Praise for All Phylloscopus – “One of the most difficult groups of small passerines”

Feathers from a Birder’s Garden (1)

Mount Meru, Tanzania – September 30, 2014


Phew! … I, we both, we’ve made it, back to the plateau of East Africa and before September’s end.

The above photo of a Willow Warbler was taken on St Mary’s, in the Isles of Scilly, and is likely of the nominate form trochilus rather an acredula – which is most likely the subspecies which we saw yesterday in our garden here in Arusha. The nominate form is typically yellower on the breast, whilst in acredula the yellow wash across the breast is less extensive.

Between late September and early in May the delightful little Mosquitero Musical is often abundant in the tropics of eastern Africa from beach scrub at sea-level up into the heath zone at 3,000 metres on our mountains. I am always delighted to see the first of the return. In the same way that I never ceased to be delighted upon hearing my first Willow Warbler singing, early in April, when I was back home in Northern Europe. Most Willow Warblers, and there must be many, many millions, breed in northern Russia. In some way I think they epitomise the subtle beauty and tender joys of something which lies at the heart of our Old World birder’s birding.

The Willow Warbler is also a real migratory star. It is the most numerous bird species to make the Sahara crossing. It is also one of the smallest. The fat-free weight of this tiny mosquito eater is only 7 grams, 10-11 after laying-on pre-migratory subcutaneous fat, and it is one of the slowest fliers with a still-air speed of only 34 km per hour. Therefore it takes them between 29 and 44 hours to cross the Sahara, that is without the assistance of any favourable tail winds.

So, here’s a gentle bow to the memory of three fine Phyllosc lovers of old, Carl Von Linné (Linnaeus), Claud B. Ticehurst and Kenneth Williamson.

Out the window, from the bed,

it’s the end of morning coffee!

A dripping mountain mist

blissfully ignorant

of a surge by the Black Jihad.

The world, just for a second, is stilled.

By the sliver of a palearctic passerine,

gleaning tiny diptera

wing flick, tail wag

at the budding apex of a spire-like Terminalia.

Yup! Yup! Phylloscopus

Taxon … t. trochilus … more likely a greening acredula?

For even in this down-grey dawn

it’s far too foliate in hue,

to be the ghost form from Yakutia –

forty percent North of 66 –

the “coldest communities” on Earth !


Here is Penochka-vesnichka, likely a yakutensis Willow Warbler. The form which was described by Claud Ticehurst in 1935. Each yakutensis hatches in a loosely woven shalashik on the ground, in a stunted birch forest, somewhere in the trackless taiga way up north in the Russian Far East. This third race has a truly prodigious migration. Some “6,000 to 7,000 miles skirting the deserts of Central Asia on the north and west to reach its wintering quarters” here in East Africa.  This bird was photographed by Martin Goodey, but not in Scilly! A pale sprite, it graced the early-stages of our wilding garden in Arusha on December 7, 2008. Perhaps as many as 5% of our birds, i.e. those wintering in East Africa, are of this race.

It’s an honour having such tiny bundles of life-energy coming to feed, to bathe and to roost in my “humble-tumble pile of wilding-ness”. My garden designed in a million little moves for birds – it’s true, just ask Lui and Toran my two sons! These long-distance migrant birds enable me to feel intimately connected to the whole wonderful world of “Nature”. To communities out there, way beyond the hedge and far across the forbidding deserts (both old and new), out over the oceans – hopefully deep and often blue.

CarlvonLinneA young Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné  (from Wikipedia) who in 1758 described “for science” the Lövsångare, together with so many other life-forms, ‘the first’ trochilus Willow Warbler and the first acredula too.


A juvenile, characteristically yellow, Willow Warbler wing flicking, this one – on stop-over during migration this boreal autumn –  is of the nominate form trochilus. It was taken, again by Martin, in the Isle of Scilly off Cornwall (“in de-UK”).

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