Tag Archives: Phylloscopus trochilus

Meadow warblers

Our migrant warblers were all back from Africa and nesting by the beginning of June. There are four species which normally frequent my local countryside, the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger), willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) and the whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger).

The blackcap have been conspicuous by their absence this summer. The central European winter population, of which a pair took up residence in the garden last winter, disappeared in the spring and that was the last time I saw one. Chiffchaff were, as always, the first winter visitor I noticed returning because of their characteristic song calling out from the trees. There are several other birds singing in the background here but the call of the chiffchaff is clear above the others, and it’s easy to see where it gets its name from.

Chiffchaff male declaring his availability in early spring

It’s now at the start of September and I haven’t seen a chiffchaff for a while, but through the summer I regularly saw willow warblers which were nesting in a bramble thicket that I passed when I was out walking the dog. Willow warblers are very easy to mistake for chiffchaff by sight but willow warbler song is quite different.

Willow warbler parent with a beak full of insects heading for the nest

The song isn’t the only diagnostic differentiator between these two species, there are a couple of others but they are more subtle. The most noticeable is the colour of the legs, chiffchaff have dark, almost black, legs and the willow warblers are red brown. Differences in plumage of the willow warbler are the brighter stripe over the eye (the ‘supercilium‘), a more promounced dark eyestripe and the patch under the eye (the ‘ear covert’) is olive grey with a pale patch immediately below the eye, compared to the more uniform dark grey colour of the chiffchaff. So if you get a good look through binoculars it’s not too difficult to tell them apart, but the song is the easiest way.

Another foray to collect flies for the chicks

Pausing to check up on me before heading into the nest

For a couple of weeks there was a spot in the field where I could stand close to the nest and watch the comings and goings of the adult willow warblers bringing food for the youngsters, and they seemed cautious but otherwise content for me to be there if I stood still.

Whitethroat male – my best ever bird portrait!

My favourite warbler is the whitethroat. They are easy to tell at a distance, even without optical assistance, and this is my favourite picture of one. The male whitethroat has a jingly jangly song and when he’s advertising for ladies he perches on top of a bush and flies repeatedly in a jerky motion straight up and then flutters back down to the same spot.

And while I was busy photographing the warblers I was being serenaded night after night by this chap:

A male songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) filling the meadow with song

A tad incongruous in a post about warblers, I grant you, but he was there all the time and his songwas magnificent! As with the chiffchaff there are several other birds calling too, but the thrush is easily distinguishable from the noise. This is the first time I’ve posted a link to my own (amateurish!) sound recording, but I think it’s OK. Let me know what you think.

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The chiffchaff and the willow warbler

The chiffchaff and the willow warbler both members of the warbler or ‘Sylviidae‘ family. There are 63 members of the Sylviidae of which 14 species breed in the UK. They’re very similar to look at and can be pretty tricky to tell apart. Last week in my local meadow I came across both species in photographable locations so I  thought I’d try to show the differences. Both species are summer migrants to the UK having overwintered in Africa, the chiffchaff goes to the Mediterranean and some head south of the Sahara, and the willow warblers all  go down to tropical sub-Saharan Africa.

This publication from Birdlife International tells us that the global population of willow warblers is estimated to be between 300 million and 1.2 billion individuals, and a fact that blew my socks off was that the northern Siberian population overwinters in southern Africa, which is a journey of over 7000 miles or 11000 km… and back! And they’re only 19cm long and weigh 10g, so they may be tiny, but they’re incredibly tough. The chiffchaff is also a scarce winter visitor to the UK.

Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) collecting nesting materialWillow warbler showing off her pink legs, bright supercilium and pale ear coverts

The willow warbler has longer primaries and the light stripe over the eye, the ‘supercilium‘ is brighter and more pronounced than that of the chiffchaff, and the ear coverts of the willow warbler (the patch under the eye) are a pale olive colour. The other visual diagnostic feature which is probably easiest to see at a glance is the leg colour, the willow warbler has pinkish brown legs whilst those of the chiffchaff are much darker, almost black.

Chiffchaff showing off its more subdued facial markings and overall colour scheme and the dark coloured legs

In the absence of a clear sighting the easiest way to differentiate between these two species is by their song: click here to hear the chiffchaff song, and here for the willow warbler song.

The conservation status of the chiffchaff is green and in 2000 there were around three quarters of a million territories in the UK, but the willow warbler is amber due to a decline in the breeding population, but despite that there were still two milion territories in 2000.

Returning songbirds

There’s a particular spot in my local meadow where there are some large clumps of brambles which are home to numerous species of bird including songthrush, blackbird, linnet and house sparrow. And in the summer chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and common whitethroat are all there too. Chiffchaff have been here for a couple of months now, and willow warbler almost as long but I hadn’t yet seen a whitethroat, so I set off last Monday in the hope of seeing the first one of the year.

A cock robin singing to the ladies

There were many species of songbird in the meadow including the robin (Erithacus rubecula: Dansk: rødhals) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and the air was alive with the song of all these species.


House sparrow female

Robin and house sparrow are resident species in the meadow and I see them all year round there, but not the chiffchaff:

The chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita Dansk: gransanger), which is a warbler, and willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) can be very difficult to tell apart if only seen at a glance, but they can be distinguished by their song, of which more in the next post. This chiffchaff was one of a pair which were calling to each other and flitting around the bushes passing within a few feet of me on several occasions and seemingly unfazed by my presence.

Cock linnet

Resident in the UK is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk), they disappear from the fields around Histon in the Autumn, presumably to congregate at a winter feeding ground, and they reappear in the Spring. And they have recently turned up in the meadow. Also resident, and present all year round, is the dunnock…


Dunnock, Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

… and the chaffinch:

Cock chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke

There were no whitethroat back in the meadow last Monday but as you can see there were plenty of other birds. In the last week I’ve also seen kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard, blackcap, green woodpecker, jay and magpie.

I recce’d the meadow again this weekend and the whitethroat are now back from wintering in Africa. They are very distinctive and both sexes are easily identified by their strikingly white throat, and the males display by singing from the top of a bramble thicket or a sapling and flit 4-5m vertically into the air and then descend to land in the same spot. They’re lovely little birds, with a very distinctive song, and I’ll hopefully have some pictures to show you in the near future.

April birdwatch

The activities of the birds in my garden have changed significantly in the last 2-3 weeks. Until then I was seeing multiple blackbird, robin, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, collared dove and house sparrow with less frequent visits by long tailed tit. Since then a pair of wood pigeon have virtually taken up residence in my back garden and hoover up all the bird food before the smaller species get a look in. There is still the occasional dunnock and blackbird on the ground and much less frequent visits by blue tit, robin, starling and chaffinch but the goldfinch have all but vacated. This is interesting because when I’m outside I regularly see and hear groups of goldfinch in the trees around the garden but something seems to be keeping them away from my feeder.

My friend Chris told me he had a songthrush rearing chicks in a nest in a tree in his garden and she fledged four youngsters last week, which is very early in the year, so hopefully she’ll fit in another brood this year. But his garden has been subject to the attentions of a sparrowhawk in recent months so he was worried it would catch the fledglings, but clever use of carefully placed hanging bamboo canes has successfully deterred the hawk and all four fledglings seem to have successfully flown the coop. Songthrush 4, sparrowhawk nil.

Continuing with garden birds, last week it occurred to me that the fat balls hanging in my front garden were requiring replenishment rather more frequently than usual so I guessed the nesting birds were feeding more often. The reason turned out to be rather more amusing:


One of the local rooks has worked out that these are edible…

…and that it can reach them. And it takes alot of fat ball to fill a hungry rook!

Slightly further afield in the hedgrows and scrub bordering the farmland around Histon it’s a very good time to survey the local wildlife. As I mentioned in a previous post many species of wild flower now including forget-me-not, yellow archangel…


Forget-me-not

Yellow archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this variegated version is an invading subspecies ‘argentatum’

…herb robert, cow parsley and periwinkle are all in bloom and lining the paths through the countryside filling them with a palette of colour.

And in the fields, trees and bushes there is an abundance of birdlife:


Corn bunting perched in the midst of a field of oil seed rape

The countryside is ablaze with the yellow of rape flowers right now and just occasionally a photographic opportunity such as this one arises. I’m not particularly keen on the vast swathes of rape but it created a lovely backdrop for this corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to see and hear bullfinch in one patch of scrub near the church in Histon, which is a regular destination for my birdwatching outings. That makes me very happy because I used to see them all the time when I was a kid in the 1970’s but since the 80’s they seem to have been persecuted to near extinction in alot of the UK because of their fondness for the green shoots of commercial fruit trees. They are still fairly elusive but I managed to get this photograph of a male (just!):


Male bullfinch – the female has similar markings but they are not pink she is more pale grey/brown

And in the same field as the bullfinch linnet are in residence, as are willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which have now returned from over wintering in Africa:


Blackcap male

Chiffchaff

…as are whitethroat:


A female whitehroat, one of a pair patrolling a patch of brambles in the middle of the field

This field is an amazing place, I reckon it’s approximately 10-12 acres and it comprises several habitats including open-ish grass, it’s sorrounded by some old established trees: oak, ash and horse chestnut with hedgerow joining up the old trees consisting mainly of hawthorn and in the field itself there are alot of ash and other saplings and some large patches of bramble. Consequently it provides good supplies of food and cover for nesting for a number of different species. Green woodpeckers can be constantly heard yaffling to each other:

…and birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard are regularly in the skies above. The green woodpecker are there all year round and are usually hidden in the grass so I’ll flush one off the ground only for it to disappear into a tree too distant to allow a photograph. So this is about the best image I have of one. Most of the common or garden birds are regulars here too, house sparrow, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit:

…and chaffinch

…blackbird, songthrush, rook, crow and magpie are all present every day. So a small area of mixed scrub an the edge of the village supports a wonderful number of our birds.

There’s lots to see by simply look up in the village too. On the way back from the playground in Impington with my kids today we cycled along a road under a tree as a jay emerged from a silver birch on the other side of the road and landed in the tree a few metres over our heads. We all stopped to look at it and marvel at it’s amazing colours, and it looked at us for a minute or two before flapping off higher up the tree.

Wandering warblers

In the last two to three weeks I’ve seen several of our migrant bird species which have been returning from Africa and Eastern Europe for the breeding season in the UK. And in the sunny weather we’re experiencing this month lots of bird species, migrant and resident, can be seen during an early morning walk.

Last Sunday the weather was glorious, there was very little wind so there was no traffic noise so the only sound in the air was the buzzing of insects and the singing of birds. And there were plenty.

I set off with my friend from work, Dave, who is very knowledgeable about wildlife and a very good photographer too (check out his website here for some stunning images). Dave had come over so I could show him the local Histon wildlife and it didn’t disappoint. Within a couple of hundred metres of leaving my house we were watching a group of five blackcap chasing each other through the trees.


Male blackcap perched in an ash tree

Male blackcap are very aptly named, they have a very prominent black cap which stops just above the eye, the female and juveniles less so, theirs are a lovely rufous brown colour and also very distinctive. The blackcap is a short distance migrant in western and southern Europe and I’ve heard that there is now a population in eastern Europe which migrates to Western Europe and the UK instead of heading south. Maybe that’s down to global warming causing increased spring temperatures here.

Other migrants which we saw in good numbers, and which I’ve seen around north Cambridge for the last three weeks or so, are chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat. The chiffchaff heads south to the Mediterranean for winter and some individuals carry on to sub-Saharan Africa.

The willow warbler heads further south to tropical sub-Saharan Africa for the winter:


Willow warbler sitting in the top of a hawthorn tree

Chiffchaff and willow warbler are very difficult to tell apart visually, but they can easily be distinguished by their song. The chiffchaff is named after it’s call which is a single note sung with alternating pitch, the willow warblers song is more musical and easily distinguished from the chiffchaff.

Whitethroat of which there are two species – common and lesser – over-winter in sub-Saharan and northeast Africa respectively.

Common whitethroat male singing from his perch on a bramble

It’s good to see the migrants returning from Africa, I don’t know what percentage of individuals that start what must be an extremely hazardous journey make it back to the UK, but the willow warbler in particular is a very common bird so good numbers must make it.

The other migrant which I’ve seen in the last week, which is the real harbinger of summer, is the swallow. I only saw a single one first time on the 16th April, which was busy hoovering up flies over a field of oil seed rape, but yesterday I counted 7 sightings over the same field, so I think the numbers are increasing. And since then we’ve had real summer weather!

April in bloom

A walk along a hedgerow can be a particulalry rewarding experience just now. The trees are all in leaf and horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) trees are in bloom and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) is puntuating the hedgerows with gorgeous stretches of white flowers,


Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) beautifully fremed by hawthorn blossom on a sunny day in April

Wildflowers are also in bloom, and lining my walk routes this month are  cowslips (Primula veris):

…and white deadnettle (Lamium album)

The cowslip, a member of the Primula family which includes primrose and oxlip, are not as common as they used to be but occasionally a roadside verge or a bank or edge of a ditch will be swathed in yellow from their flowers. The cowslip could be confused with the similar oxlip but the flowers of the oxlip are more pale and more open, like those of a primrose. Until recent times it was used  to make wine and the garlands on Maypoles, and has been used medicinally to treat headaches, whooping cough and as a diuretic and expectorant.

Conversely, white deadnettle is much more common and can be found lining field edges, road verges and hedgerows. It flowers from March to December and the nectar is at the back of the flower so can only be fed on by larger insects such as bumble bees which can open up the flower to get to the nectar. It is known as a ‘deadnettle’ because its leaves resemble the stinging nettle but it can’t sting because it doesn’t have the stinging hairs. It is easily distinguished from the stinger by its flowers which are white or pink compared to the stinging nettle flowers which are small and green. It has historically been used in herbal remedies for catarrh and the young leaves and flowers can be eaten as a vegetable.

Many other flowers are blooming now such as the common-or-garden buttercup (Ranunclus acris), daisy (Bellis perennis) and dandelion (Taraxacum offficinale):


Dandelion flower, named from the French for ‘lions tooth’ – Dent de lion

Dandelion flowers heads are made up of many smaller florets and are open in the daytime but close up at night. The leaves have been used in salads in many countries either raw or blanched in boiling water to remove any bitter flavour, and the roots can be roasted and ground into a coffee-type drink. It has been used as a traditional remedy for urinary tract infections and as a diuretic.


A dandelion seedhead – a masterpice of natural architecture!

Cow parsley mallow and other wild flowers will all b e in full bloom on the near future and the flies and butterflies that depend on them will also be out and about.