Kingston Village

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Steve Berry's Birds of Kingston
Part 25 - The Blackcap and the Barn Owl

Blackcap Sylvia atricapella

The blackcap, like the whitethroat, is a small migratory warbler about the length of a house sparrow but not as stocky. A few pairs breed in Kingston, some in large gardens. There is often a singing male in the wood at the top of The Street in spring and, when toiling up Ashcombe Lane on my bike, I sometimes hear another in the trees to the right, if the traffic isn’t too deafening. The song is wonderful, and can only be confused with that of the locally much scarcer garden warbler which, despite the name, is only very rarely encountered in gardens. Not all blackcaps live up to their name. Half of them – females – have brown heads, while the black colour on the heads of males is not revealed until the bird have left the nest.

British-born birds leave here from late August onwards, with migration reaching a peak in mid-October when blackcaps make up most of the birds caught at Beachy Head. The majority of these spend the winter in the Mediterranean area but ringing recoveries show that some go further, south of the Sahara. Ringing has also shown that birds east of a certain latitude take a very different route south, finishing up in Cyprus and the Middle East.

Blackcaps may possibly be more commonly seen in the village during the winter, when gardens rich in berry-bearing shrubs especially may be favoured. We’ve had a few on our Pyracanthus over the years, usually in January. Like other small songbirds, blackcaps are sometimes taken by sparrowhawks. Bramleys recently seems like a disaster area for birds, with the deaths of sparrowhawk and willow warbler which I mentioned last month being followed in October by that of a blackcap. Like the others, this had crashed into a window.

Incidentally, if anyone finds more sad bird corpses in their garden, do please bring them round to me (or give me a call)! The Booth Museum, which finished up with the Bramleys sparrowhawk, is keen to have them if they are still in top condition.

Barn owl Tyto alba

The last estimate made of the population of blackcaps in Sussex put the number of breeding pairs at between 22,000 and 27,000. In stark contrast, it is reckoned that there may be just 150 pairs of barn owls in the county and only around 1000 in England as a whole. “Big Fierce Animals” - as a book title calls predators - are indeed pretty thin on the ground as a general rule. However, although barn owls aren’t common, they are certainly widespread. This species is in fact one of the most successful predators in the world and can be found, in its various races, from New Zealand to South America and from Asia to Africa.

In this area, barn owls are far more likely to be seen on Lewes Brooks - one of my neighbours has seen a bird at Rise Farm - or further up the Ouse Valley than they are on the Downs. If, like me, you enjoy an occasional summer evening visit to The Anchor near Barcombe or a walk along the river from there towards Isfield, it’s always worth looking out for them: at least one pair usually breeds here. They hunt slowly and systematically, searching for small mammals like voles, mice and shrews, though rats will certainly also be taken when available and, reportedly, bats too.

Their hunting habits make them vulnerable to traffic and many young birds meet an early end by the side of a road. Barn owls are also sometimes found drowned in cattle troughs. In earlier and, in some respects at least, less enlightened times, such deaths as these might have been celebrated, as barn owls were once the object of dark suspicion and constantly persecuted. Now we only kill them accidentally: such is progress!

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