Siberian Chiffchaffs at Ecton Sewage Farm

The sewage outfall stream from Ecton Sewage Farm into the River Nene near Cogenhoe has long been a regular magnet for Chiffchaffs during the winter months although it, along with the adjacent extensive Phragmites reedbed, receives surprisingly little attention from local birders. In winter the temperature of the treated water from the processing works is a few degrees higher than the surrounding environment and, as a result, provides a microclimate favourable to various insects and other invertebrates, which act as a ready source of food for insectivorous species like Chiffchaffs.

I visited the site in early January and was delighted to find at least three Bearded Tits and four or five Chiffchaffs in the general area. When Bob Bullock went there on 25th, however, the number of Chiffchaffs had increased to at least a dozen, all concentrated along the banks of the outfall stream, probably as a result of the recent cold snap. On 26th Bob visited the site again and found three ‘non-conformist’ Chiffchaffs among them – individuals which, on plumage, were clearly not of the nominate race collybita and which looked good for having an origin from much further east.

Armed with a phoneload of Chiffchaff songs and calls, plus a Bluetooth-enabled, thumb-sized remote speaker, I visited the site the following day, 27th, where I met up with Bob and together we eventually had prolonged views of two ‘grey’ individuals along the 150 metre length of stream immediately before its discharge into the river.

On plumage alone these two birds, almost identical in appearance and, differing markedly from the accompanying ten or so ‘regular’ Chiffchaffs, looked good for the Siberian race tristis based on identification criteria recently published here by Martin Garner.

Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock)

Siberian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita tristis, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). A grey morph individual with a prominent supercilium and the hint of a wing bar on the greater coverts.

Racial identification of Chiffchaffs has endured a chequered history in recent years. Initially it was thought to be relatively easy: if a grey-brown Chiffchaff sporting supercilia and secondary covert wing bars of varying degrees of prominence greater than a nominate race Chiffchaff called with a distinctive “peep” note, sounding like a ‘lost chick’, then it was tristis.

Chiffchaff P. c. collybita (left) and Siberian Chiffchaff P. c. tristis, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock)

Chiffchaff P. c. collybita (left) and Siberian Chiffchaff P. c. tristis, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). Photographed on the same piece of vegetation under the same light conditions within the space of a minute or so. The differences in general colour tone are obvious, as is the difference in supercilium size, shape and colour. The pale tips to the tertials and primaries are striking and more extensive on the tristis and, along with the contrasting blackish alula, this is cited by at least one author* as being a pro-tristis feature (but see image of another nominate race Chiffchaff below).

 Then came the abietinus problem. This race, from Scandinavia/Western Russia, was believed to be greyer, prone to exhibiting wing bars, and was deemed a potential source of confusion with tristis. It was therefore believed that the only ‘good’ tristis were brown, buff or shades thereof. Then there was the tristis/abietinus hybrid zone with the potential to produce birds unassignable to race and which could wander to Britain …   With the publication of MG’s work on tristis identification it has come full circle. In it he outlines a study undertaken on trapped birds in The Netherlands. The bottom line result was that, in a small sample unit, all individuals identified as abietinus in the hand were actually tristis on subsequent DNA analysis! MG postulates that almost all abietinus probably migrate southeast in autumn and that this race is likely to be very rare in the UK. So tristis is back on the menu for British birders as being relatively straightforward to identify – especially if you hear the call.

Nominate race Chiffchaff P. c. collybita, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013, (Bob Bullock). Note pale tertial and primary fringes in comparison to the above nominate race individual.

Nominate race Chiffchaff P. c. collybita, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013, (Bob Bullock). Note pale tertial and primary fringes in comparison to the above nominate race individual.

Which brings me to an initial point of worry: neither of the Siberian Chiffchaffs was heard to call. I played recordings of calls and songs of all three races to them and, aside from one tristis and a couple of nominate collybita breaking cover just once to see what was going on when the regular Chiffchaff song was played, there was no reaction. None.

Siberian Chiffchaff, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). A different individual to the above. Changing light conditions can affect the colour tones. The supercilia in this head-on view appear very striking.

Siberian Chiffchaff, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). A different individual to the above. Changing light conditions can affect the colour tones. The supercilia in this head-on view appear very striking.

By good fortune MG was visiting the Bedfordshire Bird Club two days after the observation so, armed with numerous photos, Bob and I met up with him briefly to discuss the ID of the Ecton birds. Upon seeing Bob’s photos his view was we could confidently identify our birds as tristiswithout even hearing the call! 

Siberian Chiffchaff, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). The same bird as in the previous image. There is a hint of a wing bar which varied in prominence between virtual absence and being quite noticeable, according to light conditions.

Siberian Chiffchaff, Ecton SF, 27th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). The same bird as in the previous image. There is a hint of a wing bar which varied in prominence between virtual absence and being quite noticeable, according to light conditions.

So, moving forward, firstly, we should be on the lookout for more of these birds, especially this winter as there seems to be more about nationally than usual and, secondly all the past records of abietinus in Northants can surely be removed as it appears they are not even readily identifiable in the hand – let alone in the field! These include individuals which have occurred at Ecton in past winters as well as others elsewhere.

Siberian Chiffchaff, Ecton SF, 26th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). A browner-toned individual, seen only on one day.

Siberian Chiffchaff, Ecton SF, 26th January 2013 (Bob Bullock). A browner-toned individual, seen only on one day. The supercilium is duller and there is a prominent brown cheek patch.

Siberian Chiffchaff, Stanford Res, 6th December 2008 (Adam Homer). Another brown-type individual and probably one of the first in the UK to be identified by DNA analysis.

Siberian Chiffchaff, Stanford Res, 6th December 2008 (Adam Homer).

For the record, there have been a handful of sight records of presumed Siberian Chiffchaffs in Northants and one of a bird trapped at Stanford Reservoir on 6th December 2008, which was confirmed as tristis by DNA analysis of feather samples. Field identification, though seemingly a lot clearer now, is still probably a ‘work in progress’.

I would like to thank Martin Garner for his input on the ID of the above birds and Bob Bullock for his excellent series of photographs.

* Nils Van Duivendijk Advanced Bird ID Guide – The Western Palearctic

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9 Responses to Siberian Chiffchaffs at Ecton Sewage Farm

  1. As usual a fascinating post Mike, can I also say the Ecton SF is an amazing site during spring/summer months. The two lakes, especially the one opposite “Jigsaw Lake” is full of warblers from Chiff Chaffs/Willow Warbler/Common and Lesser Whithetroats/Cettis Warbler, As I crossed the concrete bridge to the lake I stumbled across three young Kingfishers being fed by both parents, an interesting site for sure, one I often walk away from thinking “where’s all the birders?”.

    • Mike Alibone says:

      I was about 9 or 10 when I first visited Ecton SF and it became more or less my local patch when I was in my teens – seems like only yesterday 🙂 It’s changed a lot since then but it’s still a very nice area to watch.

  2. steve fisher says:

    So we’ve come full circle with sibe chiffchaff then. The birds we thought of as sibes and were then told were not, are now again thought of as sibes. Whatever, the silvery grey birds are stunning and rival almost any other phyllosc.

  3. Richard Chandler says:

    See this month’s British Birds, which arrived on my doormat today, 1st February. It has a paper by Martin Collinson et al., summarising – in a very readable way – the DNA analyses of four UK tristis individuals, and comparing these results with similar analyses of collybita and abietinus, as well as the other chiffie sub-species. It echoes the conclusions of this post, that tristis is not too difficult ….. But don’t hold your breath on armchair ticks – the genetic difference does not seem sufficient!

    They mention the Stanford bird, but complain that “full details of the analysis have yet to be established” .

    I know that I am biased, but this months BB is another excellent read, including details of the big east coast fall of thrushes in October last year!

    • Mike Alibone says:

      Thanks for drawing this to my attention, Richard. I must admit I do feel bad about having let my BB subscription lapse quite some time ago and I keep meaning to renew it after a long period without! Nothing wrong with being biased 🙂
      With regards to the armchair tick I’m sure you are right but if we forget DNA (which we can’t of course!), Siberian Chiffchaff is far more removed from nominate race Chiffchaff in terms of appearance, calls and song than Iberian Chiffchaff, which seems to have wormed it’s way to full specific status!

  4. Steve says:

    You are massively over-simplifying the problem of ‘tristis’ identification.

  5. Pingback: Siberian Chiffchaffs | Northantsbirds

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