To anticipate seasonal change, organisms schedule their annual activities by using calendrical cues like photoperiod. The use of cues must be fitted to local conditions because schedules differ between species and habitats. In complete absence of temporal information, many species show persistent circannual cycles that are synchronised, but not driven, by photoperiod. The contribution of circannual rhythms to timing under natural photoperiodic conditions is still unclear. In a suite of experiments, we examined timing in two closely related songbirds (Siberian and European stonechats) that inhabit similar latitudes but differ in seasonal behaviour. Under a more continental climate, Siberian stonechats breed later, moult faster and migrate further than European stonechats. We tested hypotheses for seasonal timing mechanisms by comparing the birds under constant and naturally changing daylengths. The taxa retained characteristic reproductive and moult schedules and hybrids behaved roughly intermediately. Based on their distinct circannual cycles, we expected European and Siberian stonechats to differ in photoperiodic responses at a given time of year. We found that the taxa responded, as predicted, in opposite ways to photoperiodic simulations as experienced on different migration routes. The findings indicate that circannual rhythms reflect geographically distinct periodic changes in seasonal disposition and cue-response mechanisms. Under natural daylengths, the phase relationship of the underlying circannual rhythm to the external year determines the action of photoperiod. Circannual rhythms are widespread among long-lived species. Accordingly, responses to environmental change, range expansion and novel migration patterns may depend on the particulars of a species' underlying circannual programming.