Apr 10 2019

Birding beginnings: moody melodies

Over the last few weeks, I’ve frequently heard a repetitive chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff. It wasn’t until last week that I realised this was (unsurprisingly) the song of the chiffchaff and not just one of the great tit’s many refrains.

The chiffchaff is a small, subtle bird with no striking features. They’ll often be singing whilst tucked away in tree cover, with their size and colour making them incredibly difficult to spot. Complications arise when the birds aren’t singing, because the chiffchaff looks almost identical to the willow warbler! They’re just arriving now to set up their summer breeding territories, so it’s handy to familiarise yourself with some new songs.

Almost identical twins?

There are a few subtle differences between the chiffchaff and the willow warbler. If you manage to get a good view of the bird, it’s well worth having a look at the leg colour. Chiffchaffs have dark brown/black coloured legs, as opposed to the lighter brown ones of the willow warbler. Their wing projections can also provide a clue, with longer, far more pronounced wings on the willow warbler, due to their longer migration. Both species migrate to the UK to breed, with the chiffchaff flying from the Mediterranean and the willow warbler flying, incredibly, from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The secret is in the song

The easiest way to identify the two species is through their song. They are surprisingly distinct, despite their similar appearance. However, both sound rather sad and moody, definitely not the joyous, happy songs that I’ve come to expect. The chiffchaff slowly, but steadily, sings its own name (chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff). Whilst the willow warbler’s song flows down the scale, until fading out completely, to me it sounds like a slightly dejected woodlark!

Warden Nick

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