After a week away birding in Spain, it was a little unlikely that I'd be getting out in the field straight away, despite arriving back right in the middle of spring migration. So I didn't really see anything of interest until I started back at work. There had clearly been some arrivals on 13th April as I saw a female Redstart at Fort Hommet in my lunch hour and a surprising male Ring Ouzel behind the Peninsula Hotel later in the day. This bird was just feeding on the lawns by the pond with some Blackbirds and I just managed a quick snap before it flew off - quite a rare bird for the patch.
The next weekend was quiet but it was nice to see a Cetti's Warbler in the hand at the Claire Mare during the Nature Guernsey event. Scanning over Vazon wall on Monday 16th April, the Royal Tern gave me a brief fly-by as it made its way down the west coast. Now 14 months since it made its first appearance here.
The same day I managed to find a bit of time to pop out at lunchtime since the weather was pretty nice and I went down to Rue des Bergers. I couldn't find any new-in migrants from the hide so I drove back towards work. As I did so, I saw the resident Glossy Ibis fly low over the line of conifers and it seemed to drop down somewhere in the farmyard. So I drove down the Rue des Belles lane very slowly and noticed it feeding really close in the wet patches beside the lane. Luckily, by stopping in the middle of the road and leaning across into the passenger-side, I was able to take some nice photos from the car. The plumage was indeed getting much glossier, especially on the wings as can be seen on the second photo below.
During the rest of the week there was a steady movement of small numbers of common migrants on patch including my first local Yellow Wagtails, Willow Warblers and Whimbrels of the year. A rather late Great Northern Diver was fishing off Rousse on 20th.
On 21st April I had the first real go at Pleinmont of the month, turning up on the headland very early and enjoying the rising sun. Unfortunately, the birds were not really turning up with me as it was mainly small numbers of common migrants again. I had my first Whitethroats of the year and enjoyed some good raptors, but the Dwarf Pansies were probably the rarest thing seen. On the way home I noted that the pair of Wigeon were still lingering at L'Eree, where there was a nice flock of 26 Whimbrel and a Bar-tailed Godwit feeding on the seaweed-strewn shingle bank. Both Cetti's and Sedge Warbler were singing at the Claire Mare and I was surprised to find that the small flock of Purple Sandpipers, now down to 3 birds, were still roosting on the rocks off Rousse, a month after I had last seen them. I managed to stalk across the rockpools to get within shooting distance of them. Their plumage was getting closer to breeding-plumage with the plain, smoky grey areas becoming more streaked and spotted.
The next morning, 22nd April, I received a call from Mark G that he had discovered a singing Iberian Chiffchaff at Saumarez Park, a first for Guernsey! This was very exciting news of course (even though I have always been a bit disparaging about Iberian Chiffchaff, since it is basically just like a normal Chiffchaff but it sings a bit funny, making it a somewhat underwhelming rarity). However, I still wanted to see and hear this bird as it was very interesting and actually would be a lifer for me (we didn't even try to see any in Spain a couple of weeks ago, despite being a breeding species in the area). Trouble was, Rosie was at work and I was looking after the kiddiwinks, who would definitely not include a search for a warbler as an essential activity in the park! Birding would be way down on their list of things to do there behind swings, café, climbing and running around like lunatics. I decided that, to avoid any "incidents" I would hold fire and wait until the afternoon. There was no way this singing bird would fly off until at least night time - would it!?
Luckily my calculations were correct and I bowled up mid-afternoon and found the Iberian Chiffchaff singing away as it was feeding, right next to the path by the Japanese pagoda. Most of the time it wasn't giving its full song - probably due to feeding - but it was still distinct from a normal Chiffchaff. I'd like to think I would have been able to notice it if I was walking past, despite not having as good an ear as Mark G has. However, I may not have done, since I often miss individual bird song in amongst a cacophony of many species. If there are a lot of species singing I often find it hard to isolate individuals - I am a lot better with calls, because I suppose these are less variable. I managed a few recordings of the song (see below) and some snaps before heading home.
The next day was work but, since the park is literally five minutes from there, I popped back in my lunch hour. Today the bird was showing even better, often singing from the bamboo at head height just a few feet away, so I was able to get more photos and recordings. There were a couple of other Common Chiffchaffs in the area (as well as a singing Firecrest) but it was always easy to find this bird. Even when it wasn't singing you could pick out that it had an uneven tail (see pic above) and a small dollop of what I assumed was dried pollen underneath its bill.
The song was clearly a Chiffchaff-type song in basic tone and rhythm, but there were obvious differences. It started off with up to four very similar "chiff" notes without any lower "chaffs", and then always two upward-inflected whistly notes, followed by a few irregular, faster, more abrupt "chiffs" at the end. There are some examples in the audio and movie clips below and you can see the three different types of note on the spectogram. Common Chiffchaff of course is a slower, monotonous, longer "chiff, chaff".
Plumage-wise, there was only very subtle differences from the nearby Common Chiffchaffs, that you realistically wouldn't pick out. It was a bit greener and yellower though, and whiter below. The face often appeared quite yellow, the bill sometimes looked spiky and the legs were quite brown. One feature I did notice in the photos however was the differences in the primary pattern, as detailed in the pic below. Common Chiffchaffs do not moult their primaries at this time of year, so if there are two ages of feather visible in the wing-point, then it has to be a first-year Iberian Chiffchaff.
Something is happening to Iberian Chiffchaffs and it was a predicted addition to the island list. There are now plenty of records every spring in northern Europe (and Alderney had one last year) and the species even bred in the UK recently. Perhaps climate change is pushing the species' breeding range northwards and maybe this is about to happen to other similar-ranged species. So, a not-very-spectacular, but nevertheless rarest bird of the spring so far.