Country Diary: Chiffchaffs have returned from their winter holiday

A male chiffchaff
A male chiffchaff

A terrified scream emanated from beneath the wheelie bin as I moved it a few inches nearer the wall. I froze to the spot, and waited. Silence. What was it? A kitten, or a mouse perhaps? Moving it back, the scream was repeated, and I hardly dare imagine what I’d find beneath.

Carefully lifting the bin revealed the most unfortunate victim – a frog! I could scarcely believe my eyes. I had no idea a frog could scream. I placed it in a safer place beneath a stone, and it seemed fine.

The chiffchaffs have returned from their winter holiday in Mediterranean regions. The first I heard calling were on April 5, rather later than last year’s arrivals, which were recorded on March 21. Then again, I know one of them had over-wintered, as it called throughout the year!

The chiffchaff derives its name from its monotonous, but unmistakable song -– chiff chaff chaff chiff chap! Although you may recognise its song, you may never see this tiny bird, the first to arrive back for summertime.

It usually sings from the heights of tall trees, so patience is required in seeking its location. It resembles the willow warbler in appearance, but tends to be duller in colour and to have darker legs.

The upper parts are brownish-olive, and underparts white with a tinge of yellow on the breast. You may see one feeding on the ground in its quest for small insects.

A stroll along Scarborough’s Esplanade is always a joy, especially from the little garden feature of a boat as you head south towards Holbeck’s Clock Tower. Each flower bed radiates a ‘rainbow’ of colour, with a splash of white to highlight the reds, blues and yellows of polyanthus and primulas.

Beyond are the blues, purples and yellows of pansies, with wallflowers coming into bloom and providing perfume.

It’s thanks to the council’s dedicated gardeners that we have such a fine floral heritage. They may never be fully aware how much they’re appreciated.

One of my favourite rockery plants is anemone hepatica (ie Hepatica triloba). It has gorgeous blue flowers about an inch across, and trifoliate, kidney-shaped leaves. It can take a year or so to settle down after moving, but is a little gem, and usually blooms a little earlier than the wild wood anemone.

Nature is truly awakening. Our friend Steve Parnaby has recently mentioned having seen a male brimstone butterfly on April 3. It’s our only all-yellow butterfly, but the females are so pale that they can be mistake for large whites.

It’s a butterfly that hibernates through the winter, mates in the spring, and lays its eggs on buckthorn, when these bushes begin to come into leaf. The eggs hatch into green caterpillars, feeding on the leaves for three to seven weeks before turning into green pupae.

The pupa hangs from a leaf or twig, being well camouflaged before a butterfly emerges.