When I was a lad, birding just south of Bristol, my aim was to hear a Chiffchaff in March rather than let that event slip into April. In fact, my aim was to hear a Chiffchaff before my birthday on 29 March. I usually did it, but not always – that’s why it was a worthwhile and challenging goal. These years, my aim is to hear a Chiffchaff before the end of the Cheltenham racing festival, about two weeks earlier (sometimes three weeks earlier) and I usually manage it, but not always. Chiffchaffs now arrive back in the UK a good two weeks earlier than they did in the 1970s – so do many other Spring migrants and there is a story to be told about that some time.
But whenever I hear that first Chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that Spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for Spring, what could be better than the song of the Chiffchaff? This one was singing in Belgium yesterday;
…and this one was in the Netherlands the day before;
…and here is one from Somerset in May 2017;
They all sound the same and it’s as easy to see (hear!) why the Chiffchaff is called a Chiffchaff as it is to understand why a Cuckoo is called a Cuckoo.
There will probably be a Chiffchaff singing in a wood or patch of scrub near you today, and if not today then tomorrow, or the next day, or very soon. Spring is coming and the Chiffchaffs seem to bring it.
And what a gloriously simple and unmistakable song to start the Spring arrivals! It’s a clear and simple song to bring a clear and simple message – Spring is coming!
But there is a slight twist to this tale. The Chiffchaff song is, you would think, unmistakable but just very occasionally it can be mistaken, or in fact another song can be mistaken for it. The first time this happened to me I was shocked but it has happened now and again over the decades so I always listen hard and try to see my first Chiffchaff of the year.
Back in February I was in a car with a friend who started telling me, proudly, that they had identified a bird singing in their garden, back in January, from its unmistakable song, a Chiffchaff. I was driving and apparently the expression on my face, probably a knowing smile, gave away my scepticism. January is not an impossible date to hear a singing Chiffchaff (although I never have, nor in February) but it would be very unusual. Some Chiffchaffs winter in the UK, mostly in southern England and often in wetlands – I see them sometimes, and hear them call, not sing, in the Nene valley – but the first Chiffchaff song is usually in mid March these days. So, was this an early Chiffchaff (really quite early and in a rather unusual location for it to be a Chiffchaff in January) or was it something else? I can’t be sure, but my money would be on it being a Great Tit.
Some Great Tits, with their tee-cher tee-cher song, have a song type, that is an excellent version of the Chiffchaff. You may recall that individual male Great Tits may have several slightly different versions of the tee-cher tee-cher song, and a few can do a great Chiffchaff. So, it is possible to hear a Great Tit with a completely characteristic Great Tit song suddenly transform itself into a Chiffchaff. I think that’s what happened with my friend – but one can never be completely sure – maybe it was a Chiffchaff.
And while we are on Great Tits, as others have said in comments here, if you hear a strange noise in a woodland then a good rule of thumb is that ‘It’s probably a Great Tit’ because it so often is. A couple of weeks ago I heard a strange buzzing noise in my garden and I certainly didn’t know what it was, and I had never heard it there before. It was almost like a Crested Tit’s purring call but it was never going to be a Crested Tit, and so my experience told me ‘It’s probably a Great Tit’ but I wanted to see the bird to be sure, and it wasn’t difficult to find the Great Tit in next door’s garden making the odd call. It’s a call I’ve never heard before, but the rule of thumb worked out well this time as it so often does.
Great Tits seem to have taken over this post which is supposed to be about Chiffchaffs! But in a way that is fair, the Great Tits have been singing since December, you can hear a Great Tit song in any month I guess, and the general form of their song, two notes, and its rhythm, is quite Chiffchaff-like. Great Tits may feel that they are the true harbingers of Spring – but they aren’t. Great Tits start singing so early that they can’t be reliable Spring bringers – they are like the boy who cried ‘Wolf!’, eventually they are bound to be right but we’ve stopped heeding the call by the time Spring arrives. No, the arrival of singing Chiffchaffs, after a thousand-mile journey and a roughly 5-month general absence from our shores, is the true indicator of Spring. Chiffchaffs are the true spring-bringers.