Monday, 11 April 2011

I'm an idiot, please don't laugh...

...You learn something new every day apparently. Well yesterday I learnt a bigun. I have been living a lie. I have been seeing something that doesn't even exist, through my own ingorance. I have spent the last few days looking at Cabbage Whites, not even realising a Cabbage White isn't even a Butterfly!

It all started yesterday, sunbathing in the garden. My dad was hanging up some clothes to dry at the same time, and I spotted an Orange-Tip. Only the second I had seen this year, and my dad's first. We then had a conversation about Butterflies, and he mentioned having seen his first Large White of the year...

being the inquisitive type, and thinking it'd be good to tell them apart so I could mention it on this blog, I asked my dad 'how do you tell the difference between a Large White and a Cabbage White?'. And that, dear readers, is when I discovered the shocking truth. THERE IS NO CABBAGE WHITE!

As my Dad explained, 'Cabbage White' is the generic name for the two white species of Butterfly, the Large White and the Small White. To tell them apart, size is the easiest method, but Large White also has considerably more extensive black on the wingtips. It is fine to label them both as Cabbage Whites, but not technically correct.

Armed with this knowledge, and having to walk a dog, I spent the time wandering Seaford, trying to find white Butterflies. and I did. I saw two, one of which i got a good enough view of to clearly establish it was a Small White. The other one I saw I suspect may have been a Large White but I didn't get a good enough view to confirm it, so that one still goes down as a Cabbage.

I also learnt, yesterday, that sometimes the calls of phylloscopus warblers can be very unreliable. Walking along the estate above Cradle Hill, Seaford, I heard a phyllosc in one of the gardens.

Normally, it would be most likely to be a Chiffchaff. So when i heard it making a Willow Warbler's characteristic two-tone call I was quite excited. A Willow Warbler is a fairly good bird for an urban area. I was sure it was one, based on it's call.

I didn't have binoculars, so the best I could do was to peer up into the canopy and hope to get a glimpse of it. I caught sight of it flying from one tree to another. Then when it landed it started doing the characteristic 'tail-dipping' of a Chiffchaff. CRAP!

OK, it wasn't that big a deal, but it did at least teach me you can't always trust this tricky pair when confronted with only their call. The song it very distinctive, and after that behaviour is the next-best clue I find (Chiffchaff, as already mentioned, tail-pumps a lot, but Willow Warbler flicks its wings). In a 'classic' individual, plumage also helps (Willow Warbler being generally brighter than Chiffchaff), but there are a lot of intermediates that can't be indentified on plumage alone.

and just to make it that little bit harder, sometimes a bird will sing a bit of both songs, see for an example. Whether these are hybrids or confused individuals is often anybody's guess, but it seems that Willow Warbler may sing a 'mixed' song more often than Chiffchaff. I myself have a first-hand as a bird singing a hybrid song (it was a Willow Warbler on plumage/behaviour though) was seen at Pulborough Brooks RSPB for two springs running, and Dad and I managed to bump into it both years. It was a bit of a mind-fuck at first!

and if you want to check their calls and songs, there are links here (WilWa), and here (Chiffy).

But other than that, not a lot to report of late. However, Honey-bees appear to be out in force, and I have also seen a lot of Red-rumped Bumble-Bees in the last few days. Our pond is now crawling with little Toad Tadpoles, and there are up to four Slow Worms at any one time in the garden. We also have a few pairs of House Sparrow that regularly come into the garden getting food for their young, but asides from then and a few Blue Tits and Blackbirds, the garden has seemed very birdless recently. However, several Chiffchaffs have taken up residence around Seaford, and a migrant Buzzard, with the inevitable accompanying gulls (click here for my heartfelt tribute to the bastards), flew strongly north yesterday morning.
two of the Slow Worms in the garden

female House Sparrow, coming in to collect food for her brood

an 'arty' portrait of a Tulip. note I said 'arty', not arty.


  1. Hi Liam,
    We have a Willow Warbler on our local patch at Holmethorpe Sand Pits in Surrey that gives a full Willow song followed by a few 'chiff-chaffs'.
    We have seen the bird well and leg colour and primary projection prove it is definitely a Willow.
    This is the second year running that such a bird has turned up at our patch and the general opinion locally is that these birds are not hybrids but seem to have somehow learned both songs, perhaps as a result of adjacent nesting by both species.
    (When I was knee-high to a Grasshopper Warbler, I thought all white butterflies were Cabbage Whites too!)

  2. very interesting. I'd agree that most of these birds are probably birds that have learned both songs perhaps as you say the two species may have nested very close together.
    although I'm not entirely sure what you mean by 'knee-high to a Grasshopper warbler!' I'm relieved I wasn't the only one to have that assumption about Cabbagey Butterflies!