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UK Warblers

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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 08:17   #1
DGRW
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UK Warblers

Hope no-one minds me starting a thread that has probably been covered over many years in individual threads but I'm ashamed to say that I only really started to look closely at UK Warblers around five years ago. I'm very ashamed to say that until then I hadn't payed them a great deal of attention, viewing them all as "SBBs", criminal I know.

Considering that they're one of the broader ranging of UK species though, with around 17 (?) species usually present in the UK, I think that maybe they merit their own thread (or even their own section) to discuss the differences and clarify identification for some of us with the help of some of the more experienced birders.

I've come to know Reedies, Sedge, Willow and Grasshopper quite well now as well as Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat, Firecrest and Goldcrest are obviously not too difficult either but that still leaves plenty of room for error on my part with all of those others.

These are the UK Warblers as I currently understand them:

Reed Warbler
Sedge Warbler
Willow Warbler
Garden Warbler
Wood Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Marsh Warbler
Savi's Warbler
Cetti's Warbler
Aquatic Warbler
Dartford Warbler
Chiffchaff
Blackcap
Whitethroat
Lesser Whitethroat
Godcrest
Firecrest

.....and these are potential problem identifications as I see them:

Garden Warbler
Wood Warbler
Marsh Warbler
Savi's Warbler
Willow Warbler
Aquatic Warbler
Cetti's Warbler

.....and then of course we get species like Olivaceous and Melodious as well.

Surely there's plenty of opportunity for discussion and comparison there.

Examples of potential problem areas:

Simple:
Chiffchaff & Willow Warbler (the old cherry)

Possibly less simple:
Wood Warbler & Garden Warbler

Marsh Warbler & Reed Warbler

etc.

Now I fully understand that for those that have been looking at Warblers in detail for many years; the differences are probably ridiculously obvious and I know that song can play a large part in identification but for some of us lesser mortals (me) the differences are not always so obvious or memorable.

So may I start a ball rolling with "the old cherry"....Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler?

When I was young there was an apparently mythical difference in the eye-stripe, true or false? These days I see little difference in the eye-stripe and tend to rely upon colouration, jizz and song.

Any Warbler experts out there? what are your main distinguishing features for these birds?

Anyone willing to stick their necks out on Wood and Garden or any of the others? Any experiences of your own identification problems or past mistakes?

So if anyone feels the urge to join me and my battles with Warblers, please feel free to stick your oar in here.

If anyone does pick this up and riun with it, I may of course sit back and watch the experts with just the occasional question thrown in.

Over to the Warbler Experts if you fancy it..........
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 08:42   #2
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The other thing to think about is distribution. While it's not impossible for them to show up, it's not really worth stressing yourself in the early days about Cetti's, Aquatic, Marsh etc, if you don't live in the areas where they're likely to occur. Get the common ones down first, and worry about the rarities later, unless you're lucky enough to be in the locations where you can see them.

I've started taking note of warblers this year. Largely due to not getting out as much as I'd have liked, I've missed wood, grasshopper, sedge and lesser whitethroat, but seen large amounts of blackcap, whitethroat, chiffchaff, willow and garden, and a few reed. It's down to knowing what you're listening for.

Now the difference between blackcap and garden warbler song... just when I think I've got it, one surprises me! That's the biggest warbler id challenge for me I think, at least til I get to a position where I have to scrutinise for marsh warblers.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 10:11   #3
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"So may I start a ball rolling with "the old cherry"....Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler?"

In the field, the main difference I find is the length of the primaries (primary projection), long on Willow and short on Chiff (just look at a few pic's, you'll see what I mean)

Also the legs are pale yellowish on Willow and usually dark on Chiff (look at a few pic's again)

I also find a good field id feature at this time of year, on an uncooperative bird is that Willow seem to make a regular "hooweet" type call.

The colour of both can change quite a bit depending on light, moult, age etc. Although I usually find the Willow more yellowish and Chiff more Brownish as a general rule.

Can anyone add a bit more?
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 10:22   #4
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Distribution can usually rule out some of the nationally less common species for many of us Pete.

I find song remarkably difficult to translate into something understandable in discussions such as this and that's unfortunate as it can often be one of the best ID features of many Warblers.

The disimilarities in the length of the primaries is something that I haven't really been able to note in the field yet Dougie....something to work on. The leg colour can be a good ID feature but is not always very obvious in many birds, the plumage colour variations are not very consistent in my experience either though, whilst some birds are obviously "one or the other", I find that there are many "intermediates".
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 10:56   #5
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Habitat can be an important clue, at least in the breeding season.

In my experience, willow warblers tend to occupy more open, scrubby habitats or lower-growing woodland, whereas chiffchaffs have more of a preference for mature, closed-canopy woodland with big trees.

Likewise, garden warblers tend to prefer more open shrubby habitats than blackcaps although there is a lot of overlap, and you can't really beat learning the songs as the best way of identifying warblers in the breeding season.

I am quite lazy though and if I see a phylloscopus warbler that isn't singing, I generally just assume it's a willow warbler, as chiffchaffs are much less common here.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 11:12   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DGRW View Post
I find song remarkably difficult to translate into something understandable in discussions such as this and that's unfortunate as it can often be one of the best ID features of many Warblers.
I used to find it very difficult too, but there really is no substitute to listening to recordings and going out and getting experience of listening to the birds in the field. Chiffchaffs and willow warblers are very easy to tell apart by song. Species pairs like sedge/reed and garden/blackcap are more difficult and I often find myself doubting the identity of birds in the latter pair until I see them particularly each spring when they first return.

However, over a few years I have become more confident with these songs and learned to appreciate the subtle differences. Reed: measured and steady pace; Sedge: frantic and over-excited (although I don't have to worry about reed unless I am on holiday!). Blackcap: relaxed, long pauses, tuning into fluty notes at the end of each phrase; Garden Warbler: breathless, short pauses, scratchier.

I posted these on a previous thread, but if you want to do your head in, listen to this recording of a garden warbler and a blackcap singing simultaneously from adjacent bushes, along with recordings of the same birds singing separately:
Attached Files
File Type: mp3 Garden_Warbler_and_Blackcap.mp3 (114.0 KB, 105 views)
File Type: mp3 Blackcap.mp3 (596.9 KB, 109 views)
File Type: mp3 Garden_Warbler.mp3 (364.2 KB, 113 views)
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 11:41   #7
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A useful tip with Willow and Chiff is that unlike most birds, they are actually easier to separate in autumn than spring. Willows have a distinct yellowish tone whereas Chiffchaffs are more olive and dull. I'm not an expert on moult but I believe that Willows are unusual in having a complete autumn moult so they are always fresh in autumn whereas Chiffchaffs are scruffier, at least in adult plumage. I apologise for the vagueness of this note, no doubt someone with a greater knowledge of these details will correct me if necessary.

Of course in spring you have songs to go on which helps enormously in many cases.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 11:56   #8
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In my experience, willow warblers tend to occupy more open, scrubby habitats or lower-growing woodland, whereas chiffchaffs have more of a preference for mature, closed-canopy woodland with big trees.
True enough in many cases but I wouldn't want to revert to the my pre-teen definitions (a long time ago admittedly) when a warbler in a wood was a Wood Warbler and a warbler in a garden was Garden Warbler. Obviously a very inaccurate analysis with the benefit of further thirty years birding hindsight if not "serious" warbler watching.

I agree absolutely that habitat is usually a very strong indicator and whilst Groppers and Sedgies are easy to ID when they occasionally turn up in arable farmland hedgerows (as I've experienced) Wood, Garden, Willow and Chiffchaff can be a little more difficult when the appear in what are sometimes not the most likely of habitats.

Thanks for the Links Capercailli - I'll be taking a good listen very shortly.
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Willows are unusual in having a complete autumn moult so they are always fresh in autumn whereas Chiffchaffs are scruffier, at least in adult plumage
an excellent point that I hadn't really considered.

PS: I've listened to those links and I'd say that for me, at the moment, the differences are in the phrasing but as you say Capercaillie; when they're both heard together it's considerably more difficult than first analysis might predict. This reduces my confidence in my ability to ID those two in the field via song alone to practically zero.

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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 12:23   #9
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I probably miss the odd rarity as I am by no means savvy when it comes to LBJs.

Of the difficult ones, the ones I see most often, living in Norwich are Willow, Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Whitethroat, sedge and reed warblers. I usually tell them apart from their songs and then by finding and looking at the bird- in the case of Sedge, Reed and Blackcap. I can't recall having seen a garden warbler. I am concious that they sound similar to blackcaps so whenever I hear a blackcap I always look for the bird to check its got the cap. So far all the ones I have seen have been blackcaps. I'm not sure how common Garden Warblers are in Norwich...

Similarly, I am not confident enough to separate out reed and sedge by song alone, I use the song to locate the general area the bird is in then look to spot who is singing. They are easy enough to separate if you have a good look at the plumage (reed being much plainer with a pale throat, sedge being quite streaky). Although I did have quite an enthusiastic discussion with the local RSPB group who thought that a bird, which was clearly a reed warbler was a whitethroat!

Whitethroats, grasshopper and cettis warblers I ID by song- they are difficult to find even then. If I have ever seen a Savis warbler on my own, I've probably miss-ID'd it as a Grasshopper warbler.

Of course all this ID skill falls down when I see an LBJ skulking about silently in some trees near the river. Then I look for general colour and form to decide what it is (and probably get it wrong!).
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 12:26   #10
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"Possibly less simple:
Wood Warbler & Garden Warbler"


Not exactly sure of the problem here, as Wood is very vividly Yellow on the front, with very greenish yellow to the back.

Garden is a famously nondescript warbler with a bland grey buff colour and a slight grey patch on the side of the neck, but no yellow at all.

Wood Warbler also has a very vivid song (I'm terrible with songs!) and is the best way to locate a bird in the breeding season. The song could never be confused with the Garden Warbler in the same way as the Blackcap could.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 12:31   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Dougie Preston View Post
Wood Warbler also has a very vivid song (I'm terrible with songs!) and is the best way to locate a bird in the breeding season.
Often likened to the sound of a spinning coin on a table top coming to a stop, which I have found to be a useful description on the few occasions I come across this species
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 12:46   #12
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Originally Posted by Capercaillie71 View Post
Often likened to the sound of a spinning coin on a table top coming to a stop, which I have found to be a useful description on the few occasions I come across this species
Yep, agree with that, and also got to grips with this one by pretending it was an engine struggling to start and then bursting into life! Sounds strange but believe me it works!
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 12:52   #13
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I did have quite an enthusiastic discussion with the local RSPB group who thought that a bird, which was clearly a reed warbler was a whitethroat
Strangely enough I've had exactly that same discussion in an RSPB hide, fortunately the reserve that I spend a lot of time at has plenty of both and so I've been able to familiarise myself pretty well with both birds.

It seems to me that "obvious" distinctions are sometimes only obvious once you've become familiar with a bird on an almost daily basis (for me at least). A Reedy and a Whitethroat are, for me, now distinctly disimilar birds but I know from conversations with others that some people do have problems here.

Likewise; Dougie's comments on Garden and Wood Warblers. I found a typical LBJ in a woodland edge hedgerow early in the breeding season and ID'd it as Garden Warbler despite the fact that it did appear to have just the very slightest hint of yellow or at the very least not a purely buff/grey colouration, though this; I eventually attributed to the early morning light. My point being that a Garden Warbler in the right light or a very dull coloured young or out of season Wood Warbler might be mistaken visually for each other.
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Often likened to the sound of a spinning coin on a table top coming to a stop
I think that Dave Gosney uses that description on his DVD UK Birdguide doesn't he? That again enforces my previous Garden Warbler ID as this spinning coin sound was completely absent in favour of the more Blackcap type song on that occasion. So I did have, I think, a Garden Warbler that appeared to have just the feintest hint of yellow in it's colouration.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 13:18   #14
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Hi DGRW,

I'm not sure what you mean here - I don't think there are any circumstances under which these two species could be mistaken for one another. They are not even remotely similar.

Quote:
Originally Posted by DGRW View Post
My point being that a Garden Warbler in the right light or a very dull coloured young or out of season Wood Warbler might be mistaken visually for each other.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 13:28   #15
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This is entirely my point though Bonsai; to the less trained eye - they are.

For the benefit of this unfocussed muppet; please define the main visual points of disimilarity taking into account my previous comments regarding light conditions or dull plumaged birds.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 13:29   #16
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DGRW View Post
I think that Dave Gosney uses that description on his DVD UK Birdguide doesn't he? That again enforces my previous Garden Warbler ID as this spinning coin sound was completely absent in favour of the more Blackcap type song on that occasion. So I did have, I think, a Garden Warbler that appeared to have just the feintest hint of yellow in it's colouration.
I think the spinning coin was meant to be a reference to Wood Warbler not the Garden Warbler.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 13:36   #17
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That's thrown me. So was my Garden Warbler a Wood Warbler after all? I know that this highlights my own ineptitude with some warblers but isn't that entirely indicative of the problems that less experienced warbler watchers such as myself find?

Or is it just my mental blind spot?

Just going back to this completely reasonable piece of advice:
Quote:
Get the common ones down first, and worry about the rarities later,
Well.....I have got some of the common ones down but I still seem to have this blank spot when it comes to just a few of them.

I'll be attempting to use all of these points in the field of course and although my ineptitude in the warbler department is fairly obvious, I really do appreciate your advice and I'll be attempting to remember and use it.

PS: Hang on, that's right then isn't it i.e. No spinning coin points toward possible Garden Warbler as I ID'd it?

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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 13:51   #18
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Does anyone know if wood warblers and garden warbler are present in and around the Norwich area? My belief is that we do not regularly get wood warblers in this area and as I mentioned, I have never seen a garden warbler in Norwich AFAIK. Are there any good local spots for either species or am I just not cottoning on to those thta are there?
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 14:06   #19
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Are there any good local spots for either species or am I just not cottoning on to those thta are there?
That highlights very well something that I've found as I've just begun to understand UK warblers a little better i.e. that a failure to recognise what I perceived and still do perceive in some instances as disimilarities in species may lead to an assumption that some species are not present when they may be.

I've found more and more during the course of the last five years or so that some species are present which I had previously assumed were not and that it's simply a matter of learning disimilarities that may be obvious to an experienced warbler watcher that are less apparent to the less experienced observer.

Hence my starting this thread; I feel it's time to try to pick up the remaining lose ends and get to grips with warblers once and for all.

PS: My apologies to those that have already come to know their warblers better than I have and for whom my confusion might seem ridiculous. I often feel that given the next twenty years or so; I may achieve your levels of competence, I'm just not quite there yet.

I see those birders that have a twenty year advantage over myself and the best that I can do is attempt to learn from them.

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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 14:18   #20
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Spinning coin IS Wood Warbler - i know as i was introduced to them this spring.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 14:19   #21
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Hi DGRW,

First I would never claim for myself to be anything other than a moderately competent birder although I have been doing it for quite a while. I'll try to explain what I mean about the Garden and Wood Warblers not being confusion species but please dont take any of this as criticism of your skills.

It is not unusual to confuse species from two different warbler genus but, with some notable exceptions, it would usually result from poor views of the bird. To confuse a phylloscopus with a sylvia warbler would, again, probably be due to incomplete/brief/poor views of the birds. So what confuses me is how you came to the two possibilities that you did. For example,

- how did you rule out other phylloscopus species such as Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff?

- how did you rule out other sylvia species such as Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat?

Or to put it another way, for each of these two species, there are other species that are much closer in appearance than the one you have mentioned.

That being said I would say that even to the untrained eye, as a result of poor views, Garden Warbler and Wood Warbler are not confusion species.

Garden Warbler is a non-descript bird which is mainly greyish brown or brown colour with perhaps the feintest hint of olive in the plumage colour. It is like a browner version of a blackcap without the cap. The face is subtly marked without prominent eye-stripe or supercilium (there can be a short indistinct supercillium or the impression of pale crescents below and above the dark eye , the latter standing out in the relatively pale face) and they often show the peaked head shape of sylvia warblers. They can look smart sometimes but always in a non-descript, boring kind of way! Basically you do have to look pretty hard to find any features at all on a Garden Warbler!

Whereas Wood Warbler is a dynamite bird where the features leap out at you! Yellowish-green upperparts and bright contrasting white underparts except for the breast which can be bright yellow. The face pattern is very strong with a long, bright supercillium and a dark stripe through the eye. The wings are noticeably longer than Willow Warblers for example but Wood Warblers do still have a typical phylloscopus shape with a relatively smooth head profile and a small pointed bill.

The songs are also very different - a Wood Warbler's song is a beautiful shimmering, descending trill whereas a Garden Warbler's song is scratchy and chuntering.

I hope some of this was useful. And I am sure others will point out any mistakes in my descriptions.

Cheers,


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This is entirely my point though Bonsai; to the less trained eye - they are.

For the benefit of this unfocussed muppet; please define the main visual points of disimilarity taking into account my previous comments regarding light conditions or dull plumaged birds.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 14:25   #22
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There really is nothing better than learning the calls though, as for most of the year it will be your best bet for finding and for the id.

On migration it gets a bit harder with fleeting glimpses at coastal hotspots, this is where all your hard work learning the common ones during the year comes in. Then you don't need to know all the warblers, but you should be able to tell if the bird is something different and needs further investigation or not! If you have a camera it can also help to id a bird in the comfort of your living room with reference book to hand (p.s. they don't always prove easy to photograph though!)
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 14:28   #23
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I'm not sure what you mean here - I don't think there are any circumstances under which these two species could be mistaken for one another. They are not even remotely similar.
I also find it difficult to imagine mistaking a wood warbler for a garden warbler, or a reed warbler for a whitethroat. However the great thing about birdforum is that it is available to birders of all abilities and a thread about distinguishing wood from garden warblers is just as useful for some as a thread about distinguishing reed from olivaceous warblers.

It is easy for experienced birders to think that certain species are impossible to confuse but everyone has to start somewhere, and a thread like this is a great way for those with more experience to pass that experience on to others who are at the other end of the learning curve.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 14:48   #24
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Quote:
Spinning coin IS Wood Warbler
So my bird, with a song similar to Blackcap, looking a lot like a Garden Warbler but with possibly just the feintest hint of yellow but possibly sunlight reflection, is on balance, most likely to have been.....not a Wood Warbler.....or am I still fishing in the dark?

Steve -
Quote:
how did you rule out other phylloscopus species such as Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff?
Absolutely no sign of an eye-stripe.
Quote:
how did you rule out other sylvia species such as Whitethroat and Lesser Whitethroat?
A very drab "same-coloured" bird.

Quote:
Or to put it another way, for each of these two species, there are other species that are much closer in appearance than the one you have mentioned
I can only say that this is possibly down to individual perception. To my eye, Whitethroat, Lesser Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff (birds that I'm fairly familiar with in the field) are significantly different certainly to Garden Warbler and Wood Warbler (that I am less familiar with in the field) by their fairly distinctive colour distribution and jizz.

To my eye, Garden Warbler and Wood Warbler have similarly indistinct colouration distribution but with the advantage of course that Wood Warbler is yellowish or tending toward yellow dependant upon age and condition.

Your descriptions of Wood and Garden Warblers are very good there Steve and those descriptions make the disimilarities very clear, when viewing the two species in a bird guide however, my eye has not until now picked up on those disimilarities as clearly as you describe them and especially allowing for poor or out of season plumage.

At least you've convinced me totally that my bird was a Garden Warbler as I had surmised.

Thank you very much for that.

The other thing that you've reminded me of is the high crowned appearence of the sylvia warblers and the importance of jizz in making an ID.

It's ridiculously difficult, after 20 yrs of seeing most warblers simply as LBJ's to retrain my eye and my perception to disimilarities that are to me, often, subtle. It's coming, slowly.

Dave Gosney describes the garden Warbler in not disimilar terms to his description of the Knot, i.e. you can recognise it because its "knot" anything else. The principle with the Garden Warbler being, I presume, that it's so unremarkable as to be "not" anything else.

Do you know, I think that you may all have helped me to finally sort out Garden and possibly Wood Warbler to an unforgettable level, we'll see, thanks.

From my point of view, as a comparitive Warbler novice, this discussion has so far clarified points for Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler, Garden Warbler and Wood Warbler and so whilst it may all seem a little tedious and uneccessary to some of you; it's very valuable for me.

Thanks.
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Old Thursday 16th August 2007, 16:06   #25
Clive Watson
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Wood Warbler is becoming quite a scarce bird and one of the main ways of finding one is to go to a spot where you know there are some present! they have a north and west bias and so there are hardly any in Norfolk (or Surrey, where I live) but they occur in Derbyshire (or Wales or Scotland). A good Derbyshire spot is Padley Gorge, near Grindleford (though you'll have to wait till next year now, try late April or May, when they'll be singing). Garden Warbler on the other hand is pretty widespread all over the country, though I wouldn't describe it as particularly common.
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