Surely one of the highpoints of any nature lover’s year is the sound of the first returning migrant songbird? One of hte earliest to fly back from Africa to set up a breeding territory is the chiffchaff. These touch down in March and almost immediately begin to proclaim their monotonous onomatopoeic call. . . .
These little olive-coloured birds have spent their winters in Africa, but risk a late cold snap to seize possession of the prime breeding sites. By May thier first brood will be ready to fledge and after a short breather, the parents will be starting a second breeding cycle.
Throughout the summer the male will keep up his distinctive two-note calls of ‘chiff . . . chaff . . . chiff . . .chaff’, making him one of the easiest warblers to identify. And song is vital when it comes to identifying the warbler family correctly. There are around 15 species of this insectivorous family which breed here and most are a drab green or brown. And while the chiffchaff’s call may sound monotonous and flat, many others such as the willow-; garden- and wood warblers are songsters to shame any human diva.
Each species has its own unique call, a fact that allows most species to forego gaudy plumage for the safety of camouflaged grey, brown, olive or yellowy-white. This leaves the bird watcher with a problem for Britain hosts a score of this appropriately named family. As well as drab colours, they share the same slender beaks and most are migratory. As a result, it was not until the late 18th century that one of our greatest amateur naturalists, Gilbert White, first spotted the difference between the otherwise identical wood and willow warblers. A talented musician when not observing nature, he noted local song birds with distinctive songs were not responding to each other. From this he deduced they were separate species. Unfortunately, he was forced to prove his conjecture by killing his subjects, but today the beginner can turn to the far more humane resorts of the CD and internet.