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Blackcap song (1 Viewer)

Britseye

Well-known member
Birdsong has been a fascination for me from an early age and back in about 1979/80 I made an effort to learn a lot of British bird songs from cassette recordings and subsequently went out and applied what I learned in the field. My favourite bird book of the last twenty years has been the first volume of the Sound Approach series, as I loved the way it drew attention and added value to some of the subtler things going on in everyday birds that surround us. Just to keep this short, I want to highlight an episode I had yesterday, connect it with something a friend sent me a couple of weeks ago, and ask the question whether anyone has had any similar experiences lately?

I was out birding on the north-east coast yesterday for the first time this spring, hoping the light onshore breezes might bring me a Marsh or a Blyth's Reed singing on the patch I used to frequent as a teenager. It wasn't to be; but I did have a very interesting encounter with a bird singing in a copse of trees where I found my first ever BB rarity (a Greenish Warbler) back in 1984. Those that know the song of Blyths Reed might recognise it as something sounding rather like a Song Thrush with a few Crested Lark call notes interspersed every now and again? Around 11am myself and a friend cocked our ears to listen to what we were pretty satisfied was a Song Thrush singing at moderate volume in some pretty dense canopy high above our heads. Usually at this time of year in N-E England most Song Thrush song is confined to the early morning and late evening, but after a minute of listening and not hearing any slow, sad Crested Lark-like notes we were ready to move on, until suddenly much to our surprise, the vocals morphed into a short sweet burst of unmistakable Blackcap-like notes!

Now, it had only been 10 days since a friend in London had blown my mind with a recording on WhatsApp of a Blackcap seen and heard doing so many imitations and with such a rhythm that it could easily have been mistaken for a Marsh Warbler! So although my friend and I had to wait ten minutes before we finally visually nailed our singing bird in the canopy, I'd already come to the conclusion it was going to be a Blackcap, despite its continuing propensity to offer 30 second snatches of almost perfect Song Thrush mimicry interspersed with 5 seconds pure Blackcap. And so it proved.

As well as 'subsong', 'plastic song' and 'typical song', the Sound Approach talks about late stage development song called 'crystallised song' and 'ultra crystallised' song. These last two types of song are especially associated with what might be termed 'high breeding' vocalisation, i.e. are very intense, complex song variations performed close to the nest and perhaps intensified by being in areas where many pairs are present? This could be one explanation for these two 'anomalous' variations encountered above. Another could be 'the observer effect'...in other words most of my observations of Blackcaps in the past fifteen years since the Sound Approach came out, have been in south-west England and Ireland where birds winter in decent numbers but don't necessarily breed so commonly in the areas I've been situated. In early spring therefore, I've heard a lot of 'sub' and 'plastic' song, as well as 'typical song', but haven't heard anywhere near as much wild variation as the two cases presented above.

Unfortunately I don't know how to transfer WhatsApp recordings to my computer, but I just wondered if anyone else had any thoughts on the above?
 

KenM

Well-known member
Birdsong has been a fascination for me from an early age and back in about 1979/80 I made an effort to learn a lot of British bird songs from cassette recordings and subsequently went out and applied what I learned in the field. My favourite bird book of the last twenty years has been the first volume of the Sound Approach series, as I loved the way it drew attention and added value to some of the subtler things going on in everyday birds that surround us. Just to keep this short, I want to highlight an episode I had yesterday, connect it with something a friend sent me a couple of weeks ago, and ask the question whether anyone has had any similar experiences lately?

I was out birding on the north-east coast yesterday for the first time this spring, hoping the light onshore breezes might bring me a Marsh or a Blyth's Reed singing on the patch I used to frequent as a teenager. It wasn't to be; but I did have a very interesting encounter with a bird singing in a copse of trees where I found my first ever BB rarity (a Greenish Warbler) back in 1984. Those that know the song of Blyths Reed might recognise it as something sounding rather like a Song Thrush with a few Crested Lark call notes interspersed every now and again? Around 11am myself and a friend cocked our ears to listen to what we were pretty satisfied was a Song Thrush singing at moderate volume in some pretty dense canopy high above our heads. Usually at this time of year in N-E England most Song Thrush song is confined to the early morning and late evening, but after a minute of listening and not hearing any slow, sad Crested Lark-like notes we were ready to move on, until suddenly much to our surprise, the vocals morphed into a short sweet burst of unmistakable Blackcap-like notes!

Now, it had only been 10 days since a friend in London had blown my mind with a recording on WhatsApp of a Blackcap seen and heard doing so many imitations and with such a rhythm that it could easily have been mistaken for a Marsh Warbler! So although my friend and I had to wait ten minutes before we finally visually nailed our singing bird in the canopy, I'd already come to the conclusion it was going to be a Blackcap, despite its continuing propensity to offer 30 second snatches of almost perfect Song Thrush mimicry interspersed with 5 seconds pure Blackcap. And so it proved.

As well as 'subsong', 'plastic song' and 'typical song', the Sound Approach talks about late stage development song called 'crystallised song' and 'ultra crystallised' song. These last two types of song are especially associated with what might be termed 'high breeding' vocalisation, i.e. are very intense, complex song variations performed close to the nest and perhaps intensified by being in areas where many pairs are present? This could be one explanation for these two 'anomalous' variations encountered above. Another could be 'the observer effect'...in other words most of my observations of Blackcaps in the past fifteen years since the Sound Approach came out, have been in south-west England and Ireland where birds winter in decent numbers but don't necessarily breed so commonly in the areas I've been situated. In early spring therefore, I've heard a lot of 'sub' and 'plastic' song, as well as 'typical song', but haven't heard anywhere near as much wild variation as the two cases presented above.

Unfortunately I don't know how to transfer WhatsApp recordings to my computer, but I just wondered if anyone else had any thoughts on the above?

Regarding intense and complex vocalisations Graham, nearly fifty years ago now :eek!: I used to patch work an area 3-4 miles from my abode. Essentially a grazed Marsh one side of a water-filled ditch (in the Lee Valley) and an old ash tip that had reverted to bramble, hawthorn, Phragmites and old cracked willows (c30' high). Such was the density of warblers in that very small area, Chiff Chaff, Willow Warbler, Sedge Warbler, Reed Warbler the two Whitethroats plus the virtuosos...Garden Warbler v Blackcap.

I'd long since learnt how to separate those two until they both reached crescendo and started to ''cross sing'' to also include the mimic-ing of the other species present! Successful aural separation of these two became very much dependant on what time you arrived, pre crescendo being favourite.

Cheers
 

Britseye

Well-known member
I'd have put a quid on you being the first to respond, Ken! Very very interesting reply, thank you. I'm going to have a think about that last paragraph for a bit and get back to you tomorrow. Really interesting about the Garden Warbler/Blackcap thing.
 

foresttwitcher

Virtually unknown member
United Kingdom
Can't really comment on Blackcap per se as all individuals seem to sound a little different to each other and also at different times of day to me. But I suspect mimicry is common in many species - there is a Blackbird on the roofs of my housing estate that begins each new song session with a very good attempt at a Curlew; I've no idea where it may have heard one locally!
 
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Britseye

Well-known member
I'd long since learnt how to separate those two until they both reached crescendo and started to ''cross sing'' to also include the mimic-ing of the other species present! Successful aural separation of these two became very much dependant on what time you arrived, pre crescendo being favourite.

Cheers

Hi Ken (and other interested parties)

Bit late to getting back to you on this subject. Just wanted to clear up whether you meant time of day or time of year when you said 'pre- crescendo'?

I don't know if anybody was aware of a bird on Scilly this week that was reported for two days as a Marsh Warbler but which was later identified as a Reed Warbler? As I think I said with the Blackcap above, I was sent a recording on my phone, but am unable to reproduce it here for illustration purposes. To my ears, I estimated sixty to seventy percent of the notes to be Reed Warbler and the imitations too weak to be Marsh Warbler, although on first listening one could be forgiven for mistaking it for the song of the latter.

Since my couple of attempts at the north east coast this past week have not led me to any 'funny songs' in the what-the-heck-is-that department, I've had to rely on getting most of my fix by proxy. The Scillies incident led me to dig out and re-read some old BB letters I recalled seeing (from 1965) and this morning I copied and pasted the main body of the document into a Word file to send to a few interested parties over the Net. It's attached below.

An incident involving a Reed moving into a Marsh territory and attempting to 'up its game' by trying to sing like it, reminded me of your comment above re Garden Warbler and Blackcap, Ken. Thought you might be interested in it? (Also a chance to bask in what I called in an e-mail to a friend this morning: the Golden Age of Correspondence in British Birds :t:)
 

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  • Mimentic Reed Warblers.rtf
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rosbifs

Well-known tool
France
Interesting. Calls were something that passed over my head for a long time (apart from the extreme obvious) until I started realising that I could save substantial amounts of time by identifying or eliminating birds by call as they hide in a bush!

One thing that struck me when I got to the pyrenees was the differences in the calls from say England - or what I had been used to.

I sometimes struggle with Garden and Blackcap until I hear a verse or a 'tell' that is typical to one and not the other - to my ear anyway. The Blackcap is, probably, the most common 'warbler' here or certainly the most vocal and the vocal range is huge. Sometimes I'm waiting for the 'and there it is' moment 'just a Blackcap. All I can say is thank god there aren't any Marsh Warblers where I live...
 

Britseye

Well-known member
I sometimes struggle with Garden and Blackcap until I hear a verse or a 'tell' that is typical to one and not the other - to my ear anyway. Sometimes I'm waiting for the 'and there it is' moment 'just a Blackcap.

Yes. I know what you mean. Here we are getting into the realm of something I wished to explore by starting this thread - even if it's only for the sake of me formulating these questions on the keyboard so I can condense what (I think) I've gained from studying the Sound Approach the past ten years. It was interesting for me to revisit the Reed/Marsh Warbler letters to recognise that some of these issues have a longer history... something I think is important to remember when we might begin to believe that anything worth knowing only began at the start of the 21st century, or with the advent of the Internet :eek!:

I always thought I could tell Blackcap from Garden Warbler when I was younger, and to a ninety-nine percent degree, I still think I can. I have yet to come across a bird visually that I got wrong, but...here's the thing. I'm wondering if Blackcaps in the UK are starting to develop more complex songs as a result of what appears to be a large increase in the breeding population over the past twenty years?. Or am I just finding more variation as a result of paying closer attention?

There are certain elements of Garden Warbler songs that I feel I don't hear in Blackcap songs and vice versa. I was in an area recently where there were a dozen Garden Warblers and all were more or less instantly recognisable as such, without any overlap. But with Blackcaps in the past two springs I've had two or three individuals that have required up to five minutes listening before I've left satisfied it was that species and not the other (sometimes resolving to wait until I see the individual before I can leave absolutely sure.) A friend of mine in London told me this year he believes he's heard Garden Warbler doing what I call 'the high sweet element of a Blackcap song' but I've yet to come across that myself so I'm still holding out on the fact I can separate the two until I'm convinced otherwise! In general the vast majority of individual Blackcaps seem to stick to the typical song most of the time, but as foresttwitcher said above, the changing elements could relate to several factors that include time of the day/time of the season or, even, such less readily quantifiable factors such as 'individual talent' or 'mood'?

I was talking to a seasoned German birder in Estonia two springs ago; throw Barred Warbler into the above equation and you'll be forever chasing your tail. (Luckily) they hadn't arrived in any numbers at the time I was there, but it's something I might like to check out one day in the future if I'm in need of some advanced speculation!
 

cajanuma

Well-known member
I don't know how directly relevant this is to the discussion above, but here is a Blackcap I recorded just this morning here in southern Italy: https://www.xeno-canto.org/565719

It was doing quite a bit of thrush-like, nightingale-like, and acro-like strophes in addition to more typical Blackcap strophes. I hear quite a few Blackcaps here that do this, but this particular individual seemed to be on the more extreme end of of the spectrum. Some can also be very Melodious Warbler-like but give themselves away pretty quickly by reverting to more typical Blackcap song
 

Britseye

Well-known member
I don't know how directly relevant this is to the discussion above, but here is a Blackcap I recorded just this morning here in southern Italy: https://www.xeno-canto.org/565719

It was doing quite a bit of thrush-like, nightingale-like, and acro-like strophes in addition to more typical Blackcap strophes. I hear quite a few Blackcaps here that do this, but this particular individual seemed to be on the more extreme end of of the spectrum. Some can also be very Melodious Warbler-like but give themselves away pretty quickly by reverting to more typical Blackcap song

Fabulous recording, thanks. Although the imitations at the beginning are very different, it has some relevance to the observations of the bird in the OP. In other words, initially, it only sang short sequences of phrases that would later prove to be what it was (ie Blackcap) at the VERY END of a 1 minute stretch of mimicry, in my case Song Thrush. And secondly, after being virtually unrecognisable for 2 and a half minutes, it reverted to singing more normally for the species. Mine did, too.

And you say this has happened before? Now, I don't suppose you have any idea at what point in the spring this occurs most frequently, perhaps?
 

MJB

Well-known member
I was talking to a seasoned German birder in Estonia two springs ago; throw Barred Warbler into the above equation and you'll be forever chasing your tail. (Luckily) they hadn't arrived in any numbers at the time I was there, but it's something I might like to check out one day in the future if I'm in need of some advanced speculation!

Throw Marsh Warbler into that mix and you may get the Marsh Wabler not only imitating any one of the three, but also responding to playback of any one of the three. The mimic responds mimicking to playback of the species...

I co-wrote a 2008 short paper on Marsh Warbler responding as Barred Warbler to Barred Warbler playback!
MJB
 

cajanuma

Well-known member
And you say this has happened before? Now, I don't suppose you have any idea at what point in the spring this occurs most frequently, perhaps?

I was actually asking myself that very question! I'd never given it too much thought, as again this is not an infrequent occurrence, but my sense is that it happens most often in late spring/early summer, from early/mid-May onwards. I sometimes get caught out thinking they are Melodious or Icterine depending on the strophes they are singing, and those two species don't occur here before May. But then again I'd never explicitely asked myself that question before, so take this with a big grain of salt.
 

Britseye

Well-known member
Throw Marsh Warbler into that mix and you may get the Marsh Wabler not only imitating any one of the three, but also responding to playback of any one of the three. The mimic responds mimicking to playback of the species...

I co-wrote a 2008 short paper on Marsh Warbler responding as Barred Warbler to Barred Warbler playback!
MJB

The plot thickens! I don't suppose you can easily lay your hands on that paper, or you'd have linked it, right!:t:

Something else I've always been curious about is how quickly a particular bird can 'learn' to imitate a different species. I vaguely remember hearing Starlings responding instantly to other species in the past (Evening Grosbeaks in the US, as it happens) but unfortunately, I didn't write it down and I don't know if I recall events precisely as they happened. I certainly haven't heard an immediate response since I've listened for it in the past couple of years. Maybe I ought to buy a Parrot.
 

Britseye

Well-known member
I was actually asking myself that very question! I'd never given it too much thought, as again this is not an infrequent occurrence, but my sense is that it happens most often in late spring/early summer, from early/mid-May onwards. I sometimes get caught out thinking they are Melodious or Icterine depending on the strophes they are singing, and those two species don't occur here before May. But then again I'd never explicitely asked myself that question before, so take this with a big grain of salt.

Interesting. I wasn't previously aware that the two species overlapped in range. Will have to look that up.

EDIT: Looking at BWP, it would appear Icterine is a passage migrant to Northern Italy?
 
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cajanuma

Well-known member
Interesting. I wasn't previously aware that the two species overlapped in range. Will have to look that up.

EDIT: Looking at BWP, it would appear Icterine is a passage migrant to Northern Italy?

Icterine is a common spring migrant throughout Italy, although it does not breed. They tend to be thin on the ground inland, although they do sing some on migration, but along the coast and especially on small islands they are one of the commonest passerine migrants in May.

Not to hijack this thread, but Icterines are orders of magnitude more common than Melodious on small islands off Italy in migration. On the island of Ventotene, I think the ratio of Icterine to Melodious at the ringing station is something like 2,500 to 1! And this in spite of the fact that Melodious is a fairly common breeder on the mainland within sight of Ventotene, while Icterine does not breed anywhere in the country. On all of our spring trips to Linosa we have seen all of one Melodious, but on almost any given day in May there will be dozens of Icterines.
 
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Britseye

Well-known member
Icterine is a common spring migrant throughout Italy, although it does not breed. They tend to be thin on the ground inland, although they do sing some on migration, but along the coast and especially on small islands they are one of the commonest passerine migrants in May.

Not to hijack this thread, but Icterines are orders of magnitude more common than Melodious on small islands off Italy in migration. On the island of Ventotene, I think the ratio of Icterine to Melodious at the ringing station is something like 2,500 to 1! And this in spite of the fact that Melodious is a fairly common breeder on the mainland within sight of Ventotene, while Icterine does not breed anywhere in the country. On all of our spring trips to Linosa we have seen all of one Melodious, but on almost any given day in May there will be dozens of Icterines.

That's a curiosity not reflected on the BWP map. Maybe down to overall population size in Icterine further to the north and east? I tend to use as a benchmark a bird flying 100-300 miles a night on a good night in spring so maybe they need to rest up in Italy before heading further north? It's been a feature for me of life on Scilly and Cape May that summer visitors breeding 50- 100 miles up the road are very scarce on passage at my intermediate stop off location. Pied Fly, Redstart, Louisiana Waterthrush, Yellow-throated and Kentucky Warblers...

I've hijacked enough threads in my time not to have any complaint when it happens to me :smoke: But I do have some Blackcap data from BWP to present later when I work out how to summarise it.
 

KenM

Well-known member
“Pre-crescendo” Graham, was when they reverted from normal song into “cross-singing” then speeding up the notes whilst turning up the volume somewhat...crazy days!

Cheers
 

Britseye

Well-known member
Well this was timely: https://soundapproach.co.uk/which-c...Ua8zu-TOZ0wxxq6hVoPrixAvmcVQLZE7HBGl26jyxLEBc

About the leiern song, Blackcaps in Italy, especially in the south, do this all the time, with the occasional bird sounding very similar to Western Orphean (which contrary to most field guide maps, is nearly extinct in Italy as a breeder)

Ho ho ho. Tremendous. I look forward to reading that later. Looks like it's saved me having to work out how to deal with the leiern song I was looking to summarise from a quite lengthy section in BWP.
 

MJB

Well-known member
The plot thickens! I don't suppose you can easily lay your hands on that paper, or you'd have linked it, right!:t:

Something else I've always been curious about is how quickly a particular bird can 'learn' to imitate a different species. I vaguely remember hearing Starlings responding instantly to other species in the past (Evening Grosbeaks in the US, as it happens) but unfortunately, I didn't write it down and I don't know if I recall events precisely as they happened. I certainly haven't heard an immediate response since I've listened for it in the past couple of years. Maybe I ought to buy a Parrot.

Michael Palin is a very nice guy, but his parrot knowledge is questionable, so avoid him...:eek!:

You can download a copy of the paper at:
http://tichodroma.sk/pdfs/Tichodroma_20.split/Tichodroma_20.95-96.pdf

MJB
 

Britseye

Well-known member
Michael Palin is a very nice guy, but his parrot knowledge is questionable, so avoid him...:eek!:

You can download a copy of the paper at:
http://tichodroma.sk/pdfs/Tichodroma_20.split/Tichodroma_20.95-96.pdf

MJB

Nice one, thanks. 'Voluble diatribe'? Hope you copyrighted that phrase like I did with the words 'aural surveillance' I invented in correspondence with a friend earlier this week! e.g. "During the period I had the bird under aural surveillance"

Don't worry, I wasn't thinking of getting a Norwegian Blue. I heard they're quite messy to clean up after. ;)
 
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
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