Mystery Brown Chiffchaff

For those who love Chiffies

Jerusalem Bird Observatory, 19th Nov 2012

by Martin

Chiffchaff nov 19th 2012  JBO 1

I am wrestling with this one and haven’t come to clear resolution its identity. So I wondered if regular readers might like to have a look. It’s a ‘brown Chiffchaff’- the only really outstanding Chiff seen in 10 days, amoung mostly typical  collybita-like and slightly paler/greyer presumed abietinus types which uttered calls  from mono to disyllabic mostly along the swee/ swee-oo theme.

This bird stood out in view of its brown tones, lacking obvious olive and yellow, though didn’t have a stand-out thick buffy ‘tristis supercilium’ – which is helpful on those that show it (I know that lots don’t!). We listened but didn’t notice anything that sounded like a typical tristis call. I did record something that sounded closer to the monosyllabic ‘swee’ call heard everywhere else in Israel. However when I saw the sonagram…

The bird’s call  sounded ‘happy’ and closer to version of the ‘swee’ call and not so tristis-like to my ears. However the sonagram  shows a rather flat note, arguably ‘tristis-shaped’ but about 1/2 kHz higher pitched than typical tristis with something of a downward inflection at the end. I have more pics of the bird and recordings of a good  variety of Chiffchaff calls. So another blog post is brewing on the variety of Chiffchaff calls heard and recorded.

Listen to the call amoungst the other noises of the JBO garden: Listen Here

The Sonagram (sections from the recording):

JBO monosyllabic brown chiff 19 Nov 2012 59

JBO monosyllabic brown chiff 19 Nov 2012 59.jpg b

I have musings but not arrived at clear explanation – yet. And it does raise some questions for me. Over to you.

(with big thanks to Tristan Reid for discussion about the bird,  and hosting the recording. Also to Avner and the guys at JBO– great bunch!)

11 thoughts on “Mystery Brown Chiffchaff

  1. Scott Mayson

    Not an expert by any means but Mountain Chiffchaff (sindianus) came to mind straight away. Never seen them in the field and not sure of calls.

  2. Alan Dean

    The Jerusalem Chiffchaff lacks olive and yellow from the appropriate feather tracts and also has the ‘brown and buff’ hues associated with tristis. The call sounds to me somewhere between a fully developed (‘flat’) tristis call and a so-called ‘alternative’ call, slightly rising and falling in pitch and usually transcribed as ‘sweeoo’. As suggested and illustrated by the BBRC’s 2008 ‘tristis panel’ (BB (2010) 103: 326) there is evidence that tristis as well as collybita/abietinus uses an alternative ‘sweeoo’ call (probably first-year individuals particularly). However, in tristis the ‘sweeoo’ call has a much more gentle transition from rising to falling pitch and a rather different frequency range. See Fig 3 & Fig. 4 and discussion at, which compares a collybita ‘sweeoo’ type call with a tristis ‘sweeoo’ type call, the latter recorded in India in 2007 by Antero Lindholm. More recently, the Sound Approach team has also documented such calls from tristis. Thus, plumage and call of the Jerusalem bird both seem compatible with tristis to me.
    One proviso is that, in the Middle East, there are less-well-known Chiffchaff taxa which introduce additional considerations. It’s well-known that Mountain Chiffchaff (lorenzii) can look very like tristis but the evident olive fringes to the secondaries (in particular) of the Jerusalem bird would arguably point away from lorenzii, as would the call (fully-developed adult call of lorenzii, at least, has a falling pitch – see Clement et al, 1998, BB 91: 370, Fig. 4, for example). Many lorenzii have a better-developed pale ‘bridge’ across the forehead (an extension and joining of the supercilia) than the Jerusalem bird but this is a variable feature. I have too limited experience of other forms in the Middle East (e.g. caucasicus and brevirostris) to make confident comments on them. From correspondence with Lars Svensson and José Luis Copete (who have studied Chiffchaffs in the Middle East) and from other sources, I know that they have calls rather like standard tristis call (especially caucasicus) and this is confirmed by the sonograms in Clement et al. (BB (1998) 91: 370). One might speculate that they, too, might on occasions employ alternative ‘sweeoo’ type calls (first-year birds in particular). My understanding is that in appearance these forms are less like tristis than is lorenzii (and that they are correspondingly closer in appearance to abietinus). The new Birding Frontiers member, José Luis, could comment more authoritatively on that (though without giving too much away from research yet to be published)!

  3. Ole Zoltan Göller

    Comments on ’brown’ Chiffchaff

    A bird this dark almost resembles Mountan Chiffchaff (ssp. sindianus) from Caucasus. Many different Chiffchaffs of eastern origin have visited Western Europe this fall, and especially a good handful of western birds of the ‘fulvescens’-type have visited Denmark. However, several characters on the brown bird, if not all, are in my opinion safely within the range of the easternmost Siberian Chiffchaffs ssp. tristis.

    The easternmost birds tend to be darker with an overall warmer tone to the plumage. On your bird the bare-parts looks very dark and bill almost entirely black with only a faint lighter cutting edges. Western birds (fulvescens) usually apply just a bit more yellow ‘lipstick’.

    The face of the bird shows good characters for tristis as well. No yellow coloration is present at all and the supercillum is quite obvious though not striking as it has a café au lait-tone to it, which is good. This duller looking face expression is in fact rather common on eastern birds. The cheek appears to be shaded in orange-brown and the sides to the crown has a dark shadow similar to what is seen in Booted Warbler – both are very good characters for ‘tristis’. The same goes for the overall dirty wash to the underparts and brownish upperparts. The only green in the bird seems to be olive edges to inner primaries, which also points toward a good tristis (and by the way probably excludes Mountain Chiffchaff). ‘Fulvescens’ tend to have olive tinge to most of the primaries, rectrices, lower back and even all of the wing coverts in the most extreme birds, and in some birds even yellow smudging on breast sides.

    The bird is similar to birds I have studied in Northern India – they did however appear even warmer which probably can be explained by sunlight.
    In my opinion the call is spot on for tristis in every way. It can be interpreted as having a very faint drop which is quite normal.

    A similar bird was caught in Denmark in April, 2008. Although it was a spring bird it is a good comparison. A photo of the bird can be found in my article on the subject by following the link below. Unfortunately it is in Danish. Look for photo #4.

    Article on tristis-ID:

    Best regards
    Ole Zoltan Göller, Tjæreborg, Denmark
    Birding profile on

  4. Pingback: Siberian Chiffchaff and Common Chiffchaff: Part 1 | Birding Frontiers

  5. Pingback: Siberian Chiffchaff and Common Chiffchaff: Part 2 | Birding Frontiers

  6. alsirhan

    Dear Martin,

    In my opinion this is mountain Chiffchaff P. Lorenzi in terms of plumage and call. When calls are compared they should have the same vertical scale axis (frequency band), otherwise we can make a curved call to become flat if we compress the scale.
    Do you have the call file in WAV extension so I can compare it to the calls that I have recorded of this species in Kuwait they are almost annual in Kuwait.

    Kind regards,
    AbdulRahman Al-Sirhan


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