My first ‘Siberian’ Chiffchaff – 18th Jan 2015

Having walked up to the paddocks on the north side of the railway line crossing the Itchen Navigation on Friday afternoon, the former ‘twitching’ part of me (clearly dormant but not altogether extinguished) was more than a little pissed off with a report of ‘Siberian’ Chiffchaff (p. collybita tristis) not 250m further up the path! And among an impressive 49 birds of the nominate, familiar race Phylloscopus collybita as well!

I’m not one for Latin names as a rule, but subspecies and races deserve an exception.

Siberian Chiffchaff (the eastern race) is a rare bird in Hampshire (maybe one a year?) and not a bird I ever recall seeing before. At least not since I started to think I know what I’m looking at…

I’m not a great one for swotting up either. I know the basic gist of the race and prefer in the field to rely on that feeling of “just knowing”. I have several times experienced questioning the identity of each bird trying to find a rarity amongst them, and every time when you do see the right one “you just know”. If you’re not sure that what you are looking at is one of them, then the chances are that it almost certainly isn’t!

Beautiful afternoon for a shot at this bird I thought, crisp winter sunshine and excellent afternoon light so I knew the sun was behind my shoulder and falling on the hedgerow and trees favoured by birds around Eastleigh Sewage Farm. Access via Chickenhall Lane off the Bishopstoke Road – driving as far as you can to the very end passed all the factory and office units. I arrived at 14:30, so two hours ahead of sunset.

First Chiffchaff picked up at Bishopstoke Fishery, in some vegetation at the base of an elder. Nice bright yellow one. Easy peasy. Two Goldcrests here as well. Over the course of the next half hour I picked up 10 – 12 Chiffchaffs, mostly calling and all seen fairly well. There was a call, too. Just something ‘odd’ and I could not see the bird making it. Scribbled in my notebook “drier, wheezier” than  chaff. Not quite Bullfinch, or Dunnock? Anyway…
3 – 5 more by the paddock where the Itchen Navigation path joins the surfaced track, bordered by five lovely ‘copper’ beech trees. But heading the wrong direction for the best light, so I walked down to the railway embankment at a pace and then turned round so I could work up the path the right way, get decent views and take my time. Rare for me to focus so intently on one objective – and so practise my rather shoddy field observation skills.

So doing, walking very slowly and stopping all the time to watch over the fence to the east and look at each bird. 15 – 20 Chiffchaffs this way. Amazing numbers, often three or four together in crab apple trees and ivy. At least 5 more Goldcrests too, and 30 -40 Long-tailed Tits. NUTHATCH called briefly too – a first for the Patchwork yearlist and so up to 62 species.

(61 was the Tawny Owl on Saturday morning, at Riverside Park)

At about 15:45 I came back to the beeches by the paddock, where there were Chiffchaff even in the long grass and on the ground. Light still perfect, and most showed classic yellow/green/olive – especially on the side of the rump and breast. One bird came up out of the grass and landed on the side of a concrete shed briefly, hanging onto a cable. Immediately to its right another bird popped up and did the same thing, but this time spending more time on the cable and in some kind of exposed joist / steelwork. And this was “the one” – I knew instantly. From underneath, which showed most often, it was pale and white, totally lacking any yellow. Same when it faced me and hung off the wall in the shape of a Wren – its underparts were completely unmarked and the back and wings looked much ‘greyer’ and atonal than the previous bird. Watching it closely as it moved into some sheets of corrugated metal and a barbed wire fence, it’s head was also lighter, browner and generally more buff looking, but with a quite distinct white eyestripe and eyering. I am pretty sure this stood out because the bird had quite rufous-looking brown cheeks. As I watched, it showed yellow on the edges of some wing feathers, creating a panel that seemed to be the only genuinely ‘yellow/green patch on the whole bird. Dark legs.

Brilliant, and like I said above, I “just knew” and it seemed to stand out quite easily so that I could pick it up amongst 3 – 4 nominate birds as they moved off again through the grass.

Watching them led me to my first TREECREEPER of the year too, in an oak tree, dropping down to the base as it parachuting and then spiral-climbing back upwards. Thrushes appearing in numbers by now as the light started to fall – 4 Song Thrush, 10-12 Blackbirds and one Mistle Thrush in the same paddock.

I’d say at least 35 Chiffchaff in the area, and one of the SIBERIAN RACE that I feel counts as ‘self found’ so I am quite pleased with myself. I’m always anxious of looking for Someone Else’s Birds and especially of going out with intent to see something that is hard to identify when you know it’s there. Somehow I feel this prejudices not only my chance of seeing it at all, but secondly any credibility I might have of anyone believing me if I do actually see it.

Hence I have long since given up submitting records. I know what it was, I had good advice from a contact I trust and so it’s in the bag. Not a ‘tick’ because it’s a subspecies, but definitely A Good Bird and an important experience for me as I get better in the field and gain confidence with each time out.

Patchwork yearlist = 63 species

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