Country Matters: Tune in for the springtime serenade of the tiny warblers


I’ve heard the unexpected descending trill of what appears to be a willow warbler on a couple of sorties through a lane bordered by walled gardens. But without the music, if it suddenly became visible, it would be difficult to distinguish it from a chiffchaff. Both are tiny species, similarly colored but somewhat reclusive with sedentary populations. Many migrate from southern Africa.

he warbler lives up to his name – he warbles; the chiffchaff, almost identical, makes a chiffchaff sound. Both species are heard more often than seen. These tiny, tit-sized birds, when heard or seen this month, are prime indicators of the arrival of spring, as are avid gardeners busy planting early flowering plants, stirring up soil in old flower beds, and freshening up personal outdoor spaces.

It’s easier to see robins, wrens, blue tits and cheeky blackbirds searching for whatever they can find under the noses of cats, some of which roam day and night as silent hunters.

Cats kill more birds than many maligned magpies, but many pet owners seem unaware or indifferent. I occasionally get funny looks when I’ve suggested a wise investment in collar bells, but there are also pet owners who think bells make a great fashion statement and go along with it.

There are eight species of warblers in Ireland, either resident or migratory, all of which breed and make music, some even mimicking the sounds of other birds.

The common chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) is a hardy fellow who sometimes arrives in the wintry February weather and usually sings from the treetops, swaying back and forth, feathers ruffling in the wind. It’s not only the first to arrive, but also the last to go if it doesn’t stay on.

Its scientific name collybita is a corruption of Greek collubists, meaning “money changer” because its repeated tones resemble the clinking of coins. An old name in England was ‘Pettychap’, and the rural poet John Clare called it ‘Chippichap’, which may be an original name of the species or perhaps a common folk word as it is simple and distinctive.

The Willow Warbler (Phylloscopus trochiluS), is the most common of the warblers and is abundant in most of northern Europe from the Palearctic to the Bering Strait, having wintered in sub-Saharan Africa.

Now upon arrival, his constant singing brings concert-like responses from his neighbors with regular bursts of choral singing described by one enthusiast as soft as summer rain.

In the 1980s, warblers suffered a severe setback from drought in a key spring feeding area on their northward migration — but numbers appear to be recovering.

Naturalist David Cabot estimated a population at around 800,000 pairs a few years ago, noting that the species appeared to have benefited from the growth of conifer plantations, a rare plus for this sometimes controversial forestry development.

Chiffchaff, on the other hand, prefer deciduous forests lined with lush undergrowth. Almost 300,000 pairs breed here. Country Matters: Tune in for the springtime serenade of the tiny warblers

Fry Electronics Team

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