RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Tittle-tattle chitter-chatter of sedge warblers

Would you say warblers warble? In human terms a warbler could be a tap-room hero, a coloratura soprano colouring her top notes with vibrato, or a new presidential candidate filling in air space with wild promises.

Thursday, 31st March 2016, 2:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:37 pm

Warblers are also birds which come here for the summer and sing songs that unlock the doors to spring. I hear a willow warbler in the garden and all those doubtful days of winter have fled over the horizon.

The sun is back again, I feel warm, the garden is growing, the woodland flowers spreading their dense mats of white and yellow and blue and everything smells beautiful. A weight seems to lift from the shoulders. Good heavens; willow warblers don’t warble! Even the scientific bird books rhapsodise briefly: ‘Liquid musical cadence; downscale ending in sad-sweet flourish.’

Another summer visitor here is the blackcap warbler, with its brilliant song sung at breakneck speed which even those needing deaf-aids can hear a hundred yards away.

I shall wander along the banks of Chichester canal and hopefully hear a loud, abrupt burst of dazzling sound like silver bells coming out of the rushes at my feet from an invisible throat. That will be a Cetti’s warbler.

There used to be a most extraordinary sound in Sussex that was as distinctive as Schubert’s song of the spinning wheel. That was the grasshopper warbler which is now rare.

Forty years ago summer nights under the moon in the Cowdray woods was a magical experience as these normally invisible mouse-like birds climbed up bramble stems and let fly their everlasting torrent of sound. All on one note, repeated at the speed of a stick on the spokes of a bicycle wheel, this amazing song came non-stop from their yellow throats for hours on end. They breathed on the song, without a single pause. But then I shall hear the tittle-tattle chitter-chatter of sedge warblers in the ditches down the Arun banks, and that peculiar mechanical jag-jag-jag chirrup-chirrup-chirrup of the reed warbler by Greatham Bridge or Thorney Deeps. You might agree then, that these are just warblers; making unmelodious sounds for the sake of it.

Yet the repetitions ring out like church bells pealing, sounds in themselves that can open a whole world of experience and pleasant memory. For Rachmaninov church bells heard in childhood became the dominant motif of almost every piece of music he composed. Think of the opening of his Third Piano Concerto for instance. 45 species of warblers warble in Europe. I love them all, even if most do just warble away inoffensively to themselves.

They really are the trumps, and with no ridiculous Donald Duck-like prattling of some human warblers.