My favourite woodland birds: Part Two - Brett Westwood

Redstart (pictured above)
One redstart and you’re smitten forever! I can clearly remember my first, trembling its orange tail (“start” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word for tail) on a  wire fence in the hills of  North Worcestershire. These relatives of the robin are summer migrants from Africa to woods, parkland and even open hillsides. They’re most frequent in the north and west of the British Isles and elsewhere tend to prefer ancient woodland with large trees, where they nest in holes.
The male redstart  is one of the most attractive British birds with a neat black face and striking white forehead which stands out like a beacon to other males and to birders too. Its back is a soft grey and the chest and tail are orange: an old name was firetail. The females are much plainer, soft brown above but still with the bright tails. Both sexes quiver their tails while calling, a soft but far-carrying  “hoo-it”. The song, often from a treetop , is a mixture of musical and scratchy notes, often starting off strongly and tailing away. After breeding redstarts often pass through farmland and even gardens on their way south from as early mid-July , and I once saw one in my town centre garden, just  a few feet from my desk!

Wood warbler
This small bird migrates between west Africa and the oak and beech woods of Britain. It nests on the ground and sings from the tree tops, especially in the sloping woods in west England, Wales and Scotland.  With a citrus yellow breast and moss-green upperparts, it has the same subtle tinges as the unfurling new leaves and blends in with them beautifully. Gilbert White, the celebrated 18th century  naturalist, described its song as a “sibilant shivering sound in the treetops” and other authors have likened it to a sixpence spinning on a table.
I live for late April and May days when the wood warblers arrive and begin to sing, but the bird still carries bitter-sweet memories for me. I was 14 when I located my first, in the Forest of Dean, using a very ropey pair of binoculars.  I was so excited I ran  to tell my parents back in the caravan where we were staying,  tripped over a log, hit another on the ground and was nearly knocked unconscious. As I lay concussed, I could still hear the wood warbler trilling overhead, regardless.
Wood warblers are faring badly and their UK population has fallen by over half in the last 15 years or so and no-one really knows why. Its decline could be happening in its wintering zone in West Africa as it appears that their favoured western woods haven’t changed noticeably. In 2009 there was a small revival in numbers in my local woods, which may be a promising sign.
With their long tapering bills and short  legs, these plump waders are real birder’s birds, partly because they are hard to spot so you have to make a real effort to see one. Sightings in winter are usually fleeting - a blur of russet and a clatter of wings as one rises from the woodland floor . In summer, there’s a better chance of a longer look, but you need to go out at night to see the birds roding.
This is a key feature of the woodcock’s unusual love life, which is still partly shrouded in mystery. Males are promiscuous and mate successively with several females. In summer, the male woodcock performs a  peculiar “roding” ritual – whereby it makes a circular flight over its territory around dusk, whistling a sharp “twissick” followed by low grunts. As light fails over a wood or heathland, the sight of roding woodcocks , with their slow and rather stilted flight action is unmistakable.
In winter, the woodcocks skulk. They are almost impossible to see on the ground as their plumage is a mixture of russets and tortoiseshells, which blend in with the dead leaves.   
This fascinates me because it’s  a bird of two personalities, introvert and skulking in winter, extrovert and very vocal in summer. There’s one apparently unsolved mystery about the woodcock too. Females birds are reputed to pick up their chicks between their legs or in their breast feathers to transport them to safer places . Many claim to have seen this done, but as yet  no-one has clinched  the photographic proof.  Now there’s a challenge of a lifetime!  

Brett Westwood is a radio presenter for BBC Radio 4, regularly presenting Living World and Nature. His series with Stephen Moss, A Guide to Woodland Birds, is available now from the BBC Shop.

Pictures: Redstart  - Steve Round/, Wood warbler - Steve Round/, Woodcock - Phil McDermott/Alamy


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