Over the weekend, our bird monitoring volunteer, Roger Buisson complete the bird surveys for Lark Rise Farms' Westfield and the ‘Tinkers, Telegraph and Warner’s Corner’ (TTW) fields.

After many weeks on pause, Roger was pleased to get back into the swing of CRT surveys. The highlight was a quail, heard calling from the crops at Westfield. These tiny game birds are a scarce visitor to the UK, breeding in small but variable numbers every year. We have recorded them on the formal monitoring visits in just one previous year at Westfield in 2015 and just three times on '98 land over the previous 20 years of monitoring!

Quails are potential beneficiaries of global warming in the UK, they are much more abundant further south in Europe, but are highly migratory and easily capable of taking new opportunities. Their breeding and migration strategy is more like those of butterflies than birds, with individuals breeding in North Africa or southern Spain early in the year then moving north for second or third broods, if the first habitats dry up too much. Chicks reared early in the year are capable of breeding in the same year, at 12-15 weeks of age, and may migrate to the UK in late summer to do so, often arriving in July and August as many of our other summer migrants are starting to head south for their winter!

To get one this early in spring suggests that this could be a good year for quail; listen out for the call, especially in cereal crop fields. It is said to sound like someone repeating the phrase ‘wet my lips’. 

Quail call

The birds themselves are hardly ever seen, being half the size of a partridge and lurking deep in the tall crops in the middle of a field. Roger also saw two Hobbies at Westfield which follows on from the one I saw the week before and bodes well for a chance that these might be staying to breed with us.

On his tour of 'TTW' fields, Roger was treated to the sight of a barn owl hunting in the Warner’s Corner meadow – this also ties in with where I saw one the previous visit.

The other highlights were a cuckoo calling from somewhere nearby and two willow warblers in the spinney; one being a ‘mixed singer’ with elements of chiffchaff song. Willow warblers and chiffchaffs are closely related species of warbler, very hard to tell apart visually (willow warbler being slightly yellower shade of green, with longer wing tips, pale legs and slightly slimmer build, all of which is hard to see on a tiny bird moving around the foliage!) Song is the best way to tell them apart, chiffchaffs sing their name but willow warblers have a beautiful descending cadence of notes.

Chiffchaff call

Willow warbler call

It seems that sometimes, the birds get confused themselves and try a bit of song from their close relative. This may be a genetic thing – perhaps hybridisation has occurred between the two species, or a ‘cultural’ thing, if a willow warbler chick grew up in an area with lots of chiffchaffs singing, it may have learnt some of that song.

With chiffchaffs increasing and willow warblers declining in southern Britain, it is possible that either of these events could happen more frequently; evolution could be taking place. Willow warblers remain the commonest out of the two in northern Britain.

Dr Vince Lea
Head of Wildlife Monitoring 

Quail mp3 recording was published (on freesound.org) by dobroide, and is used under a CC BY 3.0 International license. 
Chiffchaff mp3 recording was published (on freesound.org) by Sonic Ranger, and is used under a CC BY 3.0 International license.
Willow warbler mp3 recording was published (on freesound.org) by soundbytez, and is used under a CC BY 3.0 International license.