If you need to identify little brown jobs, you’ll need to hear them warble


I was wandering up my local patch of riverside woodland the other day, enjoying the variety of bird song, when I realised just how many different warbler species there were.

It is a group of birds easily overlooked, due to their skulking habits and unspectacular plumage, but their glorious songs make them worth seeking out.

I have seven species on my patch in a good year, but you are quite likely to come across eight if you are lucky, in the Borders.

All are summer migrants, but to complicate things, some, like the blackcap and chiffchaff, occasionally over-winter here. The most common is the willow warbler and its cascading song can be heard almost anywhere there are trees or shrubs.

Its pale brown appearance, however, is very similar to some of the others, so song is the best feature for identification for the amateur bird watcher.

The next most numerous is the chiffchaff, another “little brown job” whose familiar “chiff-chaff” call is usually the first to be heard each spring and again is the best clue to identification.

The next two, however, have very similar songs, which I always have difficulty in separating.

They make loud, rich warbling calls and in this case, a visual is the best means of sorting them out.

One is the blackcap – very 
easily distinguished by its greyish body and black crown, while the other is the garden warbler and very much another l.b.j.

The sedge warbler is usually found in scrub near water and although is pretty much like the other small brown warblers, it has a distinct eye stripe and its song sounds like a demented budgie.

The whitethroat, too, is quite similar, but has a prominent white patch on its throat which is very obvious when it gives off its unmusical scratchy song from an exposed perch.

Very rarely I am visited by an extremely hard to see l.b.j. – the grasshopper warbler.

It usually sings from the middle of a dense thicket and its song consists of a prolonged whirring noise like a fishing reel being wound in.

The last one is the wood warbler which does occur occasionally in the Borders, mainly in oak and beech woods. It has two distinct calls. The main one consists of a shivering trill, delivered with its head thrown back and its whole body vibrating, while the other is a repetitive, melancholy “pew pew” call.

Now is a great time of year to get out and try and see and hear as many warblers as you can. They can be quite demanding to identify, but practice makes it much easier.

Let me know how you get on – email corbie@homecall.co.uk