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A common summer visitor that nests in Dorset


Chiffchaff: chuffed to hear the chiffchaff

Post date: Monday, 24 March, 2014 - 00:00

I usually reckon to hear my first chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita) on, or just after, the 15th March each year; they are suddenly there in the bare branches of the trees calling their repetitive "chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff "song. I am always pretty chuffed when I first hear them as they are one of the heralds of spring for me but after a while they are quickly taken for granted and I look for 'more interesting' things!

The chiffchaff is usually back here a good three weeks or so before its close cousin, the willow warbler. The two are virtually indistinguishable in appearance up in the tree tops and it is through their songs that one can confidently tell them apart. Often heard but not always seen, the chiffchaff can be difficult to track down and photograph as it is continually on the move amongst the branches. It is obviously easier to do it early in the spring before the leaves appear on the trees.

Despite generally being a migrant species wintering in Africa you may see a chiffchaff during the winter months and it was once thought that some birds just decided not to head south in the autumn but ringing has shown that our winter birds are generally migrants from colder parts of Europe who decide that Dorset is warm enough for them and heading even further south is not worth the effort.


Chiffchaff in Dorset: what your tweets tell us ...

Post date: Monday, 3 December, 2018 - 18:14

The chiffchaff is one of several warbler species that migrate to us from Africa in spring for the breeding season and then head back south again in early autumn. I always reckoned to hear my first chiffchaff on, or about, the 15th March each year and, interestingly, the weekly chart shows a surge in tweets in week 14, around the 15th March! They do start arriving a little earlier than that it seems as reports start to pick up a couple of weeks before week 14. Being an early arriver compared to other warbler species the chiffchaff does get quite a bit of attention from observers when they see their first of the year, it shows that migration is under way and spring, in theory at least, is just around the corner.

The weekly chart makes interesting viewing in my opinion as it shows a sudden decline in reports from mid-May through until early August. There are two reasons for this I would imagine. Firstly, the chiffchaff is a common nesting species in Dorset and so there is little interest in reporting a sighting once first arrivals have been noted. The second reason could be that they become less visible once the leaves come on the trees and their song stops when territories have been established and the work of feeding young starts. From early August until early October reports pick up again as the autumn exodus begins.

A further look at the weekly chart also shows a small number of reports from November and December, a break in January and then a few reports from February. How come a summer visitor is seen here out of season? When I started 'birding' back in the 1970s this was something of an unsolved puzzle; why would some birds not follow their comrades south in autumn and decide to stay on here? It was suggested that an increase in bird feeding might be leading to a change in the species behaviour and that it could lead to substantially more deciding to stay and overwinter. That might seem a bit naive now as I think it is pretty well established that birds seen here in winter are from northern Europe who migrate here rather than go on south to Africa. The lack of records in January might indicate that the late autumn birds arriving here may then move on into France and Spain when the going gets tough here in January?

The distribution map shows just how widespread this species is in Dorset and how catholic it is in choice of habitat. They seem to be happy pretty much anywhere there is a tree to perch in and sing from. There are a substantial number of records from Portland where their migration is easily monitored.

If the chiffchaff is on your 'hit list' to see then the best time is in early spring when there are few leaves on the trees and where you can first locate them by their distinctive 'song' (after which they are named of course). As I said, you can see them almost anywhere.


The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Sites List Distribution Map Some Charts Some Photographs Original Tweets Relatives Guidance Notes
Common Name Chiffchaff
Scientific Name Phylloscopus collybita
Status Common
Interest Level
Species Family Warblers
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Preferred Environment
  • Hedgerows
  • Woodland - broadleaf
Look for The unmistakable continuous chiff-chaff song
Additional Identification Notes
  • Hard to distinguish from the willow warbler other than by song
  • Prefers more dense woodland than the willow warbler
  • A summer visitor but also seen in winter with migrant birds arriving here from northern Europe
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