Calls (or Medleys and Mash-ups)

by Martin G.

Life was simple, back then. Common Chiffchaffs called an upward inflected ‘hweet’ (very similar to a Willow Warbler call) and Siberian Chiffchaffs called a flat monosyllabic ‘peep’ (bit like a Bullfinch or Dunnock call). Sorted, or so we thought.

n.b. A Rough Guide with bullet points on sounds appears at the end

Also suggestions for when ‘Faced with an interesting Chiffchaff’.

Evidently, however a bewildering variety of calls can emanate from both Common and Siberian Chiffchaffs. It has left observant birders head scratching from the Northern Isles to deepest southwest Britain. This is my attempt to make some sense of (mostly) my own experiences.

P.S. below I have created sonagrams that in most cases matches the audio so you can ‘see’ on the sonagram exactly what you are hearing on the recording. It means some recordings are brief so might need listening to a few times to get the gist.
Common Chiffchaff calls

For my own simple reference I have divided my experience of Common Chiffchaff calls into 1) standard hweet, 2) variant hweet, 3) swee-oo, and 4) truncated swee-oo. Significantly, some variants of these calls sound both monosyllabic and different (especially if unfamiliar) giving rise to confusion with the monosyllabic peep calls of Siberian Chiffchaff. To add to the complexity very young (juvenile) western Common Chiffchaffs (nominate collybita) and some Common Chiffchaffs from the Middle East e.g. brevirostris give peep calls just like Siberian Chiffchaffs (more below).
Standard ‘hweet’ calls

Chiffchaff hueet call Beds 27th july 2008

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Above: The ‘normal’ Common Chiffchaff call. Recorded from an adult attending the young (see further down) in Beds, UK in July 2008. See the sonagram, it starts down at nearly 2 kHz. This is the regarded as the standard ‘hweet’ call.
Variant ‘hweet’ calls

However as with many birds, time and study reveals variations to the standard. I have recorded some variations on the ‘hweet’ call, which were confusing at the time:

Chiffchaff swee and high pitched hueet N Negev Nov 12

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Above: Common Chiffchaff, N. Negev, Israel, November 2012. Several birds in the area. On this recording and the sonagram there is a weak ‘swee’ (truncated swee-oo) call (see below) followed by a hweet call which is higher pitched than the Bedfordshire bird. The Negev bird’s hweet starts at around 4 kHz instead of 2 kHz.

Chiffchaff odd hueet Linosa Nov 11

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Above: Common Chiffchaff, Linosa Island, November 2011. Nothing remarkable about this bird’s plumage compared up to c1000 collybita looking Chiffchaffs on the island most days. I guess you could also call this a hweet call but its more shrill and piercing with steeper inflection than the other 2 calls above (more ‘weet’ than ‘hweet’). Watched with Andrea Corso, Miki Viganò and the MISC crew of Linosa!
swee-oo calls – standard and truncated

Much discussed in recent years but first referenced in 1954: ‘Shrill sweeoo ….. mainly a long-retained juvenile call but also given by adults (in certain years and places) on breeding grounds (referenced in BWP 6: Schwarz 1954 a, b) – thanks to Alan Dean for this.

Chiffchaff nov 19th 2012 JBO 6Above a Common Chiffchaff from Israel in November 2012. Variations on the ‘swee-oo’ theme were the most frequently heard call type.

Chiffchaff swee-oo type calls N Negev Nov 12

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Above: swee-oo calls from Common Chiffchaff in N. Negev, Nov. 2012.

Standard swee-oo: See on sonagram how the first call has a little hook as it kicks back up at the end. This is illustrated when the call is very obviously di-syllabic and represents a clear swee-oo call.

Truncated swee-oo: On the 2nd call the hook is not present and the downward inflection is weak, illustrating a more truncated sound: a virtually monosyllabic ‘sweep’ to my ears. Have a listen.
juvenile calls (and song)

To be anthropomorphic for a moment. Human languages use different kinds of sounds (phonemes), varying from 11 to 112 in different languages. Children, so I am told, begin life with a capacity to utter or learn many language phonemes, but once they learn one or two languages, then lose the ability to make sounds which are not part of that language. What if baby Chiffchaffs do likewise? The calls of some young birds are very variable, helpfully described as ‘plastic’ by the Sound Approach guys here. Baby Chiffchaffs make all kinds of odd sounds and even practice poor versions of the adults song. ‘Plastic’, pliable, variable and not fully formed. Maybe all the Chiffchaff taxa are capable of making all kinds of Chiffchaff associated phonemes as young birds which will disappear when they ‘grow-up’ and limit themselves to the normal adult sounds of their parents. Check out these baby Common Chiffs in Bedfordshire, UK.

Chiffchaff juv calls 27 July 2008 beds

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Above: juvenile Chiffchaff calls, July 2008 Bedfordshire, UK. (above). Faltering and forming its new found voice, the baby Chiffchaff makes some plaintive and at times very ‘tristis-like’ noises. You can also hear it learning to sing – having some way to go!
Siberian Chiffchaff calls
Standard ‘peep’ calls

Mournful covers it well. A flat monotone whistle at 4.5 kHz. When a ‘non-collybita‘ Chiffchaff – lacking the obvious olive and yellow livery of the nominate form- continuously utters this note – and you are in Western Europe (or India!) you are in the Siberian Chiffchaff zone.

tristis 11 December 2009 LakesideAbove: Siberian Chiffchaff, Lakeside, Doncaster, 11th December 2009.

This wintering bird in Doncaster, UK regularly pitched the right melancholic sounding note. So this is my mark in the sand for OK/ easy tristis. By way of helpful comparison, it kept company with a ‘swee-oo’ calling, olive and yellow collybita-esq Chiffchaff .

Siberian Chiffchaff lakeside doncaster dec 09 (2)

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Above: Siberian Chiffchaff, Lakeside, Doncaster, 11th December 2009. Above, sound recording and sonagram.
Variant ‘peep’ calls

“Looks like a Sib Chiff, monotone call but it sounds too ‘bright and happy’. Not quite right.” or even “hmmm too bright, and slightly disyllabic. Not quite right.”

These are the kind of vexing thoughts that have visited me a couple times in late autumn on Britain’s east coast. Magnus Robb has assured me (several times, with different birds) that while 4.5kHz is the standard, Siberian Chiffchaff can also give higher pitched and at times slightly disyllabic ‘peep calls’. The higher pitch makes them sound less mournful and more happy- lucky things! To my ears I can pass such calls off as a truncated ‘swee’ call of Common Chiffchaff.

As an example, this bird was featured recently and elicited great responses in private and public

Chiffchaff nov 19th 2012 JBO 1

tristis type Chiffchaff JBO 19 Nov 2012

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Above: Siberian Chiffchaff. Jerusalem Bird Observatory, 19th Nov. 2012. Plumage certainly looks good but I confess the call sounded ‘bright’ and got somewhat passed over amoung frequent monosyllabic sounding ‘swee’ calls of Common Chiffchaff. However the sonagram is very tristis-shaped, an inverted ‘U’ is typical of many, though it is a good .5 kHz higher than my bench mark tristis further up the page.
hweet, swee-oo, and peep all from a tristis.

Example one – Unst, Shetland, UK, Oct 2010

Early October 2012. Guiding on Unst, Shetland. This next bird has been a revelation. It looked like a Siberian Chiffchaff. It arrived on the same day we found 4 other apparent Sib Chiffs, a Blyth’s Reed Warbler and in between 2 Sykes’s Warblers appearing. It even sounded like a Sib Chiff…sometimes:

tristis two

tristis 4Siberian Chiffchaff, Halligarth, Unst, Shetland. This one is unforgettable. It was the first of 5 we found on this day. Remarkably it drew attention from high up in the sky as it called a loud and clear monosyllabic call (which I wish I had recorded). Quite an encounter, hearing the call, puzzling over the bird, picking it out up in the sky, watching it drop in and then realising what it was. It’s very unusual to hear a phylloscopus warbler- of any kind- calling like this, loudly in travelling flight.

It called frequently in the trees of Halligarth. I heard a good tristis ‘peep’ but disconcertingly also bits of swee-oo and other calls types. Distracted by guiding, excellent rare bird finding and reassured by finding another 4 brown and buff Sib Chiffs, it got shelved. I have only recently reviewed my recordings to discover this bird gave hweet and swee-oo calls like a Common Chiffchaff, peep calls like a Siberian Chiffchaff and even intermediate bridging calls.

It appeared to be a bird having just arrived (on a ‘fall day’ in Shetland), making first landfall and seeing the trees it came in calling loudly and excitedly. Being a young bird I wonder if it was just working through its available repertoire of phonemes –all the chiffchaff call types. Just a thought!

Here are recordings of its call and sonagrams

Sib Chiff 01 Calls Halligarth Shetland Oct 2010

a closer look at the same sonagram, dividing the 2nd and 3rd calls from 4th and 5th calls

Sib Chiff 01 a calls Halligarth Shetland 3rd Oct 2010above classic tristis shape followed by slight ‘hat’ shape

Sib Chiff 01 b calls Halligarth Shetland 3rd Oct 2010

followed by upward squggle and then collybita-like hweet shape (and sound)

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Above: same bird in Halligarth gives 5 different call ‘signatures’, one after the other. The most obvious difference in sound is between the second and the last (fifth) calls, the second call is the most typical tristis sounding peep, the last a typical collybita sounding ‘hweet’.

Sib Chiff 03 Halligarth Shetland 3rd oct 2010

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Above: In this example the Halligarth bird starts with a more obvious swee-oo call, ending with a hweet call.

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halliagarth peep 3 ch10 c

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Above: In this example the Halligarth bird gives 3 consecutive classic tristis uninflected ‘peep’ calls

peep to hweet with bridge Halligarth tristis

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Above: In this example (bit quieter so needs careful listening) the Halligarth bird goes from classic tristis peep call to collybita-like hweet call via an intermediate ‘bridge’ call. Alan Dean very helpfully made direct comparisons: the peep call on this bird with a Russian tristis and the hweet call with a West Midlands (UK) collybita. When compared directly the sounds and sonagrams are pretty much identical.
Good News!

Took me a while to clock it- but most of the call signatures found in the recordings of the Halligarth bird are found in just one recording of juvenile Siberian Chiffchaffs recorded at the nest near Tomsk in south central Siberia. See Magnus Robb’s summary on this in Catching the Bug. Pim Wolf’s recording of a tristis with similarly variant calls (it also sang tristis song) in the Netherlands is also featured here. Perhaps we should learn to accept that a bird which looks like a Siberian Chiffchaff (exact limits still being defined!) and at least sometimes sounds like one- can also have quite a varied repertoire. More recordings of juvenile tristis on the natal grounds and recordings (verbal descriptions are of very limited use) of migrant /vagrant birds will help to clarify this further.

Example two – west coast of Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, November 2012

PB210065bbb – Kopie

PB210052bbb – KopieThis rather grey looking tristis type was photographed on Nov. 21. 2012 at Friedrichskoog-Spitze (west coast of Schleswig-Holstein), Germany by Peter Schleef. Peter took recordings of the calls and made sonagrams. In correspondence we found the same phenomenon: The German bird gave the same kind of mix of ‘peep’, ‘swee-oo’ and ‘hweet’ calls as the Shetland bird (recordings and sonagrams provided by Peter).

Looks like tristis, sounds like collybita

I know of several reports of this nature. One recently was recorded given ‘hweet’ call, but later reported as also giving ‘peep’ call. These are the interesting ones of course- but require long periods of observations to ensure full call repertoire is heard (and recorded). I think formerly most will have gone down as ‘abietinus’. However given that young tristis, can give a ‘hweet’ type call and if they are only associating with young collybita (not other tristis) perhaps they will be inclined to give the hweet call more frequently (unlike wintering tristis in e.g. India who will only hear other tristis). Just a thought/question.
Mixed Singers and other scary stories

Mike Langman has also been watching, listening and recording tristis types in South Devon:
“Over the last 3-4 years I have been playing tristis song and collybita song to the autumn/ winter chiffs that turn up in Torbay with unsurprising results. tristis like birds react very well to the song with occasional singing back but nearly always (when they first arrive – less so in the middle of winter) with head up and wing quivering. The collybita birds nearby don’t react when they hear the song but once or twice when they see the tristis type chiffs wing quivering come over to investigate those birds – but not coming to the tape.
collybita and abietinus song (sound the same to me) only get reactions from collybita types and the tristis types show no interest. As I say not surprising!

On 25th October 2010 Mike made this remarkable observation. Watching a Siberian Chiffchaff (spot on call and plumage) at Clennon Valley, Devon a second bird appeared and attempted to mount the tristis. The plumage of the second bird however was very collybita-like and it sang both collybita and tristis song. Mike’s account:

Above: tristis ‘Siberian’ Chiffchaff a calling individual with typical sad, flat ‘piii’ /peep call. I watched as it fed confirming pretty much all of the pro tristis features, brownish grey upperparts with no olive except slightly on edges of secondaries, primaries and tail, slightly rusty cheeks black legs only slight pale base to bill, brownish grey shoulders and flanks and buffy tone to big supercilium and throat. It responding brilliantly to tristis song playback with wing quivering and fluffed cloaca feathers and calling (as one did last year with a chit- chit call) so presumably a female.
Then (above) … A second bird appeared high in the same willow also wing quivering but this time to the other bird rather than the song, it attempted to mount the tristis, so I assumed another tristis but no… It moved down lower to show a dirty brownish olive upperparts and the same colour but almost streaky sides of chest contrasting with an almost grey/white belly and pale yellow undertail coverts. The legs were browner and more pale at the base of the bill. Supercilium not nearly so strong and showing a good eye ring. 10 minutes later when the tristis had moved on it began to sing, to start with just like a normal collybita Chiffchaff but then it broke into tristis song to finish off – it did this three times! I played the tristis song back to it and it came over to investigate but not wing quivering, it called regularly – a sharp almost monosyllabic ‘seu’. Story also told with couple more photos of both birds here

Here’s the action captured on video:

Above. Siberian Chiffchaff reacting to playback of tristis song (on a recording) by wing quivering then bird 2 comes in and attempts to mount.

Above.The 2nd bird giving brief views. Begins with Mike ‘pishing’ and then you can hear the rather sweeoo like call

More excellent stuff on tristis by Mike Langman here, an interesting looking but not classic tristis bird here and a spring tristis, contaminated by pollen can be found here

This bird recorded by James Packer in October on Scilly appears to begin with collybita type hweet calls followed by mixture of collybita and tristis song – an apparent ‘mixed singer’. n.b. Mixed singer can be either a full tristis which has learnt some abietinus in contact zone or it could mean hybrid. Comment from Magnus Robb: “Interestingly, the tristis bits barely go above 6kHz but the collybita-like bits go well above this”.
Common Chiffchaffs in the Middle East

These are curious to me. I haven’t knowingly seen any. Having read conflicting descriptions (including some suggestion tristis like characters) I have been wondering what they really looked like. José Luis Copete and Lars Svensson have helped fill in some of those gaps in my understanding. Ranges of different taxa taken from: Clement, P., Helbig, A. J., & Small, B. 1998. Taxonomy and identification of Chiffchaffs in the Western Palearctic. Brit. Birds 91: 361–376.

P. c. brevirostris: Highlands of western Turkey and the Black Sea coastlands of northern Turkey

P. c. caucasicus: East of range of brevirostris: lower altitudes (up to 1800 m a.s.l.) of
central and western Caucasus, south to Goris, Armenia

P. c. menzbieri: Mountains of northeast Iran, the eastern Elburz and Khorasan ranges north to the Kopet Dagh in neighbouring Turkmenia

Phylloscopus collybita brevirostris 4male June 2005 JL Copete RA16105 Soguksu 4Common Chiffchaff ssp. brevirostris, Soguksu, Central Turkey, 4th June 2005 © José Luis Copete. What’s most curious is that the plumage, structure and biometrics of brevirostris are very like collybita (José Luis Copete pers comms), yet the call is so similar to a tristis ‘peep’ as to be likely to be indistinguishable in the field. Hence my curiosity. Why’s that then?

brevirostris call

brevirostris Chiffchaff calls May 2008 Osmaniye Turkey © José Luis Copete

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Above: brevirostris Chiffchaff calls, Osmaniye Turkey, May 2008 © José Luis Copete

brevirostris song

brevirostris Chiffchaff song and call May 2008 Osmaniye Turkey © José Luis Copete.

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brevirostris Chiffchaff songs and calls, Osmaniye, Turkey, May 2008 © José Luis Copete

To compare: Common Chiffchaff song

Chiffchaff 5 April 2011 Swee call and Song N Cheshire

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To compare with the brevirostris song, here’s a Common Chiffchaff recorded in N. Cheshire in April 2011. The bird’s main call was ‘swee-oo’ On this recording there is a ‘swee-oo’ at the start. Though similar, comparing the sonagrams of songs, there are also differences with the brevirostris sounding a more consistent chiff chiff chiff and showing a more lightning shaped signature – in this sample size of one!
Caucasian/Mountain Chiffchaff

And just to complete the set. Variously considered to be either 2 subspecies lorenzii and sindianus or 2 full species separated as Caucasian Chiffchaff, P. lorenzii and Mountain Chiffchaff, P. sindianus.

P. s. sindianus: Pamir-Altay mountains of central Russia/CIS east to the northwest
P. s. lorenzii: Caucasus: mountains of northeast Turkey and northwest Iran, breeding
above 1800 m a.s.l.

Phylloscopus lorenzii Chiffchaff 5 Gelinkaya 6 JL Copete

Caucasian/Mountain Chiffchaff ssp lorenzii Gelinkaya, Turkey, June. © José Luis Copete.

Phylloscopus lorenzii calls Gelinkaya Turkey 15.05.2010 JLC 1

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Despite being a subtly different from the average call of tristis, in field conditions it can sound confusingly similar (José Luis Copete).

2 Phylloscopus lorenzii song Gelinkaya Turkey 15.05.2010 JLC 2

sonagram from longer recording

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b1 Phylloscopus lorenzii song Gelinkaya Turkey 15.05.2010 JLC 3

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The song is also, on average, slightly different from normal song of collybita, being faster and a little more complex: space between motifs is almost non-existent. In collybita there are spaces between the notes, and it’s slower in speed (José Luis Copete).

Above recordings: Caucasian/Mountain Chiffchaff ssp lorenzii call and song. Gelinkaya, Turkey, 15th May 2010. © José Luis Copete.

A Rough Guide to sound issues:

Lots still give classic calls. tristis = ‘peep’, collybita = ‘hweet/swee-oo’.
There are variant collybita calls. Some of these sound mono-syllabic and being unfamiliar can sound similar to variant calls of tristis.
There is tristis variation which includes higher pitched happier sounding calls. Calls can also include collybita-like calls.
Occasional mixed singers occur which can either be pure tristis which have ‘learnt’ abietinus song or possibly hybrids (as with Iberian Chiffchaff). Also some birds have calls which don’t ‘match’ the plumage. All these are worthy of close study!

and finally:
Faced with an interesting Chiffchaff?

Take time, watch carefully, and record all aspects and nuances of plumage. Be aware of the normal variation of grey to brown (with/without olive) upperparts in tristis as well as the ability of one individual to morph its plumage. Extra (little) yellow bits can be present.
The head pattern may be particularly helpful
Take photos – lots.
Listen for calls/song/sub-song and RECORD them- all types. Listen long enough to hear the full repertoire. Note any variations in calls. Verbal descriptions are of limited use. Recordings and sonograms are a prerequisite in identification discussions.
Play-back of tristis and collybita song can be used to test reaction. Any response should be noted and is likely to be very informative.
Occasional birds ‘don’t fit’ and may be best left unidentified. These are arguably more worthy of focused study. Attempt to record all possible data.
If a bird is trapped, feathers lost in processing can be used for testing DNA and furthering knowledge.

chiffchaff9Siberian Chiffchaff, Quendale, Shetland, 2nd Nov. 2008 © Rebecca Nason (website). With a dash of yellow in the supercilium…

There is much more that could be said! My head hurts so I think that will do for now…
On sounds and other things: Many many thanks to Magnus Robb who has answered more than a few of my tristis calls queries over several years. More recently I am very grateful to José Luis Copete for much valuable input, plus photos and sonagrams and info on brevirostris and lorenzii. Alan Dean has seriously sharpened my ideas, answered difficult questions and challenged presumptions and especially helped with comparative sonagrams of the Unst bird whilst Lars Svensson has also provided invaluable feedback on several taxa. Correspondence with Mike Langman and Ian Lewington was timely and wonderful to find other’s exploring, intrigued and perplexed all at the same time. Peter Schleef’s comparable research in Germany was most encouraging, I really appreciate our discussions. Magnus Hellström typically brought great illumination and just the right time. Tristan Redid was a star man in helping with hosting the recordings Thanks also for really helpful discussion and photos to Daniele Occhiato, Gary Woodburn, Vincent van der Spek, Arnoud van den Berg, Mats Waern, Rebecca Nason, Lance Degnan, Mick Cunningham, Mark Palmer and all those Birding Frontiers readers who have commented publicly and privately with their own original observations.

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This entry was posted in 18) Warblers, Crests, Wrens, Israel, Shetland on January 2, 2013 by Martin Garner.
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3 thoughts on “Siberian Chiffchaff and Common Chiffchaff: Part 2”

Alan Dean
January 2, 2013 at 4:45 pm

The question has to be: if tristis (let’s assume thoroughbred for the moment) can give ‘three way’ calls when on migration (and well past the immediate fledging period), then can the same apply to collybita and abietinus? That said, it can be expected that individuals of all taxa will on occasion utter ‘eccentric’ calls, or call-sequences which include ‘eccentric’ calls. Generally, a call-sequence which includes various different calls will arouse suspicions – or at least caution. However, an isolated ‘eccentric’ call may simply be misinterpreted as indicating another taxon.
Mike Langman’s observation of the two interacting birds is fascinating. Even if allowing for anomolous individuals then, if the photo is at all accurate, the ‘second’ bird does not look like tristis. It looks like collybita (or possibly abietinus, as they can be very similar and – as is now being discussed – we don’t know the plumage limits of abietinus at all well).
Alan Dean
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Matt Young
January 3, 2013 at 11:34 pm

My head hurts too now. Great post Martin. I need to collect myself and read again before I ask questions….lol
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Laurie Allan
January 10, 2013 at 10:18 am

Many thanks for taking the time and trouble to put all this together, it both clarifies and confuses at the same time! As Einstein said, if you can explain Quantum Physics then you don’t fully understand it……….

Laurie –
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