Tag Archives: song birds

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.

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Wandering warblers

In the last two to three weeks I’ve seen several of our migrant bird species which have been returning from Africa and Eastern Europe for the breeding season in the UK. And in the sunny weather we’re experiencing this month lots of bird species, migrant and resident, can be seen during an early morning walk.

Last Sunday the weather was glorious, there was very little wind so there was no traffic noise so the only sound in the air was the buzzing of insects and the singing of birds. And there were plenty.

I set off with my friend from work, Dave, who is very knowledgeable about wildlife and a very good photographer too (check out his website here for some stunning images). Dave had come over so I could show him the local Histon wildlife and it didn’t disappoint. Within a couple of hundred metres of leaving my house we were watching a group of five blackcap chasing each other through the trees.


Male blackcap perched in an ash tree

Male blackcap are very aptly named, they have a very prominent black cap which stops just above the eye, the female and juveniles less so, theirs are a lovely rufous brown colour and also very distinctive. The blackcap is a short distance migrant in western and southern Europe and I’ve heard that there is now a population in eastern Europe which migrates to Western Europe and the UK instead of heading south. Maybe that’s down to global warming causing increased spring temperatures here.

Other migrants which we saw in good numbers, and which I’ve seen around north Cambridge for the last three weeks or so, are chiffchaff, willow warbler and whitethroat. The chiffchaff heads south to the Mediterranean for winter and some individuals carry on to sub-Saharan Africa.

The willow warbler heads further south to tropical sub-Saharan Africa for the winter:


Willow warbler sitting in the top of a hawthorn tree

Chiffchaff and willow warbler are very difficult to tell apart visually, but they can easily be distinguished by their song. The chiffchaff is named after it’s call which is a single note sung with alternating pitch, the willow warblers song is more musical and easily distinguished from the chiffchaff.

Whitethroat of which there are two species – common and lesser – over-winter in sub-Saharan and northeast Africa respectively.

Common whitethroat male singing from his perch on a bramble

It’s good to see the migrants returning from Africa, I don’t know what percentage of individuals that start what must be an extremely hazardous journey make it back to the UK, but the willow warbler in particular is a very common bird so good numbers must make it.

The other migrant which I’ve seen in the last week, which is the real harbinger of summer, is the swallow. I only saw a single one first time on the 16th April, which was busy hoovering up flies over a field of oil seed rape, but yesterday I counted 7 sightings over the same field, so I think the numbers are increasing. And since then we’ve had real summer weather!