Dartford Warbler – Yew Tree Heath, New Forest

Dartford Warblers like areas of open heathland with a scattering of gorse bushes. Most warblers spend the winter in Africa, but Dartford Warblers stay here all year round, they are only found in the southern counties as these are the only places that stay warm enough for the species to survive and which also have suitable heathland habitat. They survive because the heather and gorse are thick and evergreen and they can find insects among the bushes.

The New Forest is a stronghold for Dartford Warblers and in the early part of 2019 I’d been looking out for them whenever I’d been in suitable habitat and in places where I’d seen them before. I’d had no luck and I presumed that breeding birds vacate these places in the winter and only return again to breed. Now that spring was well underway I thought I’d try a place fairly well known for its healthy breeding population – Yew Tree Heath, between Lyndhurst and Beaulieu.

It was a frosty morning, sunny with light winds. Dartford Warblers tend to stay hidden away in windy conditions and a sunny morning in April was perhaps the best chance to get a male singing on top of the gorse bushes.

After a lot of walking I finally tracked down a calling bird which I believed was a female although I didn’t see it well. Soon afterwards, and close by, I heard the song of a male and quickly found him perched up on the gorse.  

Immediately obvious were the reddish underparts, slate grey back and red eye ring. The proportionately very large head with a steep forehead peaking towards the front. Also a puffed out throat even when not singing, bunched up tertials, tiny primaries and a long tail. 

The birds were very active and difficult to keep in the telescope for long although when singing the male remained fairly still which helped with sketching.

I didn’t see as many as I was expecting. Harsh winters can decimate their population although this recent winter has been relatively mild. Perhaps not all of the breeders were back from their wintering quarters.

Dartford Warbler takes my year list up to 166.

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