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Common redstart

David Chapman / 19 June 2019

David Chapman introduces the common redstart, a summer migrant most often seen in Wales, Northern England and Scotland.

Common redstart
Common redstart photographed by David Chapman

I started bird watching before I graduated into long trousers. My parents loved caravanning so each weekend we would head out into the countryside, often to the Yorkshire Dales. They worked hard during the week so wanted a lie-in at the weekends. I’ve always been a fidget and never wanted to waste time doing such things as sleeping when it’s daylight outside so I would get up early and go for bird watching walks on my own.

Our favourite site was beside a river. There were a number of grassy fields, either mown for sileage or grazed by cattle, that were separated into jigsaw-shaped pieces by hedgerows comprising of mature trees in the valley bottom and dry-stone walls with scattered wind-bent hawthorns on higher ground.

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Every morning I would do a similar walk and I happily watched grey wagtails and dippers bobbing on stones in the river. A jerky mouse-like movement up a mossy tree trunk would alert me to a treecreeper. Their camouflage is excellent and despite being confiding to a degree they have an annoying habit of hiding around the other side of the tree trunk. Great spotted woodpeckers would make themselves obvious by drumming or calling from the tops of dead trees but I could never get anywhere near them for a better view. Some mornings I would see buzzards soaring overhead and other mornings would be brightened by the wonderful colours of a green woodpecker or a kingfisher.

My mornings were enjoyable if a little predictable in the species I encountered. Then one morning I took a slight detour onto a slope at the other side of the river and I saw something I had never seen before. A flick of red from the tail of a bird about the size of a robin. Black on the face and orange-red on the breast. A closer look and I noticed its grey back. I was immediately struck by its beauty but couldn’t name it.

I rushed back to the caravan and woke my parents so I could find my bird identification book. It didn’t take me long to identify the mystery bird as a male common redstart.

There are not many birds that make such an impact but I can still say, hand-on-heart that I think the redstart is the prettiest of all British birds. It isn’t common enough to have become over-familiar but it is colourful enough to always leave an impression.

That said, the female redstart is not quite the same spectacle as the male. She has the same tail with the red flash but the rest of her plumage is fairly drab brown, presumably because it is her role to spend more time with the youngsters than messing around showing off!

The male spends a lot of time in spring attracting a mate and establishing a territory. His bright colours help with this onerous task and he can often be seen on the tops of trees strutting his stuff. As well as colourful plumage he has a loud song. I describe it as loud rather than tuneful because although it is distinctive it is also repetitive. I never tire of hearing it but that’s probably because I don’t live with it. Anyway if you want to find redstarts I would recommend learning their song from an on-line source (such as the RSPB website) and head out in the morning in May or June with ears tuned-in and binoculars at the ready.

Redstart numbers

Redstarts can be found mostly in the western half of Britain so Wales and the Welsh Marches are a stronghold and in Scotland and northern England they are widespread. They can also be found at a scattering of locations in the south including Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, the New Forest with a few in East Anglia and the home counties.

Their chosen habitat includes parkland; moorland with scattered trees and walls; gardens; hedgerows and oak woodlands. Because they are summer migrants, visiting Britain from April to October, they can also be seen on migration in spring and autumn along the coasts of the south and east.

As a nesting bird they have declined to some extent but are still quite numerous. They are amber-listed indicating a decline of between 25 and 50% over the last twenty-five years. They nest in holes, often using dead tree stumps or old stone walls and can be encouraged to use nest boxes with an open-front or a hole (size between 34 and 40mm) but they are quite particular. I have tried putting out nest boxes for them but we live in an area of Cornwall which is outside their usual range so have never had any luck. If you live in a part of the country where redstarts occur and are interested in attracting them to nest in the garden my advice would be to ask your local bird watching society or Wildlife Trust to see if there are any in your immediate vicinity. If they are nearby and you have a garden with some mature trees try making or purchasing some nest boxes for them (see the link below).

Follow this link to the British Trust of Ornithology website to find which UK birds can be attracted to nest boxes:

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.