Separating The Chiff From The Chaff


The Chiffchaff is a sweet little Warbler that arrives in great numbers on our shores from the Mediterranean and Western Africa in the Spring. Similar in appearance to the Willow Warbler, the Chiffchaff is instantly recognisable by its song after which it’s named but there is another obvious difference between the two. Chiffchaffs are increasingly staying for the winter.

It was a glorious Autumn day today in South Leicestershire. The sun was bright and surprisingly warm, the air completely still without a hint of the usual November gusts and gales. The wildlife noticed too, not least the Red Admiral butterfly settling on a Hawthorn leaf on the far bank of the Sence when I arrived at the island. Quite a sight for mid-November. gnats and midges plague my every move, reflective faeries dancing in the low sun and rising from the ground at every footstep around the sewage works scrubs, celebrating having not succumbed to last weeks frosts. Robins sing their melodic songs from every hedge supported by the ‘seeep seeep’ of Redwings overhead, in the hedges, on the Hawthorns and just about everywhere else I look. The Redwings have mounted a full-scale invastion of the edgeland in the last week or so and I’m certainly not complaining.

Chaffinches and Goldcrests are again hanging out together in the Sewage Works meadow and in the small scrub Goldfinches flocked around the Teasel plucking out the last of the seeds, delicately avoiding the needles. On the boundary of the sewage works and large scrub though, it is a constant flitting in the tree-line that catches my eye. Hopping manically from twig to twig, scaling trunks and clinging on under wilting leaves a handful of Chiffchaffs are going about their business. I know they are Chiffchaffs because it’s mid-November. If this had been a summer’s day I’d be frantically re-aligning my binoculars and steadying my hands in an effort to work out whether I was chasing Chiffchaffs or watching Willow Warblers.

Of course there are discernible differences between the two. The Willow Warbler has a lighter, brighter shade of colour throughout with hints of green and yellow. The Chiffchaff is generally more olive-brown though both sport the flash of creamy yellow across the eye and both vary slightly in shade from bird to bird. In summer, the obvious difference is the song. The ‘chiff chaff, chiff chaff, chiff chaff’ is an invaluable giveaway especially when the trees are in full leaf and it’s hard to catch a proper view.

Both Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers are summer migrants to the United Kingdom and both arrive from Africa but the Willow Warbler always makes the return journey in September or October. The Chiffchaffs range extends as far north as Scandinavia during the summer months and this could explain why, of the 1.5millon birds that spend the summer in the UK some 1-2000 or so remain here in Winter. Although we know that some of our Chiffchaffs are resident all year round (in the Southern half of England) with no migratory movement at all, the numbers have been swelling year on a year and it is likely that many of the extra birds are actually those that spent the summer in Scandinavia and have migrated back only as far south as the UK thanks to milder Winters.

I watch on as the neat little Chiffchaffs pick away at the gnats and insects in the trees. They flick and twitch their rears Wagtail-like, always busy, always on the move. My presence doesn’t bother them as they pose on branch tips in plain sight just a few feet away.

It feels great to see this boistrous group of Warblers not only making the most of the November sunshine but also surrounded by a glut of small insects and flies; a chance to gorge before the next cold snap kicks in. I am humbled, grateful even, that they have chosen to stay here at the sewage works for the winter but I am left wondering what’s in it for them? A holiday to infinite warm African sunshine, the humid air a tuckshop stocked full with all manner of tasty invertebrates or a year-round stay in this unkempt, unloved and in a few weeks time, frankly chilly spot? Maybe the Chiffchaffs have fallen for the edgeland too.



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