Wintering Blackcaps in Worcestershire 1998/9 - A Simple Survey

By Dave Ratcliffe

This survey arose from my interest in Blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) and what seemed to be an increasing number present during recent winters and an example of micro-evolutionary change amongst some individuals of the north-western population, the majority of whom continue to migrate to the traditional wintering grounds in the Mediterranean.

The survey followed the same methodology employed by Iain Leach in his national survey for the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) during the winter of 1978/9. Worcestershire's contribution to a national total of 1,714 birds found during that survey was 39. I was interested in finding out what had happened since.

Radio and press appeals were made for sightings of Blackcaps between the 1st October 1998 and 31st March 1999, and asking that people ring Worcestershire Wildlife Trust to report their sightings.

Information requested included place, sex, number, food items, aggressive episodes, and whether the callers participated in the BTO Garden Birdwatch Survey, and were members of the Trust.

To date I have received 249 survey forms, detailing the sightings of 245 male and 115 female Blackcaps.

While there are issues of duplicated sightings particularly in centres such as Malvern and Worcester, the winter population has clearly increased since 1978/9, to a figure in the low hundreds at least. Interestingly BTO data suggests the winter population is declining nationally.

Aggression between species largely involved Robins (Erithacus rubecula) and Great Tit (Parus major) and may point at similar feeding niches. Aggression between Blackcaps was almost exclusively male to female.

Food and feeding behaviour proved one of the surveys most interesting aspects, both in the range of foods taken and the variety of presentations they are willing to tackle, making them as adaptable and adroit as any of our usual garden feeding species.

To my mind it is these abilities, given milder winters, that is the most influential factor in their wintering success.

ItemNumber of Observationsvarieties
Peanuts50hanging, bird table, ground
Seed46sunflower, wildbird mix, canary
Bread34white, brown, wholemeal
Berries32mistletoe, asparagus, rowan, ivy
Fruit29apples, pears, jam
Scraps26suet, cake, scones, xmas pudding
Fat24fatballs, birdcake, bacon scraps
Cereal7porridge, muesli
Nectar/Pollen6Mahonia japonica

Table 1 - Foods taken by Blackcaps - October 1998 - March 1999

Of real interest have been the six reports of Blackcaps (and Blue Tits) apparently feeding on the nectar of Mahonia japonica,. Nectar feeding has been noted in other plant species in the Mediterranean wintering grounds but not commonly reported in the British Isles. (See note by Harry Green elsewhere in this edition of Worcestershire Record)

The popularity of peanuts and seed demonstrate well the omnivorous nature of their diet and the importance of garden feeding when natural food supplies are scarce. One respondent even reported old Christmas pudding proving an attraction!

A large majority of sightings were in gardens, and although the survey did not ask for nil returns, the absence of sightings from the Trust's own reserves, some of which are well watched, is notable. I am only aware of sightings from Bibbys Hollow near Halesowen, and one at Upton Warren Nature Reserve which is certainly well watched!

Information HeadingPhase 1Phase 2Totals
No of Survey Forms69180249
No of males65180245
No of females3085115
Garden sightings61166228
Aggressive episodes72633
Number of pairs83543
Seen in previous yrs* 111931
Trust Members177996
Garden Birdwatch101121
Sex ratio2:12:1-

Table 2 - Summary of Information - 1st November 1998 to 31st March 1999

N.B. Phase 1 refers to the period 1st October 1998 to 30th November 1998, and Phase 2 is the period 1st December 1998 to 31st March 1999, which is the winter period as defined by Leach in his 1978/9 survey

Place1st phase2nd phaseTotals
Upton upon Severn246

Remaining sites; Alvechurch 2, Ombersley, Bewdley, Bredon, Cradley, Cleeve Prior, Morton on Lugg, Overbury, Ashton under Hill, Halesowen Hagley, Sedgeberrow, Holt Heath, Flyford Flavel, Fernall Heath, Bidford on Avon, Leominster, Inkberrow, Powick, Westmancote, Overbury, Crowle, Gt & Lt Comberton, Alcester, Elmley Castle.

Table 3 - Distribution by Place Name


So how well have the objectives of the survey been met ?

We know that we have wintering Blackcaps of both sexes, distributed throughout Worcestershire. We know what they eat, and their ability to survive cold spells. We know that some show a site fidelity, both through the winter, and from year to year. The preference for built up areas, rich in gardens and bird feeding stations is clear. Competition is evident, with Robins and Great Tits prominent rivals. Blackcaps have learnt to exploit a variety of foods, and most significantly in a variety of presentations.

As for the size of the winter population educated guesses are required due to the fact that the survey did not ask for nil returns, i.e. absence of Blackcaps, (although it is interesting that I did not receive any records from the Trust reserves) so that densities cannot be assessed, but I think we can make some broad assumptions.

The population of wintering Blackcaps has clearly increased since 1978/79, from a figure of 39 individuals, we now have a population at least in the low hundreds if we assume that the population density in more rural areas is similar, and that many Blackcaps have not been found.

The populations in places like Malvern, Worcester, Redditch are more problematic as the same birds are surely being seen by many observers, and a garden ringing and retrapping programme would be useful in providing a more conclusive estimate.

The use of Mahonia japonica has proved particularly interesting, and while feeding on nectar in known in Mediterranean wintering populations, it is less well known elsewhere. The same observations have also been made in this survey on Blue Tits (Parus caeruleus) and is probably worth a little research in its own right.

Many observers saw both male and female Blackcaps, and 43 respondents had both sexes present together, and where aggression between Blackcaps was noted, it was predominantly male to female.

One respondent, Mrs F.M.Baldock, was able to keep records of two males with distinctive features (injured leg and missing tail feathers), one of which continued to visit her garden for the months of December, January and February.

Mark and Christine Turner were able to provide extensive records of Blackcaps in their garden back to 1996.

During March I began to receive records of, and heard for myself, male Blackcaps in full song, and in one instance display flight - what is the origin of these birds? Are they very early summer migrants or overwintering British birds ? It is hard to believe they are continental wintering individuals - surely they would not waste precious resource and time (and advantage) in delaying their return migration ?


It is not possible for me to conclude this survey without offering my thanks, firstly to all those who contributed to the survey by submitting their sightings, comments and in some cases letters. Secondly, to the hard pressed staff and volunteers of the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust at Lower Smite Farm, who took the telephone calls and recorded the details, and finally to Harry Green for his encouragement, support, advice and his extensive archive which has yielded all one would want to know about Blackcaps.


YARRELL W. A History of Britsh Birds Vol ..1 1st Edition London
STAFFORD J. 1956 The Wintering of Blackcaps in the British Isles. Bird Study 3:251-257
DAVIS P. 1967 Migration seasons of the Sylvia warblers at British Bird Observatories Bird Study 14:65-95
GLADWIN T.1970 Wintering Blackcaps BTO News 39:1-2
LANGSLOW D.R. 1979 Movements of Blackcaps ringed in Britain and Ireland Bird Study 26:239-252
LEACH IA. 1981 Wintering Blackcaps in Britain and Ireland Bird Study 28:5-14
LACK P 1986. Atlas of Wintering Birds in Britain and Ireland BTO/Irish Wildlife Conservancy T&A.D. Poyser
BERTHOLD P. & TERRILL S. 1988 Migratory behaviour and population growth of Blackcaps wintering in Britain and Ireland: some hypotheses. Ringing & Migration. 9:153-159
BERTHOLD P. 1995 Microevolution of migratory behaviour illustrated by the Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla: 1993 Witherby Lecture Bird Study 42:89-100
SMITH M. PALMER 1955 Wintering Blackcaps in Worcestershire British Birds 48:372-3
CRAMP S. et al 1992 The Birds of the Western Palearctic Vol VI Oxford Univ. Press.

WBRC Home Worcs Record Listing by Issue Worcs Record Listing by Subject