Clockwork birds, they are, racing the tide in fast forward, a tight little squadron of comical wind-up toys. No wonder that a young child, joining them on the beach at Dawlish Warren, was captivated by the shoreline antics of a moderately sized flock of foraging sanderlings. Unfortunately, this captivation manifested itself in an urge to chase, setting the flock off on repeated boomerang flights over the sea and back, each bird deftly manoeuvring a tight turning circle on bold white-barred, black-edged wings. Unfortunately, I say, because as endearing and engaging as it may be to us, for a flock of sanderlings beachcombing is serious work.
It’s probably best not to habitually make excuses for my absence, but one very good one I can offer for the last, oh, I don’t know how many blog-free weeks, is that I was busily preparing a poster (and, crucially, needed to finish generating some data to put on it) for a conference that took place in Florence last week. Lest anybody suspect I’m asking for sympathy, I fully acknowledge that a conference in Italy seems like an excuse for a holiday, and, indeed, we managed to extend the trip a couple of days either side to take in some of the Tuscan countryside.
It goes without saying that binoculars were never far from my side, and since I was travelling in a country that I’ve only visited once before, more than half a life ago, I was eager to observe anything in the birdlife that was different to what we see here in the UK. One of the first things I noticed is that the sparrows of Italy are rather sharply attired, as befits a country renowned globally as a centre for fashion, with a chestnut brown cap, white cheeks and an extensive, chequered black bib.
On Friday morning I took a brief stroll in the Harris Garden before starting work, seeking to make up for the lepidopteron disaster that had occurred there the night before. As I passed the small pond along the northern fence of the garden, I heard a brief series of thin rising notes among the general hubbub of great tits and robins and wrens. It hinted at the presence of a firecrest.
Vying with goldcrest for the title of Britain’s smallest bird, I have to say that firecrests (sorry, goldcrests) are the better of the pair in every way: brighter, sharper, livelier, and blessed with the aura of prestige that comes with scarcity. They’re really very smart-looking, indeed; charming to watch too, flitting this way and that with short flicks of blurred wings, breaking occasionally into a hummingbird-like hover whilst they pluck some small insect morsel from a leaf.
Firecrests are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act as a rare breeding bird. But I’d suggest they are approaching moderately common in many parts of the southeast by now. A survey a few years ago put the number of pairs in the New Forest alone (where the species was first recorded breeding in Britain in 1962) at around 270. That’s certainly a good place to find them, but I’ve heard firecrests singing away in woods from Wiltshire to Oxfordshire to Kent, suggesting that a great many of the suitable habitat patches in our region must already be occupied.
The Berkshire Bird Atlas would seem to support that assumption, with the presence of breeding firecrests either proven or thought highly probable in 28 survey squares, including two right on the southern edge of Reading. Outside of the New Forest, our little county is probably the firecrest capital of Britain – a very happy state of affairs, especially considering that the most valuable and cherished position the firecrest has attained is that of one of my favourite birds.
For firecrest devotees such as myself, their continued success in Britain may yet be one of the silver linings – or perhaps gold, in this case – that sails in with the dark clouds of climate change. They tend to favour warmer, more humid climates, and outnumber goldcrests in southern regions of Europe. An interesting Croatian study showed that dominance increasing in mixed forests, so to give firecrests a further leg-up, perhaps we should be discouraging pure coniferous monocultures in southern England. As it happens, conservationists are already busy on that front, gradually seeking to weed them out in favour of native deciduous trees (as well as lowland heath, which in truth is somewhat less than helpful as firecrest breeding habitat, but is certainly desirable for other reasons).
The more I think about it, the more suitable Whiteknights Park – for the last 50 or so years the home of Reading University – seems for firecrests. The part-planted, part-natural mix of woodland that covers one corner of the campus, scattered with exotic conifers, tantalisingly resembles ‘Le Jardin Public’ in St Omer, near Calais in France, where I heard firecrests singing the spring before last. Their songs rose above the calls of serins and a short-toed treecreeper to serenade us whilst we munched on a fine haul from a nearby patisserie. That’s a scenario I wouldn’t mind recreating here in Reading, buttery cakes and all.
Enough daydreaming, and back to Friday morning. For a moment the general chorus hushed, and I listened to the firecrest – for, indeed, it was one – sing solo for a few minutes, the clear and distinct sound travelling around a tall holly whilst the bird itself remained out of sight. Eventually I caught a glimpse of it buzzing around the more open lower branches, and for a few seconds had an uninterrupted view as it paused in the sun, plumage glowing. Just as it darted back out of view, I almost simultaneously heard the song once more rising up from close to the treetop. This bird was clearly very fast, or perhaps it was throwing its voice. Or, more plausibly, there may have been two firecrests hanging around the edge of the Harris Garden on Friday morning.
So is this potentially suburban Reading’s first breeding pair of firecrests? We may simply have been blessed with such a good number of sightings of late due to it being the early part of the migration season. But I’m keeping fingers and toes crossed that at least one pair will choose to stay.
See here for the story of how I first fell for firecrests.