The chiffchaff, willow warbler and wood warbler are not easily distinguished from one another, except, as discovered by the curate of Selbourne, Gilbert White, at the end of the 18thcentury, by their respective songs.
To the casual birder they likely fell into the general bag of “little brown jobs”, but not to his questing intelligence. Gilbert also understood that swallows disappeared in the autumn, and, not knowing where they went, and also not believing Aristotle’s hypothesis that they lived in the silt at the bottom of lakes, conducted an experiment digging up trees on the down above his home to see if they hibernated in the roots.
One summer, when he was “a past his prime bachelor”, three sisters arrived to stay in his village. Apparently one in particular, Catherine Battie, caught his eye but no romance occurred and these “fine, fizzing” girls left the parish, not to return. Gilbert, like a lovelorn teenager, wrote an autumnal poem dedicated to “The Miss Batties”, the final part of which went thus;
“Return, blithe maidens; with you bring along
Free, native humour, all the charms of song,
The feeling heart, and unaffected ease,
Each nameless grace, and ev’ry power to please.”