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The Firetail and the Nettle Bed

Fri 14th Jun, 2024

There are some birds that have a permanent place in my heart. I have been very fond of Redstarts since I saw that flash of fire for the first time as a teenager. I remember hearing a beautiful song from a mystery bird in an old Oak woodland under Roseberry Topping in the North York Moors National Park. Then the bright red flash of the tail as a male Redstart flew into the green canopy. That memory of vivid colours and a first discovery has stayed with me ever since.

Male Redstarts love to sing from a high perch, always on the lookout. It’s very tricky to watch their natural behaviour before they see you first. So, it was a real thrill when I was in Farndale on a warm summers morning to find a male Redstart sitting close by on a fence post.

I immediately dropped down behind a stone wall and reached for my camera. I am sure he saw me but he seemed to be much more interested in something else.

Peaking over the top of the wall I was able to watch as he flew from his perch into a large nettle bed, grab a moth in his bill then fly into the woodland behind me. It wasn’t long before he was back and this time, I was able to watch him hover over the nettles and pick a moth from the flowers of a nettle. Taking it back to a post he flipped it over in his bill before flying into the woods again.

Over the next hour I came to realise how important this nettle bed was, not only to the redstart but also to other songbirds as several Willow Warblers, two Robins and a Blackbird joined in the feast. I realised how fortunate I was to time my visit with the emergence of a large number of insects. A search on the edge of the nettle bed revealed several Flounced Rustic moths. These were great food for songbirds especially at a time when they were feeding nestlings.

A quick internet search on the importance of nettles came up with a fabulous list of over 120 species of invertebrates which have been found to be associated with Stinging Nettles (link here). Just as good is the Royal Horticultural Society website page on nettles. It was great to read their advice for gardeners which aims to raise awareness of how important nettles can be in a garden (link here).

Back in Farndale this summer on a different farm which was just across the valley from my first encounter, I found another great nettle bed. This time under a wonderful line of tall Alder and Willow trees. No Redstarts here but there was a family of Blackbirds with two hungry chicks being fed small insects under the nettle bed.

I have always known Stinging Nettles are great for wildlife but after this encounter I am now looking out for nettle beds everywhere.

© Richard Baines, Director

Yorkshire Coast Nature