06 June 2014

This May’s turbulent weather has seen trees change from winter to summer. This has been mirrored by an explosion of insect life such that each branch has become a restaurant for summer visitors - among them the so-called ‘Little Brown Jobs‘, the LBJ’s of many a would-be bird watcher. Look at these birds in a field guide and they seem distinct individuals but in life they are so acrobatic in the burgeoning greenery that they will not stay still to be identified.
Blackcap 1WebIndeed so similar are they that three: the chiff-chaff, willow and wood warblers were at one time classed together as the ‘willow-wrens’ and it was not until Gilbert White’s classic ’The Natural History of Selbourne’ of 1788 that the three species were split. White noticed that these three birds, despite similarity of appearance, all had different voices. The chiff-chaff’s onomatopoeic name comes from its repetition of two notes; the willow warbler has a beautiful descending song,  described by Edward Grey in ‘The Charm of Birds’ as ‘a cadence, soft as summer rain’. The less common wood warbler has two songs; the first a low repeated single note followed by a song likened to the sound of a spinning coin. I usually hear them in that part of Glen Lyon I always think of as ‘hobbit country’.
Garden WabrlerWebTwo other songsters in my garden look quite different, if only one could see them clearly. The garden warbler is, at least to my colour-blind eyes, an inconspicuous brown and its most distinguishing feature is its rounded head. The male blackcap is identified by wearing a black skullcap; the female’s headgear is brown. Both these warblers sing incessantly and largely invisibly in the canopy. Every year I have to remind myself of the different natures of their songs. Both go up and down in pitch; the garden warbler seems to say ’pretty fellow, pretty fellow, pretty fellow…’ over and over again sustaining its song so that wonders where it finds breath. The blackcap also says ‘pretty fellow, pretty fell…. ’ but stops before completing his phrase.
When I lived in Warwickshire it used to be said; ‘if you can see it it’s a blackcap, if you can’t it’s a garden warbler’; but that is little help if you cannot see either of them among the leaves. The other day I sat with my binoculars below a small oak tree in which one of them was singing. I could see movement near the top of the tree and eventually the songster emerged into the canopy and I could see the biretta like black dome of its hat - and at that moment it sang for me.
To me the diagnostic feature is that the blackcap’s phrase is much less sustained than the garden warbler’s. Perhaps were I less tone deaf as well as colour blind I would be a more accomplished birdman!

                                                                                                                     Top: Blackcap; below, Garden Warbler    
Robin Hull


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