Bird song (17) – Blackcap

Blackcap. Photo: Tim Melling

There was a Blackcap in our garden through December and into early-March – in fact, my last record was of one singing on Tuesday 10 March (just as I was was packing the car to go to the races). I’d never previously heard a Blackcap sing in our garden in March (or through the winter) and so it was a notable event. But I’ve just heard one a few times this morning.

I imagine that the winter Blackcap was a ‘German’ bird which has now headed back to those parts (or further east) and today’s bird is a ‘British’ bird that has just arrived back from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco or southern Spain. He’s very welcome back.

The Blackcap has a melodious song and the next 10 days is the best time to learn it (before another species gets back from further away, from the other side of the Sahara). Blackcaps are sometimes called the Northern Nightingale because they have a very melodious song and they extend from the south coast right up through England and far into Scotland whereas the Nightingale is a very southern, south-eastern actually, species.

Welcome though the Blackcap is, it’s not a patch on a Nightingale, and to call it the Northern Nightingale is pretty typical; we southerners have both species and we try to fob off the north with half-measure and pretend it’s just as good really!

But you can decide how much you like the Blackcap. Here are some songs (from the amazing xeno-canto). The first one was recorded yesterday in the south of France (and as well as the fluty song there is a Blackcap calling ‘chack! chack!’);

Then this one is from the Netherlands;

And here’s another from Northern Ireland;

Lovely aren’t they?

To my ear, Blackcaps sound like confident Robins. They are a bit louder and less plaintive. They are certainly melodic.

And also to my ear, Blackcaps sing best when they return, right now, and as the season goes on they get a bit scratchier – does anyone else think that?

Now the reason that you should learn your Blackcaps now is that in another 10 days or so, on average, the closely related Garden Warbler will be returning. Garden Warblers sound quite like Blackcaps and we’ll go into that when the Garden Warblers come back, not now, but it’s good to gain some confidence with Blackcaps before having to sort them out from Garden Warblers. By the way, I’ve never had a Garden Warbler in my garden.

When I worked for the RSPB, at around this time of year, on a sunny warm day like today, I would keep my office window open so that the first Blackcaps of Spring would sing to me from the woodland nearby as I took or made ‘phone calls or read a press release or had a meeting.

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7 Replies to “Bird song (17) – Blackcap”

  1. I don't have a very musical ear and have to find other ways to fix the song in my mind. The blackcap sounds quite assertive and says "If I'm not a blackcap what else do you think I am?"

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  2. Day 22, this series is really uplifting. Especially appreciated your first recording today which has solved the joint mystery of "where did my erstwhile singing Blackcaps get to" and "what is that unfamiliar chucking noise in the hedge". Over here, I heard the first hoopoe this year calling yesterday, which was nice.

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  3. The zeno-canto links aren't working for me, on desktop or 'phone. Got a message saying 'took too long to load!'

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  4. Garden warbler in cambs today, and whitethroat, so get practising with the relevantnjitsof xeno canto.

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  5. They have been here in mid Wales singing for a fortnight, almost but not quite as early as the Chiffchaffs ( first one 17th March, easily remembered my partner's birthday). Yes like a loud confident jaunty Robin and I agree that the song seems to deteriorate as the spring and summer go on. So when the Garden Warblers first come back telling them apart is usually OK but later on some birds must be seen to be sure. Or perhaps its my aging hearing.

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  6. Black-cap sings sweetly, but rather inwardly: it is a songster of the first rate. Its notes are deep & sweet. Called in Norfolk the mock nightingale. [Gilbert White's journal entry for 19 May 1770]

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  7. The blackcap was favourite bird of former prime minister (and keen naturalist) Neville Chamberlain. Not a bad choice.

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