When I was a boy I used to read The Observer’s Book of Birds like a novel. Night after night, page after page, bird after bird: I couldn’t put it down. But there was a great mystery involved and eventually I cracked it. I realised, with the ineffable logic of a child, that the book must be wrong.
Towards the back, the book was full of warblers. They all looked the same, and I had never seen any of them, or heard of anyone seeing any of them. The only evidence I had for their existence was in these pages, and the conclusion was inevitable. Warblers don’t exist and the book had been conceived and written in error.
The first time I was fully aware of a real willow warbler was about 30 years later. Its song was pointed out to me in a Suffolk lane. It was pointed out every time one sang, which in those days was about every 50 paces. By the end of the walk I not only knew willow warblers: my ears were tuned in to birdsong and the world was a different place for ever after.
Because you don’t see willow warblers. You’re not supposed to see them. You hear them. That’s how the birds themselves do it and it should be good enough for us.
These days I live in Norfolk, not least because in May the birdsong is so rich. So far this year we’ve heard nine species of warbler in the surrounding hedges and marshes: and one of them, praise the lord, is a willow warbler, these days far more inclined to sing and breed in Scotland, to escape the effects of the changing climate.
But there it was, with that sweet lisping descent down the scale: stay, I radioed urgently, stay here and find a mate and make more willow warblers right there, in that clump of sallows. And then I moved on and the marshes and thickets warbled as I walked.
- Those nine species: willow warbler, chiffchaff, whitethroat, lesser whitethroat, reed warbler, sedge warbler, blackcap, garden warbler, Cetti’s warbler.