……. Yonder, in the corners of the mead, the purple darkness of the awakening wood beyond, the atmosphere is full of some ethereal vapour. The sunshine stays in the air here as if the greening hedges hold the wind from brushing it away. Low and plaintive comes the notes of a Lapwing – the arrival of spring – an early Chiffchaff: ‘ Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff ! ‘ – the double notes hanging in the still air … After Richard Jefferies.
An Early Morning Walk
So another year – another Spring: as I walk the lanes I find Violet, Celandine and Snowdrop; Buttercup in the meadow – just as Richard Jefferies did over a century ago.
… among the meadows the buttercups in spring are as innumerable as ever and as pleasant to look upon.
There is still joy and wonderment in the petal of the buttercup which … has an enamel of gold; with the nail you may scrape it off, leaving still a yellow ground, but not reflecting the sunlight like the outer layer. From the centre the golden pollen covers the fingers with dust like that from the wing of a butterfly ….
In the bunches of grass and by the gateways the germander speedwell looks like tiny specks of blue stolen, like Prometheus’ fire, from the summer sky. From the spotted orchis leaves in April to the honeysuckle-clover in June, and the rose and the honeysuckle itself, the meadow has changed in nothing that delights the eye …
Hawthorn and Blackthorn, Ash and Willow, with their varied hues of green in spring, Briar and Bramble, with Blackberries and Hips later on, are still there as in the old, old time. Bluebells, Violets – the same old favourite flowers–may be found on the mounds or sheltered, near by hedges, thick and high, and full of flowers, birds, and living creatures, of shade and flecks of sunshine dancing up and down the bark of the trees.
And Gorse ….. bright yellow Gorse flowers are at their best in early Spring although they stay in flower most of the year, hence the saying ‘When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season’. When the sun shines bright, the flowers smell of a heady aroma of coconut and vanilla.
The Woods too – dominated by Birch and Alder in the wetter areas – tinting the landscape purple in the early morning light; with gold and yellow green of ancient Oak and Ash higher up lit by the rising sun – are full of birdsong; Song Thrush, Coal Tit and Chaffinch; later to be joined in song by our spring/summer migrants – Chiffchaff among the first, soon followed by Willow Warbler, Redstart, Wood Warbler and Blackcap: Songs from the Wood.
When I lived in Wiltshire (1970s) I loved to walk in Savernake Forest, especially in Spring; walking in the footsteps of Richard Jefferies – ‘At such times  I have gone to ramble day after day, forgetting the world and myself in its endless woods.’ The Hills and the Vale 1909.
Savernake was originally wood-pasture grazed with livestock – a mosaic of woodland, coppice, common land, rolling downland, and small, hidden farms. One of the mysterious and magical places of Wiltshire – an enchanted place; ethereal in its liquid greenness and shady places under the ancient trees; multicoloured sunbeams filtering through the woodland glades, where butterflies and faeries dance; the rides and grand avenues heavenly lit by the rising sun – a woodland cathedral …
…. A little farther and the ground declines; through the tall fern we come upon a valley. But the soft warm sunshine, the stillness, the solitude, have induced an irresistible idleness. Let us lie down upon the fern, on the edge of the green vale, and gaze up at the slow clouds as they drift across the blue vault. The subtle influence of Nature penetrates every limb and every vein, fills the soul with a perfect contentment, an absence of all wish except to lie there, half in sunshine, half in shade, for ever in a Nirvana of indifference and to all but the exquisite delight of simply living. The wind in the tree-tops overhead sighs in soft music, and ever and anon a leaf falls with a slight rustle to mark time. The clouds go by in rhythmic motion, the ferns whisper verses in the ear, the beams of the wondrous sun in endless song …
Time means nothing here – the sun moves across the sky – still I’m lying here at one with the forest – the sun and sky. I live through the trees. Day turns to night.
Listening, thinking of nothing, simply living in the sound of the [wood, the moans, groans, creaks and rustles] – the life and intelligence inherent in nature; it grows upon the mind. I have sometimes thought that never does the world seem more alive and watchful of us than on a still, moonlight night in a solitary wood, when the dusky green foliage is silvered by the beams, and all visible objects and the white lights and black shadows in the intervening spaces seem instinct with spirit.
After W H Hudson (Birds and Man – 1915)
Shadows of light. Dawn approaches ….
A Fine Fresh Morning
A pale cerulean-blue sky – crisscrossed with misty white vapour trails of planes – a modern art canvas; paint casually, thrown from the artists brush; white clouds tinged salmon-pink hanging over the blue-grey mountains; just before sunrise – white wreaths of mist lingering over the fields mirroring the vapour trails above. A lone Buzzard calls.
Another spring morning long ago – a treasured memory now – I remember waking to the incessant chatter of House Sparrow and the garbled chuckling, whistling and mimicry of Starling from the cottage eaves and chimney pots; Green Woodpecker laughing from the nearby Ash; And Cuckoo calling from the copse across the fields. The scent of early May – apple blossom and garden flowers in the warming sun. A heady romance …
Increased activity on the housetop marks the approach of spring and summer exactly as in the woods and hedges . When the first dandelion is opening on a sheltered bank, and the pale-blue field veronica flowers in the waste corner, the sparrows begin to chirp: in the dead of winter they are silent;  as spring advances, they [the sparrows] sing–it is a short song, it is true, but still it is singing–perched at the edge of a sunny wall. The Starling whistle(s) from his favourite ledge. Day by day he is heard more and more, till, when the first green spray appears on the hawthorn, he visits the roof continually. Besides the roof-tree and the chimney-pot, he has his own special place, sometimes under an eave, sometimes between two gables; and as I sit writing, I can see a pair who have a ledge which slightly projects from the wall between the eaves and the highest window. This was made by the builder for an ornament; but my two starlings consider it their own particular possession.
On the Roof (The Open Air) – Richard Jefferies
Listen, and you will hear the tap, tap of the woodpecker, and see! away he goes in undulating flight with a wild, unearthly chuckle, his green and gold plumage glancing in the sun, like the parrots of far-distant lands ….
… “There’s the cuckoo!” Everyone looked up and listened as the notes came indoors from the copse by the garden. He had returned to the same spot for the fourth time. The tallest birch-tree—it is as tall as an elm—stands close to the hedge, about three parts of the way up it, and it is just round there that the cuckoo generally sings. From the garden gate it is only a hundred yards to this tree, walking beside the hedge which extends all the way, so that the very first time the cuckoo calls upon his arrival he is certain to be heard. His voice travels that little distance with ease, and can be heard in every room.
Richard Jefferies – The Hills and the Vale 1909.
The First Birds of Spring
As the sun draws the year on – the Great Tit, Song Thrush and Chaffinch try out their spring song – incomplete and hesitant at first – but getting stronger and more confident every day. The Robin singing all winter, sings all day and is the last to cease in the evening, outstaying even the thrush.
Yet it is the arrival of the first spring/summer migrants, timed to coincide with the greening hedges and woods, early blossom and the first hatch of insects that says Spring is truly here.
Listen for the first of the spring migrants – Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Sedge Warbler. Their songs – the simple up and down notes of the Chiffchaff, the joyful liquid cadence of the Willow Warbler and the complex and varied song of the Sedge Warbler have inspired many a writer and poet ….
For Edward Thomas the Chiffchaff was a sign of spring that he looked for every year.
Nothing so convinces me, year after year, that Spring has come and cannot be repulsed, though checked it may be, as this least of songs. In the blasting or dripping weather which may ensue, the Chiffchaff is probably unheard; but he is not silenced. I heard him on March 19 when I was fifteen, and I believe not a year has passed without my hearing him within a day or two of that date. I always expect him and always hear him. Not all the blackbirds, thrushes, larks, chaffinches, and robins can hide the note. The silence of July and August does not daunt him. I hear him yearly in September, and well into October the sole Summer voice remaining save in memory.
Here is an elegant passage from “In the Pursuit of Spring” – published in 1913.
Bentley, the first village in Hampshire, seemed hardly more than a denser gathering, and all on the right hand, of the houses that had been scattered along since Farnham, with the addition of two inns and of a green which a brooklet crosses and turns into a pond at the road’s edge. After Bentley the road ascended, the place of houses was taken by trees, chiefly lines of beeches connected with several embowered mansions at some distance, one of pale stone, one of dark brick. Several rookeries inhabited these beeches. Froyle House, perhaps the chief in this neighbourhood, stood near where the road is highest, and yet closest to the river a many-gabled pale house next to a red church tower among elms and blacl’-flamed cypresses. Up to the church and house a quarter of a mile of grass mounted, with some isolated ancient thorns and many oaks, which in one spot near the road gathered together into a loose copse. The park itself ran with not too conspicuous or regular a boundary into hop gardens and ploughland. A low wall on a bank separated it from the road, and where a footpath had to pass the wall the stile was a slab of stone pierced by two pairs of foot-holes, approached up the bank by three stone steps. It was here, and at eleven, that I first heard the chiffchaff saying, ” Chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff, chiff ! ” A streamlet darted out of the park towards the Wey, and on the other side of the road, and below it, had to itself a little steep coomb of ash trees. An oak had been felled on the coomb side, and a man was clearing the brush-wood round it, but the small bird’s double note, almost as regular as the ticking of a clock, though often coming to an end on the first half, sounded very clear in the coomb. He sang as he flitted among the swaying ash tops in that warm, cloudy sun. I thought he sang more shrilly than usual, something distractedly. But I was satisfied. But for the wind, I should have heard him yesterday. I went on more cheerfully, as if each note had been the ham-mering of a tiny nail into Winter’s coffin.
And from the pen of Richard Jefferies ….
Loudest of all, the chiff-chaff sings in the ash woods, bare and leafless, while yet the sharp winds rush between the poles, rattling them together, and bringing down the dead twigs to the earth. The violets are difficult to find, few, and scattered; but his clear note rings in the hushes of the eastern breeze, encouraging the flowers. It is very pleasant indeed to hear him. One’s hands are dry, and the skin rough with the east wind; the trunks of the trees look dry, and the lichens have shrivelled on the bark; the brook looks dark; grey dust rises and drifts, and the grey clouds hurry over; but the chiff-chaff sings, and it is certainly spring. The first green leaves which the elder put forth in January have been burned up by frost, and the woodbine, which looked as if it would soon be entirely green then, has been checked, and remains a promise only. The chiff-chaff tells the buds of the coming April rains and the sweet soft intervals of warm sun. He is a sure forerunner. He defies the bitter wind; his little heart is as true as steel. He is one of the birds in which I feel a personal interest, as if I could converse with him. The willow-wren, his friend, comes later, and has a gentler, plaintive song.
The Willow Warbler
The willow wren is one of the commonest and undoubtedly the most generally diffused of the British songsters. A summer visitor, one of the earliest to arrive, usually appearing on the South Coast in the last week in March; a little later he may be met with in very nearly every wood, thicket, hedge, common, marsh, orchard, and large garden.  He is a sweet and constant singer from the date of his arrival until about the middle of June, when he becomes silent for a season, resuming his song in July, and continuing it throughout August and even into September. The willow wren, in fact, is one of those little birds that are “seen rather than distinguished,” on account of its small size, modest colouring, and its close resemblance to other species of warblers; also on account of the quiet, gentle character of its song, which is little noticed in the spring and summer concert of loud, familiar voices.
The song of the willow wren has been called singular and unique among our birds; and Mr Warde Fowler, who has best described it, says that it forms an almost perfect cadence, and adds, “by which I mean that it descends gradually, not, of course, on the notes of our musical scale, by which no birds in their natural state would deign to be fettered, but through fractions of one or perhaps two of our tones, and without returning upward at the end.” Now, this arrangement of its notes, although very rare and beautiful, does not give the little song its highest æsthetic value. The secret of the charm, I imagine, is traceable to the fact that there is distinctly something human-like in the quality of the voice, its timbre.
Birds and Man – W H Hudson 1915
In birding terms the Sedge Warbler is the classic ‘little brown job’ skulking in scrub habitat near to wetland areas such as lakes and marshes. But his song is unique: singing, night or day his song is highly varied — musical passages are freely interspersed with harsh grating ones. A great mimic, the male Sedge Warbler introduces random phrases into its repertoire, never singing the same song twice – I hear them in the marsh at the top of our lane, in early spring – the song including alarm notes of Blackbird, flight notes of Chaffinch, and calls of Pied Wagtail and Great Tit – the versatility of the Sedge Warbler’s vocabulary is staggering.
When in song the whole bird pulses with effort, turning from side to side with the throat conspicuously puffed-out. Each performance continues for a minute or more without a break, though an hour has been recorded. Impressive song flights separate perched performances at regular intervals. The bird rises almost perpendicularly in the air with fluttering wingbeats before turning rapidly and making a slow spiral descent with wings and tail outspread.
Sedge Warblers by Edward Thomas
This beauty made me dream there was a time
Long past and irrecoverable, a clime
Where any brook so radiant racing clear
Through buttercup and kingcup bright as brass
But gentle, nourishing the meadow grass
That leans and scurries in the wind, would bear
Another beauty, divine and feminine,
Child to the sun, a nymph whose soul unstained
Could love all day, and never hate or tire,
A lover of mortal or immortal kin.
And yet, rid of this dream, ere I had drained
Its poison, quieted was my desire
So that I only looked into the water,
Clearer than any goddess or man’s daughter,
And hearkened while it combed the dark green hair
And shook the millions of the blossoms white
Of water-crowfoot, and curdled to one sheet
The flowers fallen from the chestnuts in the park
Far off. And sedge-warblers, clinging so light
To willow twigs, sang longer than the lark,
Quick, shrill, or grating, a song to match the heat
Of the strong sun, nor less the water’s cool,
Gushing through narrows, swirling in the pool.
Their song that lacks all words, all melody,
All sweetness almost, was dearer then to me
Than sweetest voice that sings in tune sweet words.
This was the best of May–the small brown birds
Wisely reiterating endlessly
What no man learnt yet, in or out of school.
I never tire of Richard Jefferies and in ‘The Hills and the Vale’ – 1909 he again writes … of Sedge Warbler …
In the sedges, however, the first young shoots are thrusting up, and the reeds have started slender green stalks tipped with the first leaves. At the verge of the water, a thick green plant of marsh-marigold has one or two great golden flowers open. This is the appearance of his home when the sedge-reedling returns to it. Sometimes he may be seen flitting across the pond, or perched for a moment on an exposed branch; but he quickly returns to the dry sedges or the bushes, or climbs in and out the willow-stoles. It is too bare and open for him at the pond, or even by the brookside. So much does he love concealment, that although to be near the water is his habit, for a while he prefers to keep back among the bushes. As the reeds and reed canary-grass come up and form a cover—as the sedges grow green and advance to the edge of the water—as the sword-flags lift up and expand, opening from a centre, the sedge-reedling issues from the bushes and enters these vigorous growths, on which he perches, and about which he climbs as if they were trees. In the pleasant mornings, when the sun grows warm about eleven o’clock, he calls and sings with scarcely a cessation, and is answered by his companions up and down the stream. He does but just interrupt his search for food to sing; he stays a moment, calls, and immediately resumes his prying into every crevice of the branches and stoles. The thrush often sits on a bough and sings for a length of time, apart from his food, and without thinking of it, absorbed in his song, and full of the sweetness of the day. These restless sedge-reedlings cannot pause; their little feet are for ever at work, climbing about the willow-stoles where the wands spring from the trunk; they never reflect; they are always engaged. This restlessness is to them a great pleasure; they are filled with the life which the sun gives, and express it in every motion; they are so joyful, they cannot be still.
A Song for May
As the sun warms the earth and days get longer; the May blossom like drifts of snow along the hedgerow; birdsong fills the early mornings in the ‘Great Chorus’ as Edward Grey called it.
In ‘The Hills and Vale’ Richard Jefferies wrote … ‘The sound of many birds singing comes from the hedge across the meadow;…finches and linnets, thrush and chiff-chaff, wren and whitethroat, and others farther away, whose louder notes only reach. The singing is so mixed and interwoven, and is made of so many notes, it seems as if it were the [Willow] leaves singing—the countless leaves—as if they had voices.’
While the woodlands may resound to the voices of more exotic birds such as Blackcap and Nightingale, back in the garden, the Song Thrush may strike up well before dawn. Soon he will be followed by the Robin, Blackbird, Wren, Garden Warbler, Chiffchaff, Hedge Sparrow and Chaffinch. There is no fixed order in which each species takes its cue from the eastern sky, but there is a genuine tendency for some to start earlier than others. Indeed Wren, Robin, Song Thrush and Blackbird often burst into song well before daybreak.
Reproduced from an article prepared by Jefferey Boswall for the British Library Sound Archive.
The Dawn Chorus
Orchestrate your own ‘Chorus’ – play some, or all of the audio clips below – start with the Song Thrush, which has the longest running time, then gradually bring in the others …. you have yourself a chorus …. Listen!
There are other spring songsters of course which I could/should have included: Coal Tit, Willow Warbler, Redstart, Wood Warbler, and Blackcap; Everyone has their favourites: what are yours – leave a comment; share your favourite birdsongs, for others to hear.
The title of this post was inspired by a classic song from the ‘70s – an Ian Anderson penned song on the 1977 Album of the same name by Jethro Tull. The album takes as its theme the natural and supernatural inhabitants of the woodlands of old England – a celebration of British pagan folklore and the countryside life. Take time to listen and you will hear – the ‘Songs from the Wood’.