The chiffchaffs are a wide-ranging group of warblers,all rather similarly plumaged, being mainly drab olive-brown without obvious markings and dark-legged. They occur in various ‘flavours’ throughout Europe and northern Asia in woodland habitats and closely related forms also breed in the Canary Islands. The name is onomatopoeic, but the classic ‘chiff-chiff-chaff’ is uttered only by the northern forms.

In Portugal we have a separate species, the Iberian Chiffchaff, which is a summer visitor and has a very different song: a series of ‘chaffs’ followed by a couple of high ‘sweets’ and a short, fast trill. One eccentric bird in the valley below my house just produced a long series of ‘chaffs’ - seventeen counted on one occasion! In the breeding season it shows more yellow in the underparts than its northern relative and has dark red legs, so is in between Chiffchaff and the pale-legged Willow Warbler, a common migrant, in general appearance.

Iberian Chiffchaff HD

The common Chiffchaff’s breeding range extends as farsouth as northern Spain and the species has bred in the extreme north-east of Portugal. Singing birds are sometimes heard elsewhere in summer but may be unpaired. It is one of the most numerous winter visitors to Portugal, occurring in a wide range of habitats from woodland, scrub and gardens to meadows and marshes, where it can sometimes be seen in sizeable flocks. Less arboreal than most of the green ‘leaf warblers’, Chiffchaffs often feed on the ground or in low vegetation but they also take insects attracted to late flowering eucalyptus trees. Migrants from the north arrive in October and, although birds occasionally sing in winter, a plaintive ‘pweet’ contact call is the sound most frequently heard.

A greyer form from north-east Europe with a more pronounced facial pattern also reaches Iberia in smaller numbers. It has a louder, monosyllabic ‘weeet’ call which is very like that uttered by two Siberian forms (sometimes regarded as a separate species). These can also occur as vagrants in south-west Europe. One of the latter sports a narrow pale wing bar, aiding identification in the field, but positive determination of these subtle variants is best left to experienced ornithologists trapping birds for ringing.

Alan Vittery