Seeing the wood for the clouds

It hasn’t been a great spring, I feel a bit grumpy about the awful weather.  It means that I haven’t seen as many butterflies as I would have liked so I’ll be looking to catch up whenever the heat wave strikes (as surely it will).

, via Wikimedia Commons”]At the weekend I went out looking for Wood White butterflies in Salcey Forest.  It was an on/off day as far as sunshine was concerned and I almost didn’t bother.

I wasn’t sure where to go so I stopped at the first car park I came to and mentally flipped a coin and decided to go left rather than right.  I wandered a while down the ride and saw and heard very few birds.

There was a strange chiffchaff which was making a noise a little like the start of a sedge warbler song before it launched into the familiar ‘tiff-taff-tiff-taff-tiff-taff….’.  I listened to it for quite a while to make sure that this was just one bird and it certainly was.  I almost want to write that I’ve never heard this before but I have a dim and unreliable recollection of experiencing something similar a long time ago.  Anyone else?

Chiffchaffs don’t need the sun to shine in order to perform, and neither did the few other birds around this dull afternoon: willow warblers, blackcap, robin, blackbird and chaffinch; and a distant cuckoo.

I chose, with little expertise, a likely looking Wood White site and waited for the sun to shine.  I could watch the clouds moving slowly overhead and tried to work out how long that distant line of blue sky would take to get to the place where it would allow the sun to shine through and hundreds of butterflies to emerge and start winging their ways around this woodland with its wide ride, small stream and tall oaks.  It seemed like it would take quite a while but I didn’t have anything else to do except wait.

The cuckoo sang.  The stream chattered. A red beetle flew past with its elytra shining bright even though the sun wasn’t out. A young blue tiot begged for food from a busy parent.  People cycled past, walked past and took their dogs past. But the sun didn’t come out – not properly.

There were brief moments of sunshine and in one of them a Speckled Wood flew close to me and gave me something to watch as it settled by the stream.  A large hairy caterpillar walked, many-legged, along a stem of grass. The cuckoo sang some more.

Forty minutes passed and I reckoned that the sun would break through in another 5-10 minutes.  Would this result in a confusing exuberance of butterflies that would blow my mind? Or would nothing happen at all?  I had to wait to see.

Then the sun came out, and went in again, and came out, and went in again but each time it came out,  it came out for longer and more convincingly.  Then it was sunny – genuinely sunny.  And a white butterfly appeared.  Just the one – but you can only look at them one at a time so that’s OK (which reminds me that my Welsh grandfather used to say, apparently, that it didn’t matter how rich you were, you could only sit in one chair at a time).

This white butterfly looked quite small, quite flappy and therefore quite promising.  It acted coy for a little while and flew around in awkward unreachable places and then it perched close to me.  Now I haven’t seen a Wood White for several years (although they were common in Somerset in my youth) and so I took my time with this one, and luckily it took its time with me and gave me a good view.  It was a Wood White – and a very good view of one.  I looked up and surveyed the sunny scene.  There wasn’t a single other butterfly of any colour, shape or species on the wing.  It was this Wood White (a female) and me.

There is only so long that you can look at a white butterfly – they are white, and butterflies, but I took in the underwing pattern and the rounded wings and checked the details on the butterfly app on my phone.  Yep, I’ve seen a Wood White this year.

As I walked back to the car I saw three more butterflies – all Wood Whites, and that chiffchaff was doing that strange version of its song again.  A little later it started to spit with rain.  I’m glad I made the effort and I’m glad that the Wood Whites did too.


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7 Replies to “Seeing the wood for the clouds”

  1. I had a chiffchaff with an odd song at RSPB Coombes Valley this year. Its song was almost purely a long repetition of 'chiff-chiff-chiff.' The 'chaff' happened only a few times and only as the very last note. Thought it may have bumped its head and was suffering from slight amnesia.

    Sounds like you had a great time butterfly watching Mark. I aim to get some done myself this year as most of the frits and blues would be new species for me. Just waiting for that break in the weather, hopefully it'll come in the next week or two.

  2. It must be the year for strange chiffchaffs. I was doing a dawn nightingale survey in May and heard a chiff, chaff, chiff-chiff, chaff etc. Almost a constant stutter. I did try to record it (badly) but can just about make out the constant double note and also a funny trill bit with it. The problem I have is that I might have recorded 2 birds at once but the chiffchaff was definitely odd.

  3. Hi Mark,

    That weird acro like series of notes at the beginning of Chiffchaff song is quite normal. I often hear it when I am very close to a singing bird. I wonder if those starting notes do not carry as far than the main chiff-chaff notes?
    I am quite jealous of your Wood White, I have not seen this species yet (though have seen Cryptic Wood White in Ireland)!


    1. Tristan - as I wrote, I think I vaguely remember hearing them before but a long time ago. I used to see Wood Whites easily growing up in Somerset - now I need to make a special trip to a special place to see them, and it's exciting. Sad story of our times.

  4. As chance would have it, I noticed this same early bit of chiff-chaff song in west Herefordshire at the end of May. I'd written it off as just a mis-observation by me, so am delighted to be affirmed!


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