Updated: Jan 26
This blog was written for Ecotherapy at St Nicks. To find out more about Ecotherapy at St Nicks including how to join click here
Normally it’s at this time that we look back on the various Finds of the Week from across the seasons, and choose our Find of the Year, usually in different categories i.e. bird of the year, plant of the year, insect of the year, etc. However, unless you’ve been living on Mars during 2020 (lucky you, I am envious!), you will know that this year has been somewhat different.
Looking back through my giant Find of the Week folder, there are only three entries, dating back to the beginning of the year. The creatures are: a goldcrest, a bullfinch, and a sparrowhawk. While we could certainly pit these birds against each other, that seems somewhat unfair since a sparrowhawk could make a literal meal of the other two avians. However, what we will do is focus on a bird that can be frequently encountered at St Nicks, but often only via a fleeting glimpse: the goldcrest.
Picture from Pixabay by TheOtherKev
It seems fitting to give the goldcrest our focus this week, since it was the very first Find of the Week in 2020, spotted way back on 7th January. It was also a bird that many of you spotted on our last in-person session this year, on Tuesday, 15th December.
The Goldcrest is a tiny bird and Britain’s smallest. If you were present in our last physical session and heard me wittering on about the wren being the smallest (shortest) bird in the UK due to its cocked tail, this is incorrect, so ignore it (bird length is measured regardless of the tail angle). And if you didn’t hear that, it never happened, and I am always right.
There is some overlap with the Firecrest (more on them later) but according to Collins Bird Guide, whose word I take as the supreme authority, the Goldcrest is smaller, on average. How small? The length of the bird ranges between 8.5cm and 9.5 cm. They weigh approximately 5 grams, which is about the same weight as an A4 sheet of paper, or 20 pence coin. Despite the name goldcrest, if you’re looking at it in poorly lit conditions, the overriding impression is of a sentient olive-green blob that is in constant motion, working its way up tree trunks, along the underside of branches and picking at things on impossibly thin twigs.
Picture by Phil Taylor – classic view of a goldcrest ‘blob’
Goldcrests are intimately associated with conifers, their preferred habitat, and one of the frequent locations where they can be encountered at St Nicks is the larch trees outside the compound. This location is more of an exception to their traditional habitat conditions, in that it is a light and airy location. Normally when we see goldcrests, which happens on about a third of all sessions, they are in dark dense canopy or shrubs. Therefore it is very hard to see their actual golden crest.
A better picture by Phil Taylor - shame about that twig in the way...
If you do get a good look, they have what’s been described as a “surprised expression” on their face, due to relatively large beady eyes surrounded by pale rings. The golden crest on top of their head is yellow in females and yellow with orange hints in the male. The black lines sloping down from either side of their beak also give the impression of a downturned mouth. Together, these features give the impression that goldcrests are shocked and appalled by the world and everything in it. The perfect bird, then, for 2020.
Beyond their habit of hanging out in dark locations, another thing that prevents a decent look at a goldcrest is that they never stand still. Picking their way across branches, they are searching for a variety of invertebrates, including aphids, caterpillars and spiders. Another function they have for spiders is using silk to create spherical nests of moss. In this regard they are similar to long-tailed tits.
Winter is an excellent time to look for goldcrests, not only because there are fewer leaves on the trees giving you a clearer view, but also because Britain’s native resident population is boosted by migrants from northern Europe. Somehow these tiny birds can cross the North Sea from Scandinavia and beyond. There are reports that on arrival these migrants can sometimes appear very tame, even landing on people in their search for food.
Folklore existed around goldcrests that gave rise to one of their older names of “Woodcock pilot.” The Woodcock is a type of wading bird, and it was once believed that goldcrests were too small to fly across the North Sea on their own, so they hitched a ride on woodcocks, serving as expert navigators. While I am 99% sure this is not true, you can read more about this, and many other incredible bird folklore tales in Birds Brittanica by Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey.
Picture by Phil Taylor.
To aid you in your quest to find a goldcrest, listen out for an extremely high pitched squeak. Naturalist Stephen Moss described it as having a rhythm along the lines of “diddly diddly diddly, diddly, dee…” Unfortunately as humans get older, many lose the ability to detect high-pitched noises, and so unfortunately the goldcrest will remain undetected to their ears. Listen on the RSPB website: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/goldcrest/
Finally, a brief word about firecrests. These small birds are similar in appearance to goldcrests, but the key difference is a black stripe running through the eye, and a white supercilium above (like a patch of pale eyeliner). Firecrests are also much less common, confined mainly to the south-east of England, where approximately 2000 territories are maintained in the summer, compared to the 790,000 breeding territories of goldcrests (data from BTO Birdfacts: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts)
Firecrest picture by Francesco Veronesi from Italy - Firecrest - Appenines - Italy_S4E4644, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39954015