Chiffchaffs and willow warblers will start to arrive on our shores soon. Do you know how to tell the difference? Both species are phylloscopus warblers which means they are in the same family so look extremely similar. Many people struggle to tell them apart! Here are our top tips.


They both have greyish green and white plumage with no striking features. They are small birds with slender legs and bill.

The easiest way to tell these two birds apart is by leg colour. Chiffchaffs have black legs and willow warblers have light brown legs. This isn’t a foolproof method though, so there are a few other distinctions, if they’ll sit still long enough!

  • Chiffchaffs constantly flick their tails whereas willow warblers only do it occasionally. 
  • Willow warblers have a whiter belly.


They have very different calls. Chiffchaffs say their own name, while willow warblers sing a tinkling, descending phrase that ends in a slight flourish. This is repeated endlessly by birds arriving in the spring.

Listen to the distinctive song of a chiffchaff

Listen to the distinctive song of a willow warbler


Chiffchaffs are associated with mature deciduous woodland with dense understory scrub during the breeding season.

Willow warblers can be found in wooded or partly wooded habitats almost anywhere, although birch woodland areas and willow scrub are particularly favoured.

It must be noted that while on passage both birds can be found anywhere.

Tell us when you see chiffchaff and willow warbler

The Nature’s Calendar project tracks the effects of weather and climate change on wildlife across the UK – its records date all the way back to 1736! Chiffchaffs and willow warblers arriving in the UK are just two of 69 wildlife species recorded for the project.

From previous years' data, we would expect to start seeing chiffchaffs from early March and willow warblers from early April.

Join Nature’s Calendar to record your sightings - every record is crucial and valid. The data recorded helps us to better understand the effects of climate change and other patterns in the natural environment. By taking just a few minutes to share what you see, you'll be adding to hundreds of years' worth of important data. We couldn't do this work without you!

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Nature's Calendar

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