A Bird in the Hand

On the last day of Birdfair, I was keen to escape the bustle and crowds of the marquees and explore the surrounding reserve. On my way out to one of Rutland Water’s many hides, I was drawn to a small crowd gathered around the BTO bird ringing tent, where a demonstration was in full swing. As I got closer, I saw two chiffchaffs poking their tiny heads out of the ringers’ gentle hands. One was a mature adult with smart plumage; the other was a scruffy juvenile, two thirds of the size of its companion. The ringers held out the birds’ wings, displaying a delicate and powerful fan of primary feathers. Both chiffchaffs sat still and quiet in the hand – if it hadn’t been for their blinking beady eyes they could have easily been mistaken for taxidermy specimens.

After all the measurements had been taken, the ringers asked for two volunteers to release the birds. To my surprise only two hands went up, one of which was mine, so I followed the ringer to an open spot away from the marquee. He told me to hold my hand in a loose claw then he gently placed the juvenile chiffchaff into my palm, its tiny head nestled between my index and middle finger. I closed my hand slowly and the bird wriggled. I couldn’t believe I was holding something alive and yet so small. Its body was warm and unbelievably soft. Carefully, I put the hand holding the chiffchaff down onto my other open palm and slowly released. For a moment the bird rested there and then launched itself into the air, disappearing almost immediately over the trees.

I felt what could only be described as a surge of pure joy as I released the chiffchaff back into the wild. It was a real Snow White moment and in that fraction of time I felt exceptionally close to nature. Getting to hold such a tiny and wild thing in my hand was such a privilege. As I made my way to the hide I noticed there was a minuscule downy feather stuck to the tip of my finger and I quickly stashed it in my phone case. Wherever that chiffchaff wandered now, I had a small piece of it with me.

Arriving on Scilly


To truly comprehend how isolated and tucked away the Isles of Scilly are, you have to get there. My travelling began at 4:30am, and after using four modes of transport I arrived on St Mary’s at 1pm. It was a complicated and fiddly excursion but when I finally arrived, eating chips overlooking a vast expanse of ocean, I knew I was really at the edge of Britain.


Passionate gusts of wind blew the smells of salt and seaweed off the coast. The air was alive with birds. If I closed my eyes it was the same as home – wrens belting out their embellished trills, blackbirds speeding underfoot with shrieks of alarm – but as I was watching a dunnock I heard something that I thought at first to be a great tit, but the two syllables were the same pitch. Then, confirming my suspicions, a tiny brown, featureless bird appeared. My first chiffchaff in the flesh.

Later in the day I was struck with another bout of stress and worry. What if the flowers I wanted to photograph weren’t there? What if it rained every day this week? And as I stewed in paranoia I got a sign. I normally pulled faces at signs but this had to be something of an existential signal. As the sun went down the sky was alight with rich colour so I took my camera and headed down to the beach – only about twenty paces from the flat – and started taking photos of the foliage silhouetted against the sky. The sun sank so quickly that in minutes it had completely disappeared, but it was one of the most stunning sunsets I’d seen in months. There were other people taking photos too, and I heard one woman say “This is the best I’ve seen so far this year.” I arrived on Scilly this afternoon, and the day ended with a sky like that. I still felt apprehensive about this week, but my worry was also mixed with a little more optimism than before.


Spring Beginnings

For many wildlife enthusiasts, spring is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated season of the year, especially for birdwatchers. Migrants arrive from their wintering areas and settle back into their breeding grounds. After the cold of winter there is suddenly a buzz of activity, especially for males hoping to attract a female.

While some bird displays leave something to be desired, other individuals put in great effort. As we move into March, birdsong is elevated both in volume and intensity. Greenfinches have a particularly impressive display that involves large bursts of activity. The male, dressed in his finest vivid green plumage, circles in wide loops with emphasised slow wing beats, looking more like a butterfly or a bat than a bird. During these theatrical acrobatics, the males constantly call out to the females with twittering phrases that finish with a long, nasal “dzweee”. If the female is won over, the new pair often perch high in the trees, with the male always in the open to ward off any other potential new suitors.

The arrival of March also brings in the sand martins, one of the UK’s earliest arriving migrants. The smallest of the European hirundines (swallows and martins), sand martins have arrived from Africa, crossing the Sahara desert to reach their nesting colonies and excavate tunnels in sandy vertical banks. Over the past fifty years, populations of sand martins have crashed twice because of drought in their African wintering grounds, which makes protecting their breeding sites in Britain even more important.

Elsewhere in the arrivals gate are chiffchaffs, and from late March to April these plain-looking birds can be heard calling their name in woodland copses and shrubby undergrowth. A tiny warbler no larger than a blue tit, chiffchaffs have spent the winter in the Mediterranean and western Africa. Breeding begins in April to May, when the female builds a domed nest that lies very close to the ground. Incubating eggs and rearing the chicks are solely the female’s responsibility. Chiffchaffs usually leave the UK in September, heading south towards France and occasionally on to West Africa.

Despite the recent snowfall that has smothered the emerging snowdrops and crocuses, keep an eye and ear out for the arrival of spring migrants who will hopefully find some warmth as they prepare to settle in for the breeding season.