Garden Warbler

The Garden Warbler is remarkable by being unremarkable. It does not have a single marking that makes it distinct. A genuine little brown job. Despite its name, it does not like gardens, preferring to hide in woodland edges where the undergrowth is thickest. He makes up for his bland looks by singing a beautiful song.

The Garden Warbler is the size of a Great Tit with plain brown upperparts, a gentle face with no obvious markings, and paler brown underparts. Their song is very similar to a Blackcap’s. An energetic 3-8 second steady stream of melodic phrases made up of mellow sounds and scratchy notes. The contact call is a sharp “check”.

They eat insects in summer, especially juicy caterpillars, and fuel-up on berries and fruit during migration. They are particularly partial to figs, which they eat as they pass through the Mediterranean, in their cool shades, on the way back to Africa in August.

Garden warblers first breed when they are one year old, and are mainly monogamous. Once they arrive in April or May, the male will build a number of simple nests (cock's nests) to show off to his potential mate, whom he attracts to his territory by singing. His nests are fairly rubbish and only rarely will the female complete the structure, usually starting afresh. She builds the cup-shaped nest in low bushes and lays 4-5 eggs. These hatch after 11 days. The youngsters hatch naked, with no feathers, and with their eyes closed. Mum and dad feed them until, fully feathered, they are ready to leave the nest 10 days later. The youngsters stay with mum and dad for 2 weeks. Sadly, only about a quarter of young birds survive their first year. Predators include Sparrowhawks and the nests are also favoured targets for Cuckoos.

There are 170,000 pairs widespread throughout Britain, but rare in Scotland and urban areas. Their population fluctuates a lot, but with no obvious up or down trend. The threat to Garden Warblers are changes to habitat on their migration route to Southern and Central Africa caused by global warming. Unlike many birds, The Garden Warbler moults mainly when in Africa to be spic and span for when they return in spring.

Their Latin name ’sylvia borin’ which sounds like boring Silvia for being so bland. It is derived from the Latin ’silvia’ for a woodland nymph and ’borin’ a local name for the bird in the Genoa area of Italy that comes from the Latin ’bos’ for ‘ox’ as the warbler was believed to accompany oxen. Cow fairy is almost as bad.

Willow Warbler

More often heard than seen, even though it is Europe’s most numerous migrant warbler. It winters in central and Southern Africa journeying 12,000 km to come here, arriving in April and leaving in August.

The Willow Warbler is a slim-looking bird, smaller than a Blue Tit. It has brown-green upperparts, yellowish underparts (very yellow in youngsters), pale legs, a pale stripe over the eye and a longish bill for its size. Bird books say it has longer wings and longer body than a Chiffchaff, though this is impossible to tell unless they stand next to each other. The Willow Warbler is less restless than Chiffchaff, though the best way to tell them apart is by their song. The Chiffchaff bangs out his marching tune where as the Willow Warbler sings a sweet cascading run of notes that trickle down the scale. Their contact calls are also subtly different. The Willow Warblers is a two syllable 'hoo-eet', distinct from the Chiffchaff’s single syllable 'hweet'. Like most other warblers, they eat insects, spiders and berries.

They are unique amongst British warblers by moulting twice in a year. Once after nesting, to look smart for the journey back to Africa, and another, in Africa in spring, to look good for the ladies when they come back.

The male Willow Warbler returns first in spring to take up a territory usually at woodland edge and sings to attract a female. The more varied his song, the more the ladies like him. Some males will have more than one female at the same time, though most will have a single female as keeping two ladies happy is very tiring. Some males will have a second brood with a different partner. The divorce rate amongst willow warblers is high! The female builds a domed nest with a natty side entrance in late April or early May amongst vegetation on the ground. It is made of leaves, moss, and lichens. She incubates the 4-8 eggs, which hatch after 12 days. The young can fly 12 days later but depend on mum and dad for two weeks to feed them.

The oldest bird lived to be 10 years old, flying the 20,000 km (there and back) ten times, which is quite something! There are 2.4 million territories in Britain though the population, especially in southern Britain, has undergone a moderate decline over the past 25 years making them an Amber List species. The reason for this is unclear, but may be linked to a reduction in the number of insects because of pesticides.

Their Latin name is ’phylloscopus trochilus’ comes from the Ancient Greek ’phullon’ for ‘leaf’ and ’skopos’ for ‘seeker’, and ’trokhilos’ meaning ‘wren’. A leaf seeking wren - which fits with them sometimes being called a willow wren.

Jay

The Jay is the East End Gangster of the bird world with his flash clothes and harsh, husky voice. The most glamorous of the crow family, the Jay likes coniferous and deciduous woods, and even town parks with enough mature trees, though oak trees are his favourite. He demands money with menaces, terrorising the local birds by stealing their eggs and chicks.

A little smaller than a Woodpigeon, the Jay has a pinkish fawn body, a rounded head with a pale streaked crest, and a small black jaunty gangster moustache. He has white barred patches and bright electric blue patches on his wings, a long black tail and a white rump. In flight, wings look broad and rounded and the black tail with white rump is distinctive. For something looking so pretty, the call is a harsh, startling screech like a heavy smoker.

Jays eat insects and seeds (acorns being a big favourite), as well as eggs and young chicks, which makes them unpopular with other birds and gamekeepers. They are a nasty piece of work. They will often bury acorns to eat later but, like a knucklehead gangster, they sometimes forget where they have put them and help the distribution of oak trees. They can carry dozens of acorns in their crops. Similar to other crows, Jays intelligent, sly and cunning.

They start nesting in April, building their twig nest in a tree and lining it with finer material. The 5-7 eggs hatch after 16 days and are fed by both mum and dad for 8 weeks. The youngsters can fly after 21 days.

There are 170,000 breeding pairs in Britain. They are mainly sedentary, staying in the same area, but will move if there are shortages of food. The oldest Jay was 17 years old and knew the Kray twins. Their Latin name is ’garrulus glandarius’ where ’garrulus’ means ‘noisy’ and ’glandarius’ means ‘of acorns’, their favoured food.

Barn Owl

The Barn Owl is the most widely distributed species of owl and one of the most widespread of all birds, though you wouldn’t know it as it mainly hunts early evening and at night when you are in bed. It is a midnight ninja assassin, gliding silently on stealth wings. You may be lucky and see it in daylight in the winter or after a lot of bad weather when it has to hunt during the day for its food. The Barn Owl can’t hunt when it is raining.

The Barn Owl is the white owl of farmland and the countryside. It is a pale, sandy, golden buff colour above, white underneath and has dark bars on the wings. The face is heart-shaped with black killer eyes. Female Barn Owls are typically darker than males and have more speckling on their flanks and underwing The Barn Owl’s face shape helps it direct sound to its ears so it can pinpoint prey by sound at night. The wings have a soft fringe along the outside of the flight feathers so they are silent when flying and can swoop down on their prey unannounced. They fly slow and low over the ground and frequently hover before diving into grass onto some helpless victim. The Barn Owl is not particularly vocal, the drawn out screech of the male is only likely to be heard during the early stages of the breeding season. It sounds a bit like a baby being strangled.

The Barn Owl feeds on small mammals like mice, voles, shrews, and small rats. They like places with areas of rough grassland and woodland edge, where there are lots of field voles (their favourite food). The availability of food shapes their breeding behaviour. They may not have young when the small mammal populations are at a low. During courtship the male feeds the female who likes lots of juicy voles before she is interested. Like most girls, she enjoys being taken out to dinner on a date.

The Barn Owl nests in very large holes within mature trees,  on the ledges found in old agricultural buildings, or in owl boxes. Over 25% of the breeding population now uses owl boxes as many old barns have been lost to barn conversions. They lay 4-7 eggs at 2-day intervals which each hatch after 30 days. The resulting brood of chicks can vary in age by as much as two weeks! They do this to increases the chances of at least some chicks surviving if food availability is low during the chick rearing period; the oldest and largest chicks will receive food first, at the expense of the last to hatch. The youngsters can fly after 50 days and depend on mum and dad for a further 5 weeks before they disperse to find their own territories.  Despite the long child rearing period, Barn Owls often have two broods.

There are 4000 pairs in Britain. Populations have recovered somewhat from an earlier period of decline and have benefited from the erection of nest boxes and habitat management. Their Latin names is ‘tyto alba’ which literally means ‘white owl’ from the Greek ’tyto’ for an owl and Latin ’alba’ for ‘white’.  Barn Owls are known by many different nicknames including 'ghost owl', 'church owl' and 'screech owl'.

Tawny Owl

The Tawny Owl is the commonest owl in Britain and can be found anywhere there are old trees in which to nest, including towns. They are the silent assassins being noiseless in flight. In myths, the Tawny Owl is often associated with bad luck and death. It is often featured on the soundtracks of horror movies with its “twit-hoo-woo” call. Things are not looking good for you if a Tawny Owl calls your name.

The Tawny is a plump woodland owl the size of a Wood Pigeon. It is mottled brown with softly streaked feathers. The under parts are slightly paler. The wings are broad, and there is a short rounded tail. The face is surrounded by a ring of dark feathers and has dark eyes which look friendly and wise. The female is a little larger than the male. The Tawny rarely flies in daylight, and the flight is fast, direct, and deadly silent. By day it roosts in holes in trees close to the trunk or in ivy. The Tawny is remarkably difficult to see as their camouflage is so good. In addition to the owl call we all know, there is also a loud, sharp “Kewick” contact call.

The Tawny Owl feeds on small animals like voles, mice and shrews, insects, worms and small birds silly enough to be out at night. It relies on knowing its hunting territory very well (‘the knowledge’) and checks each part every night. Their excellent vision, well-developed hearing, and silent flight are perfect for nighttime hunting.

The Tawny Owl nests in holes in trees with “owl” carved above them or in specially made owl nest boxes. Nesting starts in February-March. The 2-5 eggs hatch after 28 days. The flightless young owlets leave the nest at 25 days and sit on a branch looking cute until they can fly a week later. For the first 3 weeks mum looks after the kids while dad does all the hunting. Once they are school aged, both parents hunt. They depend on their parents for 3 months as owl school is tough. Tawny Owls will defend their nest aggressively, even attacking human intruders, so stay clear. 

There are about 40,000 resident Tawny Owl pairs in Britain, with established pairs keeping the same territory. Young birds disperse in autumn to find their own patch, which is when they are most vulnerable. Many young birds starve if they cannot find a vacant territory once parental care has ceased. The oldest ringed owl lived to 23 and was very wise. With the reduction in pesticides, Tawny’s are doing well. Their Latin name is ’strix aluco’ from the  Greek ’strix’ for ‘owl’ and the Italian ’allocco’ for ‘tawny owl’.

Mistle Thrush

If Song Thrushes are operatic tenors and Blackbirds are folk singers, then the Mistle Thrush sings the blues. The Mistle Thrush likely got its name from its love of Mistletoe berries.

It is larger and paler than the Song Thrush, standing upright and bold. It has a grey brown upper parts, a small head, long squared tail, and big wings. The breast is pale with large spots which are different from the Song Thrush’s by being more round and less arrow shaped. In flight, the under wing and tail edges are white. The Mistle Thrush has a fast, almost leisurely flight. 

The male has a loud, far-carrying melancholy song which he delivers from the highest treetop even in wet and windy weather, earning him the old name of stormcock, which is a great stage name for a blues singer. He can sing for long periods at a time, especially when feeling a bit down. The song is like a simple Blackbird song with just three to six flutey notes.  The verses are repeated with small variations similar to the rhyming lines of a blues dirge and with each verse only lasting about a second. The Mistle Thrush sings from mid-winter but by May quietens down as it is harder to be depressed when the weather is fine.

The Mistle Thrush feeds in the open away from cover on insects like beetles, worms, slugs, and snails (you would sing the blues after having slugs for lunch). They also eat berries with rowan, mistletoe, yew, and holly being particular favourites. In winter,  once the Mistle Thrush has found a berry-laden tree, it will guard it from any would-be thieves and in turn, helps the tree to thrive by accidentally 'planting' its seeds while wiping its bill or dispersing the seeds in poo.

The Mistle Thrush nests as early as February. The female builds a cup-shaped nest of grass roots and leaves held together with a bit of mud in a tree and lines it with finer grasses. The 3-5 eggs hatch after 12 days and the youngsters can fly 12 days  later. The parents look after the youngsters for a further 14 days while they are being home schooled in slide guitar. They usually have 2 broods. The parents will fearlessly defend their nest and family against potential predators, including humans and cats. 

Mistle Thrushes are normally found as individuals or in pairs for much of the year, although families may forage together in late summer, and groups may merge to travel round in large chattering flocks, striping ripe berries from trees and bushes in gardens, parks, woods, hedges, pasture land - anywhere there are good berries to be found. The flocks often fly in a line.

About 200,000 Mistle Thrush pairs can be found thinly spread throughout Britain. They are mostly locally resident, though the ones further north can be a bit nomadic in winter. The Latin name is ‘turdus viscivorus’, where ‘turdus’ is the Latin for ’thrush’ (not berry poo), and ‘viscivorus’ means ’mistletoe eater’.