Most winters I regularly get asked about the small green, yellow or olive-coloured bird found foraging through garden bushes. Without seeing a photograph, the answer is usually chiffchaff or, to be precise, the common chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita).
During the winter months, the Algarve is seeming to be a popular wintering location and can be seen almost anywhere in large numbers but, before you have time to get used to them being around, they disappear.
They have a short migration arriving late in the autumn and leaving early in the spring. However, you may also spot chiffchaffs all-year. Confused?
There is a subspecies called the Iberian chiffchaff (Phylloscopus ibericus) and, as you may guess, this is a breeding bird here in Iberia. Until recently, it was classed as the same species as the Common chiffchaff but has since been separated as a distinct species. The Iberian chiffchaff migrates to Africa in the winter so, apart from a short time during March, these birds are not present together.
Both species are almost identical and difficult to determine even from a close-up photograph. They are small at a maximum of just 12cm in length with a weight of up to eight grams, the female a little less. They have olive green and brown colouring above and pale-yellow underneath. The belly is a white-ish colour, bearing in mind by the time they arrive in Portugal for the winter, they have lost a lot of colour saturation from their breeding plumage.
They have a very distinctive pale eyebrow, and it is common that the Iberian species may have more yellow colouring to the front of this, but not always the case.
To add more confusion, the willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) is also a remarkably similar-looking bird which can cause identification issues in the UK, however, the willow warbler is only seen as it passes through Portugal during the autumn migration (rare in the spring migration).
If you are lucky enough to spot one, the leg colouration usually gives it away. Chiffchaffs have dark legs whereas willow warblers have light legs.
Whilst they may appear similar visually, the call is usually the best way to determine the species. They are named after their distinctive and repetitive song of “chiff-chaff”, sometimes a medley combination of either the “chiff” or the “chaff”.
In my experience, the common chiffchaff’s song is gentle paced and lasts longer than the faster, shorter song of the Iberian chiffchaff. The Iberian chiffchaff also usually ends its song with a fancy, rattly trill sound. The call is also slightly different, both emit a short high-pitched “tweet”, but the Iberian chiffchaff has a descending pitch.
Of course, we do not get to hear the common chiffchaffs singing and calling in the spring, but they still call less frequently during their winter visit. However, on return of the Iberian chiffchaffs, you will certainly hear their springtime breed song and, during March, you may hear both species singing together if there are any common chiffchaffs yet to leave.
Chiffchaffs are part of the leaf warbler family (Phylloscopus) and are rarely still, constantly moving between branches flicking their wings as they search for small insects. If you get close, you often hear them bashing their wings into leaves and branches. I always assume this is to dislodge insects.
Certainly local to me, the common chiffchaff are not bothered by human presence and can usually come within a few metres if sat quietly. They are very territorial during the breeding season, but here during the winter, they happily forage together. You may think that it makes them easy to photograph, but their tiny size and their constant moving makes them more difficult than you think!
By Craig Rogers
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Craig Rogers is a wildlife and nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve, offering photography workshops. For more information, photographs and his blog visit www.craigrogers.photography