You may have heard that warblers are a “difficult” group of birds. This is quite true. They are almost invariably small (tit-sized), and almost invariably dull-coloured, a mixture of greens and browns.


In addition, they are also relentlessly restless, forever flitting about and never staying still. Even so, they still manage to keep hidden in thick foliage, so getting a decent view is often impossible. Some, such as cetti’s warbler, are so skulking that some birdwatchers have never set eyes on one.

They are insectivorous, and few are found around human habitation, apart from the blackcap.

All this makes getting to know warblers more difficult than other groups of birds – such as tits, finches and woodpeckers – but that's their charm, and spring certainly wouldn't be the same without them. They all have distinctive and beautiful songs, and for many people they provide a varied soundtrack for this most lively of seasons.

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Warblers of the UK


Sylvia atricapilla

Common. March-October, a few in winter. 1.1 million pairs in UK.

Male blackcap singing in spring
The blackcap is the only warbler that visits feeders in gardens/Credit: Getty

That true miracle, an easily identified warbler, with a distinctive cap that is black in the male and caramel-brown in the female. The only warbler that visits feeders in gardens, where it is aggressive. The song starts hesitantly but gets better, stronger and flutier. In summer a bird of woodland and edge.

Cetti's warbler

Cettia cetti

Scarce. All year. 3,450 singing males.

A shy and elusive Cetti's Warbler (Cettia cetti) perched on a branch in a tree
The Cetti's warbler is shy and elusive/Credit: Getty

First found breeding in Britain only in the 1970s, this is a recent colonist of dense waterside vegetation, mainly in southern Britain. It has an astonishingly loud, explosive song, like a boorish nightingale. Famously hard to see, but if you manage, it’s very warm brown with a large tail.


Phylloscopus collybita

Common. Mainly March-October, a few in winter. 1.6 million pairs.

Chiffchaff in the sun
The are 1.6 million pairs of chiffchaff in the UK/Credit: Getty

A wonderful sound of spring, the repeated “chiff, chaff” phrases are often heard on leafless treetops or flowering willows from March onwards. It also sings persistently right through to July. The chiffchaff is a waif of a bird, olive-green and undistinguished, but restless and flitty and quite easy to see. Mainly in woods with tall trees.

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Dartford warbler

Sylvia undata

Rare. Amber List of Conservation Concern. Resident. 1,700 pairs.

Dartford warbler on a branch
The Dartford warbler has a distinctive red eye/Credit: Getty

Its unusual shape and colour, a long tail with a tiny body attached and with raspberry red underparts and a red eye, make it look special and rare – and it is. Very much a bird of lowland heaths, attracted by the heather and gorse combination in which it skulks, making it very hard to see.

Garden warbler

Sylvia borin

Fairly common. April-August. 145,000 pairs.

Garden warbler on a branch
The garden warbler is known for its babbling song/Credit: Getty

This is the classic small brown bird with, famously, no obvious identification features at all. It does, however, have a wondrous, lively, babbling song, almost always given out of sight in thick vegetation. It is very much a bird of tall scrub, not woodland and – despite its name – definitely not gardens.

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Grasshopper warbler

Locustella naevia

Uncommon. Red List of Conservation Concern. April- October. 9,750 pairs.

Grasshopper warbler in a tree
The grasshopper warbler walks along the ground to feed/Credit:Getty

It comes and whispers, giving a strange, insect-like song, like an angler’s reel or a freewheeling bicycle. A very tricky bird to see, which walks along the ground to feed, sings from cover and also, like several warblers, sings at night. But its freckles and streaks, as well as its heavy tail, are distinctive.

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Lesser whitethroat

Sylvia curruca

Scarce. April-October. 79,000 pairs.

Lesser whitethroat single bird on branch
The lesser whitethroat has an odd, rattling song/Credit: Getty

Like a whitethroat scrubbed up for a party, the lesser whitethroat is pristine white below and darker about than its relative, with black, not pink legs. A tricky, very skulking bird of tall scrub. The song is an odd rattle, and the bird moves around between song phrases, making it a nightmare to pin down.

Reed warbler

Acrocephalus scirpaceus

Common. April-September. 130,000 pairs.

A close up of a reed warbler
The reed warbler has a sharp beak/Credit: Getty

Find the reeds, find the reed warbler, a bird with very specific habitat requirements; it binds its nest between reed stems over water. Spring marshes resound to its grumpy, very rhythmic song, and it isn’t too hard to see this sharp-beaked and arrow-headed bird singing from a reed top or flying between stands of its favourite plant.

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Sedge warbler

Acrocephalus schoenobaenus

Common. April-September. 220,000 pairs.

Sedge warbler singing
The sedge warbler has an obvious whitish eyebrow/Credit: Getty

A reed warbler on steroids, the effervescent sedge warbler has a wildly fluctuating, turbo-charged song with lots of imitations, and the singer often launches from its perch on a short song-flight. Similar in shape and size to reed warbler, it is easily distinguished by its obvious whitish eyebrow, and a few extra streaks on the back.


Sylvia communis

Common. April-October. 1.1 million pairs.

Whitethroat in tree
The whitethroat has warm brown wings/Credit: Getty

A zestful, restless and sun-loving bird, the whitethroat is often seen perching on a bush-top singing its very short, scratchy song, a real sound of summer. Easier to see than many warblers, look out for the warm brown wings, pale below and with the eponymous white throat, making a singing male look as though it has applied shaving-foam.

Willow warbler

Phylloscopus trochilus

Common, but Amber List of Conservation Concern. April-September. 2 million pairs.

Willow warbler on a branch
The willow warbler is a small, greenish bird the size of a tit/Credit: Getty

The chiffchaff is lovable, but to many it is the willow warbler’s gorgeous, gentle song, a soft lilting down the scale, that proves spring is really here. A small, greenish bird the size of a tit, it is easily missed among the fresh spring leaves of birches and willows. Commonest in the north.

Wood warbler

Phylloscopus sibilatrix

Scarce. Red List of Conservation Concern. April-August. 6500 pairs.

Wood warbler in a tree
The wood warbler has a bright yellow face/Credit: Getty

The smartest of the small green warblers, with bright yellow on its face, brilliant beech-green wings and a white belly. Its most obvious song is a shivering trill, like a spinning coin coming to rest, but it also makes a series of doleful whistles. Mostly found in western and northern sessile oak woods, but fast-declining.


Black and white photo of Dominic Couzens
Dominic CouzensBird expert and best selling nature author

Dominic Couzens is a British birdwatcher, author and journalist specialising in avian and natural history subjects.