Despite being such a loud bird, the sight of a chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) eluded me for so long. My walks last summer were haunted by their repetitive chiffchaff-chiffchaff calls, without a single sight of the bird, which was well hidden amongst the dense gorse and broom.
Every time I went near that field of coconut-scented gorse that fills the space between the reservoir and the river, I’d hear their calls back and forth to one another. It took me months to even figure out what species was making the noise because all I could go off was the sound. That was challenging for a new birder, and in the end I learned it was a chiffchaff when I came across a video on social media by chance.
When the calls stopped in autumn, I felt conflicted. The absence of their calls was stark, and I was disappointed to have not see one. At least I wouldn’t end my walks frustrated by their hiding skills and my own impatience. Wildlife-watching in general seems like an odd choice of hobby for someone so impatient, but I generally find it reminds me to be more patient, and that sometimes waiting feels better than instant gratification. The chiffchaffs, however, seemed out to test all the patience my ADHD brain has.
I heard my first chiffchaff of 2022 on the 19th March; singing from a tree, early in the morning. “I’m seeing a least one of you this year,” I thought. I had all of spring and summer to see one, and last year’s failure only spurred me on.
The weather changed with the start of spring. I no longer needed four layers on to leave the house, and could start working in the garden again. My soundtrack to that morning’s work was birds singing, rooks and jackdaws making a racket, and two buzzards calling to each other somewhere nearby. I was itching to go for a walk; I made it until 11:55 before deciding it was lunchtime.
The sun warmed my skin, birds who had been silent over winter were singing again, and bulbs were providing flashes of colour everywhere. It quickly turned into one of those walks where you swear you’ll only be an hour, but suddenly it’s 45 minutes later and you’ve covered 0.5km and you’re having too much fun to stop now.
A tree blooming with white flowers captured my attention for 10 minutes as I tried to take clear photos so that I could identify it later (turned out to be blackthorn). I watched a buzzard perched at the top of a tree for several minutes. Our eyes both fixed; mine on the buzzard, and the buzzard’s on the long grass below. Something unknown to me prompted it to take flight, soaring upwards in circles across the field before disappearing out of view. A chiffchaff-chiffchaff call pulled me out of my slow meander.
As I continued on the path around the reservoir and towards the river, the call grew louder and louder. I felt nervous. “This old game again, huh?” I thought. The sound led me onwards towards the river, and by this point I could hear multiple birds calling.
I caught a glimpse of a bird flying out of a tree and into the gorse where the call was the loudest so far. The call and I continued to travel along the path. Every few steps, I’d stand still and try to figure out exactly where the call was coming from but the bird was hidden in a field of tall gorse. We continued around the bend, and I saw something fly up onto the tallest branches of a tree. In the top of the tree, a small brown and creamy-yellow bird was singing at the top of it’s voice, flicking it’s tail as it did so.
It stood in the tree for a while, allowing me a good look at it and the chance to take a couple of photos, before flying onwards to the next tree. I followed it again, losing sight of it again, as the gorse closed in on the path. As the path opened up next to the river, a call came from behind me. I whipped around, hoping for another glance. In a tree, peeping above the gorse, the feathered singer stood out against the brilliant spring sky. When the chiffchaff flew off that time, I felt satisfied that I’d finally gotten a good look at it. Yet again, nature reminded me to be more patient.