The return of the chiffchaff to Hampshire marks the end of winter
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The migrant bird whose arrival in large numbers from southern Europe and north Africa marks the end of the winter months
For birdwatchers keeping an eye open for the return of summer migrants, the chiffchaff is one of the first heralds of spring, returning in March from its wintering grounds in southern Europe and north Africa.
Small numbers of chiffchaffs can spend the winter in the UK where the weather is relatively mild, but it's during the early spring that chiffchaffs return in their droves to more than one million breeding territories across Hampshire and the UK.
With a wingspan of only 18cm and weighing in the same as a wren at 9g (about the weight of a £1 coin), these tiny scraps of feathered life make an amazing journey of more than 2,000 miles from their wintering grounds, crossing mountains and sea and all the perils they hold. Typically for such small birds, their lifespan is only two years, with the record being a stately seven years, seven months and 24 days.
The chiffchaff is one our smallest warblers and looks very similar to its close relatives the willow warbler and wood warbler. All are small green-buff birds with little to distinguish between them to most eyes. Even experienced birdwatchers find it difficult to separate them by sight alone. Together this group was thought to be one species known as "willow wrens" until the 1700s. It was Hampshire local, Gilbert White, who first distinguished them as separate species, based upon their different songs, publishing his thoughts in the now famous The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, in 1789 - one of the most published books in the English language.
Luckily for us the chiffchaff has a very distinctive song. Like the cuckoo, the chiffchaff is named after this song, with different nations interpreting the song into their own language across Europe; Welsh - siff-saff, Dutch - tjiftjaf, German - zilpzalp, Irish - tuif-teaf.
The chiffchaff breeds in the spring and summer, nesting close to the ground in scrub and woodland across Hampshire, but on migration in March can be found almost anywhere. You may even hear the distinctive "chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff" song ringing out somewhere near you.
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There are many wonderful countryside sites in Hampshire for hearing and spotting the chiffchaff on migration, which include Titchfield Haven Nature Reserve, Lymington & Keyhaven Marshes, Shortheath Common and Test Valley Way. All these sites are owned and managed by Hampshire County Council