The firecrest

David Chapman / 28 October 2013

Look closely at that flock of long-tailed tits around the bird feeder, advises David Chapman, and you may spot a few outsiders, like the beautiful firecrest.

In autumn, many garden birds form flocks because it helps them find food and makes them safer from predators with more eyes to watch for danger. You will probably have noticed the long-tailed tits, they are obvious because they come to bird feeders in a gang, twittering as they go.

When they move off from the feeders take a closer look at the birds which often share their company. There will certainly be other species of tit with them. Great and blue tits must benefit from being in the company of a flock, even if most of them aren't their own type.

Now look even closer and listen for a high pitched, feint 'see-see-see' call. You need a good sense of hearing, particularly at the high frequency end, which unfortunately fades as we get older. And you'll need good eyesight to spot the UK's smallest two birds, the closely related goldcrest and firecrest.

But it's worth the trouble.  These are two of our most beautiful birds and, with their diminutive size, it's hard to imagine how they survive winter in Britain. The goldcrest is by far the more widespread of these two species occurring throughout the year in all parts of Britain. 

The firecrest has a limited breeding range, restricted to the south but, ironically, in late autumn and winter we see them more widely in the country.

Firecrests from the continent, particularly eastern Europe head west for the winter and many find their way to Britain, mostly in the east and south. On migration and through the winter, firecrests can be found in a variety of habitats including woodland, garden and hedgerow. They like the shelter afforded by evergreen trees and climbers such as conifers and ivy because they are searching for insects.

Despite the fact that the firecrest and goldcrest are almost identical in size, shape and plumage it is remarkably easy to identify the firecrest because of its distinctive head pattern. Both species have a delightful yellow or orange crest stripe (depending on gender) bordered by black but the firecrest has a clear white line above the eye and below the black creating a dramatic and beautiful contrast. With a good view you will also notice the firecrest has a more vividly coloured greenish-yellow side to its neck.

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