

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The meadow pipit may be the most common songbird in upland areas, but it doesn’t like you to think so. Its brown coat and streaked underbelly make it hard to spot as it creeps along in the undergrowth. Very similar to the rarer tree pipit.  

A bird in a hurry, the tree pipit breaks cover to flutter into the air and deliver its “quick quick quick” song, getting faster and faster as if panic is setting in. Maybe he left the hob on. Whatever the reason, he then relaxes a little and delivers a fiddly little ditty as a finale before heading back down below. 

Cuckoo 

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The cuckoo looks like someone who got dressed in the dark. It’s dove-like in parts, mixed with the sleek body, and black and white belly stripes of a sparrowhawk. A long tail stuck on the back completes the look. The female is browner.  

One of the most famous bird calls  – one that has inspired generations of clock makers. For a bird notoriously hard to spot, its call does sound a little like a mocking “yoo hoo!” 

Linnet

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A slimline brown and grey finch, the male linnet’s red breast and forehead look like they have been dabbed on by a toddler. The female managed to escape before the child got too close.   

A joyful fluid song which sounds like a bird enjoying himself. The melodic whistling is interspersed with bright trills and cheerful chirps which sparkle like summer rain. 

Yellowhammer

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The male yellowhammer has a yellow belly and face, which beams brightly from high branches and hedgerows as they sing. The female is browner and both have a streaky brown back.  

The saying goes that yellowhammers are singing for a “little bit of bread and no cheese” with the emphasis definitely on the “NO cheese”. They may be lactose intolerant, or simply haven’t yet tried Gorgonzola, either way the saying rings true. 

If you're lucky...

Nightjar

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The almost mythical nightjar arrives every summer but does its best not to be seen. It is mainly active at night and uses its incredible grey-brown streaked camouflage to remain concealed on the ground during the day.  

An unearthly whirring which sounds more like an alien lifeform than a shy brown bird. The fast-paced churring  call lasts for several seconds and is often accompanied by the percussive sound of flapping wings.  

Woodlark

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Smaller than a skylark and less common. Usually found in the south and east of England. With broad wings and a very short tail, it can sometimes look like a confused bat in flight.  

A beautifully liquid song which accelerates and cascades like a waterfall. Usually lasts a couple of seconds before repeating, brightening the day of anyone within earshot.  

Dartford warbler 

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The male Dartford Warbler looks like a medieval lord, with his orange-red breast, grey cap and long tail.  Can be seen singing from the top of gorse in southern England. The brown female is difficult to spot, lurking in the branches below. 

A harsh aggressive sounding call, a little like the sounds delivered during a martial arts routine. Notes chop and change in a flurry of punches which pound your ears for a couple of seconds before silence.  

Hobby

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They call it the hobby, but these birds are the pros of aerial acrobatics. The summer visitors look like giant swifts in flight but have black and white stripes on the underside of their wings and cool rusty red “trousers”.  

Sounds very similar to the kestrel, but slightly squeakier, like an angry glove puppet. The incessant “pee pee pee” is usually delivered in flight.  

Want to experience the sounds of heathlands?


Why not visit one of the RSPB's nature reserves!