Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita in the Elborz Mountains of Iran: which taxon?
© A. R. Dean
Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita ssp, Elborz Mountains, Iran, April 2017 : caucasicus or menzbieri?
The images above show Common Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita ssp. observed in the central Elborz Mountains near Kelardasht, in northern Iran, during April 2017. They occupied light woodland (including oak, hornbeam and hawthorn) at an altitude of around 1500m, a habitat they shared with Green Warblers P. nitidus. Chiffchaffs of similar appearance and vocalisations were encountered subsequently in denser woodlands further east, near Kiasar.
Figure 1. The locations of Kalerdasht and Kiasar superimposed on
range map for caucasicus and menzbieri (and other southern races)
as portrayed by Copete & López (2013)
and modified from Handbuch der Voegel Mitteleuropas, Glutz von Blotzheim & Bauer (1991).
Kelardasht is at the eastern extreme of the range depicted for caucasicus in Copete & López (2013) while Kiasar lies close to the western end of the range depicted for menzbieri (its core range being in the Kopet Dagh in Turkmenistan). These two locations thus demark, approximately, an apparent gap in the depicted distributions of the Chiffchaff races. In the literature, the Hyrcanian forest of northern Iran is frequently associated with the form menzbieri but accounts of its appearance are rather rudimentary. There is a dearth of recent information in European literature, as the region around Kopet Dagh is visited infrequently by ornithologists. The form caucasicus has been better-studied in the Caucasus but the true extent of its range and that of menzbieri along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea are not firmly established. On the basis of range, it does not seem possible to allocate the Chiffchaffs at Kelardasht and Kiasar to one form or the other.
The appearance of the Elborz Chiffchaffs did not resemble typical abietinus. There was some convergence with the 'grey and white' Chiffchaffs discussed extensively elsewhere on this website, with their upperparts exhibitting a strong grey component (greyer on the mantle, somewhat browner on the crown) and their underparts relatively white, lacking field-evident yellow anywhere in the body plumage (though with a tinge at the front of the upper eye-ring). The upperparts were streaked with olive and there were well-developed yellowish-olive fringes to the remiges and rectrices. The legs and feet were decidedly black while there was a conspicuous pale base to the lower mandible. At times the plumage appeared rather pale overall but, at close range, a browner aspect to the upperparts was apparent (see below for comments on colour nuances). Plates 5 to 9 capture their appearance well and I am grateful to Ali Alieslam, Steve Rooke and Rob Tizard for providing their excellent images.
© Ali Alieslam
© Steve Rooke
© Rob Tizard
© Rob Tizard
Common Chiffchaffs, c. 1500m in Elborz Mountains near Kelardasht, Iran, April 2017
These DSLR images show that olive in the mantle comprised scattered streaking rather than an overall suffusion and reveal just a very few subdued yellow streaks at the sides of the breast, with the underparts otherwise white with a greyish tinge (note that the greenish-yellow suffusion in the ventral area in plates 1 and 5 is induced by 'reflection' from the adjacent leaves - a common photographic artefact).
At higher altitudes above 2500m, on relatively bare mountain slopes with scrub and isolated clumps of small trees, these rather grey and white Chiffchaffs were replaced by P. lorenzii, exhibiting much browner upperparts (lacking olive), a fulvous-buff wash on the breast, 'plain' wing and tail edges (lacking the prominent yellowish-olive fringes of the Common Chiffchaffs) and a more-prominent supercilium (together with subtly different vocalisations).
José Luis Copete and Lars Svensson (in lit.) have commented that the photos of the Elborz Chiffchaffs recall individuals they have examined in Georgia and Armenia, which would be caucasicus under current taxonomy. However, information on the extent and respects in which menzbieri and caucasicus differ in appearance is limited, especially in literature readily accessible by western ornithologists.
The distinguishing features and taxonomy of the southern forms of Chiffchaff, brevirostris, caucasicus and menzbieri, are far from firmly established. All have been described as similar and close in appearance to abietinus (e.g. Clement, Helbig & Small 1998) but references to menzbieri habitually acknowledge the lack of current information and an absence of photographs. Mitochondrial genetic data presented by Helbig et al.(1996) found that the 'pairwise sequence divergence value' between caucasicus and abietinus was 1.3% (c.f. 1.0% between collybita and abietinus and 1.7% between tristis and abietinus). However, the divergence value between caucasicus and brevirostris was only 0.2%. Although based upon limited sample sizes, these results suggest that caucasicus and brevirostris together exhibit statistically significant genetic distance from abietinus but that they are themselves very closely related, at least as inferred from mtDNA. There were no specimens of menzbieri available for analysis.
Comments on the appearance of menzbieri presented in European literature are generally no more than a reiteration of earlier accounts, deriving from the type description (Shestoperov 1937) or Dementiev & Gladkov (1954, English translation 1968), for example. Rather more extensive comment was provided by Watson (1962), in his paper recommending re-instatement of the name brevirostris for the Chiffchaffs breeding in northern Turkey. Watson provided a detailed account of that form and comparative notes on abietinus, menzbieri and lorenzii. The form caucasicus was not described, by Loskot, until 1991. Hence, these historical accounts of menzbieri do not mention, yet alone compare, caucasicus. Additionally, the information available on menzbieri in such European texts or translations is not only limited but also somewhat inconsistent.
Dementiev & Gladkov (1954) compared menzbieri to Mountain Chiffchaff P. sindianus, probably following from the original account of Shestoperov (1937). However, Shestoperov wrote only that: 'The colour seems to be closest to that described by Zarudnyi from the Pamir-Alai Ph. s. subsindianus' and it is not clear that a physical comparison was actually made. Unfortunately, the original type specimens were subsequently destroyed in a fire (Marova & Leonovich, 1997). Vaurie (1959) linked menzbieri with Siberian Chiffchaff tristis / 'fulvescens', presumably because of the restricted olive in the upperparts and the deficit of yellow on the underparts. BWP6 (1992) included menzbieri in tristis, though acknowledging that it may belong within abietinus. Again, it seems that these suggested links between menzbieri and other taxa were less than rigorous. Analogies with Mountain Chiffchaff and Siberian Chiffchaff, with their distinctive brown and buff hues, do not accord with the Elborz birds.
Other accounts suggest that, as a group, the southern forms are somewhat intermediate between abietinus and lorenzii but closer to the former, being rather browner than typical abietinus and with reduced yet still-evident olive and yellow hues. Watson (1962) provided a table of comparative characters of brevirostris, abietinus, menzbieri and lorenzii, where the word 'brown' is allocated only to the upperparts of lorenzii. The description for the upperparts of abietinus is 'greyish green' and for brevirostris 'greenish grey'. Watson described the upperparts of menzbieri as 'mostly grey, tinged greenish'. He noted a west-to-east reduction in lipochrome pigment (as in the northern forms), resulting in whiter underparts, with reduced yellow streaking. The underparts of menzbieri are described simply as: 'white, no yellow'.
In a more-recent publication, Copete & López (2013) discussed all subspecies of Common Chifchaff (including caucasicus) but they too noted the absence of accessible data on the appearance of menzbieri. Of caucasicus, they noted that photos provided to them by Vladimir Loskot exhibited upperparts similar to abietinus but 'yellow much more clearly present on the edge of the wing, lower parts clearly whiter'. The legs were also noted to appear densely black, more so even than in tristis. (Unlike Watson, Copete & López (together with Lars Svensson) regarded the taxonomic validity of brevirostris as more questionable and, rather than intermediate between abietinus and lorenzii, they concluded that it bridged the appearances of collybita and abietinus.)
Thus, Watson's notes on menzbieri (indicating upperparts grey, tinged greenish, and underparts white, lacking yellow) and Copete & López's comments on caucasicus (indicating brighter fringes to the wing edges than in abietinus and whiter underparts) both include features exhibited by the Elborz individuals. Colour nuances in the upperparts of the Elborz birds as captured in plates 5 to 7 (see above) could also hint at a step towards the ground colour of the upperparts of Mountain (Caucasian) Chiffchaff P. lorenzii and Siberian Chiffchaff P. (c.) tristis, albeit significantly more abietinus-like overall owing to the presence of evident olive streaking.
One of the very few accounts based upon first-hand observations of menzbieri in Kopet Dagh is that of Marova & Leonovish (1997). In 1985 and 1989-1990, the geographical distribution, ecology, morphology and vocalizations of menzbieri were studied. Discussing distribution, the authors noted that Kopet Dagh was the established range but they included citations to menzbieri in the Elborz. They suggested that the Elborz population was probably menzbieri but acknowledged that further information was required. Usefully, this account also provides explicit comments on the comparative appearance of menzbieri and caucasicus. I am grateful to Irina Marova for providing a copy of the paper. It is in Russian but includes an English summary, from which the following is an extract:
'Contrary to Ph. c. abietinus, Ph. c. menzbieri has only a trace of yellow colour on the breast, white belly and white undertail coverts. From Ph. c. caucasicus it differs both in the bright yellow colour of the axillars and the wrist and in the brighter green colour on the back and on the edge of the primaries and tail feathers.'
Irina Marova (in litt.) states that the appearance of menzbieri has little in common with sindianus but that the differences from caucasicus as noted in the paper are nevertheless small. While it would seem that the features noted as distinctive on the Elborz Chiffchaffs in April 2017 are compatible with caucasicus and menzbieri, there is still too little direct comparative material to place them significantly on a 'sliding scale' between the two. It seems probable that the nuances in colour and brightness can be evaluated adequately only from individuals in pristine (fresh) plumage. For practical (third-party) purposes, an updated evaluation and colour-accurate photographs of both caucasicus and menzbieri are required, involving individuals in fresh plumage soon after their arrival in their core breeding ranges. In the case of menzbieri, this is easier said than done.
What of vocalisations? Helbig et al. (1996) invested considerable effort in recording the songs and calls of the Chiffchaff taxa and wrote: ' .. vocal differences, like mitochondrial DNA sequences, reflect evolutionary differentiation within the chiffchaff complex over long time spans much better than does morphology, which is relatively uniform'. While the relative taxonomic significance of morphology and vocalizations is another issue where opinions are divided, it is certainly the case that vocalizations provide another indicator of 'genetic distance' and can provide valuable insights into taxonomic relationships.
One of the sonograms of call attributed to caucasicus in Helbig et al. and in Clement. Helbig & Small (1998) was from a recording made by J. Martens at Alamdeh (Royan), Iran, which is in the same general region as Kelardasht. It is not stated on what the diagnosis was based. However, if the sonograms published in these two sources have good credentials and if the depicted differences are consistently distinct between the forms, then the sonograms there indicate subtle differences in vocalisations between caucasicus and menzbieri. The calls and song recorded at Kelardasht in April 2017 appear to match menzbieri more closely than caucasicus.
A recording of the song from Kelardasht can be heard <here>. Compared with collybita / abietinus, the notes have a harder, 'punchier' and more staccato delivery.
A sonogram of the song is below (Fig. 2), where it is compared with a sonogram of menzbieri from Kopet Dagh in the core range for the taxon (recording by Irina Marova) and a sonogram of caucasicus from the Caucasus (recording by J. Martens). These sonograms are reproduced from Fig. 3 in Clement et al. (1998):
In terms of note structure, there is a greater correspondence between the sonogram of the Elborz Chiffchaffs and that of the menzbieri, with similar introductory notes and some subsequent notes including rising, sinusoidal or 'saw-tooth' appendices. These 'terminal flourishes' are positioned significantly above the lowest point in the initial downstroke and reach 5kHz (i.e. those at 1.3s, 2s and 2.6s in the Elborz recording and at 2s, 3.7s and 4.4s in the Kopet Dagh recordings). In contrast, the notes in the sonogram of caucasicus are of two basic types and lack rising, 'saw-tooth' appendices positioned significantly above the base of the downstroke. (n. b.. It is apparent, also, that in the caucasicus sonogram there is some loss of low frequency response in many of the more-complex appendices. Downward pointing lower-frequency 'spikes', which in fact extend below the base of the initial downward stroke, have been truncated, leaving artificial gaps). Notes with a rising, 'saw-tooth' terminal flourish are also shown in the sonograms of menzbieri published by Marova & Leonovich (1997), an adapted version of which is reproduced below (Figure 3).
Note 2 in sequence (a), notes 4 and 6 in sequence (b) and notes 1and 2 in
sequence (c) have rising, 'saw-tooth' terminal flourishes similar to those in the Elborz recording.
(Note 4 in sequence (c) is also close to this type, though with a lower-frequency final element.)
(Grishchenko et al. (2016) analysed the songs of a newly-established breeding population of Common Chiffchaffs in the Crimea. They concluded that certain elements in the song were shared with caucasicus but not with abietinus and concluded that the Crimean population originated from caucasicus. Using the sonograms published in 1996 by Helbig et al. (and Clement et al. in 1998) they also concluded that menzbieri (and brevirostris too) contained subspecifically distinct elements. Unfortunately, they did not elaborate or include illustrative, annotated sonograms of these two forms.)
A recording of the call from Kelardasht can be heard <here>.
Sonograms of calls recorded at Kelardasht and Kiasar are below, where they are compared with recordings of various Chiffchaff taxa which have relatively 'flat' calls compared with collybita and abietinus and are encountered in the Middle East (sonograms reproduced from Clement et al. 1998): Apart from one call attributed to caucasicus (see first call in sonogram 'k'), all these calls are relatively 'flat' compared with the typical calls of abietinus / collybita. They are distinctly tristis-like and differences between them are subtle.
The sonograms of the Kelardasht and Kiasar Chiffchaffs from April 2017 show a slightly rising pitch and then a terminal fall and are a close match with sonogram l in Fig. 4 in Clement et al. (1998), which depicts a menzbieri recorded by Irina Marova at Kopet Dagh in Turkmenistan, in the core range for the taxon. The second call attributed to caucasicus in sonograms 'k' in Clement et al. is similar but suggests a very slightly falling pitch in two of the three notes depicted. It was recorded at Alamdeh (Royan) in Iran and hence in teh same general region as Kelardasht. There is no data on how the race of this individual was determined. Other sonograms of caucasicus published by Marova & Leonovich (1997) also indicate a call with a slightly falling pitch. Perplexingly, however, the first call in sonogram 'k' , recorded in the Caucasus by J. Martens, is very different, with a strongly rising terminal pitch.
Chiffchaffs of puzzling identity are also encountered in winter in Kuwait. It has been suggested that they might be menzbieri but the basis for this seems largely speculative. Although they share certain plumage features with the Elborz birds. they are less grey-tinged on the upperparts and less white below, showing restricted yet evident yellow streaking. Their call rises and falls but, compared with the Elborz birds, this is much more accentuated, being distinctly arched and reaching a higher frequency. See <here> for photos, sound-recording and sonogram. At first sight, the sonogram does not match closely any of those published by Helbig et al. and Clement et al. However, the flat opening pitch and marked rise at the mid-way point are a very close match with the first call attributed to caucasicus in sonograms 'k' above. The latter apparently lacks a subsequently descending profile, unless the recording or sonogram are truncated (the terminal fall is relatively faint in some sonograms from Kuwait). Interestingly, on the Finnish 'Tarsiger' website, there is a recording <here> by Timo Janhonen of a Chiffchaff in Azerbaijan, from March 19th 2012, that has a call which sounds near-identical to the Kuwait Chiffchaffs. A prepared sonogram shows the same distinctive shape. The breeding form in Azerbaijan is caucasicus but the early date does not confirm birds established on territory. There were several such birds but Timo Janhonen states (in lit.) that they were in lowland shrubberies and meadows by the Caspian Sea (rather than the forest) and, consequently, it is impossible to know whether they were arriving near their breeding grounds or were migrants en route farther afield. Timo also noted a very similar call <here> on xeno-canto, recorded in Azerbaijan in January 2015 by Steve Klasan, so individuals with this call apparently winter in the region.
Clearly, more data are required before the identity of the Chiffchaffs at Kelardasht and Kiasar can be attributed with confidence. Are they caucasicus or are they menzbieri? On the basis of the rather limited descriptions in the current literature, appearance is compatible with both caucasicus and menzbieri. Allocating a differential measure of olive in the upperparts and brightness of wing-feather fringes in the Elborz birds is currently impractical. Song and call are closer to the few published sonograms of menzbieri. Photographs of pristine caucasicus and of menzbieri from Kopet Dagh are needed, to establish their definitive appearances and confirm any distinctions. Further sound-recordings and sonograms of caucasicus and menzbieri are required, to clarify the typical call of caucasicus, the range of variation in vocalizations of both forms and any potential overlap.
Clement, P., Helbig A.J. & Small, B. 1998. Taxonomy and identification of chiffchaffs in the Western Palearctic. Brit. Birds 91: 361-376.
Cramp, S. (ed.) 1992. The Birds of the Western Palearctic. Vol. 6. Oxford.
Dementiev, G. P. & Gladkov, H. A. 1954. Birds of the Soviet Union, Vol. 6. Moscow. [Israel Program for Scientific Translations. Jerusalem 1968.]
Copete, J. L. & López, F. 2013. Identificación de subespecies en el mosquitero común, in Rodríguez, N., García, J. & Copete, J. L.(eds). El mosquitero iberirico. Leon.
Grishchenko, A. V., Tsvelykh, A. N. & Yablonovska-Grishchenko, E. D. 2016. Song repertoire and origins of Crimean population of Chiffchaff, Phylloscopus collybita (Sylviidae). Vestnik zoologii 50: 89-92.
Helbig, A.J., Martens, J., Seibold, I., Henning, F., Schottler B. & Wink, M. 1996. Phylogeny and species limits in the Palearctic Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita complex: mitochondrial genetic differentiation and bioacoustic evidence. Ibis 138: 650-666.
Loskot, V. M. 1991. A new Chiffchaff subspecies (Aves, Sylviidae) from the Caucasus. Vestnik zoologii, Kiev 3: 76 -77. [In Russian]
Marova, I. M. & Leonovich, V. V. 1997. Mysterious Chiffchaff from the Kopet Dagh: ecology, vocalization and relations of Phylloscopus collybita menzbieri. Zoologichesky journal 76: 735-742. [In Russian with English summary]
Vaurie, C. 1959. The Birds of the Palearctic Fauna. Order Passeriformes. London.
Watson, G. E. 1962. A re-evaluation and redescription of a difficult Asia Minor Phylloscopus. Ibis 104: 347 - 352.
I would like to thank Ali Alieslam, Steve Rooke and Rob Tizard for discussions in the field and provision of their excellent photographs; José Luis Copete and Lars Svensson for comments in lit.; Irina Marova for comments in litt. and for providing a copy of her paper with V. V. Leonovich on menzbieri at Kopet Dagh; Roger Riddington for permission to re-use sonograms published in British Birds; Timo Janhonen for providing information on Chiffchaffs he observed and sound-recorded in Azerbaijan in March 2012; Antero Lindholm for discussions of Chiffchaffs in Georgia and surrounding regions.