Wee brown birdies

In the brief intervals between howling gales and torrential rain in these parts we’ve had the occasional glimpse of sunshine, and in those moments I’ve managed to grab a few pictures of some small birds; those little ones that look small and brown at a distance and can defy attempts at identification.

I’ve been a little concerned at the small numbers of certain migrants which have returned to my local patch, in particular blackcap, yellow wagtail and whitethroat.


Common whitethroat – Sylvia communis, one of the few to return to the Meadow in 2012

Last year at this time I would expect to see 5-10 whitethroat during a circumnavigation of the Meadow but this year I hadn’t seen any until I spotted this one and his mate, last week, bringing food to the nest. I also found another pair which I think are nesting in a tree on the other side of the track to this pair, but I’m yet to confirm that. And I still haven’t seen a single blackcap or yellow wagtail in 2012. Hopefully they made a successful migration back here and are just elsewhere, but I do miss ’em, they liven up my walks with the dog.


Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita

A wandering warbler which has returned in numbers is the chiffchaff, and I hear them singing almost everywhere I go. This one was in a field here in Histon, and let me get close enough to take this picture, which is my favourite chiffchaff shot.

The rest of the birds in this posts are not migrants in the UK and I see them all year round. The yellowhammer is a bunting that has a very distinctive song, described in numerous field guides as ‘a-little-bit-of-bread-with-no-cheese‘. Which is a very good example of the pitfalls of trying to over-interpret birdsong! I was with my daughter when we saw (and heard) this one calling, and after telling her about the ‘little-bit-of-bread…’ thing we spent the rest of the walk thinking up alternatives. My favourite was ‘I’m-going-down-the-pub-for-a-beer‘.

Yellowhammers – Emberiza citrinella

I was particularly pleased with the second yellowhammer picture because I like the out-of-focus foliage surrounding the focussed bird. I recently upgraded my DSLR to one with more sophisticated focussing capabilities than my ageing Nikon D40x, which all my pictures up to now have been taken with. And one of the main reasons was so I could focus more quickly on small birds in bushes, such as this one, where the foliage was moving around in the breeze causing the camera to struggle to find focus. This picture was taken with my D40x and I was surprised by how well it turned out, so maybe I’d have delayed upgrading if I’d captured this image first!


Reed bunting – Emberiza schoeniclus

Reed buntings are present in the local fields and hedgerows all year round and this little chap, for he is indeed a male, was singing long and loud perched on the top of the rape flowers. A circuit around this field is an ornothological treat, on one lap I’d expect to see several reed buntings, at least one or two corn bunting, lots of skylark and occasionally linnet and goldfinch. And on Saturday (9th June) there were two bullfinch, an adult male, resplendent in his black cap and peach breast, and a male youngster, the same colours but a tad smaller and with more muted colours, perched in a tree together on the edge of the field.


Dunnock – Prunella modularis

And my favourite little brown bird is the dunnock, which are also here all year round, and in the winter are regular visitors to my garden. These two were transporting food to the youngsters in the nest in the midst of a bramble thicket. Fortunately, despite the low numbers of migrants in my locality there are still enough birds around to liven up a walk in the countryside.

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21 responses to “Wee brown birdies

  1. I think I’ve confused the sparrow and the dunnock! Any way to tell the difference? Thank you and really lovely photos!! Sharon

    • Hello Sharon, it’s easily done. In fact in the UK another name for the dunnock is the ‘hedge sparrow‘. However it’s a misnomer, the sparrows are taxonomically distinct from the dunnock and are in fact members of the bunting family. The dunnock with his all over dark colours and grey/blue head, speckled/streaked underparts and pointed beak (bottom two pictures) is quite different to the sparrows. They are a little stockier than the dunnock with a plain paler underside and a chunkier beak, and the males have a dark grey crown (house sparrow) or brown crown (tree sparrow) and they have a black bibs which is bigger on the house sparrow. The sparrows also have white wing bars which the dunnock doesn’t. The male house and tree sparrows are easily distinguished by their crowns and the females don’t have the distinctive head colours. Also, tree sparrows are extrememly uncommon in the UK, and any sparrow we see is most likely a house sparrow.

      I hope that helps! If not I can highly recommend the Collins Bird Guide (ISBN 978 0 00 726814 6).

      (BTW I forgot to answer your question in your comment on ‘Insects and Molluscs’ – I live in Cambridge, UK.)

      • Dear Finn! Thank you so much for this excellent information. Funnily enough yesterday after reading this, my son and I went out for a walk and who did we see but a little round dunnock perched on a rocky ledge waiting patiently it seems. We approached it to get a closer look and suprisingly it didn’t fly away. I thought it might have hurt its wing because it just stood there. I held out my hand almost to its beak but it just looked at me inquiringly. Then it hopped back into the deep recesses of the hole. We left it there returning later to see if it was still there. I was sure to have brought it home if it was injured but it had gone. Do you think it was just a baby waiting for its mother to return? It did seem quite a grown size though the top of its head seemed to have rather soft down. Thanks again Finn! I’ll be sure share your blog with my friends.

      • Hello Sharon, you’re very welcome. Your little guy with the downy head was indeed a fledgling waiting for its mother to return with food. An adult bird wouldn’t let you get that close. Having said that dunnock are one of the less skittish birds and if you approach slowly and quietly without staring at them they may let you get to within a few feet. I’ve got some really nice photographs of dunnock in this way. It’s worth the effort too, as you know they’re not just little brown chaps, they’re highly coloured when you see them close up.

      • Oh what a thrill to know that I was able to come so close to that little fledgling and study him. He was such a good little chappy waiting obediently for his mother. I will remember that moment for a long time. Don’t you think some of the best moments in life are never captured on camera but deep in our hearts. Thank you so much Finn. Again, what a pleasure to follow you and the wonderful world of nature you inspire us to love. Sharon

      • It is lovely to see these creatures up close. And you’re right, often the best moments are when one simply watches, appreciates and remembers 🙂

  2. I love that last picture!

  3. I loved this post! Gorgeous birds.

  4. Beautiful birds, Finn.

  5. It’s good to see an appreciation of LBJs (‘little brown jobs’) as my expert birder friends call them. A close look at their plumage reveals it to be every bit as beautiful as that of more colourful ones, just more subtle.

    • I like the LBJ’s. Big ‘trophy‘ birds are exciting to see and photograph but the LBJ’s are much more of a challenge and just as interesting. And lovely to look at too, a close look at a dunnock is a perfect case in point. Ostensibly the ultimate LBJ, but it really isn’t when you see it up close in the sunshine.

  6. Your photos are always so delightful Finn, very crisp and lovely. I especially like the chiffchaff, although the reed bunting is superb too. Your little birds always bring happiness to my heart!

    • Hello Lorna, thanks for such a nice comment. It makes me want to go out and take some more when I read comments like this one.

      Bizarrely, I don’t like rape, but sometimnes it makes a perfect settting for a small bird like this little guy. Judging from his vocals he seemed to be liking it too 🙂

  7. Wonderful photos – second time today I have heard of a yellowhammer!

    • Thanks Julie, yellowhammers are lovely little chaps, and getting more and more scarce, alas. It must be a good day if you’ve come across them twice (especially if the winds have subsided in your neck of the woods!)

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