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I spotted my first returned migrant Chiffchaff of this year about three weeks ago, flitting about in low vegetation by the side of the river Colwyn. Since then I have heard the unmistakeable call several times in various places, but didn’t have a good sighting of one until last Thursday in the Fairy Glen. They may not be the most colourful or tuneful of our woodland birds, but their return and the sound of their repetitive and cheerful chiff-chaff  is, for many of us, confirmation that spring has truly arrived.

19/4/12 -Chiffchaff singing. The song is unmistakeable, a cheerful repetitive chiff-chaff. Call is a short 'hweet'.

The Chiffchaff, or Common Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) is a common and widespread leaf-warbler which breeds in open woodlands throughout northern and temperate Europe and Asia.

April to August – North Wales

Chiffchaffs are insect eaters, so most of the chiffchaffs we see in Britain are migratory, arriving here during late March and April, remaining throughout the spring and summer to breed, then leaving in late August/September to winter in the warmer locations of southern and western Europe, southern Asia and north Africa.

The chiffchaff is a small bird with olive green/brown upperparts, buff/off-white underparts becoming yellowish on the flanks and an off-white supercilium (eye-stripe). The beak is fine, generally dark and legs are always dark-coloured.

Habitat and breeding

The male Chiffchaff returns to his breeding territory two or three weeks before the female and immediately starts singing to establish ownership and attract a female. When a likely female is located, the male shows off his considerable aeronautical techniques, performing a slow butterfly-like flight as part of the courtship ritual. It is considered unlikely that chiffchaff select the same mate more than once, even though males and females return to the same areas each spring; but once a pair-bond has been established, any other females will be driven from the territory.

The birds’  favoured breeding habitat is open woodland with some taller trees and ground cover for nesting purposes. The preferred trees are typically at least 5 metres (16 ft) high and have an undergrowth that is an open, but consisting of a poor to  medium somewhat scrubby mix of grasses, bracken, nettles or similar plants.

The construction of the nest is carried out by the female who selects a site on or near the ground that is concealed amongst brambles, nettles or  other dense, low-growing vegetation. The outer layers of the nest are constructed from coarse materials such as dried grasses and leaves with inner layers woven of finer materials and finally an insulating layer of feathers. The nest is built in a domed shape with a side entrance and is typically 12.5 centimetres (5 in) high and 11 centimetres (4 in) across.

The male has little involvement in the nesting process, but he becomes  highly territorial during the breeding season and will fiercely defend his space against other males. Inquisitive and fearless, the feisty little male has been known to attack  even dangerous predators such as the stoat if they approach the nest, as well as large and notorious avian egg-thieves such as magpies and jays.

The chiffchaff is insectivorous, moving restlessly though foliage, constantly flicking the wings and tail, occasionally darting out to take insects on the wing. Its diet consists mainly of flies, along with other small and medium-sized invertebrates. It will take the eggs and larvae of butterflies and moths, particularly those of the Winter Moth.

After breeding has finished, this species abandons its territory, and may join small flocks including other warblers prior to migration. At this time the birds also go through a  prolonged and complete moult.  A newly fledged juvenile is browner above than the adult, with yellow-white underparts, but moults about 10 weeks after acquiring its first plumage. After moulting, both the adult and the juvenile have brighter and greener upperparts and a paler supercilium.

Etymology

The bird’s common English name is onomatopoeic, derived  from its simple and distinctive ‘chiff-chaff’  song. The Welsh common name is very similar, being ‘siff-saff’.

The binomial name, Phylloscopus collybita, is of Greek origin; Phylloscopus comes from phyllon, translating as ‘leaf’ , and skopeo ‘to look at’ or ‘to see’, presumably referring to the fact that the species spends most of their time feeding in trees, where they pick insects from leaves: collybita is a corruption of kollubistes, or ‘money changer’, with the song being likened to the jingling of coins.

September to March – Southern Spain

Although there is an increasing tendency amongst the species to winter in western Europe, well north of the traditional areas, especially in coastal southern England and the mild urban microclimate of London, the majority of chiffchaff  breeding in northern Europe migrate to the warmer climes of western and southern Europe, southern Asia and north Africa.

One of the joys of living in the south of Spain is to have the privilege of the company of some of the migratory bird species that breed in the north of the continent at the other end of their journey, during the autumn and winter months. Chiffchaff are one such species, arriving in great numbers from around the middle of September. Many are just passing through on their way to north Africa, pausing in their journey to take advantage of local feeding opportunities, but for others the area is their winter home and they can regularly be spotted in a wide range of habitats from gardens and woodland to reedbeds, scrubland and even on beaches where they are backed by  vegetation.

11/9/06-Chiffchaff on fennel plant picking off small insects; Manilva, Southern Spain

The appearance of newly arrived individuals often varies considerably; some have noticeably more yellow in their colouration, particularly in the underparts, but in general all appear sleek and well-fed.

October 09-A chiffchaff, most likely a juvenile. My garden, Sotogrande, Southern Spain

The behaviour of the birds outside the pressurised breeding season is quite different; in my garden they will readily leave the trees and cover of shrubs, venturing down  to pursue insects at ground-level. This is delightful to watch as they skip and flutter across the grass in an almost butterfly-like manner.

November - A particularly 'yellow' chiffchaff on the lawn in my Spanish garden

I have also been entertained by as many as 9 or 10 of the little birds at once that have perched on palm leaves then launched themselves off to pursue insects demonstrating their considerable aeronautical skills. Clouds of gnats are another target for them and they fly at the tightly packed circling insects, hovering in the air to pick them off.

They are keen bathers too, regularly using the bird bath in the garden as well as any available puddles. In shallow water they drench themselves, flicking and fluttering wings and tail, but if the water is too deep for them they flutter delicately across the surface, splashing themselves as best as they can. After their ablutions they sit on a nearby perch to dry themselves and preen meticulously.

30/1/08-Chiffchaff come to the birdbath regularly to drink and to bathe; Sotogrande, Spain

The local reserve, where an extensive reedbed backs the beach, is always  popular with chiffchaff . Many roost here amongst the reeds and use the area as a ‘staging post’ before making the relatively short flight across to North Africa. It is impossible to tell whether the birds you see regularly are on passage or here for the winter, but the spots I see them in are pretty consistent.

1/1/08 - Chiffchaff on Sotogrande beach, perched on debris washed up by a winter storm

Migration

The flow of migration is spread throughout the autumn months as birds in no particular hurry take feeding opportunities as and when they are presented along their route. Many of the birds leaving northern Europe at the end of August or beginning of September may not make the crossing to North Africa until November. Chiffchaff are amongst the most numerous birds to be caught and logged by ringers working at the bird observatory on the Rock of Gibraltar. The majority of those crossing the Strait to Africa on this route will have originated in Scandinavia, with maybe a few from Great Britain.

311011-A newly-ringed chiffchaff about to be released-bird observatory, Gibraltar

The return migration begins as early as January – the following is an extract from the gonhs recent records:

18 Jan:  After a few days with some heavy rain showers the weather cleared a bit but temperatures had dropped substantially and an influx of Chiffchaffs arrived on the Rock with many birds seen in the Botanic Gardens feeding on the nectar of flowering Aloes.

Iberian Chiffchaff

It would be remiss of me not to mention that Spain is also home to a similar but distinct species of chiffchaff, the Iberian Chiffchaff. This species breeds in Iberia and has been noted quite frequently on our outings with the Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society, although most of us would confess that recognition is mostly on song and  known breeding areas.

P. ibericus, the Iberian Chiffchaff is brighter, greener on the rump, and yellower below than P. collybita and has a tit-tit-tit-tswee-tswee song.  This species is found in Portugal and Spain, west of a line stretching roughly from the western Pyrenees via the mountains of central Spain to the Mediterranean; the Iberian and Common Chiffchaffs co-occur in a narrow band along this line. Apart from the northernmost section, the precise course of the contact zone is not well documented. A long-distance migrant, this species winters in western Africa. It differs from P. c. collybita in vocalisations, external morphology, and mtDNA sequences. There is hybridization in the contact zone, almost always between male P. ibericus and female P. c. collybita, and hybrids apparently show much decreased fitness; hybrid females appear to be sterile according to Haldane’s Rule. Regarding the latter aspect, it is interesting to note that the Iberian Chiffchaff apparently is the oldest lineage of chiffchaffs and quite distinct from the Common Chiffchaff.(extract from wikipedia)