The Brilliant UK Birdsong Awards

Guide
European robin adult male singing in woodland

It’s time to celebrate the songsters, congratulate the crooners. This is Top Gun, the best of the best, the birds who like to sing their hearts out, and in doing so enrich our lives with an eclectic setlist of sumptuous sounds. But who is loudest, who is the scariest, who is the oddest and who is the most beautiful?

European robin adult male singing in woodland

The award goes to...

We’ve spoken to the RSPB’s very own Luke Phillips, Head of Supporter Communications, to pick out some of the standout performers worthy of inclusion in the inaugural British Birdsong Awards. 

To hear all the songs and calls, click on the link from each bird’s name.

Loudest

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Nope, it’s not the collared dove sat by your window at 5am. This undisputed title goes to the bittern and its boom, a phat slab of sub-bass that can be heard more than a mile away. The rare and secretive heron performs in wetlands. Head out early on a still spring morning for your best chance of hearing them belt out the bass. 

Luke also gave out a couple of special mentions.

The first is another wetland wonder, the Cetti's warbler. This small brown bird is a champion chirper who likes to hide and then shock its audience with an outrageously loud outburst for a bird of its size.  Luke said: “My experience of them on reserves is that you’re wandering down a lovely peaceful path through a wetland and suddenly you get this blast of song right in your ear!”

The second special mention is for the wren. For a bird so small, it certainly packs a punch, with its song cutting through the competition like the flurry of fire from a high-pitched machine-gun.

Some of the best places to hear:

Bittern: RSPB Ham Wall, RSPB Dungeness, RSPB Lakenheath Fen, RSPB Dearne Valley Old Moor, RSPB Valley Wetlands, RSPB Blacktoft Sands, RSPB Titchwell Marsh, RSPB Fairburn Ings, RSPB Langford Lowfields, RSPB Minsmere, RSPB Leighton Moss, RSPB Dingle Marshes, RSPB Cors Ddyga, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, RSPB St Aidan's.

Cetti’s Warbler: RSPB Rainham Marshes, RSPB Middleton Lakes, RSPB Lodmoor, RSPB Valley Wetlands, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, RSPB Brading Marshes, RSPB Rockland Marshes, RSPB Radipole Lake, RSPB Marazion Marsh, RSPB Exminster, and Powderham Marshes.

The wren can be found in pretty much any habitat, from coastal cliffs, to parks and gardens.

Quietest

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There are a few subtle singers out there. Luke says the spotted flycatcher and hawfinch are two which spring to mind for their minimalist muted melodies.


But for the winner, Luke has picked a bird some people can’t hear at all, the goldcrest.  The smallest bird has indeed the smallest song, which is so high pitch that for some people it doesn’t register. For those who can hear it, the song is usually a repetition of two high pitch notes before a final flourish.

Some of the best places to hear (or to try to…):

Spotted Flycatcher: RSPB Nagshead, RSPB Highnam Woods, RSPB Flatford Wildlife Garden, RSPB Garston Wood, RSPB Fairy Glen, RSPB The Lodge.

Hawfinch: RSPB Highnam Woods, RSPB Nagshead.

Goldcrest: RSPB Broadwater Warren.

Most beautiful

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Like the Oscar’s Best Picture, the Most Beautiful is the most coveted and contested Birdsong award. There are many which are in with a shot and Luke knows the pressure is on.

The nominees include the blackbird, with its warm and melodic bursts, the rich, fluid downpour of the skylark and the mellow masterpiece of the garden warbler. The favourite is of course the achingly beautiful song of the nightingale. But Luke’s winner, by a very fine margin, is the blackcap. Yes, the nightingale of the north may take a little time to warm up. But once his confidence kicks in, he sets sail a song of flute inspired magnificence that, for Luke, is a real sure sign spring has arrived.  

Some of the best places to hear:

Blackbirds can be heard in many places around the UK, including in local parks and urban gardens

Skylark: RSPB Winterbourne Downs, RSPB Medmerry, RSPB Glenborrodale, RSPB Dee Estuary - Parkgate, RSPB Cors Ddyga, RSPB Brodgar, RSPB Aghatirourke, RSPB Labrador Bay, RSPB Mersehead, RSPB Tetney Marshes, RSPB Onziebust, RSPB St Aidan's.

Garden warbler: RSPB Wolves Wood.

Nightingale: RSPB Highnam Woods, RSPB Stour Estuary, RSPB Blean Woods, RSPB Cliffe Pools, RSPB Pulborough Brooks, RSPB Minsmere, RSPB Northward Hill, RSPB North Warren, RSPB Wolves Wood.

Blackcap: Found in woodland, parks and gardens around the UK, increasingly all year round.

Most boring

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No hesitation from Luke here, it’s the bullfinch taking this one home. “They don’t try at all with their song” says Luke, and he has a point. But then, with their A-lister Hollywood looks, maybe they don’t have to.

Where to hear:

RSPB Fairy Glen, RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes

Most complex

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And the winner is…. the sedge warbler. Have a listen. This is a jazz master in his prime, throwing around a cacophony of calls with no obvious rhythm or rules. They are one of a few birds who mimic other sounds too, constantly adding to their repertoire.

Luke said the starling came in a close second. Another mimic but with a more space-age feel, dropping a series of beeps, clicks, whistles and any other sound they have taken a fancy to, from a passing buzzard to a car alarm.

Some of the best places to hear:

Sedge warbler: RSPB Middleton Lakes, RSPB Fowlmere, RSPB Exminster and Powderham Marshes,  RSPB Conwy, RSPB Lochwinnoch, RSPB Hodbarrow, RSPB Surlingham Church Marsh.

Starling: Found throughout the UK in a variety of habitats, including parks and gardens.

Scariest

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For Luke, the scariest has to be the nightjar. For a start, it has an eerie chirring call which doesn’t sound of this earth. Secondly, the call is delivered as night begins to fall, reverberating over moorland and heath. It is easy to see why this sound was believed to be witches lurking in the darkness. If that wasn’t enough, their Latin name literally means goatsucker. The legend goes that they hung around the goats to steal the milk, but in reality, it was probably to eat the insects which hung around close to the mammals. Even so, intrigue surrounds the secretive nightjar to this day, and for Luke, they are the worthy champion.

But there was some close competition. The water-dwelling great northern diver is no stranger to the world of Hollywood. Its wolf-like call has been used in many a horror film regardless of if the scene is near water or not.

Luke also shortlisted a more common sound of the night, the barn owl’s screech. This ear-splitting shriek sounds like a rather upset banshee and is enough to give anyone the heebie-jeebies.    

Some of the best places to hear:  

Nightjar: RSPB Aylesbeare Common, RSPB Tudeley Woods, RSPB Farnham Heath, RSPB Arne, RSPB Blean Woods, RSPB Budby South Forest, RSPB Broadwater Warren, RSPB Hazeley Heath.

Great northern diver: RSPB Lough Foyle.

Barn owl: RSPB Capel Fleet, RSPB Middleton Lakes, RSPB Havergate Island, RSPB Dearne Valley Old Moor, RSPB Geltsdale, RSPB Bempton Cliffs, RSPB Boyton and Hollesley Marshes, RSPB Pulborough Brooks, RSPB Strumpshaw Fen, RSPB Rockland Marshes.

Oddest

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From grasshopper warblers to curlews, capercaillies to lapwings, there are so many birds which could have been crowned king of the kooky calls. After much deliberation, several cups of tea and the odd chocolate hobnob, Luke shortlisted two – the storm petrel and the puffin.

The bad weather petrel made the cut with their call, which many an expert has described as “sounding like a fairy being sick”.  Luke firmly agrees, although he admits he has never witnessed a real fairy bringing up their lunch.

But when all is said and done, for Luke, the puffin edges it. Any bird which is dressed so outrageously AND sounds like a very small cow takes the biscuit. As long as it isn’t a chocolate hobnob.

Some of the best places to hear:

Grasshopper warbler: RSPB Mawddach Valley - Arthog Bog, RSPB Black Devon Wetlands, RSPB Lochwinnoch.

Curlew: RSPB Hobbister, RSPB Mill Dam, Shapinsay, RSPB Nigg Bay, RSPB Stanford Wharf, RSPB Fairhaven Lake Visitor Centre, RSPB Loch Ruthven, RSPB Lower Lough Erne Islands, RSPB Beckingham Marshes, RSPB Insh Marshes, RSPB Hayle Estuary, RSPB Dove Stone, RSPB Tetney Marshes, RSPB Onziebust, RSPB Brodgar, RSPB Geltsdale, RSPB Dee Estuary - Point of Ayr, RSPB Cottascarth and Rendall Moss, RSPB Birsay Moors, RSPB Bowers Marsh.

Lapwing: RSPB Loch Leven, RSPB Winterbourne Downs, RSPB The Loons and Loch of Banks, RSPB Medmerry, RSPB Udale Bay, RSPB Middleton Lakes, RSPB Loch of Spiggie, RSPB, Rainham Marshes, RSPB Portmore Lough, RSPB Lower Lough Erne Islands, RSPB Coll, RSPB Buckenham Marshes, RSPB Beckingham Marshes, RSPB Balranald, RSPB Broubster Leans, RSPB Cattawade Marshes, RSPB Adur Estuary, RSPB Belfast's Window on Wildlife, RSPB Frampton Marsh, RSPB Crook of Baldoon, RSPB Otmoor Reserve, RSPB Insh Marshes, RSPB Brading Marshes, RSPB Carsington Water, RSPB Campfield Marsh, RSPB Conwy, RSPB Saltholme, RSPB Sandwell Valley, RSPB Pulborough Brooks, RSPB North Warren, RSPB Northward Hill, RSPB Onziebust, RSPB Ynys-hir, RSPB West Canvey Marsh, RSPB Mersehead, RSPB Brodgar, RSPB Amberley Wildbrooks, RSPB Cliffe Pools, RSPB Berney Marshes and Breydon Water, RSPB Marshside, RSPB Loch Gruinart, RSPB Hesketh Out Marsh, RSPB Geltsdale, RSPB Exminster and Powderham Marshes, RSPB Fen Drayton Lakes, RSPB Cors Ddyga, RSPB Bowers Marsh, RSPB Boyton and Hollesley Marshes.

Storm Petrel: RSPB Mousa.

Puffin: RSPB Mull of Galloway, RSPB Rathlin Island, RSPB South Stack Cliffs, RSPB North Hill, RSPB Troup Head, RSPB Sumburgh Head, RSPB Noup Cliffs, RSPB Bempton Cliffs, RSPB Hoy, RSPB Dunnet Head, RSPB Fowlsheugh.

And finally… Two offbeat awards which could not go unmentioned.

Best impression of Luke’s Nan

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Okay, so Luke may have made up a category just so we could include the eider. It’s fine with us, the sea ducks’ comedy call is what we all need to hear right now. It may not be the most glamourous award, or the glitziest, but Luke says the call is the perfect impression of his Nan when she gets a bit excited. He notes it is particularly similar to her response when he turns up to visit with the gift of a fine single malt whisky.

One of the best places to hear them:

RSPB Onziebust

Best raver

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The final award is presented to the reed warbler, just so they play at the after-show party.  The shy raver gets his groove on with mix of samples set to a constant beat. Get your big box, get your little box, bring your top of the range bird food and get down.  

Some of the best places to hear them:

RSPB Valley Wetlands, RSPB Canvey Wick, RSPB Mersehead.

Our songsters are in trouble

We hope these awards have given you a glimpse into the amazing variety, strangeness and beauty of birdsong. Yet, all the evidence suggests that some of our award-winning songsters, and many of our other birds are in real trouble.  In the past 50 years, we have lost over 38 million birds from our skies. Unsurprisingly more birds than ever before are on the UK’s Birds of Conservation Concern Red list. This five-yearly assessment places birds into one of three categories of increasing conservation concern – Green, Amber and Red. Shockingly there are now 70 birds on the Red list, including that most famed of songbirds, the nightingale.

Our ambition to halt these declines and bring back wildlife for all to enjoy has never been stronger. Thankfully with your support and the help of people like you, we can come together to build a better future for our birds.