Small, shy and chubby with a neat black cap, this effervescent bird sings its heart out in spring. Jack Watkins meets the blackcap, also known as the March nightingale.
On a woodland stroll in early spring, the ears need a moment to retune. The sun is out and the birds are busy. After the silence of winter, hearing them again is invigorating. At first, the brightness of their voices is almost overwhelming. Like an orchestra going full pelt, the song variations of individual species are lost in the mass of sound. Only once the dial is reset do you really start to listen.
Of course, most of the players turn out to be the old regulars: blackbirds, wrens, great tits, the inevitable crows and the distant, disappearing laugh of a green woodpecker. Yet, there’s one sound, not completely unfamiliar, but refreshing all the same, coming from about halfway up a tree just ahead. The leaves are out by now, initially concealing the shy songster. Its urge to sing, however, is irrepressible and, edging stealthily forward to peer up through the branches, it soon reveals itself to be a small, chubby, grey bird with the neat black cap to which it owes its popular name.
The song of the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) has an effervescent quality, vaguely akin to that of the blackbird, although briefer and faster. Sweet, but loud, especially when delivered from an exposed perch, it is undoubtedly melodic. Delivered with apparent spontaneity, the blackcap is the Hoagy Carmichael of the bird kingdom, sitting in its tree, casually knocking out a few phrases and then pausing, as if to ask: ‘Is that good enough for you?’
If this doesn’t give some indication of the pleasing quality of its song, old names for it, such as the country nightingale, mock nightingale and nightingale of the North surely do (although the latter moniker partly reflects the expansion of its range into the North of England, where blackcaps were once uncommon, in the first half of the 20th century). John Clare’s The March Nightingale, using another blackcap folk name for its title, also plays upon the bird’s ancient association with the fabled songster Luscinia megarhynchos. In Clare’s sonnet, someone is leaning over the rail of a spinney, listening ‘while the blackcap doth his ears assail/With such a rich and early song’. So affecting is the song, the listener mistakes the blackcap’s ‘sweet-jug-jug-jug’ for a nightingale and is baffled because the latter, usually heard singing from the depths of a thicket, is not often heard until May.
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The blackcap, however, is a warbler, a large group of sparrow-sized birds that—among those most often seen in Britain—runs from the garden and willow warblers, to the common and lesser whitethroats and the chiffchaff. Many members of this family are admired for their song, but yet another old name for the blackcap is the king of the warblers.
Back to blackcaps
• Although the male has a black cap reaching to the upper part of its eye, the cap is actually chestnut brown on the female and juvenile
• The garden warbler, with which it is sometimes confused, is much browner in coloration
• Blackcaps are a similar size to robins, measuring about 5in long and weighing barely an ounce
• They are predated by sparrowhawks and domestic cats
• The typical lifespan of a blackcap is two years, but the record age for a ringed bird is 10 years, eight months and 15 days
Its closest cousins are the garden warbler and the whitethroats, which might easily all be batched together under the term hedgerow warblers. So close is the resemblance to the garden warbler that Aristotle in his History of Animals maintained that the garden warbler had the ability to metamorphose into a blackcap and vice versa. Despite its name, the garden warbler is rarely seen in gardens and has a low public profile. Its song is also beautiful, however, and, after its arrival in this country from central Africa in April, it is sometimes confused with that of the blackcap, despite being more rippling and ongoing.
The common whitethroat is often to be heard singing in the hedgerows after its arrival from the Sahel region, south of the Sahara, in May. The song is scratchy, almost bad tempered, conjuring up images of someone who has stuck their hand in a patch of nettles. It is deeply evocative of dry summer days, the sun beating down on parched hedges and footpaths. The old name for the whitethroat, nettle creeper, relates to its favourite nesting sites.
Because blackcaps arrive earlier than their cousins, often at the end of March, they are regarded by many people as one of the voices of spring. Most of these blackcaps have travelled, usually completely alone, from the western Mediterranean or Northern Africa. They’ll embark on their return journey from late August to October.
Although the occasional blackcap has long overwintered in Britain, until about 60 years ago, it was rare to see one. The habit of overwintering has been growing since the 1970s, however; this is not entirely a matter of summer visitors staying on because of warmer winters. Rather, these arrivals consist of an entirely different intake to the spring migrants. For years, it was maintained that they had flown in from southern Germany and Austria, but, recently, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) has been using Geolocator tracking technology to study the Continental migration patterns of blackcaps. This has revealed that those wintering in Britain usually fly in between September and October from a range of countries, many from France, but other individuals from as far afield as Spain and Poland.
These blackcaps have taken to using gardens, especially those where bird feeders are put out. They have shown a preference for sunflower hearts and suet products, turning to them after the supply of wild fruit and berries they thrive upon on first arrival have been exhausted. Gardens play a key part as winter wears on, says the BTO’s senior research ecologist Greg Conway. ‘Although the wintering birds are all here after late October, they don’t get noticed in gardens during the early part of winter. It is not until February and March that observations in gardens tend to take place, coinciding with the harshest part of winter and its short days.’
Know your warblers
• The blackcap is classified as one of the Sylvia warblers, a family of small birds characterised by quick movements and usually rich song (other Sylvia warblers include the Dartford warbler, common and lesser whitethroats and garden warbler)
• Willow warblers, wood warblers and chiffchaffs are members of the Phylloscopus family. They are yellow or greenish, wood-living birds and bright songsters
• Reed, sedge warblers and marsh warblers belong to the Acrocephalus family, which tend to nest in reed and other wetland vegetation
• Grasshopper warblers belong to the Locustella family, being rather skulking birds with chirping cricket- or grasshopper-like songs
The BTO is still amassing data on this and he urges anyone spotting blackcaps in their garden to record sightings on the charity’s Bird Track site (www.bto.org/our-science/projects/birdtrack) or via its annual Garden BirdWatch survey.
What seems plain is that it is the blackcap’s ability to adapt to its surroundings that has made it the most numerous and widespread of all our warblers. On current standing, the March nightingale truly is the warbling king.