Chiffchaffs wintering in Kuwait : which subspecies?
Chiffchaff, Al Abraq, Kuwait, December 2nd 2013
Certain Chiffchaffs wintering in Kuwait have enigmatic plumage and calls. The crown and mantle are olive-brown while the underparts are rather pale, with relatively limited yellow streaking. However, there are evident olive fringes to the flight-feathers. The plumage lacks the rusty-buff or 'tan' suffusions typical of Siberian Chiffchaff. Their call is short and can sound similar to tristis to the human ear. Indeed, some visiting birders have equated this call with tristis. However, as it progresses, there is a subtle 'sweeoo' sound to the call, which starts on an even pitch but then rises and then falls. This 'terminal arch' creates a distinctive shape in a sonogram, with an overall profile rather like a 'hook' tipped on its side (see below).
Fig. 1. Call of Chiffchaff at Jahra, Kuwait, November 2013
The call can be heard here ►. Siberian Chiffchaff calls vary to an extent and include at times a shallowly but evenly arched variant. The 'inflection' in the Kuwaiti chiffchaffs' call is much more pronounced and is positioned towards the end of the call. Within c. 0.1s it rises and falls approximately equally either side of the pitch of the opening section. Hence the inflection is not readily perceived by the human ear and confusion with a tristis call can result. The subspecies involved in these Kuwaiti Chiffchaffs is subject to a great deal of speculation, with suggestions including menzbieri (Abdulrahman Al-Sirhan, per Lars Svensson) though the basis for this appears undocumented. The 'hooked' shape does not match any of the sonograms of Chiffchaff races published by Helbig et al. (1996) and repeated by Clement et al. (1998), although the first call illustrated in section 'k' and attributed to caucasicus in Helbig et al. closely matches the flat opening and the rising pitch at the midway point. However, apparently, it lacks the terminal downward turn (unless this has been truncated in the recording or subsequent processing of the sonogram). The shape of the Kuwaiti calls and that of the first call in Helbig et al's sonogram 'k' are very different from the straight ('flat') call attributed to caucasicus in the second profile in Helbig et al's sonogram 'k'. However, that call was recorded at Alamdeh in northern Iran, a region where the breeding form has now been now inferred to be menzbieri by the genetic studies of Raković et al. (2019). These genetic studies have brought into question the precise distributions of caucasicus and menzbieri, with menzbieri inferred to extend from Kopet Dagh across the entire Hyrcanian Forest of northern Iran and into southern Armenia, with a region of overlap in the southern Caucasus.
Thus, confusingly, both 'terminal arch' and 'flat' calls have been recorded from a similar area of N. Iran, within a region where the breeding form is now deemed on the basis of genetic studios to be menzbieri. The attribution of calls to caucasicus and menzbieri now requires confirmation and consideration of the exact location of recordings.
In Azerbaijan, on March 19th 2012, Timo Janhonen recorded Chiffchaffs with a call comparable to those in Kuwait, with an evenly pitched ('flat') opening followed by a terminal arch. The recording is available <here>.and photos <here> on Tarsiger. The breeding form in Azerbaijan is deemed to be caucasicus (though note the comment above re the genetic findings of Raković et al. 2019) 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 (xc212252), recorded in Azerbaijan in January 2015 by Steve Klasan. Another series of calls with this same shape in the sonogram was recorded at Mingecevir in Azerbaijan by Matthias Bull, on February 1st 2018 (xc411370). Thus, individuals with this call apparently winter in the region.
Fig. 4. Calls of Chiffchaffs from Azerbaijan, March 2012
(left), Azerbaijan January 2015 (centre) and Kuwait, November 2013 (right).
(Azerbaijan sonograms prepared from recordings by Timo Janhonen (left) on Tarsiger and Steve Klasan (centre) on xeno-canto.)
A profile with a 'terminal arch', similar in shape to the Kuwaiti and Azerbaijan sonograms though somewhat less prominent, is evident in calls recorded by Cedric Mroczko at Alogol in NE Iran and placed on xeno-canto (xc513431). Being on the border with Turkmenistan, this location would be within the breeding range of menzbieri but, as the recordings were made in November, it is again conceivable that another taxon may be involved.
Fig. 3. Calls of Chiffchaff from Alagol, NE Iran, Nov 2019. Sonogram prepared from recording by Cedric Mroczko on xeno-canto.
Sonograms of calls recorded by Irina Marova at the type locality of menzbieri at Kopet Dagh (again see sonograms in Helbig et al. 1996 and Clement et al. 1998) and sonograms of calls I recorded in the Elborz mountains of northern Iran in April 2017 (all involving Chiffchaffs on territory) also show a 'terminal arch', though again reduced in comparison with the Kuwait and Azerbaijan recordings. See discussion of vocalisations in: Chiffchaffs in Iran and Armenia, where the sonograms published by Helbig et al. and Clement et al. are also reproduced (with permission from British Birds). Thus, while there is a prima facie case that the 'terminal arch' style call is associated with menzbieri, the breeding and non-breeding distributional boundaries of menzbieri and caucasicus require confirmation, as do the range of variation and potential overlap in calls employed by caucasicus and menzbieri.
Interestingly, in an item on variants among tristis-style calls (http://caluta.fi/Linnut/Phylloscopus/tristis/trcall.html), Antero Lindholm includes a call with a similar shape (the second call in his example 5). (Note that the captions and recordings, although somewhat displaced, are positioned below the corresponding figure). This call was recorded in Oman in November 2002, so may be attributable to a southern Chiffchaff taxon. It would not be surprising if the Chiffchaff taxon involved in the Kuwaiti sightings also reached Oman.
Many thanks to Timo Janhonen for providing recordings and other useful data from Azerbaijan, Antero Lindholm for discussions of the Chiffchaffs found in Georgia and adjoining regions and xeno-canto for providing a public platform for sound-recordings.
Clement, P., Helbig A.J & Small, B. 1998. Taxonomy and identification of chiffchaffs in the Western Palearctic. Brit. Birds 91: 361-376.
Dean, A. R. 2017 et seq. Southern forms of Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita : observations from Iran and Armenia. http://deanar.org.uk/general/articles/IranChiffchaffs.htm
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.
Raković, M., Neto, J.M., Lopes, R.J., Koblik, E.A., Fadeev, I.V., Lohman, Y.V., Aghayan, S.A., Boano, G., Pavia, M., Perlman, Y., Kiat, Y., Ben Dov, A., Collinson, J.M., Voelker, G., & Drovetski, S.V. 2019. Geographic patterns of mtDNA and Z-linked sequence variation in the Common Chiffchaff and the 'chiffchaff complex'. PLoS ONE 14(1): e0210268. (https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210268)
Citation: Dean, A. R. 2014. Updated 2021 & 2022. Chiffchaffs wintering in Kuwait : which subspecies? http://deanar.org.uk/general/articles/KuwaitChiffchaffs.htm