I was in love with my willow warblers; I say “my”, but I should say the willow warblers that decided my garden was a good place to forage for the thousands of small insects they needed to feed their babies this year. (they feed the nestlings fifty times an hour) I am not certain that they had never colonised my garden before, as I have only become aware of warblers in any clear sense since reading Michael McCarthy’s book “Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo”, about our African migrant birds, how they affect our perception of spring, and how we perceive them.
leaf warblers are perhaps the least noticeable of the spring arrivals – tiny grey-green-brown birds that are difficult to distinguish from each other except by little details only visible close up – chiffchaffs have dark legs, willow warblers pink legs – you have to learn their songs and calls to identify them for certain. chiffchaffs are easy, they just go “chiff chaff, chiff chiff chaff”, but willow warblers have a song that you could confuse with a chaffinch until you have heard them both. chaffinches seem to be the most common smaller singing bird around here. in May a quarter of a mile of hedged lane has at least two belting it out. one in my garden sang for what seemed like three hours solid from dawn one morning, “chink chink chink” followed by a rattling downward trill with a flourish at the end. compared with the willow warbler it is coarse, unmelodious and very loud, Wagner as opposed to the delicacy of Mozart. “Pweep pweep” (sadly) followed by a cascade of silvery notes falling to a rolling decorative “dibby dabby doo”, from the swaying top branch of my slender ten year old silver birch. the wild dogwood seemed to be a focus for their activities; they popped in and out of it, calling to each other with a soft two note whistle, “hueet”, and the other “hueet” back. I would imitate them, and they would fly up into the plum tree and watch me, answering my not-quite-perfectly pitched human whistle. the big sycamore behind the kiln shed must provide a wealth of bugs; they flew up into it and over the hedge into the paddock next door. they nest in banks and hedge bottoms, on the ground behind defensive barricades of bramble and thorn. working in my pottery or wandering around the garden I have suddenly become familiar with a hitherto unknown creature, and it feels like a tremendous privilege. I heard them on the edges of Bale Wood and Bulfer Grove too, but having them in my garden was completely different.
sadly they have been gone for just over a week; last thursday they were still calling each other around the dogwood – next day the sheep were back in the paddock, and no willow warblers. they must have reared their young, which would have been fledged about ten days by then, and maybe found the sheep a little too noisy and intrusive for a second brood attempt. there are still two or three singing away in the old overgrown water meadow – goat willow, blackthorn, ash, hazel – at the the far end of Cake’s Lane. whether they will come back next year is a moot question. willow warblers have decreased by very large percentages in the last thirty years in southern britain, and increased in the north and in scandinavia; climate change would seem to be affecting them. I read an article I was sent from the Sunday Times by Simon Barnes “the return of the willow warbler” which said there has been an increase this year in the south; they have been seen nesting all over in places they had disappeared from. so “my” birds may well have been part of this boom. they were even featured in Spring Watch, nesting at Pensthorpe about ten miles from here.