Birding the Chaff

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Put it simply, I do not know European birds.

Which is why I saw this one and sighed. Its vagueish eyebrow indicated its membership of that hated family: leaf warblers. A brief history – I have seen several in the Himalayas, probably some in the Western Ghats, and a total of nil have been identified. Their song is beautiful, but their bodies themselves are far from as colorful as it might make them out to be. All are the same oliveish tinge and the glances I get are usually not enough to figure out is the venting yellow-olive or more creamish?

That’s why it’s always nice to go somewhere new with someone who knows the area. When travelling, however, that luxury is ill-afforded; the next best thing – research. Research, research, research.

And that is how we ended up wandering down a road in the middle of (semi)rural Spain in the middle of the morning, searching for birds. A series of coincidences had led us there – some happy and some not so, but the end result was our arrival at a place knows as the Llobregat Delta. Every site I had visited had pointed newbie birders to Barcelona there, citing its proximity to the airport and diversity of waterfowl and, well, I rarely turn down an opportunity to bird, even if what I end up birding are birds I haven’t the faintest clue what they are, because all the field guides are in Spanish. My most likely chance of any identification was to meet a fellow birder.

Unfortunately, all the birders were also Spanish – and extremely apologetic about it, too. Through a series of hand-gestures and monosyllabic phrases that are the stock of any tourist in a foreign land, however, I managed to communicate my sighting of the above bird, at which point frantic nodding ensued and this (Spanish) field guide opened to the appropriate page. I backed up five meters to photograph it with my long lens, having forgot, as usual, to bring a notebook.

Then I went home to Singapore, because that was our second-to-last day there, and when processing my images, I stumbled across the picture of the field guide.

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I duly googled the scientific name, and I duly realized how little I know European birds.

It was a chiffchaff – as in a common chiffchaff, as in resident/migrant to most of Afro-Eurasia, as in not some obscure species of leaf warbler I had no chance of identifying.

And I suppose my severe overestimation of the bird is simply just the unbearable optimism any birder possesses – that any day might be the ‘lucky’ one, the thrill you get when leafing through a field guide. And I suppose that’s the reason I bird in the first place – for that optimism, and for the chance to encounter new species, common or not, for the thrill, and for the hoping, and for the song of a warbler on a sweet, sweet afternoon.

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Warbling Wonder

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Some shots are skill. Some shots are patience. And some shots are just pure luck.

(Guess which one this was.)

The problem with the mountains is that seasons exist. And while this meant that I got to experience the relatively foreign sensation of cold (and the pleasures of camp fires, jackets, and fingers so numb I could barely press buttons on my camera), it also meant the sun set early: very, very early. 5:00 early.

Shutter-speed-too-low-to-really-photograph-without-crazy-iSOs-5:00-early.

But hey, was I looking at my watch most of the time? No. Was I checking my camera settings assiduously, making sure my shutter speeds were high enough to capture my ever-moving subjects?…No.

I’d been, quite literally, running after a mixed flock of birds, with a single Green-backed Finch and a few warblers, over hill and dale; hill because we were in the mountains, dale because we were in a valley in the mountains. They constantly eluded me; when I thought I could move into a good position to, if not photograph them, at least observe them, they would fly off to the next tree. Many was the time I clicked the photograph, only upon examining it to realize my subject had a done a runner on me literally milliseconds beforehand (some pictures had their (out-of-focus) tails disappearing out of a corner). While it could have been worse – the now-bare apple trees might have been in full foliage, providing a dense undergrowth in which photography would be impossible, compared to the pretty much nearly impossible it was now, the light was failing and I didn’t realize it.

So when this Grey-hooded Warbler, out of pity, perhaps, landed right in front of me, I clicked like a storm. Later, looking at the data, I realize just how lucky I was. With a depressingly low 1/80 second shutter speed, it’s wonder that any came clear at all; the ever-moving warbler simply decided it was my lucky day and held still long enough for me to get proof, at least, that I had seen it.