26 May 2014

26 May 14 - Photospot3: Indian Phylloscopus Warblers

A few days ago, I received a call from an English expat who is currently living & working in Delhi, but who was over in the UK on holiday. Clare is a regular follower of the blog & had asked for me to pull together all of my Phylloscopus Warbler (Leaf Warblers) photos from India into a single blog post. So here goes. 
Greenish Warbler: Jungle Hut, Western Ghats, India (28 Dec 13)
Phylloscopus Warblers are not the easiest of species to figure out, especially when faced with 29 species shown in the Rasmussen field guide. Some are widespread & fairly common (at least in some parts of Subcontinent), whereas a few are scarce or very local in their distribution. Generally, they are a group of Warblers with greenish or brownish upperparts & paler underparts, an eye stripe & maybe 1 or 2 wingbars or a crown stripe or bright coloured rump or some combination of these features. Most are fairly active & move around a lot, often high up, but with a few which typically like to skulk low down. It doesn't help that a number are Winter visitors to the Subcontinent & thus are often silent or give a fairly non-descript call (which often to the untrained ears sounds similar to others in the group). Even those that are singing, aren't much help to a visiting birder, unless you've spent a lot of time listening to songs or at least have made the attempt to have a full range of species to listen to when abroad. Despite having done a lot of sound recording in South East Asia in the past, I didn't have many recordings with me on this trip & having recently changed my sound gear to something electronic (from my old reliable TCM 5000EV cassette tape recorder), I wasn't happy with the new set up & was rarely bothering to take the sound gear into the field with me. Therefore, I've not covered calls & songs in this post, which is a significant oversight, but I'll leave the reader to explore them on Xeno-Canto, as listening to them will give a better understanding than I could describe in words.
Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler: Look for the presence of wingbars as this is often a good starting point to trying to figure out the current Phyllos you're watching. Bharatpur, Rajastan, India (27 Jan 14) 
Due to the subdued colours & problems on some occasions of trying to get good enough views to figure out the species, it's not surprising that many people will give up & look at something more colourful, easier to identify & more interesting to look at. This isn't helped by some species appearing to look different as the lighting changes or birds with wingbars start to loose them due to wear. Crown stripes are also a potential problem as they can be tricky to see on a rapidly moving Warbler. All that said, like a lot of keen Brit Birders, I quite enjoyed looking at the Phyllos Warblers as we get plenty of practice in the Autumn in the hope of finding a rarity or a sub-rarity on our local patch. The trick is getting your eye in on the common ones in the area & getting to know them well enough that you pick out something more interesting. Secondly, it's helpful to have a good idea of the species that are likely to be in your part of the Subcontinent, as mercifully only a small number are likely to be found in any area. While that doesn't stop rarer Warblers turning up out of range (which isn't going to be that unusual for the migrant species), then start with the likely species first. Then when you think you have the identification, it's worth a check if there are others that look similar that could also occur as rarities, so you can eliminate those as well. Right introduction over, guess I had better switch to some photos.


The first species is Chiffchaff which is also known as Siberian Chiffchaff. The regular subspecies in the Subcontinent is tristis. They are greyer & colder than the regular Chiffchaffs that breed in the UK & don't have the typical olive tones of our birds. However, I guess a number of European birders have seen tristis in Europe as scarce winter visitors & will have some familiarity with them (& birders who live in the Subcontinent won't have to worry about what European Chiffys look like anyway). As I've only got one photo of a Siberian Chiffchaff, then I would suggest you have a look at Peter Moore's Siberian Chiffchaff Photos from Dorset in Feb 2014 or Marcus Lawson's Siberian Chiffchaff Photos (who actually found these birds). [Right that's the plugs for my mate's blogs done!!! - I'll carry on for those of you who aren't bored or distracted by their photos]. Peter & Marcus have also done the decent thing & put a better set of photos & details together on their identification which is basically a drab greyish or grey-brown Phyllos Warbler, without any obvious olive tones (apart from around the alula), off whitish underparts, black bill & legs. They may show a faint single wingbar. This is a species that could be encountered anywhere in the Northern part of the Subcontinent in the Winter.
Chiffchaff: A uninspiring photo of a Siberian Chiffchaff  in the late afternoon sun, but it shows the drab colours, hint of a wingbar & black legs. Photographed in a small wetland pool & reeds, South of Bhuj, Gujarat, India (18 Jan 14)
Moving onto Tickell's Warbler. This is a species that is worth getting to know well as it's one of the commoner reference species & it occurs across most of the Subcontinent, except for the North West (either as a resident or migrant species). It is a plain Phyllos with yellow underparts and a yellow supercilium. It has no wingbars, crown stripes or bright rump.
Tickell's Warbler: Note, the strong yellow colouration to the underparts, supercilium & lack of wingbars. Ooty, Western Ghats, India (31 Dec 13)
Tickell's Warbler: Munnar, Western Ghats, India (4 Jan 14)
One of the best Phyllos Warblers I saw in India is Sulphur-bellied Warbler. This is perhaps one of the easier to pick out based upon their preference of feeding on the ground for a lot of the time. This winters in Central India, but Mount Abu in Rajasthan is within its wintering range. It breeds in the very North West of the Subcontinent & in neighbouring countries & I guess above the tree line, given its preference for ground feeding.

Sulphur-bellied Warbler: This has drab greyish-brown upperparts, pale yellowish underparts & a strong yellow supercilium, especially in front of the eye. Mt Abu, Rajasthan, India (22 Jan 14)
Sulphur-bellied Warbler: Note, the plain colouration & lack of wingbars or bright rump. Another shot of it ground feeding preference. Mt Abu, Rajasthan, India (22 Jan 14)
 Sulphur-bellied Warbler: Note, the lack of a crown stripe. Feeding in low vegetation this time. Mt Abu, Rajasthan, India (22 Jan 14)
The next species is Brook's Warbler. The main features are it is a small Phyllos Warbler with pale olive colouration, a pale yellowish-olive crown stripe, a yellowish supercilium, yellow at the base of the lower mandible, 2 pale wingbars and a yellowish rump. It has a distinctive monosyllabic call which is well worth listening to on a web site like Xeno-Canto & better still down loading to your mobile so you can compare it in the field. It's not a common species, but one which you might bump into somewhere like Bharatpur or Sultanpur.
Brook's Warbler: One of the things I noticed is the yellowish features seem to almost merge into the overall olive colouration , compared to a Yellow-browed Warbler or Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler, which generally have clear-cut edges. The second wingbar is faint on this individual, but you can see the supercilium, hints of the crown stripe, the wingbars & the bill colouration. Additionally, the overall colouration with the paler olive underparts. All photos are of the same individual (but one seen at Sultanpur looked & sounded very similar). It was photographed in late afternoon light at Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India (27 Jan 14)
Brook's Warbler: Showing the crown stripe. Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India (27 Jan 14)
Brook's Warbler: I can just make out the side of the crown stripe on this photo. Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India (27 Jan 14)
Brook's Warbler: The second wingbar on this individual is very faint. Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India (27 Jan 14)
Brook's Warbler: Showing the pale yellow base to the lower mandible. Bharatpur, Rajasthan, India (27 Jan 14)
When I first visited India in 1991, there were several subspecies of Yellow-browed Warbler. These days they are now split into the monotypic Yellow-browed Warbler & Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler (comprising the humei & mandellii subspecies) with some authorities splitting off mandellii as a third species. This is a small compact Phyllos Warbler with a short tail. They are typically fairly bright above with 2 clear cut lemon yellow wingbars, an obvious pale lemon supercilium, large yellowish-white tertial tips and pale greyish-white underparts. They may show a faint crown stripe. They have pale legs and a pale lower mandible. Typically, they move around a lot compared to some of the Phyllos, but don't have the hyperactivity, brightness or bright yellow rumps of the Pallas's Warbler group. Yellow-browed Warblers are winter visitors to the North East & the Andamans.
Yellow-browed Warbler: Abbotsbury, UK (4 Nov 13)
The similar humei subspecies of Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler is a Winter visitor to most of North & Central India, except the far North West & North East. Like the Yellow-browed Warbler, it is a small Phyllos, but It is drabber with less clear cut buff 2 or 1 wingbars (the upper one often wears off), a strong buffy-yellow supercilium, dark legs & bill.

Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler: This individual has a fairly strong second wingbar & a similar strong supercilium like a Yellow-browed Warbler. Mt Abu, Rajastan, India (22 Jan 14)
Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler: Bharatpur, Rajastan, India (27 Jan 14)
Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler: Notice the worn second wingbar on this bird which was photographed in late afternoon light at Bharatpur, Rajastan, India (27 Jan 14) 
Hume's Yellow-browed Warbler: A worn late Winter individual (& a bit over exposed), Dungeness, UK (8 March 14)
Another common Indian species is Greenish Warbler which is a Winter or migrant visitor to most of the Subcontinent. Its a dull olive colour with a strong yellowish supercilium & a single wingbar (which can wear off) & pale yellowish-white underparts, greyish legs & a pale orangey lower mandible.
Greenish Warbler: Showing the remains of a pale wingbar, yellowish supercilium & orangey lower mandible. Jungle Hut, Western Ghats, India (28 Dec 13)
Greenish Warbler: The wingbar has worn of this individual. Ooty, Western Ghats, India (30 Dec 13)
Greenish Warbler: Ooty, Western Ghats, India (30 Dec 13)
Tytler's Warbler is a distinctively scarce species & we only saw 2 or 3 individuals. Fortunately, the ones were saw gave good views, allowing us to be confident on the identification as it was a species neither Brian or I had seen before. This is a Wintor visitor to the Western Ghats, which breeds in the extreme North West of the Subcontinent. It is a small & drab Phyllos Warbler with a long whitish supercilium and dark eye stripe, a fine black bill & no wingbars, crown stripes or pale rump patch.
Tytler's Warbler: Note, the drab colouration and long white supercilium. Munnar, Western Ghats, India (4 Jan 14)
The final Phyllos Warbler I've managed to photograph is Western Crowned Warbler. This is one of the larger & stouter Phyllos Warblers I saw, but in reality it's only 0.5 cm longer than a Greenish Warbler. It has a brighter greenish wash to the upperparts, greyish-grey crown, a single weak wingbar, a strong yellow supercilium & clean underparts. This is a winter or passage visitor to Southern India & breeds on the far North West of the Subcontinent. The main confusion species is probably Blyth's Crowned Warbler, which occurs in the North East part of the Subcontinent, where a migrant Western Crowned Warbler might overlap on migration.
Western Crowned Warbler: This shows the bulk of the bird, the strong supercilium, the orangey bill & the clean underparts. Jungle Hut, Western Ghats, India (29 Dec 13)
Western Crowned Warbler: Showing the single wingbar. This is the same individual as the previous individual & just shows why prolonged views of some of these species is needed, as the wingbar isn't that obvious on the previous photo (perhaps more worn on its left wing). Jungle Hut, Western Ghats, India (29 Dec 13)
I did manage to see one Green Warbler & a couple of Long-billed Warblers on my trip, but failed to get any shots of them. Therefore, as I have a strong objection to copyright piracy by publishing other people's photos, I will leave these 2 species out of this post. Perhaps it's something I will be able to come back to in the future, especially as there are another 20 or so species I've not covered. I am planning to return to bird North East India next Spring & so hopefully, there will be enough opportunity to get photos of a number of the Phyllos Warblers which winter in that area. I think either of the current Indian field guides (Rasmussen or Inskipp) are fairly reasonable for illustrations & text for these species. However, they haven't got the space to show the variations of fresh autumnal plumages of birds that were born that year, or worn adults at the end of a breeding season or how either of these birds will look later in the Winter. Therefore, I found the best way of really getting to know some of these species was to look at the extensive photos on the Oriental Bird Club Images web site. This is really one of the best ways I found to prepare for some of the Phyllos Warblers I was expecting to see at the next site or to check some of the birds I had just seen. Fortunately, there are a number of images & locations & there will generally be a few photos at the right time of year & your part of the Subcontinent for most species (including their confusion species).

Finally. I have already put together a couple of Photospot posts together (The Lesser Whitethroat Complex and Desert Warblers) & posts of groups of similar species (Indian Owl Fest (pure indulgence) and Indian Mammals Fest). I've also got plans for a few other similar posts to come in the future. However, if any of the regular readers of the blog have suggestions for other posts on particular subjects they would like to see, then please get in touch with your suggestions, why you want to see it & leave me your email address. You can do this by putting a Comment on the blog. I get to see all Comments before they are published & therefore it is the easiest way to get in touch. Where it's an idea for a future post, your Comment will probably not get published, but will be acknowledged in that future post. However, I can't guarantee that I will put the post together as requested, as it will depend on what other posts I'm working on, whether I've got enough material to make it work at that point in time, whether I've got the time to work on the post, whether it would be better to do in the future (because I know I will have more photos after a future trip) & perhaps most importantly because I like or don't like the idea. What ever happens I'll respond by email with my thoughts. Right that should be enough excuses to cover all possibilities.

2 comments :

  1. Sulphur-bellied Warblers are quite terrestrial even on the breeding grounds, as you surmised. I recall watching one on rocks in an area with scattered small trees in the Tien Shan mountains.

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  2. Hi Harry,
    I've not seen them before, so it's good to get some feedback from the breeding grounds.

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