Saturday 24 February 2018

Not just any Black Redstart 22nd February 2018

A couple of evenings ago I received a private message from Mark via Twitter asking me for details about where to go to see the Hawfinches at Parkend in the Forest of Dean. To cut a long story short I ended up speaking to Mark by phone, as it was easier than sending a long text, and in the course of that conversation learnt from him that there was a male Black Redstart  showing really well at a housing estate in Leighton Buzzard.

At the time I thought no more about it and it was not until yesterday that I recalled the conversation and on thinking it over decided I would really like to go and see the Black Redstart, especially as it was an adult male. I re-contacted Mark and he kindly then rang me back to give specific directions as to where to go to see the Black Redstart.

Leighton Buzzard is comparatively close to my home in Oxfordshire, about ninety minutes drive east from where I live, so I set off at seven am on a dull, cold Thursday morning with the forecast sun well and truly obscured by light cloud. Although briefed as to where to go I was none too sure what I was going to encounter apart from the fact the bird, as with many Black Redstarts was to be found in the heart of human habitation on a very large and comparatively modern housing estate. Black Redstarts used to be dwellers of cliffs and stony mountainsides but from about 1900 onwards they transferred their allegiance to industrial and urban areas which are, when you think of it, not dissimilar in appearance to their original habitat. On business visits to Germany I regularly used to see them in small towns and villages, even an airport on one occasion.

Black Redstarts are widespread in southern and central Europe, Asia and northern Africa reaching as far south as Morocco and as far east as China. In Britain however they are a very scarce breeding bird with less than a hundred pairs and found only as far north as Liverpool and Manchester.They occur in greater numbers in Britain on migration and are an early Spring migrant which is when they can turn up in virtually any built up area.

I knew that when I got to Leighton Buzzard I had to find a certain numbered house on a road called Johnson Drive and between that house and its neighbour was a small driveway that led to a number of garages and a small parking area behind the houses. Intriguingly I had been told to look out for some pallets and bird feeders behind the houses.

Most Black Redstarts I see in Britain are a dull sooty grey and almost featureless overall apart from their rusty orange tail.

A female or immature male Black Redstart seen in Oxfordshire three years ago.
Compare this with the images below of an adult  male Black Redstart
This dull plumage is typical of females and first year male birds but an older male becomes transformed into a thing of quite exceptional if understated beauty. The head and upperparts are slate grey while the face and breast are black. The closed wings each show a prominent and large white wing patch and the rump and tail are bright rusty orange.The contrast in colours is, for me, a very pleasing combination.

Last night I had checked on the  internet for any specific information about this particular Black Redstart and had found some superb photographs of it which only fired my enthusiasm to see it even more, as adult male Black Redstarts are very much in the minority with regard to my encounters with this species.

I arrived at the housing estate at just before nine and weaving my way through the usual chaos of cars delivering children to a local school found myself on a long winding road through the housing but I could not find the name of the road. I was pretty sure it was Johnson Drive but asked a lady wheeling a toddler in a pram and she told me I was indeed already on the right road. Somehow, having driven the length of the road, I had missed the driveway leading to the back of number 111 and its neighbours. I retraced my route and there was the driveway between the houses but it was so inconsequential and private looking that I could well understand why I had not noticed it.

I drove very slowly and cautiously up the short driveway past a row of wheelie bins forming a mute guard of honour and found myself in a small tarmaced area behind the houses with three or four cars parked in front of the garages. In the far corner was a tiny triangle of grass with two small bare trees from which hung some bird feeders and there to the left leaning against the end garage wall were the aforementioned pallets.

The tiny corner with the bird feeders and pallets that was the chosen location of
the Black Redstart
This had to be the spot and I decided to remain in the car, so parked as best I could in the cramped space available and sat back to await developments. It was pretty cold with the car window open but I could bear that minor inconvenience. There was no sign of the Black Redstart but the feeders were attracting some Goldfinches, Starlings and the inevitable Collared Dove.

I sat and waited, possibly for ten minutes and then. there it was, the male Black Redstart, bobbing and curtseying its body on thin black legs whilst shivering its tail in typical redstart fashion.

My expectations were not let down as this creature of beauty and restless nervous energy sat on the fence before flying to a feeder. This was not so good as aesthetically the beautiful bird looked none to good perched on the rim of a green plastic feeder and anyway the feeder was partially obscured from my line of view.

In the end it turned out quite well as the redstart  tired of the feeder and moved back to the fence and eventually came a lot closer along the fence before retreating to one of  the trees where it sat in the branches for fifteen minutes, obviously well fed and content

Up to now I had seen no one but then Roy, the finder of the bird and who lived in one of the houses overlooking where I was parked  walked up and we got talking during one of the redstart's periodic absences, although it was never gone for long.

He told me the feeders were put there by him and promptly opened the nearest garage door and took out some more mealworms and millet to tempt the redstart. I learnt from Roy that he had first seen the redstart from a window in his house and he was so excited he raced down in his bare feet to the area we were now occupying just to make sure it really was what he thought it was. The redstart had been here for at least three weeks now and had been visited by over one hundred and fifty birders during that time according to Roy. Today he was expecting a lady from Sheffield to be arriving at any minute to see the bird.

Half an hour later she duly arrived in a large 4x4, complete with a fair sized rock covered in moss which she strategically placed on a pallet to get the ultimate picture. I am sure she will not mind if I say she was more a photographer than a birder and, I hasten to add, there is nothing wrong in that.

Here dear reader I do confess to some growing anxiety about where this is all going and that I am in danger of becoming more of a photographer than a birder myself but for now I think I am keeping the balance about right. I used to make drawings of birds I saw in a notebook but now it is so easy with a camera and the results are much better. Most birders I know like a record of the birds they have seen and really there is no harm in it and virtually every birder has a camera of some sort now. 

The lady from Sheffield positioned her car at an angle to mine and we awaited the return of the redstart which did not fail on that score, regularly visiting the rock and the mealworms put out for it on top of the rock but also perching in the tree for periods when it remained relatively inactive or as inactive as such a highly strung creature can be. Roy returned with his camera and lens too. Time wore on and we moved our cars to each others spot so we could get a different angle to take pictures

The mealworms on the rock were eventually found by two greedy Starlings that promptly gobbled  them up but this was to our advantage as other mealworms spread on the tarmac meant the redstart came down to those and was even closer to our cars than before.

The lady from Sheffield departed for her long drive home just as the promised sun finally arrived in the early afternoon and for another hour I had the pleasure of watching the Black Redstart feeding periodically in the sunshine before it dived over the fence once more and was gone. I took this as my cue to leave too.