Country diary: rare encounter with a Dartford warbler

Sinah Common, Hayling Island, Hampshire: Despite years of dedicated gorse-scanning this was the first time I’d seen one of these secretive little birds on my patch

The gorse thicket was ablaze with flower, but the heady coconut-suncream scent of the golden blossom was at odds with the biting wind and overcast sky. As a shower began to fall like a haze of iron filings, I decided to take shelter behind one of the well-preserved anti-aircraft gun emplacements – a relic from the second world war, when decoy fires were set on Hayling Island to draw the Luftwaffe away from the important military targets on nearby Portsea Island.

As I hunkered down against the concrete wall, I noticed a small, dark-coloured bird flitting through the furze like a restless sprite. I followed at a discreet distance as it crept through the low branches, gleaning insects from the needle-like leaves with quick, jerky movements. At first glance I thought it was a wren, but as I raised my binoculars it turned and cocked a disproportionately long, slender tail – not the short, stubby appendage I was expecting to see. I realised that I was looking at a Dartford warbler, Sylvia undata.

While the species has recovered from the 1960s population crash, continuing to increase in numbers and expand its range in recent years, Dartford warblers are largely sedentary birds. They breed exclusively on lowland heath and rarely travel far from their natal habitat. When food is scarce they will range more widely and can occasionally be spotted in coastal scrub during the winter months, but despite years of dedicated gorse-scanning this was the first time I’d encountered one on my local patch.

I wasn’t content with this fleeting glimpse, but “Darties” are secretive, skulking birds. My fingers reddened with cold as I waited in the hope that this one would emerge from the dense, dark undergrowth. As the rain eased off, my patience was finally rewarded. The bird – a male – perched up on the crown of a bush and I was able to admire his slate-grey upper parts, ruddy breast and vermilion eye-rings.

The instant he caught sight of me, the feathers on his domed-shaped head began to rise in the suggestion of a crest. Tail wagging, he scolded me with a harsh nasal “dzurr”, before vanishing back into cover.


Claire Stares

The GuardianTramp

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