It’s still early March as I’m writing this, and I’m already listening out for my first chiffchaff of the year. By the time you read this, there should be plenty to hear, I hope! It is one of our commonest summer visitors, also one of the earliest to arrive, and once it gets going, it’s among the loudest, too.
Not only is it loud, it also helps identification by singing its name. To be fair, some birds seem to me to be singing chiff chiff, and others chaff chaff, but by and large you will hear two different notes - the chiff being the higher pitched note, and the chaff a bit lower. The bird will do a burst of this, generally from somewhere near the top of a tree, then fall silent for a while (actually, it may well give a softer churring sort of call during this ‘silent’ time, but it’s hard to hear unless you’re very close to), before starting up again.
The male chiffchaff will start singing as soon as he arrives, to establish a territory. Whether the female also sings, I’m not sure - in any case, the sexes are almost impossible to tell apart. Chiffchaffs are small brown and buff birds - brown head, back, wings, tail, buff throat and underparts. It’s about the size of a blue tit, and early arrivals can often be seen prospecting for spring insects through the branches, before there are too many leaves about.
Chiffchaffs and willow warblers are almost impossible to tell apart on sight, and both are very common birds. Willow warblers may be a bit plumper, and a bit more greenish and yellowish in colour, and with maybe a slightly more prominent eye stripe. Frankly, I can’t tell the difference. Fortunately, the song is totally different, willow warblers give you a falling cadence of sweet, tuneful notes, and usually from within cover rather than the top of a tree.
They also arrive later, having travelled all the way from southern Africa. Chiffchaffs winter in north Africa, or in southern Europe, and a few don’t even leave the UK, but stay in the south west of England (but this may not have been a good decision in the winter just gone!). Probably chiffchaffs get here a good two or three weeks earlier than willow warblers, and they won’t all leave until mid-October.
Almost all the work of building the nest and incubating eggs is done by the female, leaving the male to chiff and chaff somewhere overhead. The nest is ball shaped and placed in dense vegetation like bramble patches. The male sometimes feeds the hen bird while she is incubating, but not reliably, though he will help feed the chicks once they are hatched. The brood generally numbers six or seven; the little eggs have purple speckles, resulting in charming, if dubiously true, rhyme, “Chiffchaff eggs are speckled by / mother bird eating cherries” (used by Donovan in a song, I believe). Chiffchaffs are insect eaters, and happy residents of medium to large gardens, and patches of woodland - and one of my very favourite birds.