Wednesday, 8 January 2020

A Song and Dance

My winter birding has been absolutely transformed by an unanticipated interest in Sibe Chiffs. I appreciate that many birders have already been down this same road over the years, but for me it's all new really, a fascinating voyage of discovery. The actual birding bit is only part of the attraction. There's also the reading-up-on-it bit, the photography bit, and the audio bit. I love it all, and feel like a detective gathering evidence and building a case...

So it was no surprise to feel the pull of a sewage works once more. Kilmington WTW was just fantastic this morning. The calm, mild air was full of little flies, and everywhere small birds were reaping the harvest. I would estimate 30+ Chiffs at the very least, mostly in trees and bushes adjacent to the works, but also getting along nearby hedgerows too. In addition to several Goldcrests I also saw a Firecrest again, and added Reed Bunting to my Kilmington WTW list by means of a single male. Some Mipits and loads of Pied Wags too, though I didn't see any candidates for White today.

My aim this morning was a decent photo of one or both of the Siberian Chiffchaffs I saw on my initial visit. Within a couple of minutes I spotted one, down the path a way...

Distant Sibe Chiff

Before I got any closer it flicked over some bushes and out of view. Typical...

A few years back, South Devon birder Mike Langman did quite a lot of work with his local tristis Chiffs. One aspect of his investigations involved noting their response to song playback, watching their reaction, and non-reaction, to tristis and collybita song respectively. I have tried this already, back in December, on the Colyton and Chideock birds. My results were positive, but underwhelming, with just a few seconds wing-quivering in response to tristis song, before the birds lost interest and got back to feeding. I am conscious that it is winter and the birds need to feed, so really do not want to overdo it; my efforts in this area have therefore been limited. However, it was a nice, mild morning, one or two collybita were having a half-hearted little sing-song of their own, my tristis had just vanished, so why not...?

The response was amazing! As my phone dispensed a bit of Aves Vox tristis song into the pungent air, not one, but two birds immediately popped into view, their wings quivering like nervous butterflies...

This is one of the two birds mentioned just above. The camera has caught it mid-quiver, and shows you exactly what a lusty tristis will see: sexy yellow armpits. Now there's something to get excited about.

I was completely blown away by this reaction. Compared to what I've had so far, it was almost frenzied! That was good enough for me. These birds were seriously interested in the lovely tristis voice they were hearing. Not a single collybita paid the slightest attention. In addition to the photo above, I recorded a few seconds of video too.

I let them be, and later managed another pretty decent photo of one of the birds...

Barely any yellow-green fringing apparent in the flight feathers of this tristis. Nice.

Not long afterwards I wandered along the cycle path, away from the works, and came across what looked like a pale and interesting Chiff in the top of a tree. The bird was a bit silhouetted, so I tried playing it some tristis song. The reaction was instant, and identical to the earlier pair, and again I recorded a few seconds of video. Here is a still from that video, again mid-quiver...

That is one very excited tristis.

I assume this bird was one of the two seen earlier, but there is a possibility that it could be a third individual. As you can probably tell, my little Sibe Chiff voyage of discovery is leading me towards a solid conclusion. A conclusion which I believe is going to add a great deal of confidence to any future dealings I have with pale and interesting Chiffs. At the end of the day, I simply want to feel comfortable with what I count and what I call it, and be able to explain my position. I'm getting there, but that's for another post...

By the way, I just want to reassure readers that I did not blast these birds willy-nilly, and switched off the recordings within a very short time of seeing a response.


  1. That's really pretty damned cool (wonder if the Casps will show you their armpits too?) Seriously though, very cool stuff. I'm impressed!

    1. Thanks Seth. I must admit, the strength of these birds' reaction to tristis song surprised me. Plus, though I was aware that tristis underwing was yellow, obviously now I'm wondering if that bright patch is there for a reason. Fascinating stuff.

  2. Gav, I'd say that your current work on Tristis and Casps will be regarded as a significant contribution to birding.
    Somehow you have managed to avoid dishing up 'dry reading' in the course of events, which is quite a feat considering the subject material.

    1. Thanks Ric, I'm very glad it doesn't come across as 'dry reading' because I know exactly what you mean, and it's the very thing that kills the written word. Some of the academic stuff on Chiffchaff genetics is the driest imaginable, and it sucks all the pleasure from reading it.