Monday, 21 June 2010

Wet alders home for Redstarts

The other weekend I returned to the southwest corner of Surrey, to the place where I grew up and in which I first developed my interest in natural history. This part of the county is known for its wooded beech hangers, dry sandy heaths and wet alder woods, collectively providing a mix of habitats of great quality. My passion for birds comes from happy youthful days spent birdwatching on these sites. A return visit was bound to deliver mixed emotions, not least because times (and habitats) have changed and because some of the bird populations have changed with them.

One bird that I was particularly keen to see was the Redstart, a cavity-nesting species associated with mature woodland and favouring the damp alder woods of some of my old haunts. An early morning visit to the Devil’s Punch Bowl at Hindhead, now in the stewardship of the National Trust, delivered the first pair of the day. The male was singing at the bottom of a gully that cut down into this rather steep sided valley; the female alarming close to the path was soon to be discovered feeding well-grown chicks in a rather open, and readily viewable, tree cavity.

Writing in 1544, Turner described how a Redstart might be recognised by the motion of its tail. This particular female demonstrated this feature to good effect, the brick red tail shivering as the bird perched near the nest, checking for predators before approaching to feed the young. Young Redstarts look not unlike young Robins or Spotted Flycatchers, their speckled plumage providing a degree of camouflage against numerous would-be predators. Throughout the remainder of the day we saw and heard several other Redstart pairs, suggesting a fairly good population remained in the area. The picture is very different here in the Brecks, where only a few pairs are to be found in the forest (although there are more on the army training area at STANTA).

One of the reasons that I find the Redstart so fascinating is because of a book that was published in 1950 as part of the famous New Naturalist series. The book was written by John Buxton and describes the results of his studies on the species, made while he was a prisoner of war in Bavaria during the Second World War. Buxton was a prisoner for five years and filled his time (or rather the summer months) watching and recording the behaviour of those Redstarts nesting around the various camps within which he was held. Buxton’s studies provide a clear example of how to develop an understanding of a species and its behaviour. One particular pair was watched for over 850 hours one spring, a staggering achievement.

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