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Part 5 - The Common Whitethroat and the Swallow
Common Whitethroat – sylvia communis

A line drawing of the Common whitethroat

Not all bird names are helpful. The Dartford warbler, for example, would certainly be lost if it did ever turn up in Dartford, far from its heathland habitat. Similarly, the Kentish plover has rarely bred anywhere in Britain and has no especial attachment to the “garden of England”. Even more confusingly, marsh tits are not associated with marshes, nor willow tits with willows. However, if you see a hitherto unfamiliar bird whose most obvious field mark is a very pale patch at the top of the breast – and then you see another and perhaps another again - it may come as something of a relief to know that these may indeed be common whitethroats.

Whitethroats are very small warblers - about two centimetres or just under an inch longer than the tiny wren - which arrive here in mid April. They like areas with scattered trees or bushes and somewhere reasonably high from which to sing their rather scratchy song. This is sometimes delivered in an extended “edition”, in a dancing display flight. Last year in Kingston, there were two males singing on the bridleway to the south of Kingston Ridge. This year there only seem to be one but I’ve heard at least four when cycling along the road from the Kingston roundabout towards the prison so there is no reason to think the numbers are down locally.

After breeding (the nest is close to the ground, in nettles, brambles or other dense vegetation) whitethroats disperse and are more likely then to turn up in gardens. They may nest in suitable gardens of course and I would be really interested to hear from anyone who has seen them.

Swallow – hirundo rustica

Swallows must be one of the most familiar of all birds and their annual return to western Europe from South Africa is regarded as a key harbinger of spring in many countries. The powers that be in the ornithological world have recently decreed that we have been too parochial in our bird nomenclature and need to get accustomed to some changes of name. Swallow is one species on their hit list. In future, we’re told, this should referred to as the “barn swallow” (as it is known already in the USA) to distinguish it other swallow species like the red-rumped swallow you may see in the Mediterranean (and very rarely indeed in Britain). Please yourself!

While I’m quite happy to stick to the old name, barn swallow is reasonably accurate since these birds are of course very fond of outbuildings as nest sites. The nest is normally made on a ledge inside a building – unlike that of the house martin – and the structure, whether barn, shed, greenhouse or whatever, therefore has to have open access. In the absence of buildings, swallows can use caves.

Swallows are not common nesters in Kingston but there may be – at a guess – at least a dozen or so pairs. Away from the nest, they can often be seen over the Downs.

Do let me know if you’re playing host to a pair of swallows this year – or have done in the past.

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