The songs of summertime join the dawn chorus in Cheshire
As spring gives way to the long, lazy days of summer, our own dawn chorus choir is joined by some often unassuming but impressive summer songsters - the warblers. Tom Marshall from the Cheshire Wildlife Trust listens in
If our ‘house band’ of robins, blackbirds, thrushes and other feathered singers isn’t enough to satisfy your need for a tune from mother nature’s Desert Island Discs, by early summer we’ve had the full arrival of the touring artists, with around a dozen of some of our smallest migrants the warblers heading to the UK.
First to grab the microphone is almost always the chiffchaff. By no means the best-dressed of the bunch, this abundant warbler is usually the first to signal that it may soon be time to dust off the barbecue, and is easy to pick out among the other birds as it calls its name ‘chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff’. After picking a favourite spot high in the branches - even in your back garden, the same chiffchaff may hope to serenade a passing female by belting out his simple song from dawn until dusk.
Very similar in appearance, the willow warbler is another character who is always keen to put on a show before the concert hall canopy of leaves moves in for the summer in our woodlands. Often carrying for some distance, the willow warbler’s descending flurry of notes is another familiar track to listen out for. Even more impressive is the 12,000km journey this tiny bird weighing just a few grams will have made to get to the UK from South Africa.
Perhaps the most handsome of the ‘leaf’ warblers however is the wood warbler, now almost exclusively confined to our more western oak woods, along with the redstart and pied flycatcher. This vibrant yellow and green warbler - the largest of the Phylloscopus warblers in Europe, also has one of most delightful songs. Beginning with a build-up of simple notes, it rounds off with a rapid-fire blast rather like a spun coin on a table, with an ever-increasing rate as it finally comes to rest.
If some of our warblers could be considered show-offs for their varied vocal repertoire, then the grasshopper warbler need have no concerns. If you find yourself in the most unlikely of habitats and sure you’re hearing someone taking a spot of fishing, then you might just have stepped on to the grasshopper warbler’s stage. With a single buzzing note likened to an old style fishing reel or even a powerline in wet weather, there can usually be no mistaking this stripy summer visitor.
If our woodland warblers are the best lyricists, then those to be found in our reedbeds could easily fit the bill for the kind of music your mum and dad hate - no rhythm and just down-right loud. The principle protagonists here are the reed warbler and the sedge warbler, with the latter also likely to be heard among wetland habitats anywhere. If the sedge warbler really has no sense of timing with its collection of rumbling, scratchy notes, then the reed warbler could at least be considered to be making an effort, by often repeating each phrase in its song.
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What the reed warbler may lack in singing talent however, they make up for in parenting skills with reed warblers one of the likely candidates in the surrogacy of young cuckoos, with reed warbler eggs usually being ousted by their much larger visitors.
Not content with delivering its song from a suitable stage among the hawthorn and brambles, the whitethroat can multi-task and will think nothing of fluttering ten feet high above the hedgerows in an attempt to be heard just that little bit more clearly. This square-headed warbler is one of our most distinctive summer visitors, with a pale blue head and brown back with, as its name suggests, a striking white throat. Its slightly rambling, chattering and scratchy call can be heard throughout the UK and is the likely voice to be heard on a stroll through the countryside.
The two final most frequently heard warblers are the blackcap and the garden warbler. Neither is blessed with colourful attire, although as you might expect the blackcap sports a dark cap with the female having slightly more colourful rusty-brown headgear. These two warblers have rather similar songs usually delivered from deep in the woodland understory of trees, and can often sound like the blackbird but with occasional more ‘flutey’ notes.
Acclimatising to change
Just a few years ago, some of our more abundant warblers such as chiffchaffs and blackcaps were very much considered summer migrants, however a changing climate and major advances in bird feeding now finds these species frequently spending the winter in the UK.
So many blackcaps are now being seen in the frostier months, that 'insect cakes' have been developed for wildlife-lovers to put alongside their peanuts and sunflower seeds, to meet the menu requirements of what are now becoming 'winter warblers'. It is not fully understood how many of these warblers have spent the summer on our shores, or are simply visitors from elsewhere in Europe.
Where to find warblers on Cheshire Wildlife Trust nature reserves
Cleaver Heath, Wirral: Willow warbler, chiffchaff, blackcap, whitethroat
Dutton Farm Park, Northwich: Sedge warbler, whitethroat, grasshopper warbler, chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap, garden warbler
Hockenhull Platts, Waverton: Whitethroat, grasshopper warbler, chiffchaff, sedge warblerMarbury reedbed (Marbury Country Park), Marbury: Reed warbler, sedge warbler, chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap, whitethroat, garden warbler
Warburton's/Hunter's Woods, Kingsley: Whitethroat, chiffchaff, willow warbler, garden warbler, blackcap
You can find full directions to all of Cheshire Wildlife Trust's nature reserves online at www.cheshirewildlifetrust.org.uk