Friday, May 11, 2012

Tiny Wonders

You are more likely to hear the characteristic call of a Chiffchaff before you see one. These tiny leaf warblers, which are one of the first warbler migrants to arrive in the UK and for me herald in the start of spring, are normally spotted energetically flitting high through the leafless trees. The only time they stop moving is to go in to their characteristic two note song.
These birds certainly are not the most visually exciting bird being a rather drab brownish green with a feint yellowish eye stripe and streaking on the breast and very similar in appearance to a willow warbler. The colour does seem to vary slightly between individuals put the muted colour palette remains the same. Therefore from a photography point of view this is a bird may not be high on many people lists of target species. However, what they lack in colour they certainly make up for with a certain endearing nature to their 'character' and irrepressible energy and inquisitiveness which always makes the time in close proximity to one of these birds a pleasurable encounter.
Personally bird photography is not always about taking photos of the spectacular species, as I have always loved being in close proximity to a bird that many only see from a distance and being treated a brief insight in to their daily lives and habits. I believe such experiences make you a better wildlife photographer because by understanding behaviour, future close encounters become so much easier. In my opinion the greatest skill of  being a bird photographer is being able to get very close to your subject whilst it carries on with its normal behaviour.
I was recently told that the dark matted feathers that are often see above the beak when they first arrive and slightly evident in the photo above, results from the Chiffchaff feeding in Mediterranean olive groves on their migration up from Africa. I am not sure how true that is but it is certainly impressive that such a tiny bird that only weighs a few grams undertakes such long migrations.
One feature of their behaviour that certainly helps them on their journey is that their skills in catching aerial insects is on par with the best of the flycatchers. Their aerial manoeuvres in making sudden mid-air turns to snap up a fly with their flattened beak appears on occasions to defy the laws of physics.

The main challenge in terms of their photography is trying to find a bird that is a bit atypical and not too high up in a tree and using low bush or trees to forage and sing from. Like many warblers once they have established their territory they will often use the same set of song perches to sing from to attract a mate. Like the bird's appearance, the song is not the most exciting and sounds exactly like their name. However, it conveys the apparent unstoppable energy of the birds and often is sung relentlessly for very prolonged periods.
No doubt this will not be my last close encounter with Chiffchaff and I know the next will be a pleasurable and fascinating as the first.


Marc Heath said...

Smashing shots Rich.

JOHNSON, Cotswold Hills, England. said...

Terrific photos of a bird so often heard but, as you say, rarely seen.

I thought I was the only one enthusiastic about Chiffchaffs. The first hearing of their call is as important to me as seeing the first swallow. They are terrific little birds.

Earlier this year, one conveniently sat on an exposed twig giving me my first opportunity to see it at reasonably close view. However, your photos enable us to see the subtlety of their markings.

Hopefully, now, you will have created some new Chiffchaff addicts!


Rich Steel said...

Thanks for the comments. What chiffchaff lack in colour they certainly make up for in character. It always amazes me when I think about such a small bird making epic migrations.




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