Goldcrest

The Goldcrest is tiny. In fact, it is the tiniest bird in Britain - with a punky attitude. The Goldcrest is hyperactive, always on the move, flitting restlessly from branch to branch on rounded wings showing off its Mohican yellow head stripe. A bird that is mainly seen in wooded areas. Being so small, they are hard to spot although they are relatively common. The best way to find one is to sit in a conifer wood and listen out for the ultra-high-pitched song. It starts by repeating a little phrase "silly-so" three or four times, while getting louder, and then finishing with a flourish. Each song lasts 3-4 seconds. Once located, they will let you get quite close as they are usually too busy stuffing their face with insects.

Goldcrests are smaller than a Wren, with a dumpy, pale olive-green body, off white underparts, and a short tail. They have two small wing bars, a strong yellow crown stripe bordered with black, a small pointed bill, and large dark eyes. They mainly eat insects, caterpillars, and spiders, often hanging upside down or hovering in their search for food amongst the leaves.

Nesting begins in late April with both birds making the nest though dad does most of the work while being supervised by mum. The nest is a beautiful construction from moss woven together with spiders webs that hangs from the end of a thin branch. The 9 to 11 eggs hatch after 16 days and the young can fly 19 days later. The youngsters are fed by both parents and are fully independent within two weeks. There are usually two broods.

Most British Goldcrests are resident though some move south in winter. A few North European Goldcrests are even brave enough to fly across the North Sea to come here. An amazing journey for something so small. Goldcrests suffer in harsh winters being so tiny. They were badly affected in the early 1960s and their numbers did not fully recover until the mid-1970s. Currently, numbers are increasing and the Goldcrest is doing well with more than 600,000 pairs in Britain.

Their Latin name is 'regulus regulus', a small form of 'rex' meaning 'king'. They do look like a mini king with their yellow crown. An old English name for the Goldcrest is the 'woodcock pilot', since migrating Goldcrests preceded the arrival of Woodcocks by a couple of days. One legend has it that the Goldcrests would hitch a ride in the feathers of a larger bird, like an owl, and be carried like a king in his carriage. Suffolk fishermen called Goldcrests 'herring spink' because migrating birds often landed on the rigging of their herring boats out in the North Sea.

Cetti’s Warbler

The secretive Cetti's Warbler (pronounced 'chetty') is easy to recognise as it is so damn loud and says his name. They first came here in 1972, having spread from the Mediterranean, and have quickly populated Southern Britain. They live in dense bushes, marshes or near rivers where there are brambles and willows with reed beds close by.

Slightly smaller than a House Sparrow, the Cetti's Warbler is a rather dumpy, Wren-like bird with reddish-brown upperparts, pale grey underparts, a whitish throat and a pale stripe over the eye. It has a broad, rounded tail which is often held up like a Wren's. The male dashes rapidly from song perch to song perch deep within bushes and gives a sudden explosively loud song which runs along the lines of "chet! chet-tee!" (or "chippy-chip-shop" if you prefer). It is loud, seriously loud. Their main food is insects, which they catch mainly on the ground.

The social life of a Cetti's Warbler can be a bit complex with some males having one female, while others with bigger territories can have up to four! The female builds a rough cup-shaped nest. It is positioned off the ground amongst vegetation. The male, meanwhile, is busy singing fit to burst to keep his territory and looking after his other wives. She lays and incubates 4-5 eggs, which hatch after 16 days. The youngsters can fly after 14 days and stay with mum and dad for a month. Dad will grudgingly help with feeding the first brood while the female gets on with a second. He is not much of a family man, more worried about maintaining his territory, which he does throughout the year.

The Cetti's Warbler is mainly resident, but numbers can fall after severe winters when insects are in short supply. There are about 2,000 pairs, mostly in South England. Their Latin name is 'cettia cetti' as they are named after an 18th century priest and zoologist, Francesco Cetti. Pretty cool being remembered by having a bird named after you.

Nightingale

Immortalised in the song 'a Nightingale sang in Berkley Square' (which was probably a Robin as Nightingales hate cities) and being the subject of many famous poems throughout history by the likes of Homer, Milton and Keats, everyone has heard of the Nightingale yet few people have actually heard it. The Nightingale likes to hide and skulk about in deciduous woods and thickets close to water, mainly in Southern England and East Anglia when he pops over in the summer.

The Nightingale is like a large Robin without the red breast. It has rich brown upperparts, paler underparts, a whiter throat, a reddish tail, and large eyes. The bill is brown with a pale base. They sing during the day, but their song is most noticeable in the quiet of the night. The best time to hear them is after dusk or before dawn. On a calm night, their song can carry for over a mile. They have a rich, varied, flutey song with a twirly introduction and deep "chook chook" notes which slowly accelerates to an explosive ending. These guys can really sing. Clarity of tone and exceptional volume is their hallmark. They make an occasional thin "seep seep" contact call. 

Nightingales move about on the ground with large hops while flicking their wings and cocking their tails. Their favourite food is insects, worms, spiders and berries.

The male returns first in mid-April, establishes a territory and sings to attract a mate. He will sing through to June, only stopping once the young have hatched, and he is too busy helping with their feeding. The female builds a nest on or near the ground. It is a bulky affair made out of grass and leaves. She lays her 4-5 eggs in May and incubates them on her own. The eggs hatch after 13 days and both mum and dad feed the chicks who can fly after 11 days. The youngsters become fully independent 3 weeks after leaving the nest and the whole family has returned to Africa by late summer.

The Nightingale is a rare summer visitor with about 6,500 pairs coming to Britain. They are 'Red Listed' as they have declined in recent years. This is thought to be due to the decrease in coppiced woodland and the spread of wild deer reducing suitable habitat. The deer eat all the undergrowth.

Their Latin name is 'luscinia megarhynchos' where 'luscinia' means 'nightingale' and 'megarhynchos' is from Ancient Greek 'megas' for 'great' and 'rhunkhos' for 'bill'. Nightingale with an enormous nose is a little cruel. The English name is derived from 'night', and the Old English word 'galan' meaning 'to sing' which is much better.

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 the most 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 mixed with a few scratchy notes. The contact call is a sharp "check!"

They eat insects in summer, especially juicy caterpillars, and fuel-up on berries and fruit when getting ready to migrate. 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, staying with the love of their life. 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. More usually she will build a new one. She builds the cup-shaped nest in a low bush 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, many becoming victims of Sparrowhawks. The nests are also favoured targets for Cuckoos. Its tough being a young Garden Warbler.

There are 170,000 Garden Warbler pairs found widespread throughout Britain, though rarer in Scotland and urban areas. Their population fluctuates a lot, but with no obvious up or down trend. The main threat to Garden Warblers is changes in the 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 when they return in spring.

Their Latin name is '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 as boring Silvia.

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 before leaving again 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 a longer body than a Chiffchaff, though this is impossible to tell unless they stand next to each other (which they never do). The Willow Warbler is less restless than the Chiffchaff, though the best way to tell them apart is by their song. The Chiffchaff bangs out his marching tune whereas 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 again in Africa to look good for the ladies when they come back in spring.

The male Willow Warbler returns first to take up a territory, usually at a 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 more weeks to feed them.

The oldest Willow Warbler lived to be 10 years old, flying the 20,000 km (there and back) ten times, which is quite something! There are 3 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 the decline is unclear, but may be linked to a reduction in the number of insects because of pesticides.

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

Whitethroat

A common summer visitor that likes a good hedge to sing from. They come all the way from the Sahel region of North Africa. Their characteristic is their white throat and buzzy, scratchy song which they often sing while doing a 'parachute' descent.

The Whitethroat is similar in size to a Great Tit and stands alert and perky. They have a white throat, grey head, reddish-brown wings that are rufous fringed, and a pale pink or grey breast. They have a long, slim tail with white edges that can be seen when flying. The female is similar to the male, only a little browner. They skulk in the bushes during August while they do their moult. When not skulking, they love to sing scritchy-scratchy jumbles of verses at you or an alarmed buzzing "chrrrr!" if you get too close.

Whitethroats feed mainly on insects like beetles, aphids, caterpillars and flies. They eat berries in late summer when getting ready to migrate.

The male Whitethroats arrive here about 10 days before the females and set up territories ready for when their potential partners arrive. He builds several cup shaped nests in a hedge or other dense vegetation. The female then selects one and completes the structure to how she likes it. She lays 4-5 eggs in late April or May which hatch after 11 days. Both parents incubate the eggs, though mum usually does the night shift while dad looks out for predators. The young can fly after 10 days and stay with mum and dad for 2-3 weeks before becoming fully independent. Whitethroats usually have two broods.

They can be found across most of Britain, though they avoid mountains and urban areas. About 1 million pairs are here between April and October. They suffered a population crash in the late 1960s because of a drought in Africa, but their numbers have since recovered. Their Latin name is 'sylvia communis' where 'communis' means 'common' and 'sylvia' is the word for a woodland sprite derived from 'silva' for wood or forest. A common woodland fairy sounds right for something that sings while gracefully parachuting down.

Blackcap

The Blackcap is many people's favourite songbird. John Clare (a poet born in Helpston near Peterborough) wrote a Blackcap poem and called it the March Nightingale. It is a bird that arrives and sings earlier than the Nightingale and is every bit as melodious. The Blackcap is a very cocky operatic tenor. A small, stocky woodland bird slightly smaller than a sparrow, although one of the larger warblers.

The male is plain grey brown above, paler below, with a rounded black cap (hence the name), and a squared off tail. He has a pale grey collar when looked at from the rear. The female is similar but has a reddish brown cap instead of black as she doesn't want to look like a puritan. Young Blackcaps are a duller version of mum.

Blackcaps are more often heard than seen as they tend to lurk in deep cover and only occasionally come to garden feeders. They like woodlands, copses, thickets and other bushy places including parks. Anywhere there are lots of places to hide. The Blackcap's song has rich, clear notes and is loud. This is someone who has clearly been trained to sing opera. The song can sound a bit like a speeded up Blackbird's, a lovely flutey warble with the odd buzzing note thrown in. Male Blackcaps can develop a signature tune and include phrases that mimic other birds, just to show them how it should be done. Their alarm call sounds like two pebbles being clicked together which is confusingly similar to the call of a Stonechat.

They eat insects such as caterpillars and beetles, moving on to fruit and berries (like holly and mistletoe) in the winter. They are opportunistic eaters when food is scarce, which is why they sometimes turn up on your garden feeder.

In April to May, the male builds several rough-and-ready nests low down in dense vegetation (such as brambles) from which the female chooses one to fashion into a delicate cup-shaped home. The female lays 4-6 eggs, which both birds help incubate. These hatch after 11 days. The proud parents then feed the young for 11 days until they fly away. They sometimes have 2 broods.

The Blackcap is a summer visitor. They get as far north as southern Scotland and a few hardy souls get all the way to Inverness. There are about 1 million birds, and their numbers have increased in recent years. A few Blackcaps over-winter in the south of Britain, now we are getting warmer winters. The rest head off to the Mediterranean for a bit of Flamenco singing and dancing in Spain. The oldest recorded Blackcap lived to be 10 years old, which shows that singing is good for you.

Their Latin name is 'sylvia atricapilla' where 'silvia' was the name of a woodland sprite and 'atricapilla' is from the Latin 'ater' for black and 'capillus', for hair. A black-headed woodland fairy. Fossils of the Blackcap have been found in several European countries; the oldest, dated to 1.2 million years ago!

Chiffchaff

The Chiffchaff is one of the first birds to come back from France and Africa in the spring (though a few stay in southern Britain all winter). They are in a hurry to set up camp and get parade drill underway. They are called 'zilpzalp' in German, 'siff-saff' in Welsh, and 'tjiftjaf' in Dutch, so everyone pretty much calls them by the noise they make.

The Chiffchaff is about the size of a Blue Tit, though not such a snappy dresser, and is a bit podgy, pot-bellied looking. Their upper parts are a dull olive-brown with the rump being slightly paler. The underparts are a dull yellowish-brown (see what I mean - dull as a squaddie). The short, rounded wings are marked with faint yellowish lines. There is a dark line through the eye and a faint pale eye stripe above. Unless you get them in good light, they just look brown (in their fatigues). They are a very restless bird, flicking their wings and twitching their tails especially when feeding - like a soldier constantly saluting. The Chiffchaffs' flight looks jerky. To add to the confusion, they look very similar to a Willow Warbler with their song being the best way to tell them apart.

The Chiffchaff sings like a dyslexic parade ground sergeant major with his "Left, Right!" ("Chiff, Chaff") call, only he gets his feet all mixed up and often goes "Left, right, left, right, right, left, right, left, left, left..." while belting out his marching song.

Chiffchaffs like woods, copses and other shrubby places where there is thick undergrowth and trees, though not pine woods. They feed mainly on insects like midges, aphids and caterpillars. They will flutter out to catch an insect on the wing and sometimes hover to grab one from under a leaf.

The female builds a domed nest with a side entrance (and boot room) low down in the bushes, especially brambles. It is made from stems and leaves, and is lined with feathers. 4-7 eggs are laid in early May, which hatch after 15 days. The youngsters are fed by mum as dad is too busy on parade ground duty. The young cadets leave the nest after 15 days. In places where it is warm, they may have a second brood.

There are about 700,000 Chiffchaffs in Britain. The migrants arrive in late March and leave at the end of September. Most head south to France to join up with their French legionnaire buddies and chat about past campaigns. Some hardy birds stay in the south of England, particularly now winters are getting milder with climate warming. They are mainly concentrated in the south and midlands, getting more scarce in the north and rarer still in Scotland as who wants to sing with bagpipes. Although their marching song is not the greatest of melodies when compared to a Skylark's, it is a joy to hear, as it signals that the year has turned, winter is gone, and spring has arrived.

The Chiffchaffs Latin name is 'phylloscopus collybita' where 'phyllocopus' comes from Greek words meaning 'leaf to look at' (well they are a dull greenish brown) and 'collybita' is a corruption of 'kollubistes' meaning money changer as their song has been likened to the jingling of coins.