Of the 24 acres of St Nicks, nearly 60% (14 acres) is classified as woodland – a prime habitat for birds. So it’s no surprise that St Nicks has a rich variety of woodland birds. Woodland birds are more often heard, rather than seen, especially in the Summer, when they can be hidden by foliage. In this Spotlight there are number of links to a website where you can hear the songs and calls (each link opens in a new page or tab).
Woodland birds at St Nicks can be broadly classified into three groups:
Finches, tits and associated species, thrushes (and let’s not forget Robins!) make up the bulk of the woodland birds that can be seen all the year round.
St Nicks’ iconic bird, the Bullfinch, can be quite secretive at times, but its call is very distinctive. We probably have at least six breeding pairs of this bird, quite a high density for an area the size of St Nicks. Goldfinches, possibly one of Britain’s most brightly coloured birds, with a black, red, white and yellow plumage, really like feeding on Teasel heads, and also Alder cones. In the winter, they can often form flocks (known as “charms”) of 50+ birds. Listen out for their chattering calls. Greenfinches are less common, but can be identified by their nasal “whee” call and their prominent yellow/green wing stripe. Chaffinches are the least common finch, but can be seen throughout the reserve, with Osbaldwick Beck being a favoured location.
Members of the Tit family are commonly sighted at St Nicks. Blue, Great and Long-tailed Tits, and, less frequently, Coal Tits, are seen throughout the year, with the first three being confirmed breeding birds. In the Spring/Summer breeding season tits pair up and are less easily seen. But in the Autumn and Winter, mixed flocks of tits will form feeding flocks, often joined by Goldcrests and Tree Creepers. Goldcrests, one of Britain’s smallest birds (smaller than the Wren, which is also seen throughout the year, but is more vocal and visible in the breeding season), is less easily spotted because it tends to be very mobile (difficult to photograph!) and sometimes high in the canopy. Treecreepers climb up (never down!) the trunks of trees in a mouse-like creeping manner.
The predominant thrush is, of course, the Blackbird. These are present throughout the year, but winter numbers are augmented by an influx of visitors from continental Europe. Song Thrushes are present throughout the year, but are more often heard in the Spring and Summer, their repeated calls being very distinctive. Mistle Thrushes, with their plaintive call, are surprisingly scarce at St Nicks.
Great Spotted Woodpeckers are seen and heard throughout the year, both calling and drumming. Both males and females have been seen together, but there has no evidence of them breeding at St Nicks.
Each year we await the early arrival of Chiffchaffs, a bird which calls its name, often from the tops of tall trees. We know that these birds breed at St Nicks, maybe two or three pairs – or maybe even more. Another regular summer visitor, which almost certainly breeds at St Nicks, is Blackcap, the male with a distinctive black cap, the females and juveniles with a brown cap. Before the trees are covered with leaves they can be quite easy to spot, but later in the summer they are less easy to see and are more easily identified by their distinctive call, which can be confused with Garden Warblers, a species which has rarely been recorded at St Nicks.
Whitethroats used to be a confirmed breeding bird, but are no longer. We get maybe a couple of records a year, mainly identified by their scratchy song and their distinctive display flight. Willow Warblers also used to be a bird breeding at St Nicks, but records in recent years have been sparse.
Not all of the St Nicks’ “regular” birds are resident. In the Autumn and Winter there are influxes of birds from Europe and Scandinavia such as Blackbirds and Robins. But there are other species which we only see in the later months. Siskins and Lesser Redpolls are breeding birds in Yorkshire, but in the Autumn and Winter, they come down from their forest breeding grounds to more urban habitats. Siskins are the more common of these finches at St Nicks, and they usually appear from October through to March or April. Look out for them feeding on the Alder cones, along Osbaldwick Beck, at the King Fisher Culvert and on the Bund Path. But they could turn up anywhere! Redpolls are less frequent visitors, but they also associate with Siskins, also feeding on Alder cones.
Look out also for Winter thrushes. In addition to the Blackbird continental influx, we also get Redwings and Fieldfares, coming in from continental Europe. The former can be seen in twos and threes on trees and bushes around the reserve. The latter are usually “fly-overs”, although they have been recorded alighting on trees in the reserve. Very, very, occasionally we have seen Waxwings, on the reserve. They are Winter visitors from Scandinavia, driven over here when there’s a shortage of berries in their homelands.
So, no matter what season it is, have a stroll around St Nicks plentiful woodland areas and see what birds you can spot and hear. Please call in at the Environment Centre and let us know what birds you have seen or heard!
All photos were taken at St Nicks