Wintering Black Redstarts

Wintering, singing Black Redstarts in Wadebridge

Colin Selway

Usually in late autumn Black Redstarts arrive from their breeding grounds somewhere to the east, and spend a relatively warmer winter in coastal locations, like the town of Wadebridge, finding mostly the live food they need in the micro-climates formed in the many sheltered gardens, balconies and roof valleys to be found in the town, where they are in the habit of running like wagtails (they also hop) and feeding (usually unnoticed) under lines of parked cars, often in the busy streets. They can be seen picking food items from  the gable walls of houses, often hovering under guttering or facia boards, and fly-catching from favourite perches, usually near lawns, were they can take prey from the ground, always returning quickly to the favourite lookout, their fiery tails giving a welcome flash of exotic colour to otherwise drab winter streets.

The adult male at Glen Road has been observed catching insects around street lights late at night. This remarkable bird, I believe, by observing it closely, has spent the last four winters at the same site, its distinctive strangled song can be heard on sunny days, even before Christmas. Throughout  March it sings every day that the sun shines. Strangely I hardly ever hear the ‘tisip’ call, just on a couple of occasions, and then from the female at Town Quay. It could well be that the ‘tisip’ call is harder to separate from the town’s noise pollution.

There appear to have been four known Black Redstarts in the town last winter, (the number varies from year to year): two females and two males, all with their own fairly small winter territories. The adult male at Glen Road has a territory no larger than 250m x 80m and the female at Town Quay uses an area almost  exactly the same size. At first this may seem like a small territory but it covers a larger area of roof tops and balconies on many levels.

There was a male, probably a first winter (not as striking as the Glen Road male) holding a territory in the very centre of the town (Foundry Road across to Trevanson Road). This male also sings during the winter.  Usually it’s the only way to pick it up, and then (if you are lucky) just seeing its head poking over the gutters of the high buildings.

Only once have I seen a pair together in Wadebridge, and that was at Glen Road. On that occasion the male was in the process of chasing the female away. Before living in the town of Wadebridge I spent several years in the Cornish town of Tintagel, where Black Redstarts are fairly common, wintering on the cliffs and the many derelict coastal slate quarries, but in all that time I never managed to hear their song. It came as a surprise to me to find that even first year males appear eager to sing in the town. The Wadebridge Black Redstarts usually depart in early April.