As soon as I heard the notes of its lovely melodious song, I knew I was looking out for a blackcap amongst the trees growing by the river in Fairy Glen. Often singing from a perch in deep cover, I was quite surprised to find him quickly and easily, openly warbling from a branch in a smallish sycamore.
Blackcap- Sylvia atricapilla. The majority of Northern European breeders winter in southern Europe and north Africa, where the local populations are resident. I enjoy the close company of these birds all round when in Spain as once established in a territory they tend to stay within it to live and breed.
This must be one of the easiest species of British breeding warblers to identify due to their distinctive caps; this is glossy black in the male but rusty red-brown in the female, so as usual the male gets precedence in the naming; even the latin ‘atricapilla‘ translates as black-haired. The birds’ upper parts are grey-olive brown and the underparts are a paler grey-buff. The other main distinguishing feature is its lovely clear melodious song which brought about its reputation in Britain as the ‘northern nightingale’.
Although the numbers of birds wintering in Britain is increasing, most blackcaps are summer visitors to Britain, arriving during April to breed in most parts of England and Wales, with sparser numbers venturing into Scotland and Ireland, and leaving again in October. They may be diffiult to spot as in general they spend much of their time hidden amongst shrubs and bushes within which they forage for food. When changing location they emerge abruptly from the cover of one bush and make a short, low jerky flight to another. Their presence is often given away by their call-notes, a rather harsh ‘churr’, also used as a contact call between a pair or parent and young and an excited ‘tac-tac’ rapidly repeated if the bird is alarmed.
Blackcaps nest in woods, on heaths and sometimes gardens where there is a good density of undergrowth or coarse vegetation within which to build their nest and to ensure a reliable supply of food. The nest is a surprisingly frail construction for such a sturdy bird; built mainly by the hen of dried grass and lined with hair and other fine material, it is attached to the surrounding vegetation with ‘basket handles’. Both parents will incubate the eggs and both will also feed the nestlings.
The Blackcap is hardier than most other warblers, partly because of its adaptation to a more variable diet. Food is mostly flies, caterpillars and other insects, but they also avidly consume a wide variety of fruit and berries as and when it beomes available.
The Blackcap in other countries
Gibraltar – where they count and ring them on migration…
Cyprus – where they eat them ….
The blackcap has been considered a culinary delicacy from the Middle Ages and to this date thousands of them fall victim to the lime-sticks set out by the villagers. John Locke, an Englishman who visited the island in 1553, makes the first reference to the trade in pickled or marinated “Becaficoes”, which was well established even in those days; he adds that “they annually send almost 1200 jarres of pots to Venice”. Many subsequent writers refer to this article of diet, still a favorite dainty. In 1576, the well educated traveller Porcacchi notes:… “there are birds of all kinds: in most esteem are those found nowhere else as certain little birds called vine-birds”. Keeping an itinerary of his visit to Cyprus between September 1598 and March 1599, Ioannes Cotovicus, a Professor at the University of Utrecht writes about the famous birds: “Infinite numbers of them are preserved in jars with vinegar and savory herbs and sent for (950 725 B.C.) Cyprus Museum sale to Venice, making a dainty dish greatly in request with princes and lords throughout Italy”. Later on, Pietro Della Valle recording his visit to Ayia Napa in September 1625 writes: “We found and ate in this place a large quantity of beccafichi, called by the Greeks sykalidia which at this season are caught in such abundance that besides the numbers that are consumed in the island itself, thousands are exported in vinegar to Venice and elsewhere” (Excerpta Cypria, pages 72, 166, 200, 213).
Over the last years the number of blackcaps has dropped dramatically, as they keep falling prey of lime-sticks or nets.
Finland – where they are celebrated in poetry ….
The official song: Sylvia´s song
Once upon a time, a poet spent his summer at the beautiful Franssila manor in Kangasala, Finland. Sitting on the veranda, he heard a small bird sing. It was the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) that inspired Zachary Tope-lius, the poet and writer of children´s fiction, to write the poem “Sylvia´s son”, known today as “A Summer´s Day in Kangasala”. Put to music, the poem became Finland´s best-loved song and choral work and the official song of the Tampere Region. The “Harjula Ridge” of the song is today´s Haralanharju, a place of pilgrimage for every lover of scenic beauty.