Chiffchaff Gaff?

This is what a Willow Warbler looks like:

A bright, fresh juvenile Willow Warbler, photographed at Spurn on 15th September 2008.

I was out in the Sheffield area, this spring with a newcomer to birding and he asked me- “Can you teach me how to tell Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff apart”, “of course”, I said, brimming with confidence. That confidence is now failing me. Fast forward a few months. Shetland late July 2010. In slender hope of finding a rare I checked the iconic Valyie Garden at Norwick, Unst. I came across a couple of phylloscopus (translation = leaf -watcher) Warblers bombing around the garden. Took a quick look at them, thought “scruffy Willow Warblers” and even grabbed a couple of poor photos. That unfortunately/ fortunately was not the end of the story. Before we go there though, Valyie is place I really like. Its Freda’s garden and its arguable the last ‘proper’ garden in Britain.

Its just slightly left of the Google bubble thingy:

As you arrive at the bottom of the road this sign is welcoming if a little incongruous!

The Shetland Nature rare bird hunt of last September 2009 visited this Garden having just found a Marsh Warbler at Skaw. One of my ‘tickled pink’ memories is of one observers adjusting to the lack of ‘garden birds’ on Shetland assumed that the 2  larger finches in flight with the calling Greenland Redpoll would be Chaffinches. However one began calling ‘like an exaggerated Willow Warbler’ – and he was quite genuinely incredulous when told- “no they are both Common Rosefinches”! With a Yellow-browed Warbler also seen fleetingly its obvious why it’s a ‘must visit’.

Visitors to Shetland are stunned that in this last garden in Britain, most of the half dozen or so birds present can be classed as scarce or rare. Local Unst dweller Mike Pennington (2nd from left) joins the Shetland Nature team. September 2009.

The mighty Greenland Redpoll in Valyie Garden, whose only company in flight was a couple of Common Rosefinches- one of which appears below.

Common Rosefinch, Unst September 2009. Mike Pennington

OK –  back to the July 2010 leaf-watcher warblers in Valyie. I assumed they were Willow Warblers, and  gave them relatively scant attention.  Hardly a ‘rare’ for me. Except that I had no inkling that ANY breeding phylloscopus on Shetland is very rare – possibly only a second breeding record.  The locals went to check out my sighting with huge interest to discover 2 adults and 3 fledgling Chiffchaffs! Gutted and delighted. Delighted for Shetland – only 2nd or 3rd ever breeding record. Gutted that I didn’t finish the job, jumped to a conclusion and seem to have cocked up the ID. Still the little mistakes are, I find the best platforms for learning.

And, if you would like to join in with this team approach to rare bird finding this October see here – but be quick – places going fast:

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