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African Jewels Arrive In Yorkshire

  • Sat 9th Apr, 2022

There are few things better than standing silently in English Oak woodland in spring drenched by sunshine, amongst a carpet of Bluebells and birdsong. Two migrant song birds which have long been recognised as among our most beautiful woodland birds, Common Redstart and Pied Flycatcher will be arriving very soon from Africa.

Male Common Redstart North Yorkshire ©  Richard BainesMale Common Redstart North Yorkshire © Richard Baines

Male Redstarts are gorgeous birds full of colour, from their black throats and white forehead to their orange-red breast and flashing red tail.

Male Pied Flycatcher North Yorkshire ©  Richard BainesMale Pied Flycatcher North Yorkshire © Richard Baines

Pied Flycatchers are very different but equally as dapper, sporting their black and white vivid plumage. Females of both species can be harder to spot until the red fire-tail of a Redstart or the white wing flash of a flycatcher catches the eye.

Female Redstart North Yorkshire ©  Richard BainesFemale Redstart North Yorkshire © Richard Baines

Redstarts have long been one of my favourite British birds. Ever since when I was 18 when I was asked by school children what my favourite bird was, immediately without thinking I said Redstart!

Both species spend the winter in Africa leaving our shores in autumn. Redstarts winter in the Sahel zone from the coast of Senegal in the West to Eritrea in the East. Satellite tracking of Pied Flycatchers has revealed they travel further, across the massive Saharan desert to a wintering area in Liberia and southeast Guinea. Recent research carried out by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has discovered a link between declines in the population of migrant birds spending the winter in the humid zone south of the Saharan desert. 

Male Pied Flycatcher North Yorkshire ©  Richard BainesMale Pied Flycatcher North Yorkshire © Richard Baines

Both of these birds arrive back on their breeding sites from mid-April through to early May. They favour sheltered edge habitats (referred to as ecotones by ecologists) which can be by the side of a woodland, a large woodland clearing or a small glade amongst the trees. These places are often the best habitats for their insect prey.

The nest site of a Redstart in 2021 - North Yorkshire ©  Richard BainesThe nest site of a Redstart in 2021 - North Yorkshire © Richard Baines

They both nest in natural holes in old tree trunks or their branches. Pied Flycatchers often take to nest boxes more readily than Redstarts which can also be found nesting in stone walls or buildings. A few weeks ago, I was shown a pipe in a low stone wall outside the kitchen window of a farm on the edge of Dalby Forest where a Redstart had built a nest and fledged its young last year. After seeing this nest site, I immediately thought no matter what the books say birds will always re-write the rules.   

Pied Flycatchers are mainly restricted to the western parts of the North York Moors National Park where open Oak, Birch and Hazel woodlands attract them. Redstarts however can pop up anywhere from the forests near Scarborough in the east to Osmotherley in the west. There is one thing for sure though when you see one of these birds it will make your day!

Richard Baines

YCN Director and Wildlife Guide