Tag Archives: warblers

The mating season

In my last post I said I was catching up, and this one is from a year ago, but I reckon if I can delay for 12 months then it will be back in season again. These green woodpeckers were in the same field as the goldfinch in the previous post and they demonstrated the brutal efficiency of natures processes one sunny Saturday morning late in March.

Before I get on to the mating season though, there have been a few firsts this week, the winter migrants are nearly all back from their winter sojourn in Africa. On an outing last weekend I saw (and/or heard) common whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, willow warbler, sedge warbler, blackcap and, best of all, nightingale, but more of that in a later post. Swallows have been in the skies over Histon since April 12th (at least that the first time I saw one, and I expect the swifts anytime from now onwards.

Some movement in the grass caught my eye around 60-70m away but I couldn’t see what it was until I peered through the binoculars and there was a lone green woodpecker rooting around for ants. As I watched a second woodpecker dropped to the ground just a few feet away, and I think you can tell from the determined look on his face what’s on his mind:

A pair of green woodpeckers – (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) the male is on the left and he’s eyeing the lady with single-minded intent

In this instance courtship lasted for no more than a few seconds:

He sized her up, leapt on board, and in a few more seconds it was mission accomplished and she was inseminated,

At which point he spun on his heel and headed for the exit with indecent speed but maximum efficiency:

The whole event was over in not more than a minute or two and not a single joule of unnecessary energy was required.

I don’t know whether green woodpeckers pair off or if they’re promiscuous, may be the courtship rituals had been observed previously, but the mating process (at least in this instance) was entirely to the point. But it seems to work pretty well and produces successive families of green woodpeckers in this particular field year on year. And I love it when the chicks have first fledged as there can be two  or three youngsters with a parent in attendance on a tree trunk or a telegraph pole, and four greenies together is a very colourful sight.

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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.

That time of year

Spring appears to have now definitely sprung, but before that the weather was very cold and many songbirds were coming to the garden to feed. One of the regular species was the blackcap pair which arrived during the fierce weather after Christmas and left around three or four weeks ago when the weather started to warm up.

The female blackcap – easily identified by her brown cap

There are two types of blackcap in the UK: those that migrate to sub-Saharan Africa to overwinter and those which migrate here from central Europe to overwinter. So I guess my pair, which oddly I rarely ever saw in the garden at the same time, were European visitors sampling our balmy winter weather.

Even though the female was the first blackcap I saw in the garden she visited nowhere near as often as the male and it took me a while to get a good portrait of her, but I managed to get these just before they disappeared to enjoy their springtime and rear their chicks in Germany or Poland.

Constant visitors all the way through the winter and still resident are my pair of chaffinch which are always welcome to brighten up a dull day.

Cock chaffinch resplendent in full courtship plumage

…and the charmed lady

The chaffinch pair probably have a nest nearby with chicks in, but before eggs and chicks the delicate matter of mating needs to be taken care of:

A pair of collared dove demonstrating that the act of lurv is not always so delicate

Spring has indeed sprung!

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.