Bright future for the chipichap, says Sheffield wildlife expert

Early naturalists struggled to identify and name the birds known generically as ‘warblers’,and in particular, to separate out the willow warbler and the chiffchaff.

Wednesday, 11th November 2020, 4:45 pm
Chiffchaff, by Prof Ian D Rotherham

They have totally different songs, but ‘in the hand’ look very similar, except for the colour of their legs – buff for willow warbler and dark brown or black for chiffchaff.

The latter was also named the ‘pettychaps’, ‘chip-chop’, after its song, or as called by the Fenland poet John Clare, the ‘chipchap’.

I recall being told many years ago that the chiffchaff was described and named by naturalists from a specimen collected at Broomhall by Sheffield industrialists Messrs Doncaster and Jessop.

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Wildlife expert Prof Ian D Rotherham

I don’t remember the exact details, but I think this was a local claim to fame in ornithology!

Today, the chiffchaff has done well and has benefited from warmer winters.

This bird, together the related blackcap, have always been two species of common warbler that may stay with us year-round; whereas most other species depart south to warmer climes.

Numbers of over-wintering birds have grown over the decades and they will both come to bird-tables and garden feeders.

In terms of wild food, they tend to feed on small insects, but will also take fruit.

I recall a schoolfriend had a blackcap that came to his bird-table to feed on fruit cake.

An advantage for over-wintering birds is they are already on potential territories when spring arrives and can be ahead of the game for any migrating competitors.

During the late summer and early autumn, it is common to find warblers on migration gathering in good numbers at key sites all around the coast.

Here they can shelter and feed up for the strenuous journey ahead to their wintering grounds.

Good places to search for the common species and for rarities too, are small copses and scrub around coastal areas.

Here the birds gather, feed and wait for good conditions for the migration to begin.

Some of the birds will already have travelled far from northern Europe and are simply stopping off for a well-earned break.

Prof Ian D Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, is a researcher, writer and

broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues.