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The King Of Birds

  • Tue 29th Sep, 2020

The most exciting wildlife encounters are often shrouded in mystery. This is just as true today as it was hundreds of years ago and it’s precisely that mystery which makes watching wildlife so inspiring. Here is a short story about one of my most memorable encounters from the Yorkshire coast.

Goldcrest © Richard Baines Flamborough October 2005Goldcrest © Richard Baines Flamborough October 2005

In 2005 I was living in a small cottage on the edge of the cliffs at Flamborough. An ideal place to experience the wonders of bird migration first hand. It’s even more thrilling when they land in your own garden! On the 14th October I remember looking at the Met Office weather map with more than just a tingle of excitement. A large high-pressure system had developed over Scandinavia reaching across the North Sea to the English east coast. This created a beautiful open sky and easterly tail winds, ideal for songbird migration. I knew we could be in for a ‘fall’ of migrants but I didn’t really expect a royal deluge!

Weather system October 14th 2005 creating the massive goldcrest fall courtesy of the Met OfficeWeather system October 14th 2005 creating the massive goldcrest fall courtesy of the Met Office

I remember waking up on the morning of the 15th with the bedroom window open, at first light and still bleary eyed I could hear the tiny high-pitched call of a goldcrest. It was so close it could have been at the bottom of my bed seeking shelter. I quickly pulled on my birding gear and walked out onto the headland. In the half light of the morning a sea mist hung over the cliffs and the light easterly winds brushed my face. All around me was the sound of goldcrests. They were in the bushes, on fences, stone walls and in the grass beneath my feet.

Goldcrest © Richard Baines Flamborough October 2005Goldcrest © Richard Baines Flamborough October 2005

As the day wore on, we started to try to count or make an estimate of the numbers involved. There were thousands on the headland, the official total logged by the Yorkshire Naturalists Union (YNU) in the 2005 bird report is 9,500 for Flamborough, but there could have easily been double that…

Woodcock Pilot drawing by Jeni Davies. see her Instagram account for more wonderful art @jennywrendraws  Woodcock Pilot drawing by Jeni Davies. see her Instagram account for more wonderful art @jennywrendraws

The Latin name for Goldcrest Regulus regulus meaning a king or a knight. Alongside the closely related Firecrest they are our smallest European bird. Goldcrests weigh only 4.5-7 grams and their legs are half the thickness of a match stick. So remarkable is their migration across the sea that people used to think they hitched a lift on the backs of woodcock!

If you still can't get your head around the fact that a bird barely the length of your index finger and the weight of a 20p piece can cross the North Sea, well, here's proof; A Goldcrest ringed at Svebolle, Bjergsted in Denmark on 2nd October 2016 was re-trapped by the Filey Bird Observatory ringing team just five days later, having covered more than 750 km in the meantime! Just as amazing is the fact that 96% of ringed goldcrests recovered are immature birds in their first autumn. 

Goldcrest © Dan LombardGoldcrest © Dan Lombard   

On that amazing day we could really use the phrase ‘the trees are dripping with birds’. With so many migrant birds travelling hundreds of miles across the sea many questions and mysteries entered my mind; How fast do they fly? How long does it take? How do goldcrests in their first year navigate? And inevitably, how many goldcrests die on their journey? The exhausted birds at my feet on the 15th October were the lucky ones.

If you’re on the coast in October look out for our royal visitor. As one of the lightest birds in the world to make a sea crossing, the tough and resilient Goldcrest really does deserve to be the crowned the king of birds.

Richard Baines

Yorkshire Coast Nature