|Common Chiffchaff (Martin Kelsey)|
All this week I have been accompanying Derek and Helen on their holiday to Extremadura and we have visited the wide selection of habitats and landscapes that the region boasts. But amongst the memories of wildlife encounters that are being lodged in our minds, the most recurring is without question the Common Chiffchaff. Not only is this winter visitor abundant, but what strikes the visitor from northern Europe is its eclectic choice of habitat. Generally associated on its northern breeding grounds with tall trees, it is quite simply the most ubiquitous of all birds here in winter. We have found wintering Chiffchaffs from montane scrub and heathland to rice stubble fields, from decidous Pyrenean oak woodland, pine woods, cork oak forest and holm oak dehesa, from treeless dry-country plains and pastures to the edges of dense stands of typha and reeds. Chiffchaffs have darted from the gritty patches of bare ground beside the castle in the centre of Trujillo and before the Temple of Diana in the heart of Mérida. They haunt the edges of lakes and fast-flowing rivers. Chiffchaffs have been present at every place we have stopped in and often in small parties....there will be millions of them across the region.
What has been equally enchanting has been their foraging. I will never forget my first encounter with this species in winter in India. I had just arrived in Delhi to start a new job and on my first free morning took a visit to the Delhi Zoo, which was a recommended birding spot. Whilst other visitors headed to the tigers and rhinos, I dallied in the wooded areas, watching Hume's Warblers and Red-breasted Flycatchers. And then coming across the edge of a pool in an enclosure I was initially puzzled by a small group of unmarked Phylloscopus warblers searching for food on the ground at the water's edge. They were Common Chiffchaffs.
And here in Extremadura too, at the edge of the mud of a paddy field, close to a gorgeous male Bluethroat which elegantly hopped on its long, slender legs, tail cocked, out came the brownish olive little warblers, with tiny jerky bounces, as if caused by the release of little springs. As with their universality in terms of habitat, so their diverse ways of catching small insects. On the sunny side of trees, they glean the underside of leaves, they sally like active flycatchers out from the canopy. They explore the vertical stems of emergent vegetation and move like Dunnocks on the ground in parks and gardens, with rapid flicking of the wings. They perch on fences and drop into the tussocks below. And along the river, like minature wagtails they fly out and with delicate agility, hover just above the still surface of the water, causing the faintest of ripples, to hunt the miniscule flies venturing out on a winter's afternoon.