cetti's warbler

Not every morning can be as full of drama as three days ago but after a night of torrential rain I had high hopes that today would be another morning of recovering downed waders, with perhaps a bedraggled migrating songbird or two drying in the bushes. Let’s see how that forecast panned out.

As on every other day, the sights and sounds on arrival were a variant on the general theme, but it’s still interesting to experience the perturberances in the underlying fabric of birdwatching spacetime. The air was reasonably thick with swifts and both types of martin again after a relatively empty couple of weeks. The terns seemed at home flying among these inconstant companions, and the begging, greeting calls of the youngsters overpowered the the swifts’ relatively subdued squeals.

Up at East Warwick the island was virtually taken over by cormorants, who do have a tendency to establish these social clubs in squatted venues, abandoning them to their usual residents soon after, leaving nothing but a sheen of guano behind. The one shelduckling I’ve seen straying away from the creche was hanging on the bank with the canada geese big boys. And a kingfisher — almost a daily fixture at the moment — once again paraded in front of me, anxious to be seen, but frightened to stay.

So far, so newtonian, with no bird singularity to tear a hole in the continuum or draw me in with its gravity. Joining the main track I found that every slug was headed directly South East, with the exception of one pointed North East. I wonder if anybody has ever considered using them to improve the accuracy of our navigational devices?

On the central path, in search of either a garganey on the water or a redstart in the bushes — not too much to ask for, surely — I paused on hearing an indistinct few flutey notes that sounded a little too soft and open to be a blackcap’s inconsequential practice noodling. Too few notes to really tell, it made me think that perhaps my first willow warbler of the autumn was around. I heard a chiffchaff’s clear tiny-blacksmith chiming from the treetops too, and wondered if I was just listening to a single confused chiffchaff — they are closely related and do apparently sometimes mimmick one another, though this is not something I’ve knowingly come across.

It wasn’t long before I’d set eyes on both birds though. The chiffchaff clambering about on the tips of the willows’ twigs, and the willow warbler moving, and singing, far more hesitantly through the tangled branches of a rosehip bush. As willow warblers don’t breed within London as a rule it’s not frequently I get to compare them side by side, but looking at them both today I was struck by how I can now tell these very similar birds apart by sight alone. I was previously of the “never sure unless I hear it” camp, but now I think I’d have a pretty decent hit rate of identifying them even with their mouths closed. I’ll leave explaining why to their respective blog posts though.

A shower of long-tailed tits descended like a mist, with some settling in the dry weeds at my feet for a while. They really are the cutest little creatures. Why Disney or McDonalds haven’t clocked this is a mystery to me. The franchising opportunities alone must be worth billions.

A little further along, next to the towering central pylon, I heard a few Cetti’s Warblers singing in close proximity to one another. Someone once told me that this late in the season the singing is a mixture of juveniles practicing and parents trying to drive their children out of their territory. They are notoriously aggressive singers — a good mnemonic is to imagine them as football hooligans yelling “I’m a fking Cetti’s Warbler, yes I fking am!”. Their a delight to hear the odd burst of, but a persistent tirade would probably drive me out of house and home too.

Cetti’s warblers are, like little egrets, ring-necked parakeets and goldfinches, one of those birds whose star has risen during my lifetime. They are all far commoner now than when I was a teenager. On a brief stop off at Radipole Lake in Weymouth en route to Guernsey for a family holiday I remember breeding cetti’s warblers being one of the star attractions of this southerly reserve. But their range now stretches up at least as far Lancashire. A couple of years ago, just prior to the “Beast from the East” late winter freeze, I came across a wintering bird at Ynys Hir in West Wales, identifying it by its subdued chiup chiup calls rather than the more recognisable, ballsy song.

They have been common in London for a long time. I think I came across my first ever at the Waterworks in about 2006, drawing the not unreasonable conclusion that the ridiculously clear, loud and aggressive song coming from some unseen bird in the undergrowth coudl only be made by the bird that every field guide describes as skulking but noisy. More often than not aiting for it to show itself is a futile exercise — they have no need for coming out in the open, so why should they — but on that occasion I was eventually rewarded with a few glimpses.

Today I was far luckier. In fact, this time of year is probably the best for seeing them as there are so many young birds about, as yet unschooled in the skulk and shout ways of its people. Nearing the end of the central path some characteristic _chiup_ing emanated from the pathside gorse bushes, together with a more insipid begging call from a dense blackthorn. A little patience and, one by one, three very young warblers perched out in the open.

Even more featureless than the adults, they were still unmistakably cetti’s. Yet another milk-choclatey brown bird, they do have a warmer reddish tint and a faint pale stripe above the eyes to liven it up a little. Below they are unadventurous beige (I thought I detected a hint of streaking on these young birds too). What does mark them out visually is their sprightly, cocked long tail, and an overall alert, martial demeanour, like the hairpin-trigger commander of a guerrilla unit. The youngsters were so fresh their tails hadn’t yet grown to this pocket-sized peacock length, and they appeared fresh-faced and timid. And yet, still less passsive and bumbling than most other birds their age.

I finished my walk, failing to find the garganey or redstart of my dreams, but consoling myself with the comical, angry birds lookalike of a male pied wagtail who’d lost his tail. It could still just about fly though.