Sylvia – another unusual visitor

Like a lot of other folk I gave up making new year resolutions a long time ago because the resolve would normally last until the 2nd or 3rd of January before slipping quietly unnoticed into the flotsam and jetsam of recent history, never to be seen again. But for 2013 I made two resolutions – the first was to get current with my wildlife diaries which have been appallingly neglected for far too long – and the second resolution was not to condemn the first one to the black hole into which it would normally be swallowed. And so far so good, hence I’m feeling rather pleased with myself.

This years listings can be found here at ‘Histon Wildlife Diaries 2013‘ and if you notice gaps of more than a couple of weeks opening up please feel free to leave a pointed reminder that I need to get my finger out and get up to date!

As a consequence of my girded up loins and renewed efforts I’ve been spending more time peering into the garden to see which creatures are in residence. Just before Christmas I saw the first blackcap in the garden, it was a male with his coal-black cap, like a judge about to hand down the ultimate sentence, and he stayed for all of 2-3 seconds before zooming off into the sanctuary of our neighbours orchard. And of course I was very pleased with this visitation because it’s always good to welcome a newcomer.

Then a couple of weeks ago when the winter weather was at its filthiest here in Cambridge a female appeared and spent some time refuelling on my fatball feeder:

A female blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) on the birdcam fatball feeder

The birdcam used to be around 6m away from where it is now but there were very few takers for the lardy delights on offer.  But since I moved it to its current location it has been busy every day with numerous bird species. The reason for the change is the lack of cover in the original location which left the birds exposed to the possibility of predation by the local sparrowhawk. But now they have cover within a metre or so and and I can sit and watch them all in close up on the TV. And one of the first to arrive after I moved it was my lady blackcap, who you’ll have immediately noticed has a rufous brown cap, not the blackcap of the male. The specific name ‘atricapilla‘ means ‘blackcap‘ and the Danish name ‘munk‘ means ‘monk‘. I wonder which godly habits gave him that name, or is it simply his ecclesiastical bonnet?

She arrived early on a murky morning, fed quickly and left, and that was the last I’ve seen of her. But a couple of days later a male blackcap arrived and he’s been visiting several times a day every day ever since then:

The male blackcap feeding on an old apple

I’m puzzled as to why the female has been so conspicuous by her continued absence, I guess that now the weather is considerably more pleasant she is more comfortable feeding out in the countryside.

The male doesn’t restrict himself to ground feeding on fruit but is a more regular visitor to the fatballs.

And he tops up with water too. In the picture below he is wary of the goldfinch nibbling niger seed on the adjacent feeder. He was also aware of my presence behind a glass door around 8m away and when the goldfinch disappeared he threw numerous glances in my direction, but so long as I remained still he wasn’t too bothered.

Until recently it was thought that the blackcap was a migrant breeder here in the UK and that they spent their winters in Africa, apart from a sub population that remained here in the winter. But it is now thought that all of ours overwinter south of the Mediterranean and our winter visitors are a separate population from central Europe which migrate here to overwinter. In which case my visitors will be heading back east in the near future. After that I’ll hopefully see and hear our migrant breeders out in the hedgerows where they make a distinctive call which I think sounds like someone flint-knapping.

The British Trust for Ornithology have published a factsheet about blackcaps and their migration behaviour which is worth a read. We also have passage visitors as Scandinavian birds head south and it appears that garden bird feeders are having a major impact on the behaviour of blackcaps and other species too, such as nuthatch, which are now spreading into Scotland, assisted by garden feeding and climate change.

22 responses to “Sylvia – another unusual visitor

  1. Pingback: Meadow warblers | The Naturephile

  2. Hi Finn,

    I like the fact you mention how our resident birds and even our migrant species are adapting to feeding in our gardens. Hopefully in time, evolving farming practices such as the “hungry gap” research will seek to reverse some of the drastic losses seen in our countryside birdlife. On this particular topic, I attach a link to one of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s stories on the subject.

    Hopefully, in time, the pollen-rich and cover crop options afforded under the Environmental Stewardship schemes will continue to suppress the damage inflicted on our precious ecosystems. We can but hope.

    Kind Regards


    • Hello Tony, I think it’s an issue that people need to be aware of, and as you say, we need to ramp up activities that can help to mitigate the effects of climate change. I’m concerned that with the new EU budget cuts the stewardship scheme maybe be heavily curtailed or even abolished, which could be disastrous.

      • I guess anything is possible under our country’s great leaders. However, why would years of invaluable research be thrown on the scrapheap in order to save a few quid? Besides, DEFRA amongst others, work very closely with the research organisations I mention. In my opinion, it would be folly, should they choose to ignore the solid scientific evidence, which proves these schemes are at least beneficial.

      • Hello Tony, I think I’m considerably more cynical than you. I also think it would be folly to ignore hard evidence. But alas, I feel the present administration would ignore a mountain of hard evidence and do absolutely anything to save a few quid. Especially if the few quid saved was diverted into their own pockets or those of their friends in the commercial world. It’s the only thing they appear to understand – they know the cost of everything and the value of nothing!

  3. Blackcaps are beautiful! Well worth the wait (I didn’t cheat at all 🙂 ). I love the males toupee ;). We have a lot of different finches here in Australia and we have lovely firetail finches all over Tasmania. That goldfinch is really pretty and would be lovely to watch in a garden :). Who would have thought that the frowned upon “garden feeding” would actually be giving wild birds a helping hand eh? ;). Maybe the reason why so many Brit’s head off to the Med is the food? ;). Excellent and informative fact sheet (which I kept, despite most probably NEVER getting to see a live blackcap) and I am impressed with the nature diary. All in all a really great post 🙂 Now “I” want a birdcam!

    • I’m very lucky with the goldfinch, they are spectacular and I often get 4 or 5 in the garden at one time. They disappeared for a couple of months after a sparrowhawk tried to take one off the feeder but now they’re back regularly. Is garden feeding frowned upon down in Tassie? It’s very actively encouraged up here and as you can see it’s making a big difference to our small bird populations.

      I’m glad you like the diary, I’ve had some positive feedback on that over the last couple of weeks so I’m feeling particularly enthused just now. Long may it last. Get yourselves a birdcam – they’re brilliant. It provides much better TV than all the normal shite served up on cable and satellite!

      • I don’t watch a lot of television, thats Steve’s domain. He watches movies, I spend my spare hours researching. I am an avid magpie and have more than a strong need to know how things work in the natural world. A bird cam would be an amazing asset and I fear the few shreds of housework that I can drag myself to do away from my precious computer would get neglected and the already rampant spiders would take over the inside of our house! ;). I made some insect houses last year and Steve made attractive boxes around the outside of them from local bark etc. We had a prototype sitting on his bedside table for ages (no idea why…sheer laziness one would think 😉 ) BUT we kept hearing a loud buzzing noise in our room and couldn’t for the life of us work out what it was. After a while we tracked it down to the insect house where a local (very large!) native wasp had been stuffing caterpillars into the larger holes that she had laid eggs in and was sealing up the holes. She must have been navigating the windows (when they were left open) and the doors (mainly the dog door) to get in but goodness only knows why she headed inside the house to select the spot for her ongoing species survival! Nature is amazing and since we moved to the country and I get to watch it up close and personal, I am in awe of how amazing it really is. Your diary is incredibly well documented and I am in awe of your organisation. I prize an organised life. Can’t say I get my way ALL the time, because Steve prizes his active chaos just as much and so we have to navigate our personal ethos every time we work together on a project BUT the results tend to be pretty interesting ;). Feeding the natives is frowned on here in Australia. Aside from a bit of native bird seed, it is considered to be a problem because the birds become reliant on it. I figure that I would rather have a groundswell of robins, wrens, blackbirds, finches, cockies, parrots, shrikes, butcher birds (yes they do eat smaller birds) and even sparrows (my little bread and chook food scarfing mates 🙂 ) than a barren landscape because they all had to head elsewhere over the summer. Bollocks to the establishment, If the birds didn’t like it, they wouldn’t come! ;).

  4. Pingback: Blackcaps | Science on the Land

  5. Fabulous images and a very interesting post Finn. How cool is that to have a birdcam all set up? Excellent!

    • Thanks Adrian. The birdcam was a birthday present from my wife and it’s really good. It’s a tiny little thing but gives pretty good colour images, and sound. I’m going to mount it in a blue tit nest box this weekend and try to hook it up to my PC and work out a way to link to it live from The Naturephile.

  6. Great blackcap pictures, they seem to be fairly agile birds, more than you might expect. I have sometimes wondered why some birds seem able to use the hanging feeders better than others. Greenfinches seem very capable but chaffinches seem much more limited, preferring to feed on the ground. However, this limitation doesn’t seem to affect the chaffinches too badly as they are common in my garden at least. This year the feeder has had sunflower kernels in it. I gave up on peanuts as not too much seemed to be interested in them to the point where they were going mouldy.

    • Hello Richard, chaffinch just seem to have evolved as ground feeders. They feed on seeds and insects and I’m pretty sure they would be capable of using a hanging feeder they just don’t seem to like it. Maybe it’s an adaptation to avoid sparrowhawks.

      I also gave up on hanging peanut feeders for the same reason. Blue tits and great tits used them but not enough to stop the nuts going mouldy. So I only use hanging seed feeders now but I mix chopped nuts with seeds and serve them up on a tray feeder instead, and the tits are very happy with that.

    • Have your birds learned to use hanging feeders, that never used to do that? I’ve seen starlings dangling almost upside down to get at the peanuts.

      • Not sure about that one. I seem to recall that some birds are learning to use hanging feeders which hadn’t previously, but I don’t know which species. The starlings in my garden are very athletic and colonise the fatball feeders sometimes 2 or 3 at a time.

  7. I’ve still never seen one of these delightful blackcaps and I love your description of him as a little judge, that’s exactly what he looks like. Well done with your resolutions, apparently it takes an average of 66 days for repeated behaviour to become a habit, so you’re well on your way!

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