On the Little Orme there is a huge bramble tangle set in the middle of a sea of long grass. Surrounded thus, it is some distance from the close-cut grass pathways on the clifftop and as there are other more easily accessed bushes, I may not have approached this particular one if I hadn’t noticed a bird fly across to it.
From the bird’s behaviour and general ‘jizz’ I thought and hoped it may be a Whitethroat, a summer migrant that I have heard before, but never had a close view of in this location.
(Jizz is a term used by birders to describe the overall first impression of a sighted bird, based on such characteristics as shape, posture, flying style or other movements, size and colouration combined with voice, habitat and location.)
As I moved a little closer the bird flew up nearer the top of the bramble, I saw it had an insect in its beak and that it was definitely a lovely male Whitethroat. So, there was a nest in there, confirmed when a female also carrying food made an appearance on the far side of the bush.
Whitethroat trying to hide
Although I was keeping my distance neither bird was happy I was there at all and the male expressed his annoyance by “churring”, raising his crest and puffing his throat out a bit, which showed he was upset. I don’t like upsetting birds, but it did make for a more interesting photograph.
Common Whitethroat- Sylvia communis
Whitethroat– Sylvia communis
The Whitethroat is a summer visitor and passage migrant to Britain that may be seen in all parts of the country and most frequently choose arable land, scrub and reedbeds as nesting sites. They arrive during April-May and leaving in late September-early October to winter in Africa, some heading as far south as South Africa.
Graph from BTO showing Whitethroat population trend for Wales
In 1968, Whitethroats sustained heavy losses as their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa suffered major drought – breeding Whitethroats suffered a 90% drop in the UK. Numbers have not fully recovered yet and the BTO state their Conservation Status as AMBER because of the recent breeding population decline (1969-2007).
A male Whitethroat, Ceibwr, Pemrokeshire
The Whitethroat is a medium-sized, long-tailed warbler. The male is grey dusted with rust brown above, with bright chestnut brown fringes to the wing feathers, the head is a pale grey, the breast pinkish-buff and the throat is a bright white. The bill is greyish-brown and the legs are pale brown. The eye is pale brown with a white eye ring. Females are similar but brown on the head and nape where the male is grey.
Whitethroats prefer to stay concealed in bushes
Behaviour & song
Warblers in general are often described as ‘skulking’, but the Whitethroat is not quite as secretive as some; the male will perch in full view to deliver its brief song with gusto. The song is variously described as sweet, ‘scratchy’ and having a jolty rhythm. They are also very inquisitive birds and will venture to the top of a bush to investigate any intruders, before scolding them with a rapid churring call.
The male whitethroat may mate with the first female to cross the territory it immediately stakes out upon his arrival back in Britain. He begins making a number of trial nests, perhaps as many as three. The female then chooses a nest, which will be a deep cup shaped construction located close to the ground in cover, and lines it with hair, down and wool. 4-5 eggs are laid which are about 18 mm by 14 mm, smooth and glossy, pale green or buff in colour with olive-grey speckles. The duties of incubating the eggs are performed by both parents. Both adults feed the young birds. There may be one or two broods raised in a season.
In the breeding season whitethroats eat mainly insects, especially beetles, caterpillars and bugs. They also eat spiders and towards the end of the summer and into the autumn they turn increasingly to fruit and berries, sometimes invading gardens to raid soft fruit crops.
Where to see Whitethroats in Wales
Whitethroats breed in many areas including woodland edges and clearings, country lanes anywhere they may find brambles, briers, bushes or overgrown hedges. They may also nest in gardens, but avoid urban and mountainous places.
In Wales they frequently find their favoured habitat on clifftops: locally on the Little Orme and I have seen them in various spots when walking along the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Another reliable spot for hearing and seeing them has always been in the similarly-vegetated area on the road down to Martin’s Haven, where you get the boat to Skomer Island.
June 11th 2010
One late afternoon in June, my friends and I set off for a walk along a part of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path beginning at Ceibwr and heading in the Poppit Sands direction (we’ve never yet made it that far). There were several Whitethroats about, but we didn’t expect to get the close up views we were treated to. Firstly, there was the one in the first two photographs above, that was in amongst a huge tangle of brambles at the back of the beach. Another flew right in front of us as we walked up the pathway to the clifftop.
A whitethroat flew in front of us
At the top of the upwards part of the path we caught sight of one very close to the edge of it with food in its beak. It clearly wanted to reach its nest on the opposite side of the path but was reluctant to reveal its location, so it stayed put perched on a hogweed stem perhaps hoping we hadn’t seen it.
11/6/10-A whitethroat with food perched on hogweed-Ceibwr, Pembrokeshire
We stood still to give it the chance to make a break for it and it crossed to perch on a barbed-wire fence. It was hanging on tightly to the caterpillar in its beak and finally flew off into a shrub a few metres away to present it to its nestlings.
The whitethroat perched on the wire fence hanging on to its nestlings’ snack
Similar species : Lesser Whitethroat
The Common Whitethroat can be distinguished from the smaller Lesser Whitethroat by the absence of the dark mask on their cheeks and the presence of rusty brown edges to their wing feathers, pinky chest and longer tail.
Read more about whitethroats in Cambridgeshire in Finn Holding’s blog, the Naturephile