Blogger: Steve Rowland, Public Affairs Manager

Spring seemed a long way off last week as I took my lunchtime walk through the woods, the leaves on the trees were yet to unfurl, the ground was bare and covered in a mulch of last autumns dead leaves, and a light, cold wintry rain drizzled down.

And yet I realised that my mind had picked up on the subtle changes in the quality of light and drawing out of the days. I became aware of a slight tightness in my ears, an unconscious straining and heightened alertness to the bird song around me. And I thought that after more Springs as a birder than I care to remember, my brain was quietly and unobtrusively saying to my ears to be alert for couple of unremarkable notes of bird song one up followed repetitively by another down, up and down in short bursts, from a bird that takes its name from these two notes of song, the chiff chaff.  (photo below).

Naming a bird after the sound it makes is known as onomatopoeia and two other species that occur in the UK the cuckoo and the kittiwake also take their names from their calls.

I will acknowledge here that chiff chaffs are not blessed with the most captivating of names or musical of songs. But for me they compensate for that with the charisma that comes from being the first of our returning migrants to fill our bare Spring woods with their song, perhaps a month before the other returning warblers have got back from a winter spent south of the Sahara.

Chiff chaffs like many of our other warblers, might at a glance appear a little drab and indistinct. In particular at first you might easily confuse a chiff chaff with its close relative the willow warbler.  (photo below).

A rough guide to telling them apart is that a willow warblers legs are a light flesh colour whilst a chiff chaffs are black and a chiff chaffs has a more olive coloured plumage (being a birder you carry a veritable colour palette in your head to describe shades of green and brown feathers).

But the surest way to tell these cousins apart is to listen to them singing. Compared to the chiff chaffs repetitive two notes, willow warblers have a to my mind a much nicer song, a lovely tinkling sound that seems to gently descend a set of musical scales before being hauled by the bird back to the top only to descend down them once more.

Willow warblers arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa a little later in the spring than chiff chaffs which tend to spend the winter in the Mediterranean. So my brain wasn't tipping my ears off to listen out for a willow warbler practicing its scales, but for that starting gun of the season, a simple two note Chiff then Chaff song that would light up the woods and put a smile on my face, a sign of the end of winter and the beginning of natures headlong rush into spring.

I didn’t hear a chiff chaff last week but I’ll be out again for a lunchtime walk in the woods this week, listening carefully for those two notes. If you have some time to spare over the next week or so why don’t you go out and see if you can hear a chiff chaff and then tell us here.

Photos credit John Bridges (rspb-images.com)

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