Who’s up for a challenge? With spring behind us having dusted off the winter birdwatching blues, it might be time to see how your newfound skills are holding up – or, if you fancy a quick refresher have a look at our Beginners Guide to Warblers. RSPB’s Jenny Tweedie has been challenging herself too, recently spending an afternoon on the search for a summertime elusive warbler, the wood warbler. Jenny has some helpful tips on what to look, or rather listen, out for when the wood warblers just won’t warble, and we have some top places to see if you can find them for yourself. Think you could give it a go?
July is not the best time of the year to go hunting for wood warblers.
These small, greenish/yellow birds are well-camouflaged and tend to hang around near the tops of trees. They’re also quite a rarity these days, so to be honest, even at the best of times it’s pretty hard to see one. But if you know where to look and you keep your ears open, hearing these woodland gems can be very rewarding.
Wood warbler perched on a branch – Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)
When is a call a song?
It’s probably worth taking a moment here to talk about the difference between bird songs and bird calls. Most of us are familiar with bird songs, and you may even have dragged yourself out of bed at 4am in the morning to listen to the dawn chorus (brave you!). Bird songs are usually fairly musical, complex affairs, with different notes, trills and whistles, which can be hard to tell apart until you get your ear in. Bird calls are usually a much duller affair, often single peeping notes, sometimes quite quiet, and often even harder to tell apart.
But their different sound qualities are not actually what distinguishes calls and songs. Songs are exclusively to do with breeding and holding a territory, and some ‘songs’ aren’t very musical at all. Think of the corncrake with its crex crex song: it’s more like a zip being fastened than something you’d hear in an opera house. Or the mysterious nightjar. If you’ve never heard one of those, go and Google it right now, because it’s unlikely to be what most people would consider birdsong.
Calls, on the other hand, have lots of purposes. Many of them are what are called ‘contact’ calls allowing birds to stay in touch (chaffinches do this, as do house sparrows and tits). Some are alarm calls, like the blackbird’s well-known burst of startled noise, or the sharp pip pip of a wren. Even juveniles have their own calls, usually to encourage their parents to feed them.
Wood warbler singing in a woodland – Graham Goodall (rspb-images.com)
The fabulous spinning coin
That brings us back to the wood warbler. It has one of my favourite songs. Normally referred to as sounding like a ‘spinning coin’, there’s something otherworldly about it, something magical; it makes any woodland feel like its harbouring fairies and sprites behind every tree and mushroom.
Sadly, July is a very bad time of the year to try to hear it. For that, you really need to go out in spring when the wood warblers are freshly arrived back from Africa and singing their little hearts out. This is actually the best time to see them as well, as there are fewer leaves on the trees, and their songs help you to pinpoint them amongst the branches. But where is the fun in that, this is all part of the challenge!
To sing, or not to sing…
There are two distinct parts to the wood warbler’s song. It starts with a pee pee pee sound, and then goes on to the spinning coin. By June/July, they’re mostly just doing a version of the pee pee pee noise, (more like pee (pause for effect) pee) which they’re using as a call. Some birds, like wrens and chiffchaffs, are still singing in June, and one or two, like the robin, sing all year, but the wood warbler seems to go pretty quiet in summer.
We stood for an age among the late bluebells hoping to hear one spin, but it was not to be. But... we did hear one pee pee pee, and even saw one hopping amongst the branches, success! Hopefully they weren’t singing because, with chicks in the nest, and no rival suiters to worry about they simply had no need.
It’s always an enjoyable day out searching for wildlife. Nothing is for certain, that’s the nature of it, it’s wild, who knows what we’ll find. When those wood warbler chicks return to breed next year in April/May, I’ll just have to remember to go a bit earlier to hear that magical song.
Wood warblers and where to find them
If you want to take on Jenny’s challenge and see if you can hear, or maybe even see, a summertime wood warbler, here is a list of our Top 5 RSPB Nature Reserves to find one. Good luck!
Singing willow warbler at RSPB Lake Vyrnwy Nature Reserve, Wales – RSPB (rspb-images.com)
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