Chiff-chaff. Chiff-chaff. Chiff-chaff-chiff. The sound spills out from the topmost branches of a tree high on the Yorkshire Wolds and clatters against the soft woodland floor below.

Chiff-chaff; there it goes again. An insistent, chafing tone that demands attention. I squint up but it’s difficult to spot the source of the commotion through the foliage.

My guide, ornithologist Jack Ashton-Booth, hands me his binoculars and there, framed against the skyline is a petite little cream-bellied bird. Its name, appropriately, is a chiffchaff.

We are in wooded grounds above the gallery of the wildlife artist Robert E Fuller in Thixendale, North Yorkshire. Robert's new exhibition Songbirds: Sounds of the Wolds opens on Saturday. And Jack, who assists the artist in bird watching events for the public, is getting me in the mood by teaching me how to recognise birds by their song.

The lesson is one of a number in avian melody taking place this month to enrich a new exhibition of paintings by Robert of British songbirds. And it’s going to be a challenge for me, given that I barely know an owl’s hoot from a cuckoo.

We begin with a quick round-up of birds that are named for the sounds they make. Chiffchaffs. Curlews. Cuckoos. Kittiwakes - although we are unlikely to hear these seabirds scream out their name ‘kitty –waake, kitty – waake’ this far inland.

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A chiffchaff in full song

Then I learn a few melodies with accompanying lyrics. ‘Repeat’. ‘Repeat’. ‘Repeeet’ goes the song thrush. And: ‘A little bit of butter and nooo cheeeese’ is the yellow hammer’s ditty. I repeat the rhymes to myself and listen out in anticipation as we walk.

A bird darts overhead, so fast all I see is its dark silhouette. “That’s a yellow wagtail. They’re just back from Africa. To think last month it was feeding round the legs of wildebeest and here it is now, having flown all the way to the Yorkshire Wolds to breed.”

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Robin: a song like a flute. Painting by Robert E Fuller

I squint in the direction of Jack’s outstretched finger, ready to gaze in appropriate awe at the tiny creature. But it has gone. “Listen to its call: ‘ps-it’ ‘ps-it,” he says. And almost on cue, from out of dense shrubbery the beautiful yellow-bellied bird hisses sharply: ‘pss-itu’.

Next Jack picks out a lively, loud set of notes that descend in pitch, ending in a sharp flourish: a chaffinch. “Among our native species you get definite songsters. These are birds with beautiful voices, like blackbirds, robins, and skylarks,” he explains. “Each has its own, distinct signature tune which once you’ve learned you can always pick out, even if they only sing part of their song.”

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Goldfinch: liquid warble. painting by Robert E Fuller

As we walk on we hear the flute of a robin, the liquid warble of a goldfinch and the fading, shimmering trill of a meadow pipit. But as they all croon at once, I struggle to separate out the sounds.

Then an irrepressibly cheerful song ripples through the hubbub; peeling out like the uncontrollable giggle of a toddler. Jack points to a skylark silhouetted against the sky. Another appears and the two birds fly straight towards one another before veering apart at the last minute. Despite the apparent gaiety of their melody, these birds, he explains, are vying over territory; using song to play off their aggression.

“Bird song may sound joyful but it is actually the way a bird communicates and most tunes are either serenades or territorial warnings,” explains Jack. The general rule of thumb is: the prettier the tune, the more bellicose the bird.

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Ornithologist Jack Ashton-Booth

Birds have a surprisingly precise vocabulary and a dedicated birdwatcher can understand the exact meanings behind a range of calls. “A swallow has one call that means ‘hobby approaching’ and another that says ‘sparrowhawk’,” explains Jack.

Jack, who has worked abroad ringing birds for research, goes on to explain that birds also have regional accents and assures me that he can tell the difference between a Russian and a Yorkshire chaffinch.

I retreat into Robert’s gallery where his paintings illustrate the species I have just heard. A tape recorder is playing bird song. It’s like being inside the pages of a giant musical encyclopaedia, but at least these painted songsters keep still whilst I study their feathered features.

As I take my leave I’m satisfied that the next time I hear a trill whilst I’m out walking I will be able to look up and spot a robin or a chiffchaff, even if I can’t tell precisely what the bird is saying or whether it is a Polish migrant or Yorkshire born and bred.

  • Robert E Fuller’s art exhibition, Songbirds: Sounds of the Wolds, runs from June 11th-July 3rd at The Robert Fuller Gallery, Fotherdale Farm, Thixendale. Jack Ashton-Booth will be running a master class on the dawn chorus at The Robert Fuller Gallery and a walk through the gallery woodland to listen to the birds of Thixendale on Saturday June 25th. For more birdwatching events including a walk to hear birds at twilight and a walk to listen to wetland species please see