Chiffchaff, fall of migrating warblers, leaf warblers, migrant birds, min-y-don, Phylloscopus collybita, phylloscopus trochilus, river Colwyn, willow warbler
Friday was a beautiful day and during my lunch hour I thought I’d take some photographs of dandelions, daisies and primroses which I wanted for the next blog I intended to write. There is a lovely grassy bank alongside the road I take back to work, which is currently smothered with gold and white wildflowers and just what I wanted, so I stopped alongside and got out of the car. But, as I opened the car door, I heard a chiffchaff calling from somewhere high up in a tree, a sound I have been waiting to hear this spring, so flowers were quickly forgotten and instead I walked down the hill towards the river and the trees of Min-y-Don listening and trying to work out where he was.
(This spot is just a stone’s throw away from the sea and the point at which the little River Colwyn runs into it and the area known as Min-y-Don is a remnant of the old woodland that used once to cover the whole area, so an oasis for resident and birds on migration with water and potential food.)
As I approached the footbridge over the river I spotted two small birds on the water’s edge that were perching briefly on overhanging plant stems then darting out and flitting over the water, clearly chasing after small flying insects. I have watched Chiffchaffs do this many times in Spain, both over water and from the tall palms in our garden there when they were fruiting and attracting insects there. The tiny birds are amazingly agile in the air and watching numbers of them performing their aerobatics was always magical and enormously entertaining. I know they were doing it to feed themselves, but I could never help feeling they were enjoying the chases and taking the opportunity to show off their skills to their companions; surely the amount of energy they put into the pursuits must have burnt off any calorific value they gained from the flies they actually managed to catch?
I digress, I know, but still being able to hear one as well, you can see why Chiffchaffs came to the front of my mind as soon as I saw them.
I attempted a few photographs of the birds in the very brief intervals they paused from their pursuits, one or two of which came out OK, but the more I looked at them through the long lens, the more I began to question my identification and to think they might actually be Willow Warblers. I think the problem arose from the fact that although I am very familiar with chiffchaffs, I am not so au fait with willow warblers, something I clearly need to sort out.
I enjoyed watching these two birds for several minutes before they were joined there by the footbridge by another, then another, then another two. I realised then that I must have happened upon a little flock of migrants that were taking the opportunity to ‘fuel up’ before continuing their journeys to their breeding places. I was already more than happy with this encounter with the birds, so when I walked further along the footpath to where it bends around to follow the river’s edge and saw even more, I was delighted. It’s at times like this when you wish you had someone with you to share the experience, so you could stand or walk along in a public place clutching a camera with a long lens and smiling without feeling self-conscious. And so you have someone to confirm or offer alternative suggestions to your identification of tricky warblers. I guess that is why we blog- I would definitely appreciate opinions on this one, especially the first photograph.
This stretch of the river was lit by the sunshine and benefits from having trees closer to its edge as well as plenty of other perching points for the fly-catching warblers. I’m not sure if it was the better light here or just something about the general appearance of the birds, but I was more or less certain straight away that these were not chiffchaffs, so willow warblers then. These two species can be easily confused when based on appearance only, in fact the one diagnostic I remember is to look at the legs, the willow warbler’s are usually, but not always flesh-coloured, while the chiffchaff’s are darker.If only one of them had stopped to sing it would have made things easier, but no. I know mixed flocks of birds do migrate together, but do these two species join up and travel together?
Points of difference:
Chiffchaff – Phylloscopus collybita
Less tinged green and yellow than willow warbler; legs & feet always dark. Bill is also dark. The supercillium is drab and there is a distinct crescent under eye. Wings are also shorter than willow warbler’s.
Willow Warbler – Phylloscopus trochilus
The commonest warbler over much of northern Europe. Underparts are tinged yellow, especially in juveniles. Legs may be dark brown to flesh-coloured. Supercillium is fairly prominent and longer and there is a bright lower eye crescent. Wing feathers are longer than those of chiffchaff.
I posted a blog about Chiffchaffs around this time last year, which contains a lot more information, see it at https://theresagreen.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/bird-study-a-chiffchaffs-year/ or just click on April 2012 in the ‘older posts’ to find it from here.
I love chiffchaffs – ours arrived in the garden last week. On a sunny day the sound they make is so full of Spring – and so loud for a tiny bird. I seldom see them up close, though. Isn’t it great that the collybita part of their name comes from the Greek word kollubistes, “money changer”, because the song sounds like the jingling of coins…
Keep up the good work…
Thanks Pat, I’m glad your chiffs arrived back safely, a bit sooner than ours up here in the north. I think most of us are happy to hear them announce their return, to me it’s confirmation that Spring is really here, despite the rubbish weather. I love the translations of scientific names too, they often give a clue to the bird’s behaviour too, the ‘Phylloscopus’ bit can be translated as ‘leaf-picker’ or ‘leaf – inspector’, or similar, which is just what they do.
Oops, it seems I have repeated my response to your post from last year. Never mind, it goes to show the profound effect these birds must have on me, when they return to our shores. I also meant to say that your second from last image shows a ringed individual (Willow Warbler), I wonder what tales that bird has to tell.
I appreciate the impact these magical moments leave on you, I know I will remember this event for years to come. I’m pleased this brought back happy memories of your own experience and don’t mind in the least hearing about it again! I did spot the ring and would love to know where the bird has been. Probably not via Gibraltar as the ringers there say that most of those ringed there en route to or from Africa are Scandinavian birds.
Thanks, that is most interesting regarding the Gibraltar migrants, what a journey that must be, all the way of Africa to Scandinavia and back.
You have got both species there in my opinion and yes, it is very difficult to separate the two species other than by the tips you include. In fact, this is what BWPi has to say about the Chiffchaff.
Except for birds singing typical onomatopoeic song, one of the most confusing and difficult warblers but all races show rounded wings in flight and have diagnostic tail movement.
So, there you have it, go for both and it matters not, try to visit the area again and witness the birds when they are in full song. This whole event takes me back to my “fall” experience when I must have had in excess of 30, if not 50 birds calling and singing all around me, when dawn chorusing it in a North Cornish valley.
Catch you soon.
Thanks Tony, I was pretty sure I had both species, but on the rare occasions you are blessed enough to witness an occurrence such as this you can get lost in the wonder of the moment and when they’re as mixed together as these ones seem to be, everything you thought you knew seems to desert you! I think many of these may well be juveniles and for now at least most intent on feeding up. Very few are singing.