Siberian and Scandinavian Chiffchaffs

Be careful. More Questions still.

It’s become something of an enigma. Routinely recorded in old bird reports as abietinus (Scandinavian Chiffchaff), or sometimes ‘Eastern Chiffchaff’ as a catch-all for those uncertain tristis/abietinus. Birders are increasingly more savy and better informed. Siberian Chiffchaffs (tristis) are identifiable most of the time. And they are probably better classified as a full species…

Common Chiffchaff with characters of North-eastern or Scandinavian 'abietinus'. Inishbofin, Ireland, late October 2014. Anthony McGeehan

Common Chiffchaff with characters of North-eastern or Scandinavian ‘abietinus’. Inishbofin, Ireland, late October 2014. Anthony McGeehan

Common Chiffchaff- taken in Jerusalem on 19th October 2012 has similar plumage tones and themes to the Inishbofin bird above.  Martin Garner. Many/most? of the Common Chiffchaffs migrating though Israel will be abietinus.

Common Chiffchaff- taken in Jerusalem on 19th October 2012 has similar plumage tones and themes to the Inishbofin bird above. Martin Garner. Many/most? of the Common Chiffchaffs migrating though Israel will be abietinus.

We do still get birds with characters of more obvious abietinus and usually in conditions bringing other Scandinavian migrants (two memorable birds in mid October at Flamborough this year). Yet early studies showed all birds trapped in late autumn/ winter in the Netherlands and Britain and thought to be abietinus or tristis.…were all tristis.

Blessed with frustratingly good skills in photography and prose, Anthony McGeehan took these highly instructive comparative images of a stick-on Siberian and seeming Scandinavian Chiffchaffs on his haven on Inishbofin on Ireland’s west coast, in late October.

Do notice the differences- especially in ear coverts pattern and distribution of plumage tones.

The read on Siberian Chiffs is excellent- more on Anthony’s Facebook page is well worth a visit.

Siberian-Chiffchaff-plate-F

Topmost bird – a Common Chiffchaff with plumage tones typical of some (more obvious) Scandinavian ‘abietinus’. Many abietinus are indistinguishable form typical collybita (Magnus Hellström).

Lower 3 birds – All of the same Siberian Chiffchaff (tristis)

All photographs- Inishbofin, October 2014 by Anthony McGeehan

Siberian Chiffchaff- tristis, Inishbofin, late October 2014 by Anthony McGeehan

Siberian Chiffchaff- tristis, Inishbofin, late October 2014 by Anthony McGeehan

 

 

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11 thoughts on “Siberian and Scandinavian Chiffchaffs

  1. Alan Dean

    Photographic vagaries aside, the upper Chiffchaff *appears* like a good example of a ‘grey and white’ Chiffchaff, which I have long asserted differ from diagnosable tristis in their lack of that form’s characteristic ‘brown and buff’ hues. I have further suggested that such birds involve abietinus when they have such a ‘pristine’ appearance while others with somewhat more intermediate features may well be hybrids between abietinus and tristis. In the past, this opinion has been roundly challenged by several high-profile birders, as is well-documented on Surfbirds and here on Birding Frontiers, as well as in some publications by The Sound Approach. The very existence of such grey Chiffchaffs has even been challenged, with assertions that they are in fact tristis ‘morphed’ by light conditions. It is thus welcome (if a little surprising) to see Birding Frontiers here acknowledging not just the existence of such Chiffchaffs (no suggestion of ‘morphing’ made!) and that at least some of them are attributable to abietinus.

    Alan Dean

    Reply
    1. Martin Garner Post author

      Alan

      Welcome to the discussion- I sort of guessed you might jump in :). I am going to struggle to respond however.

      As I understand you introduced the concept of an ‘enigmatic grey and white’ Chiffchaff (think that’s the term you used). I still haven’t seen one of these birds. I have encountered some browner and some greyer looking tristis and some nice clean looking abietinus.

      I occasionally (actually very rarely) encounter Chiffchaffs which are generally hard to place to one taxon. They can be (broadly) grey and white, brown and white or spangled with olive and yellow.

      Hence the term grey and white remains as elusive as ever and was formally (it seemed to me) particularly confusing. Thankfully trisits are more routinely identified even when they look a little ‘grey and white’. In case there is any confusion my reference to abientinus being ‘enigmatic’ was to do with the mitochondrial DNA studies which revealed a lack of presence of abietinus among late autumn/winter birds in NW Europe when some may have been identified as such. To repeat I haven’t seen an ‘enigmatic grey and white’ Chiffchaff- and I don’t think this is one because it looks just like some paler abietinus do.

      Best wishes Martin

      Reply
      1. Alan Dean

        Well, Martin, I would have hoped that my usage of the epithet ‘grey and white Chiffchaff’ would have been very clear by now! I have used the phrase since the BB paper ‘Siberian Chiffchaff revisited’, published by Lars Svensson and myself in 2005. Also, I have repeatedly emphasised its Eastern Bonelli’s Warbler-like connotation. There is a comparison of the two taxa in a composite image on my website (plate 3 here: http://deanar.org.uk/tristis/tristis.htm. Many thanks to José Luis Copete for providing the Bonelli’s photo. To my eye, the images of the Inishbofin Chiffchaff and the St Agnes Chiffchaff are decidedly similar, with each warranting the broad analogy with Bonelli’s. Perhaps you can publish here a composite image of the Inishbofin and St Agnes Chiffchaffs? Not identical certainly but surely rather similar?
        One of four possible origins which Lars and I listed for such ‘enigmatic grey and white’ Chiffchaffs was paler and greyer examples of abietinus (others included hybrids and just conceivably a little studied variant of tristis). You say, Martin, that you don’t think the Inishbofin Chiffchaff is one of my ‘enigmatic grey and white Chiffchaffs’ because it ‘looks just like some paler abietinus do’. I’m afraid you’ve lost me there! I do, however, welcome that you agree that paler abietinus can look like this, as this is still disputed.
        What I fondly assumed would be a perfectly straightforward comparison of the images of the Inishbofin and St Agnes Chiffchaffs is developing into another long thread – not what I intended at all!
        Regards and keep exploring the issues, Alan

  2. alan lewis

    There surely must be photo artefact here – the composite photo looks like it’s taken in black-and-white! For example I don’t see the buff tones I’d expect about the face on the tristris – though I’m happy to accept that it is one.

    cheers, alan

    Reply
    1. Martin Garner Post author

      Hi Alan

      Good to see you at that giant bland-faced warbler on shetland last year.

      I get what you’re saying though I do think the colour is present – if weakly marked- especially on the lower image (with right wing raised)- and giving a different look in that area to the uppermost Common Chiffchaff

      I’ll post an image shortly to show tristis variation in the head pattern including the auriculars (as the N. Americans say)

      Martin

      Reply
  3. Julian Bell

    Check these out then:
    http://oeygardenbirds.blogspot.no/2014/11/herdlevr-04-november-2014-another.html

    Even though one of them could be construed as buffy I didn’t call any of them tristis – partly because there were three birds together, partly because I didn’t hear a single call and partly because there was too much yellow in the beaks.

    As these birds were photographed in Norway the chances of them being of Scandinavian origin are perhaps higher…..

    Reply
    1. Martin Garner Post author

      Hi Julian

      If I understand where you live- island chain off W Norway on similar latitude to Shetlands?- then not sure why a group of 2-3 Siberian Chiffchaffs should raise an eyebrow- a regular event in autumn in Shetland where 50 per autumn in a given autumn would not be so surprising.

      Taking the appearance of the birds themselves they look spot-on for Siberian Chiffchaff.

      Cheers Martin

      Reply
  4. Alan Dean

    When discussing Chiffchaffs, photos are a minefield (see introductory paragraphs here: http://deanar.org.uk/tristis/gallery.htm) and AM’s images of the second Chiffchaff certainly have a frosted veneer, apparent over the entire image (yet absent from the images of the first individual). This almost certainly implies some colour loss. However, I don’t think there can be any doubt that this second Chiffchaff is tristis.

    Reply
  5. Julian Bell

    You understand my location very well indeed!

    However, I forgot to mention in my reply that the next day I returned to the same site and had what appeared to be the same birds again – but vocal this time. The call was normal Chiff-chaff.

    To me they not as buffy as what I understand to be Siberian to be, and I think the amount of yellow in the bill is significant. Some good images of what I can categorically state is a Siberian can be seen here:

    http://www.naturalbornbirder.com/gallery/sibe_chiff_chaff.html

    Sandy/buffy, all black bill and piping call (and seen in better light) all point towards Sibe.

    Reply
  6. Julian Bell

    In response to Alan’s point about photo’s being a minefield I couln’t agree more. I use a camera and lens setup which is very popular among birders and when I use higher ISO values, often underexposing slightly to try and keep the shutter speed short the colours often appear colder than they actually are.

    Reply

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