October 13th   Leave a comment

It was a rainy day and birding was very damp. I had to go out though: there must be more out there to find with the fall yesterday. Most of the thrushes have moved on though. There were only a handful of redwings at Kilminning first thing. The blackbirds were back as the commonest thrush and the ring ouzels were gone. I heard one or two yellow-browed warblers at the top of Kilminning, and another down at the bottom. But it was hard to find anything in the persistent light rain that soon made my binoculars of little use. Balcomie was more rewarding. I was watching some chiffchaffs when I heard an unfamiliar repeated “see-uuu” call from the sycamores behind the farm cottages. The call was totally different from a chiffchaff call: loud and with a clear down slur, and quite different from any of the Phylloscopus warbler calls I know well (including willow warbler, greenish and Siberian chiffchaff). I soon located the bird and was disappointed to see it was coming from one of the chiffchaffs. It was a bit dull for a chiffchaff but then everything looked dull this morning. It was only after about thirty seconds of it calling that it occurred to me that I had heard this call before although only on my “Eastern Vagrants” call CD – an exotic collection of almost all the species you might dream off turning up (but mostly never will) on an east wind. The bird had disappeared so I checked my calls and found it under the title “Eastern chiffchaff” A perfect match. I tried a bit of playback but no response from any of the chiffchaffs including a few that were calling as normal with their upslurred “hoo-eet” call. I tried to relocate the calling bird and I did find a female redstart and another yellow-browed warbler for my pains, both that were keeping well in the canopy and I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been searching so hard. But the “mystery” bird did not call again and neither did any of the other chiffchaffs after the calling bout that attracted my attention initially. The rain was becoming more persistent and I had to leave to pick up my family from the airport.

Later I browsed xeno-canto (the web site that has many recordings of most species globally) and confirmed the call I was hearing was a perfect match for Eastern chiffchaff, but what I didn’t realise until then, that this is an alternative name for Mountain or Caucasian chiffchaff. A potential first for Britain and one of the more unlikely ones, being a relatively short distance migrant. I had to go out again to look for it, even though it was still raining with the haar coming in. Balcomie was much as I had left it – I checked five or more chiffchaffs feeding in the same area very carefully but none showed any of the plumage characteristics of a Mountain chiffchaff and none called at all. I learnt a lot about chiffchaff plumage and structure checking every bird from bill to tail tip. The yellow-browed warbler was still there but relegated to a distraction rather than the star. Being in one place for an hour I was able to note that it called once about every ten minutes and was only visible in total for about a couple of minutes: a good lesson in how easy they are to overlook and this one was more or less in the same few sycamores twenty meters in front of me the whole time!

I got soaked again but was actually quite relieved and happy – refinding such a difficult bird to identify on my own would not convince anybody, least of all me. If the strange chiffchaff really is around, better found with a few others and when photos and recordings can be made in the better conditions forecast for tomorrow. The most likely thing is that some common chiffchaffs occasionally make all sorts of calls in the same way that plumage aberrations turn up. But all very exciting and I have learnt a lot about all the characters that make up chiffchaff identification today. Roll on tomorrow.

A common chiffchaff

Posted October 13, 2018 by wildcrail in Sightings

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