Bird of the Month – January 2021

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Bird of the Month Chiffchaff(‘s). As a young birder in the NW of England, there was the Chiffchaff, a summer visitor that really only needed sorting out from the closely related willow warbler and of course if they sang it was easy.

Whilst there were darker races of this species to the north and east, it wasn’t something that really excited us budding birders.

The Chiffchaff is a very common species with up to 500,000,000 pairs (Birdlife International) being present throughout its range in Eurasia and north Africa.

It is found in various habitats including wetlands, forest, scrub, open savannah and of course suburban gardens and these can be from sea level to over 3000m.

In spring these habitats come alive with its onomatopoeic song and indeed it was one of the anthems of that season.


With the continuing advances in the field of ornithology, both observational and genetic studies, we now know a lot more about this species, indeed it is no longer one species but four (possibly five depending on your point of view regarding Siberian Chiffchaff) and several races.

The nominate is Phylloscopus collybita collybita, familiar to most of us. The races of this include the above mentioned Siberian Chiffchaff ssp tristis and the Scandinavian Chiffchaff ssp abietinus.

The three full species include the Canary Islands Chiffchaff (P canariensis), Caucasian Mountain Chiffchaff (P lorenzii) and the Iberian Chiffchaff (P ibericus). It is really only the latter of these three species that is relevant to us here in Iberia.

Collybita and ibericus are migratory species and those in the north of Europe make their way down to winter in a belt from the extreme south of England, through France and into southern Europe, many will also continue south to overwinter in north and sub-Saharan Africa.

Iberian Chiffchaff
Here an Iberian Chiffchaff in song, really the only reliable way to identify this bird and also by its call.

Here in Spain the Chiffchaff breeds in the Pyrenees and can also be found in parts of Catalonia, Castilla y Leon and Valencia, with outposts elsewhere, including down with us in Andalucía in the high Sierra Nevada.

However, it is in winter that the main interest/challenges occur, with all three races being present to a greater or lesser extent.

Now in the middle of winter the nominate race can be found in every suitable habitat here in Andalucía, they are active in trees and bushes, moving over branch and through the canopy, constantly active, searching for food.

Whilst the total of overwintering chiffchaffs here in Spain is unknown, they certainly number in the millions of individuals.

Mixed in with all these Common Chiffchaffs are the ssp tristis and abietinus (very rare). Pale grey, thick necked individuals with a buffish supercilium may well be examples of the Siberian Chiffchaff.

As for the Iberian Chiffchaff, well that is likely to be a longer distant migrant wintering in sub-Saharan Africa, but with phylogenic climate changes to bird distribution, the Chiffchaff ‘problem’ in Iberia may become even more complicated in the future, should they choose to stay in winter.

Article: Neil A Hill
Photos: Peter Jones

Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.

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