Most warblers come to use as summer visitors; as insect-eating specialists, they find thin pickings in an English winter. Two resident species, the Dartford warbler and Cetti’s warbler, are found only in the south, and are hard-hit by any prolonged spell of cold winter weather. Our commonest warbler, the chiffchaff, also hangs on in the south of England, though most birds migrate further south, while blackcaps, as I’ve mentioned previously, have become winter bird-table specialists.
But there is one bird of the warbler family that is with us all the year round, and it is the smallest bird in Europe. I was delighted to see one in my back garden half way through January, flitting about in its typically very active way from branch to branch. The goldcrest is a woodland specialist, and spends much of its time foraging for insect food towards the tops of coniferous trees.
Goldcrests are found throughout the UK, wherever there is suitable habitat. I hardly ever see one in the summer, but they usually turn up in my garden at some time in the winter months. At this time of the year they need to range more widely to find enough food to get by - overwintering spiders and insects, plus of course their eggs and larvae. We have a yew tree at the back of our garden, and that is where I am most likely to spot one. They will very often attach themselves to mixed flocks of tits, and it is noteworthy that when I saw “mine” last month I had a family party of long tailed tits in the garden too.
Like tits, goldcrests are acrobatic little birds, often hanging upside down as they prospect along the branches for food. They are olive green birds with a distinctive wing bar, plus of course the feature that gives them their name, the orange-gold crest, with a black line either side to emphasize it. The female has a more yellow crest, but is otherwise the same. Since I have generally seen a pair together even in the depths of winter, I’ve always assumed they pair for life.
They build a finely woven nest, usually along the branch of a conifer but sometimes in ivy, and will raise a large brood there, sometimes laying as much as a dozen eggs. The youngsters lack the gold crest to begin with, and are fed by both parents, fledging and leaving the nest within three weeks. The breeding season begins in April. The goldcrest has a high pitched song, short and rapidly delivered and ending with a rather squeaky flourish.
Although not very often seen, the goldcrest is in fact a comparatively tame bird, and I have been able to get quite close to them when visiting the spruce in the centre of one of our previous gardens, which they did quite regularly. Their close relative the firecrest is also a British bird, though I have only seen it on the continent. It has an orange crest with a deeper black surround, plus a black eyestripe, and is mostly in the UK on passage, though a few stay all winter in the south-west.