Friday 11 December 2020

A Trick of the Light

On November 24th I paid an exploratory visit to Kilmington WTW and was rewarded with rubbish views of what looked a good tristis candidate. There were only 2 or 3 regular collybita Chiffchaffs present, but I was confident that numbers would soon grow, and equally confident that the tristis (if it was one) would give itself up soon enough. Since that day I have returned at least three times, and yes, the Chiff population has grown. At least 15-20+ birds currently. But pale and interesting ones have been conspicuous only by their seeming absence. Until today.

If you've followed this blog for a while you will be aware of a slight obsession with tristis taking hold last winter. I made considerable effort to increase my understanding of the taxon through reading and research, and spent many hours with at least five different individuals through the winter. During this educational journey I became aware that there is still a measure of controversy regarding exactly what constitutes a 'good' tristis. Personally I reached a conclusion which aligns with the position of many other birders. Though not all. However, I shan't be opening that can of worms tonight. Instead I want to talk about light...

Birders (and photographers I'm sure!) constantly moan about the light. The light is too dim, too harsh, 'all wrong', or in a myriad other ways completely rubbish. How right they are! When picking through a flock of gulls there is nothing worse than glaring sunshine. I like a nice flat light, the kind you get on a dull, overcast day. Perfect for assessing those subtle shades of grey and brown. And the same is true for Chiffchaffs. At Kilmington today, most of the Chiffs were periodically showing well in a small clump of low trees. Unfortunately it was a bright day and the birds were almost always above head height, either against the sky or harshly side-lit by the sun. Not only that, but the strong light also tells fat lies about a bird's true shade and colour. This makes it more difficult than you'd think to pick out the pale bird from the less-pale, and affects how the camera sees it too. When I first clapped eyes on today's Sibe Chiff I spent a fair old while convincing myself I wasn't imagining things, and that it genuinely was much paler than the collybita birds. And after a few photos I couldn't help thinking that the images depicted a bird too brightly hued for a tristis. Thankfully the bird was quite cooperative, twice sitting still for a few minutes, and once dropping into a shady ditch briefly, where its striking paleness was immediately obvious. Anyway, here is a selection of the better photos...

One of the early shots. I think its paleness is obvious here.

If this had been the only photo I'd got there is no way I would have claimed a tristis. To my eye it looks far too green.

Notice the obvious greenish edges to the flight feathers (which is fine for tristis). Note also the abundance of food! It spent ages sitting in this spot. Horribly side-lit. How I wished a cloud would come and blot out the sun!

It preened, sunbathed...

...and responded beautifully to a short play-back of tristis song. Within three or four seconds it began wing-quivering vigorously, and continued for another few seconds after I stopped the recording. No collybita Chiff ever responded to tristis song when I tried this last winter. For me that's a clincher.

It wasn't until I was going through the photos at home that I realised the last shot looked like it was taken in flatter light, and the camera settings recorded in the EXIF data support that notion: higher ISO for the same shutter speed. Thank you, stray cloud!

This is one of those tristis that some feel isn't a tristis. But with my low threshold it's easily good enough! Hopefully not my last this winter...


  1. That was really weird for me - I thought I was reading someone else's blog and wondered why they (a beetle person) had suddenly gotten all interested in tristis Chiffs. In fact, I remembered YOU were interested in tristis Chiffs and thought it odd you hadn't tried for any lately. And then I reached the end of the blog and saw your name - kerplunk, and the penny dropped! Haha, what a wally! Great result with the playback.

    1. Ha ha! Yes, that must have been weird! I wonder if I'll ever write a post about beetles...?

      Re playback: I'm not averse to using it in a limited way for tristis. And I'm sure the bird's instant response was as much down to the almost balmy weather as anything. Needless to say, in freezing conditions, when the birds badly need to feed, I would not use playback at all. I'd be surprised if they would respond in such weather anyway.