Monday, 18 June 2012

Conspiring to perplex?

I am a mediocre birdwatcher. I can recognise most of the common species nowadays, and a few of the rarer ones if they have previously been pointed out to me. I can even detect some by song. But I lack the confidence of the seasoned naturalists. The ability to say, with conviction, on seeing a small grey-green bird 50 metres away, 'oh yes, that's definitely a chiffchaff, not a willow warbler'. On churlish days I sometimes wonder if bravado, rather than brilliance, is behind their abilities. But I know this is not true - experience tells.

But today I enjoyed my own little triumph of identification. Walking back through the sun-speckled, scrubby woodlands south of the village I heard two shrill gossips conversing. They were up in the canopy of gnarly-green hawthorns above my head. First one would prattle on, then the other would interrupt to make a lengthy point to the contrary. I couldn't see them, but my first thought was 'garden warblers'. Long, irregular, fluty song. Could be blackcaps - their song is remarkably similar, but supposed to be shorter, slightly scratchier. As usual, the distinctions are vague and subjective. But I plumped for garden warblers, though tentatively, as usual.  Just as I went to move on a small bird emerged onto an exposed branch not ten feet away. Slubby brown above, creamy below. No hint of a black cap. A garden warbler. Yes!

Sometimes I feel as if both the natural world and the taxonomists conspire to make identifying birds as confusing and perplexing as possible. It's bad for my confidence. Take the 'garden' warbler for instance - one of the least likely birds you'll ever get in your garden. It won't nest if it's disturbed, so gives domestic gardens a wide berth. Unlike the closely related blackcaps, who happily come to bird tables in bad weather, and hang around city parks and leafy suburbs.

And some birds - like chiff-chaffs and willow warblers - look almost identical but have wildly different songs; while others look so different but sing almost the same melody. You couldn't confuse a blackcap with a garden warbler by sight, but they sound amazingly alike. Blackcaps arrive in the UK weeks earlier than garden warblers, they go to different wintering grounds, and yet they choose very similar habitats in the UK, where they both hide among the scrubby trees tormenting mediocre birdwatchers like me with their babble.

But of course, I'm on to them now.

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