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Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler and Chiffchaff - Bird Watching on The River Stour

Updated on March 16, 2013
With extensive reed beds, grasslands and woody areas, the River Sour is the perfect spot for spotting all kinds of warblers.
With extensive reed beds, grasslands and woody areas, the River Sour is the perfect spot for spotting all kinds of warblers. | Source

As spring approaches on the River Stour in South East Kent, England, the bird population increases in droves as migrants come from far and wide to enjoy the rich and varied habitat that this area offers. With extensive reed beds, scrub, marshland and woodland it is the perfect location for warblers of every kind to come and breed.

Through the months of March through to May the dawn chorus gets steadily louder as these birds arrive and start singing to impress potential mates, until it becomes so loud that it is almost impossible to distinguish the separate bird song.

It is possible however to recognise the distinctive songs of the different warblers as they arrive and this is usually the first indication of their presence in the region. Spotting them can be a little more tricky and with so many different types of warbler, identification can be a difficult business indeed.

A male whitethroat
A male whitethroat | Source

Whitethroat - Sylvia communis

These jaunty little warblers are a common visitor to open countryside all over England, and here on the river Stour is no different. Once identified, you will see and hear them all summer from April through to September, and they are a pleasure to watch! The males in particular perch conspicuously and sing, playfully flying into the air and swapping perches with one another (all the time in full song!). In late September the whitethroat migrates to spend it's winter in Africa, Arabia or Pakistan.

The sexes are separable with care. The adult male has a blue-grey cap and face, and the throat, as the name suggests, is strickingly white. He has a grey-brown back with dark edges to the feathers on his wings and white edges to his tail feathers. The underparts are pale with a pinkish buff, and the legs are yellowish brown. The bill is yellow with a dark tip. The female and juvenile birds are similar except for the cap and face being a lighter brown colour and the underparts are suffused with a pale buff.

The song and call of the whitethroat

Sedge Warbler - Acrocephalus Schoenobaenus

The sedge warblers begin arriving in March and the first sign that they have arrived is their very distinctive song which is sung day and night. They prefer the reed beds along the side of the river as their breeding grounds so it can be very difficult to spot these birds. As their population increases during March and April, the singing, especially at night can become really loud and if you were unaware of these birds you might suspect that the noise came from insects!

The sedge warbler
The sedge warbler | Source

The sexes are similar. The adult has dark-streaked sandy-brown upperparts and pale underparts that are flushed orange-brown on the chest. There is a dark streaked crown on the head and a pale supercilium (white stripe above the eye) over a dark eye stripe. The juvinile is similar but with pale streaking on it's chest. It has grey-brown legs and a dark bill.

The sedge warbler migrates across the sahara desert from Africa to come to various locations in Europe to breed, and as soon as the first snatches of song are heard here on the river bank, I often marvel at the journey these birds have undertaken to get here, and the energy they still put into their song which at it's hight in May and June, can be so incredibly loud!

The sedge warbler in song

Chiffchaff - Phylloscopus Collybita

The chiffchaff is a tiny warbler measuring only 11cm in length. It is constantly on the move amongst the foliage in search of invertebrates to feed on and is probably best known for it's song, and it's habit of "wagging" it's tail.

The sexes are similar with grey-brown upperparts, and pale, greyish underparts that are suffused with a yellow buff. There is a pale supercilium, and the bill is thin and needle like. The legs are black, which is useful to note as this is a clear identification marker that this bird is not a willow warbler, whose legs are pinkish-yellow!


It can be easy to mistake the chiffchaff for the willow warbler, concentrate on the leg colour and the song to be sure. The following video is a chiffchaff singing, but it also has some good close up shots and tips to separate it from the willow warbler! The first chiffchaff's arrive in March and can be heard singing straight away, which is a welcome reminder that spring is just around the corner. In autumn these little birds migrate to the Mediterranean for the winter, although several hundred birds choose to remain in England for the winter, I have never been aware of them here on the River Stour.

The Chiffchaff in Song

Some Further Reading


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    • Jennifer Stone profile image

      Jennifer Stone 5 years ago from the Riverbank, England

      Thank you for your comments Stephanie, it can be difficult identifying warblers which is why I thought I'd write about them with all the information in one place for people like me! :-)

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 5 years ago from USA

      I very much enjoyed your bird hub, particularly the photos and the video of the chiffchaff singing. I love watching birds, but still find warblers (in the U.S.) difficult to identify. Your pointers on looking for leg color and beak shape as well as tell-tale movements and song are good tips no matter where we are birding. Very useful and interesting hub!

    • Jennifer Stone profile image

      Jennifer Stone 5 years ago from the Riverbank, England

      Sorry James, I forgot to say Hi, and thanks for stopping by! I can always rely on you to read my "birdy" hubs... (haven't been up long.... lol) :-)

    • Jennifer Stone profile image

      Jennifer Stone 5 years ago from the Riverbank, England

      Yes, we have the cuckoo! That's the other one to listen out for to know that spring is here! This is actually the only place where I've ever seen a cuckoo, although I've heard them lots of times. One flew past me "cuckooing" so I knew what it was straight away. They have quite a unique silhouette in comparison to other birds I think, so quite easy to spot now I know what they look like! I haven't seen it this year but can hear it most mornings.

    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 5 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Great hub, Jennifer, you really do live in a beautiful part of the country. I've seen all of the birds you've described here. I especially like the chiffchaff, mostly for its song, because whenever I hear it, I know that the spring is here. Was just wondering whether you have any cuckoos where you are? As they like to target warblers for nesting.