shedale54's picture

2011 09 17th Possible Chiffchaff

Observed: 17th September 2011 By: shedale54shedale54’s reputation in Birdsshedale54’s reputation in Birds
2011 09 17th Possible Chiffchaff

Neat and sleek little bird visited 2 days on the trot but not seen since. Darted about so much could only get a 'rear end' photo. About the size of a blue tit with a black line through its eye and a black/dark beak. Seemed to do a waggling dance with its tail.

Species interactions

No interactions present.

Species with which Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) interacts


David Jardine's picture

Possible Chiffchaff

Dark legs also helpful too

RoyW's picture

Leg colour ....and behaviour.

"Dark legs also helpful too"
Not really. Dark legs for Chiffchaff, pale legs for Willow Warbler is probably still the most often quoted feature to use in their separation.

The trouble is that while the majority of Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs will have the 'correct' leg colour, it is neither uncommon to find Chiffchaffs with pale legs or Willow Warblers with dark legs.

I consider the "dark legs = Chiffchaff" rule to be about as useful as the "I before E except after C rule for spelling" (note the words in bold in this post). ;o)

The 'tail pumping' behaviour does seem to be a useful field character though - Chiffchaffs frequently do this while they are moving about, Willow Warblers don't ever seem to (probably best to check other features as well though!).

David Jardine's picture

Helpful, not Definitive

Hi Roy

Please note I said helpful, not definitive.

Thanks - it is useful to note that not all Chiffchaffs have dark legs, and some Willow Warblers have dark legs.

In this record we are working at a confidence level of 'it is likely' to be a Chiffchaff. I'm sure that you agree that for some taxa it is not possible to be definitive from a single photograph and we work on probabilities based on the evidence we have. For this photo we don't have the call (very helpful for Chiffchaff/Willow Warbler) nor can we see the bill. We certainly can't easily tell if the sixth primary is emarginated (a clincher), so the dark legs (which are found in a higher proportion of Chiffchaffs than in Willow Warblers) taken with the short primary projection is helpful.

I hope that this helps you understand the thinking behind my comment.


ps - look at the feet colour - most dark legged willow warblers have paler feet.....

RoyW's picture

Still not a feature that I like to see put forward.

Hi David,

I understand exactly what you meant, and it is quite clear that you completely understand the limitations of using leg colour for these (+ I agree that it would be extremely unusual for a dark legged Willow Warbler to also have dark feet).

The problem I have with mention of the leg colour (when its usefullness is not fully qualified with mention of the potential inaccuracy of rely on just this feature - something that isn't always possible due to time restraints when posting on sites like this) is that it is already firmly fixed in the minds of many people as a reliable character - and mentioning the colour difference without explaining that it isn't always 'helpful', may help to further entrench this view.
My comment was intended to make it clear to anyone viewing the observation, that the leg colour does not always indicate the species an observer might think. However, when taken in conjunction with other characters that may also be equally variable (eg some aspects of the facial pattern) it may (slightly) help with the ID if the balance of features points to one species.

Now if you'd said that the colour of the feet was helpful, I would have agreed - but might have said that it shouldn't be relied on as a single feature. ;o)


Ray Turner's picture


I have to support Roy on this one based on my own experience.

I would consider myself a competent, if lapsed (prior to doing the OU course), birder though not an expert. I’m in my 50’s and have been a bird watcher since a toddler. Yet prior to joining iSpot last year and taking part in the regular Willow v Chiffchaff debate I would have always gone with ‘dark legs = Chiff’ rule and considered it definitive. Why, because every field guide I poses says so (I’ve just checked ;-) ) with no mention of possible variation.

Therefore I feel it is important to get across some of the difficulties involved in definitive identification and dispel some of these misconceptions.



shedale54's picture

2011 09 17th Possible Chiffchaff

I'm not sure how to add to the observation so please excuse if I have got it wrong or repeated info.
My initial thought and checking the RSPB book was that this was a Chiffchaff but are they not fairly rare this far north?
I have added another very blurry photo. It sort of shows the bill.
Thanks for all your comments.


RoyW's picture


Willow Warblers tend to be more numerous than Chiffchaffs in Scotland, and perhaps other parts of northern Britain, but they are certainly not uncommon (and migrants from Scandinavia will also be passing through the UK at this time of year).
Personally I would be confident that you can say that this is a Chiffchaff (based on a combination of the physical features visible, and the tail wagging behaviour that you describe).

shedale54's picture

2011 09 17th Possible Chiffchaff

I was so excited to see a new/different bird in my garden. Getting a photo was moved about so quickly. Since I only saw it for the 2 days I assume it was just passing through.
Thank you so much for your help.