Sunday, January 18, 2015

Blackcap

This elegant visitor is Frau Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla). Typically the name refers to the male of the species, a reflection perhaps of all those men of science in days of yore, all furiously collecting and cataloguing. (Not like today, eh?!) The lady has a more attractive reddish brown cap. The name Sylvia refers to its woodland habitat (Silva) and the specific name the ater (black) capillus (hair), the whole meaning a black-haired woodland sprite.

To see one in winter is a relatively recent privilege. All the breeding blackcaps head off the the Mediterranean and North African coasts for the winter, to be replaced by birds from Germany and Austria who began spending the winters here in the 1940s. The last UK Bird Atlas (2007- 2011) found wintering blackcaps present in 15% of tetrads in Sussex, largely in gardens at bird-feeders. 

It's a cunning plan as it saves a much longer migration and means they can get back to the breeding grounds before the longer distance migrants, enabling them to snaffle the finest territories. Consequently they tend to only breed with other birds following the same migration strategy. 

Blackcaps in general exhibit 'leap frog' migration. Those furthest north migrate furthest south, with the ones nearest the Mediterranean barely bothering to pack their bags. One of the biggest dangers en route is being trapped by a human. It has been estimated that around 900 million migrating birds are taken, ostensibly for food, every year, even though it is against the law in the European Union. Malta, Cyprus and Tuscany are the worst culprits. 

Despite the carnage Blackcap numbers are increasing. This is in stark contrast with many of our migrant species, including the nightingale to which the Blackcap is often compared on account of its beautiful song. Gilbert White got it right when he described it as a 'full, sweet, deep, loud and wild pipe'.

An old name for blackcap was the mock nightingale, but the real thing sounds quite different. The bird most often mistaken for blackcap is its close relative the garden warbler:


 
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