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Part 8 - The Goldcrest and the Robin

Goldcrest – Regulus regulus

The amount of time birds spend feeding is directly related to their size. So it is, therefore, that large and efficient predators like the fish-eating cormorant can afford to spend hours standing around doing little but hanging out its wings out to dry whereas the tiny goldcrest has to devote virtually every waking minute to a desperate search for sustenance. By itself, this combination of small size and constant, almost frantic movement would make the goldcrest quite hard enough to see but the difficulties are compounded by its preference for conifers. It is often very vocal but both its song (which has an almost chaffinch-like concluding flourish) and its call note are so high-pitched as to be inaudible to some listeners. But it’s still not that hard to track it down!

There are plenty of goldcrests in Kingston throughout the year and it just takes a little patience to be rewarded by the sighting of a really smart and princely bird – its scientific name Regulus could be translated as “little king” - just half the weight of a blue tit. Look or listen out for goldcrests with confidence in the conifers on the right hand side at the top of The Street or in those about half-way along The Avenue. They can also turn up low down in your shrubbery or even on your bird table, which they may visit for grated cheese or bread.

Robin – Erithacus rubecula

A photo of a male Robin taken in May 2008 by Rhys Haden

There is no great mystery to learning bird songs. The average person, after all, easily recognises many hundreds, thousands even, of individual human voices – all of them far more similar to each other than are the songs of birds. Compare, for a moment, the calls of crow and cuckoo! It just takes a modicum of effort, a reasonable memory for sound and perhaps a bit of help from someone who can help you match the song you’re hearing to its often-not-visible author.

Winter is undoubtedly the best time to make a start on this since in December you are only likely to hear the (very different!) songs of robins and wrens. Both species sing all year round since they continue to defend territory even throughout the winter. Robins produce a pleasant but perhaps a little sad run of notes and wrens a positively explosive and far-carrying burst. Robins especially are fiercely protective of their local patch: you almost never see two adults together other than a mated pair. Allegedly, the first postmen were known as robins because of their red uniforms but whether this in turn explains why robins appear on so many Christmas cards (could it be because postmen are then even more evident and welcome than usual?) is a moot point.

Just as railway nerds love to point out instances of the anachronistic use of locomotives in films, so birders get similarly exercised about avian-related mistakes made by lazy directors. The classic example is in Mary Poppins where Julie Andrews, singing that truly awful song, feeds an American robin in the supposed heart of London. Their “robins” are named after ours but are not that closely related, being thrushes rather than members of the chat family. A real American robin in a city square would be an unprecedented event, leaving poor Julie’s modern counterpart swamped by thousands of twitchers and bringing traffic to a halt, congestion charge notwithstanding.

Robins seem as common in Kingston as they are elsewhere in suburban areas. Like other garden birds they were originally a mainly woodland species, perhaps following around large mammals like wild boar as they rooted up bluebells. These days, robins rely more on our assistance to unearth tasty grubs and worms.

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