Sounds of... uplands

Guide
 Snipe Gallinago gallinago perched on fencepost in breeding habitat, Tiree Hebridies Scotland

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 outside this spring and summer.

 Snipe Gallinago gallinago perched on fencepost in breeding habitat, Tiree Hebridies Scotland

The Sounds of…uplands is your guide to the songs, shrieks, squawks and shrills which serenade us as we walk over high hills, fells, mountains and moors.

This is a place that reverberates with the croaky call of ravens, the haunting cry of curlews and the amused chuckle red grouse.

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

Raven

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The raven is a massive black crow that is bigger than a buzzard. They have a big black beak and fancy throat feathers called hackles, which can look like a feathery beard when displayed. More often found in the west of the UK, although they are increasing their range eastwards.  

If a dog was a bird it would sound like this. It is a big low bellow of a call, like the sort of gravely croak we think a canine would make if it had a beak. 

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. 

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.

Whinchat

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The whinchat looks like the stonechat’s summer sidekick, slimmer in size and with paler plumage. The most obvious difference to the stonechat is the white stripe above the whinchat’s eye, which can be seen on the male and the paler still female. 

Keeps it punchy and to the point, singing three or four short phrases, which last a couple of seconds before taking a short breather. The phrases themselves can be all sorts of sounds – whistles, trills, shrills and the odd bit of mimicry to throw you off guard.  

Curlew 

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The curlew is Europe’s largest wading bird, which in summer heads to our uplands to breed. Imagine a female pheasant, but with long blue legs and a brilliant long beak which curves downwards.  

The call of a curlew is a call of the wild. Its haunting cries bubble and boil, wibble and wail, sometimes sounding like they’re calling their name “cur-lee, cur-lee”.  

In the lead-up to World Curlew Day, a group of leading musicians have recorded a stunning new album. Find out more, and download the new single!

Snipe

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The snipe is another wader that heads to the hills to breed. Smaller than a curlew, with much shorter yellow legs and a straight long beak.  

The snipe makes its own musical rules. Why sing, when you can make the most amazing noise by vibrating your tail feathers as you fly? The result is a most peculiar sound not of this earth, like a Scooby Doo ghost, or something off an early version of Dr Who.  

Lapwing

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The lapwing looks like a futuristic bird drawn in the 80s: their crest a beeping antenna, their feathers a shimmering cape of purple and green. From a distance and in flight they look black and white. In spring, the male performs steep dives and tight-angled turns to impress the females.  

Like something straight out of The Clangers. These Lapwings are masters of the slide whistle, going up and down the musical scale with a sense of joy, abandon, mischief, and alarm, sometimes all at the same time.  

Red grouse

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The red grouse is a medium sized game bird that lives life in the heather. Its rusty red plumage keeps it well hidden unless you get too close, when it will break cover and make you jump a mile. If you get close enough, do admire their bright red eyebrows.  

Sounds like a jolly sort of fellow, who likes a belly laugh. Often starts with a cautious “ha” before he gives in to a full on “hahahahahaha”. Usually beat their wings at the same time for dramatic effect.  

Wheatear

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The male wheatear in particular is a striking bird, with a pale orange chest and black and white eye stripes, a bit like a feathery bandit. The female is browner and decided the bandit mask wasn’t for her. Both have a prominent white behind, which they proudly show off in flight.

Starts with a percussive, gravelly intro to set the scene before hitting the high notes with a quick burst of fluid notes. Has a quick break before performing something similar.  

 

If you're lucky...

Grasshopper warbler 

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The grasshopper warbler is a small brown bird that makes an epic journey from Africa to be here every summer. It moves like a mouse through cover, and would remain pretty anonymous if it wasn’t for their song… 

A continuous tirade of fast-flowing notes, which could easily be mistaken for a loud grasshopper. Bobs his head as he sings, to ensure even then they are hard to spot.  

Ring Ouzel

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We don’t know if the ring ouzel is religious or just likes dressing up as a vicar. The male makes a point of going for an all-black outfit with a bright white collar. The female is browner, but many still opt for the white neck ring from which they get their name.   

A bit like the “ring ring” of a melancholic telephone echoing out over the moorlands, with no-one really rushing to answer.

Black grouse 

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The male black grouse is a big buff bird dressed in black. They have an impressive red eyebrow and white undertail, which they fan when strutting their stuff on the dancefloor, or lek as it is known. The females are smaller and brown to help them remain hidden on their nests. Best seen in the uplands of Wales, the Pennines and most of Scotland.   

Usually the silent type, but likes to sing when he dances. Delivers a wibbly wobbly wail, pulsating up and then down a scale as he fans his impressive tail.

Merlin

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The merlin may be our smallest falcon, but they can move, dashing and darting over open moors to catch unassuming birds. They have short broad wings and a shorter tail than a kestrel. Males are mainly grey, with the larger female brown.  

A repetitive squawk which gets faster and faster, like they’re commentating on a horse race.  

Hen harrier 

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The male hen harrier is the silver-grey skydancer, his wing tips dipped in black. This rare bird performs his acrobatics to impress females in early spring. The female is larger and brown, with rings around her tail. They mainly eat meadow pipits and voles, despite the name.  

Usually let’s his moves do the talking, but occasionally add an odd “yik yik yik” chattering call when needed.  

Want to experience the sounds of uplands?

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