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Photographing melodious warblers in Charente-Maritime

We photographed our first melodious warblers, Hippolais polyglotta, in Charente-Maritime, France, while we were working on a wildlife photography project about migratory birds in the wetlands. It was pure chance that we took these pictures. At first, we thought that we had photographed common chiffchaffs. However, an amateur ornithologist, Serge Moulis, explained to us that they were melodious warblers. We were lucky, because that species falls within the parameters of our project.

A melodious warbler on a branch in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A melodious warbler on a branch in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.

A photo project that began 3 years ago

For three years, we have been working on a wildlife photography project about migratory birds in the wetlands of France. The first species we photographed was the very rare aquatic warbler.

Each year, we choose three species and try to artistically photograph the birds in their natural environments. We only keep pictures that match our photographic vision.

This year, we selected the bluethroat, the streaked fantail warbler and the European goldfinch. Only three species in a year may seem like a very small goal, but wildlife photography takes a lot of time.

We often wait for hours or even days without taking a single photo. For example, when we were looking for aquatic warblers, we spent four hours a day for a week sitting in the mud in a reed bed before we took the beautiful photographs we wanted.

A lucky sighting

The previous year, we had explored the wetlands and found the areas where bluethroats nested. We knew that they would be back. While we were waiting in a blind near one of those areas, we were surprised to see two small yellow sparrows fly past. We did not photograph them immediately. Instead, we observed them for two days and tried to identify them and find out what they were doing.

We decided that we had seen a couple of common chiffchaffs. Their songs, their way of flying, and their habitat in the wetland all seemed to point to this species. We even consulted our ornithology books, which seemed to confirm our thoughts.

We were very pleased, even though we had not originally planned to photograph this species. Once we found the nest and observed the birds’ flight paths, we spent two days photographing them.

We thought that we were very lucky, and we were, but there was still had a surprise in store for us. What we had photographed was in fact a pair of melodious warblers.

Difficulty identifying the species

After we posted an article on our website where we told the story behind our photos, we received a message from an amateur ornithologist, Serge Moulis, who thought that the birds we had seen were melodious warblers.

Melodious warblers and common chiffchaffs look very similar. There are differences between the two species, but they are very subtle. Their bills are different lengths, and their legs are different colors. However, common chiffchaffs live in wetlands and melodious warblers live in dry areas. We consulted various ornithology books, but were unable to ascertain which species we had photographed. In the end, we brought the question up on an online ornithology forum, and got confirmation that we had, in fact, seen melodious warblers.

These birds got their name because they can imitate the songs of many other birds. The ones we had seen were imitating the chiffchaff’s call, which is why we misidentified them.

A melodious warbler on a branch in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A melodious warbler on a branch in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.

A migratory bird

The melodious warbler is a trans-Saharan migratory sparrow that comes to France in the spring to mate. It weighs from 0.35 to 0.5 ounces. As we found out, it can mimic the songs of many other birds, including the song thrush, the blackbird, and the sparrow. We can now add the common chiffchaff to this list.

We were very lucky to photograph melodious warblers in a wetland, because they typically live in dry areas.

A melodious warbler on a branch in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.
A melodious warbler on a branch in a wetland of Charente-Maritime in France.

We learned a lot from our error

We have learned a lot from this error. Books are a great source of information, but they are not infallible. It is always best to ask an ornithologist about a doubtful case. We were also reminded that animals and birds do not always behave as we expect them to.

From now on, we will be more careful when we identify birds. However, the important thing is that we photographed a species which we did not expect to see. We hope that all our future mistakes will end this well.

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Article published on Tuesday, June 23, 2015 . Written by
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