The wood warbler has always been a special bird for me. I recall an early May morning at Ynyshir reserve when a wood warbler would perch on a the end of low branch and sing its gorgeous song. Its whole body shook with the intensity of its refrain. Unfortunately I wasn’t a bird photographer in those days. In recent years I returned to Ynyshir to photograph the same species and not one was to be seen or heard, in the lower woodlands, anyway. It was rather curious. This spring I tried the Clettwr valley a little closer to home. Yes, I could hear one, but could I actually see it? The answer was no. On my next visit I kept to the minor road bordering the reserve on its steep northern side; the moment I opened the van door I could hear the song and I knew this was the spot I had been looking for.
The wood warbler is superficially similar to both the willow warbler and chiffchaff and was first only conclusively identified by the Reverend Gilbert White in 1768. He distinguished it first by its song, seeing it “shivering a little with its wings when it sings” and later conclusively by the comparison of shot specimens of each species. Its Latin name phylloscopus sibilatrix could be translated as “the whistling leaf-lover”, and this gives a handy summary of its character. The individual I soon located clearly had a territory in a young-ish oak plantation, and it flew from song post to song post amongst the trees, uttering its quicksilver descending trill at each one. Occasionally it would sing an entirely different song – pu, pu, pu, pu, pu – throwing its tiny head back and putting every milligramme of energy that it possessed into its performance, and sounding not unlike a wading bird might in a different environment.
Photographing a tiny subject like this was a tricky matter, however. In a complicated environment like woodland a bird’s surroundings and the background against which it is set can be horribly messy; added to that were the shadows projected by bright sunlight. It was going to be quite a test for my equipment which is not entirely at home with small moving subjects against complex backgrounds. It would be a matter of quantity in the hope of getting quality. I had a session lasting a couple of hours with the wood warbler and then returned during the evening two days later, to find that the bird had moved on and the little plantation was completely silent. It was an altogether different place without the wood warbler. He truly was the spirit of the woodland.
I spent the night in the van and woke early to the sound of wood warbler song. He was back! Atmospheric conditions had changed overnight too, and wisps of dry cloud drifted through the trees. Although it was much darker the cloud would reduce the contrast levels within the woodland. It was worth another try. So I had three hours worth of images altogether, a total of something like 400 to trawl through…… . He may not have been the smartest of his species but the image above illustrates his character very well, I think.
N.B. Michael McCarthy writes very well about his quest for a wood warbler in his lovely book “Say Goodbye to the Cuckoo”
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