Blackcap, breeding warblers, Gibraltar, migrant birds, nature, sylvia atricapella, woodland birds
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’.
The majority of blackcaps we hear and see in Britain are summer visitors that arrive during April to breed in most parts of England and Wales, with sparser numbers venturing into Scotland and Ireland, then leaving again in October. (Although it has been recorded that blackcaps from Germany and north-east Europe are increasingly spending the winter in the UK, mainly in England.)
In common with other warbler species, other than when the male is singing, they may be difficult 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. http://www.pirkanmaa.fi/en/tampere-region/emblems-tampere-region
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No worries Theresa, I hope it come across as I’m being all high and mighty. As for these beautiful birds, the more our woods are allowed to return to sensitive management practice like coppicing etc. and deer management (controversial, though it is), these warblers and others will thrive. We are fortunate enough, in my patch, to see both the African and Central European species, but which species (supposedly African, given the time of year) had taken to feeding off my feeders’ remains a mystery. Perhaps, this is a case of yet more adaptive behaviour in the bird kingdom. Maybe, Africans are now feeding their birds in winter on Sunflower hearts, or am I missing something? Questions, questions, questions.
Yes, I can see that I needed to clarify that statement, it did sound as though I was saying blackcaps were resident-thank you for pointing that out. I have changed the wording now and hope it is now accurate. I am always grateful for people taking the time and trouble to correct inaccuracies,so keep up the proof-reading! Best regards, Theresa
Not that I wish to point out errors in your ways, but as far as I’m aware, no Blackcaps are resident. The wintering ones originate from the Benelux countries and the summering individuals, as you quite rightly said, are largely from Africa. Having said all that, Chiffchaffs, certain Whitethroats and even confused Willow Warblers have all overwintered in recent years.
Slowly catching up with your blog and the many others to which I subscribe. See you later.
Calvin palmer said:
I have seen a black cap outside my front door in Watton Norfolk never seen one before should they still be here??
Nice to hear from you, thanks for looking into my blog. Lucky you for having a Blackcap on your doorstep, I know they’re not the most glamorous-looking of birds, but I love them! A lot of those we see in the UK are migrants; they arrive back here in early Spring to breed then leave again in the late summer/autumn, but some are resident here and in increasing numbers apparently, particularly in the South & West, maybe because of our milder winters. Perhaps yours is one of a breeding pair, keep an eye out for similar-looking birds but with rusty-red caps which females and juveniles have.
Emily Heath said:
What lovely little birds, with all the other pressures they must be under it’s tragic that they are getting trapped too.
I agree wholeheartedly Emily, sadly the practice of trapping birds is still quite commonplace in a lot of places. In Spain for example, people still keep wild birds in tiny cages which they hang on their walls near open doors; I once witnessed traps being set for greenfinch, using an already-caged one as ‘bait’ to lure in others. I was horrified, but apparently it is still legal to do this, although restricted to particular weeks in the year.
Finn Holding said:
Lovely series of pictures Theresa. And fascinating facts too.
I love blackcaps and a couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune to be standing next to a bush with at least six singing in it. Glorious!
Thanks Finn, the song is just glorious isn’t it and six together must have been amazing, perhaps they were just celebrating their safe arrival back!
Tony William Powell said:
Sorry Theresa. Finn, I cannot let that pass. You are just showing off now, 6? (SIX!) I imagine that would have been part of a fall of migrants. It seems that this year, there have been a few noticeable ones too. Concerning falls, the luckiest I have been in the UK was when witnessing 30 to 50 plus singing chiffchaffs once, in a Cornish valley. Special birds these warblers and it is sickening to think of what some human beings feel they have the right to inflict on them.
Best Wishes to Finn, Theresa and others.
Tony William Powell said:
I too, am an admirer of Blackcaps, whose song, and subsong (which is equally amazing) puts it in my list of top five favourite songsters.
On a slightly different topic, I wanted to make you aware of the following. See http://wtcampaigns.wordpress.com/2012/05/14/wales-gnarled-and-wrinkly-need-you/ and scroll to the end. The aforementioned is not as dodgy, as it sounds.
I’m not sure of the difference between a song and a sub-song, although having had them as very close neighbours I am aware their repertoire is quite extensive. They communicate amongst themselves on different levels too, including by way of a sort of series of ‘burbling’ notes with rise and fall that sounds for all the world like a conversation. Do you know what I mean?
Thanks very much for the link too, I’ve had a quick look and will definitely go back and sign up. I thought for a minute you knew I had a ‘big’ birthday this week! Best wishes, Theresa