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Rare Birds in Spain


Unusual calls of Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita in NE Spain in autumn-winter: an alert to Spanish observers.

Text  by José Luis Copete & Rafael Armada 
Photos by Petro Pynnönen


Over the last few years, some unusual contact calls by Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita have been recorded in Catalonia (NE Spain). These voices, clearly different from the typical disyllabic ‘tuit’ of collybita, or the ‘tsiuu’ of ibericus (which is a rarity in NE Spain, appearing just as a vagrant, with a frequency of less than a record per year), are usually composed of a rather strong monosyllabic call, heard as a ‘hiiip’ or ‘tssiiiip’, descending slightly in the final part. 

After careful examination through binoculars, birds making this sort of call showed no phenotypic differences from the typical collybita collybita wintering or migrant here. Some birds have been studied by close examination, and they match the typical plumage of collybita after postnuptial moult very well. 

However, the most noteworthy thing is that these voices appear here in great numbers some seasons (there were plenty of birds making this call in the autumn-winter of 1998 and 2001; they were also present in 2002, but in smaller numbers), whereas they are absolutely absent in others (for example in the autumn of 2003). The objective of this note is to alert Spanish observers to pay close attention to the appearance of this phenomenon, by offering some free downloadable recordings of these voices, and also to discuss briefly the possible origin of this variation in the typical call of collybita (without having full knowledge to what extent they are collybita, abietinus, or some other population, or even some fashion or variation of the typical call), in order to know:

  • 1) the frequency of this voice in Spain in time and space and 
  • 2) to discuss briefly the possible explanations published by some authors together with our opinion.
Apart from that, we will also be looking in this note at a very different and diagnostic call, the ‘tsi-lip’ voice, of the same species, heard in Estonia & Finland some years. We are also alerting birders in Spain about the possible presence, still not detected by us, of this call here. 

The ‘hiiip’ voice.

This has been the only unusual voice heard by the authors during the course of the last 20 years in Catalonia. Birds making this call have been present from the winter of 1998/1999, appearing in huge numbers some years (autumns of 1998 and 2001), but being absent in others (almost absent in 2000 and completely absent in 2003). We don’t know to what extent this voice has also been present in previous winter seasons, but it seems the huge presence of collybita calling with this voice appeared here for the first time in 1998-1999 (pers.obs. Xavi Larruy in litt.). This voice, which is rather sharp and clearly monosyllabic, could be described as a ‘hiiiiiip’, ‘tssiiiiip’ or ‘tsiii’, with a slight dropping in the final moment of the call. It’s clearly different from the call of tristis Siberian Chiffchaff, although it resembles it somehow, sometimes when some bird calls very sharply and without the final slight descent. It’s the voice uttered by Chiffchaffs in autumn and winter in E Europe (for ex. in Greece) and Israel (Jännes 2002, pers. obs.).

An example of this voice is attached in the file phy col 20000814 Noarootsi 2.mp3 (©Antero Lindholm), from a bird recorded in Noarootsi (Estonia) in the autumn of 2000. Although this recording is quite short, we can clearly appreciate the monosyllabic call, and the difference with the typical ‘tuit’ of collybita. A sonogram of the enclosed voice can be seen here (obtained through Spectrogram v.2.3 and image-processed with Paint-shop Pro5, R.Gutiérrez).

hiip voice (Noarootsi, Estonia, Autumn 2000, Antero Lindholm) 103 Kb

The ‘tsi-lip’ voice.

This is an even more interesting voice. Although it has not yet been heard here in NE Spain, it’s important to discuss it because its presence here is not excluded, and it seems it could be called by the same birds discussed above.
JLC heard this voice for the first time in Finland in the spring of 1999, together with Petro Pynnönen, one day before going to Estonia. Surprisingly, there were lots of birds calling in this way. After that, it seems these voices were also present in Estonia and Finland in other autumns, but the presence was irregular, being present in great numbers some years but absent in others (Antero Lindholm and Petro Pynnönen pers. com., Pöyhönen 2000). Some birds have been recorded in every of these ‘invasions’, and some have even been trapped, using the same recording, to study them in hand. No obvious differences in plumage have been seen from the typical collybita abietinus present there in autumn (Antero Lindholm pers. com.). The presence of this voice has been recorded as the common call of Chiffchaffs, too, in Romania (for ex. in April 1999, Antero Lindholm pers. com.) in the same season when it appeared in huge numbers in Estonia and Finland.

Some examples of this voice can be heard in some published references. However, different explanations have been offered. On the one hand, Hannu Jännes, in his Calls of Eastern Vagrants shows two examples, quite different to one another, of different calls of collybita, in track 51 of his work. The first one, recording A, rather sharp and disyllabic, described as ‘chi-ly’ by Jännes, shows the first syllable ascending and the second one descending. This is the same voice heard in Estonia, and it's also present some autumns in Finland. Then, he shows a rather different voice, example B in his CD, which can recall the first voice described in this note. This second recording comes from an adult bird in worn plumage in August in Finland, possibly a bird from or near breeding grounds, calling initially as in the A example, but then changing to a different call when it was excited by the presence of the recorder (Hannu Jännes pers. com.).  It’s important to note that they are shown in this work as possible examples of ‘eastern abietinusas suggested in previous works (Clement & Helbig 1999).

On the other hand, another example of a similar voice appears in Geoff Sample’s Collins Field Guide: warbler songs and calls. CD1. Here the reader can find, in track 57, the 4th recording which is a clear example of the same voice, recorded in UK in August. Here, they are offered as possible juvenile voices, without relating it to abietinus at all. Being recorded in August, it may belong to a local bird, rather than to abietinus arriving there on migration. This adds, therefore, some confusion to the suggestion offered in Jännes’ excellent work.

The reader can find a good example of this voice in the attached file phycol8.mp3 (© Antero Lindholm), recorded in Estonia. A sonogram of the enclosed voice can be seen here (obtained through Spectrogram v.2.3 and image-processed with Paint-shop Pro5, R.Gutiérrez).

tsi-liip voice ( Estonia,  Antero Lindholm) 193 Kb


According to comments from Antero Lindholm and Hannu Jännes, it’s possible to assume that both voices could be made from birds belonging to the same population. 

However, in NE Spain we have never heard the second ‘tsi-lip’ voice, while huge numbers were doing the ‘tsiiii’ voice right through autumn-winter, and even during March at the beginning of the spring. This fact also casts doubts on the assumption that they are being made only by juveniles, or that they are a first, not fully developed call, by juvenile birds, because it should be expected, in our opinion, to be made during the first weeks after emancipation, rather than right through the autumn and winter season. 

In our opinion, it seems more related to the irregular arrival of some eastern population of Chiffchaffs (irrespective of whether it be abietinus, collybita, or some other taxon) with a clearly different call.

Another point to bear in mind is that the ‘tsi-lip’ voice has been present in Estonia & Finland just some years, but not in others, just like the pattern of the ‘tsii’ voices heard here in NE Spain. This ‘tsi-lip’ voice has also been recorded in August in UK (Sample 2003), although it’s not clear if this recording belongs to a local bird, or to a migrant, because the migration period of collybita in UK begins in August (Snow & Perrins 1998).

As a final conclusion, we ask Spanish observers to pay special attention to these voices, and also, if possible, to obtain field recordings, in order to get to know in more detail the extent of this phenomenon. We ask readers of this text in Spain and S Europe to pay special attention to the voices of collybita, comparing any unusual call to the examples mentioned here (or provided here as downloadable files), and send comments to the authors.


Núria Guevara and Andy Raven have been of great help correcting the English. Antero Lindholm has been extremely kind in sending some recordings, to be freely available through the web, and his comments about the unusual calls of Chiffchaffs have improved very much our text. Steve Votier has been of great help in making the recordings of Chiffchaffs published by Geoff Sample in his Collins warbler guide available. Petro Pynnönen and Xavi Larruy have also been of great help with their comments about this subject in previous years, and Petro Pynnönen has been very helpful also by commenting this note and for making available the photographs. Hannu Jännes also commented the text, and his suggestions and comments about his recordings and the Chiffchaffs voices improved very much this note.


  • Clement, P. & Helbig, A.J. (1999). Taxonomy and identification of Chiffchaffs in the western Palearctic. British Birds 91: 361-376.
  • Jännes, H. (2002). Calls of eastern vagrants. Helsinki: Hannu Jännes/EARLYBIRD Birding Tours. 1 CD + 1 booklet.
  • Pöyhönen, M. (2000). Poikkeavasti ääntelevät tiltaltit. [Aberrantly calling Chiffchaffs] Linnut 35(3): 19-22. In Finnish.
  • Sample, G. (2003). Collins field guide to warbler songs and calls of Britain and Europe. London: HarperCollins. 55 p. + 3 CD.
  • Snow, D. & Perrins, C.M. (1998). The birds of the western Palearctic: concise edition. Vol. 2. Oxford et al.: Oxford University Press.

Authors contact addresses

José Luis Copete.
Rafael Armada.

Suggested citations / Citaciones recomendadas / Citació recomanada:

  • Copete, J.L- & Armada, R.(2004) Unusual calls of Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita in NE Spain in autumn-winter: an alert to Spanish observers. Rare Birds in Spain. Retrieved from 

Some images of Eastern Chiffchaffs for reference. All photos from Petro Pynnönen

Photo 1. Phylloscopus collybita cf.abietinus. Adult (a local recapture).Lotan, Israel, December 2000 (Photo Petro Pynnönen). A bird calling the typical 'tuit'.

Photo 2. Phylloscopus collybita cf.abietinus. Adult (a local recapture) Lotan, Israel, December 2000 (Photo Petro Pynnönen). Another picture of the bird depicted in photo 1.

Photo 3. Phylloscopus collybita ssp. 1st winter. Lotan, Israel, December 2000 (Photo Petro Pynnönen). A bird uttering the 'hiiip' voice, possibly from the intergradation zone between abietinus and tristis

Photo 4. Phylloscopus collybita ssp. 1st winter. Lotan, Israel, December 2000 (Photo Petro Pynnönen). Another picture of the previous bird.

Photo 5. Phylloscopus collybita cf. 'fulvescens' .Kostanay, Kazakhstan, May 1997 (Photo Petro Pynnönen). A bird from the intergradation zone between abietinus and tristis, trapped during Spring migration in N Kazakshtan.

Photo 6. Phylloscopus collybita tristis. Kostanay, Kazakhstan, June 2001 (Photo Petro Pynnönen). A typical tristis for comparison purposes.

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Unusual calls of Chiffchaffs Phylloscopus collybita in NE Spain in autumn-winter: an alert to Spanish observers.

Copete & Armada (2004)

The 'hiiip' voice
The 'tsi-liip' voice
Contact the authors

The 'hiip' voice sonogram (two calls shown). Note the monosyllabic, compact looking of the two calls featured in the enclosed voice archive.

The 'tsi-lip' voice sonogram (two calls shown). Note the first ascending syllabe, then the 2nd descending syllabe. Note the differences with wht 'hiip' voice above.


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