Wintering Chiffchaffs

Those parts of the reserve around the sewage treatment works are attractive to late passage and wintering Chiffchaffs (Phylloscopus collybita), with over 100 being ringed annually during the winter months in recent years . A number of birds showing the characteristics of the eastern race, known colloquially as “Siberian Chiffchaff” (P. collybita tristis), are recorded annually with at least six different individuals being recorded during the winter of 2014/15. Establishing the status in Britain of “Siberian Chiffchaff” has long been problematic. Key to this problem is the correct identification of the form and the difficulties of separating true Siberian tristis, largely from east of the River Yenisei, 3,000 km east of Moscow, from abietinus, from Scandinavia and western Russia west of the Urals continue to plague both observers and records committees. A suite of biometric measurements has been taken from trapped tristis type birds at South Milton Ley and any feathers shed during the ringing process have been sent to Professor Martin Collinson at Aberdeen University for DNA analysis.

The first Siberian tristis Chiffchaff in mainland Devon to be confirmed by mDNA analysis was trapped at South Milton Ley on the 26th November 2015 and Martin Collinson commented: “its cytb DNA sequence is with 100% certainty that of a tristis – only 1 p different from a sequence found in the core Yenesei region and other Sibe Chiffies we have recently sequenced from Western Europe.”

Subsequently, given the view that if it looks like a tristis and sounds like a tristis then it probably is a tristis, samples have only been sent for analysis from birds showing some divergence from a classic tristis. Those with slight ‘additional’ yellow and olive (a variation colloquially known as ‘fulvescens’), are now treated as Siberian or tristis Chiffchaff following the recommendations of Dean & Svensson but the features shown by these birds would prevent them from being accepted using the criteria currently employed by Devon Birds. To date, feathers from two of these birds have been analysed and both have been confirmed as 100% tristis.

Chiffchaff breeding ranges
The breeding ranges of recognised subspecies of chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), (redrawn from Martens 1996). The hatched area represents the zone of hybridisation between tristis and abietinus, (birds colloquially known as ‘fulvescens’).

Photos of some of the birds identified as tristis at SML in recent years can be viewed below. (Click on an image to view the gallery).

Images of Scandinavian Chiffchaff, P.c.abietinus, taken during the summer in their core breeding range from Moscow, west through the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Estonia to Finland, Northern Sweden and Norway, can be viewed below. (Click on an image to view the gallery).