BTO: Whitethroats prefer an open vista

Whitethroat  Picture: BTO/Edmund Fellowes
Whitethroat Picture: BTO/Edmund Fellowes
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Hedges are a really important feature of the English countryside, as the BTO’s Graham Appleton reveal, particularly for whitethroats, summer migrants from Africa.

When my wife and I were counting birds for the recent BTO-led national atlas project, we were surprised to see how much variation there was in the bird communities within a couple of miles of home.

One of the key things that seemed to make a difference was the type of hedge. There was one patch, in particular, that was great for both yellowhammers, with their ‘little bit of bread and no chee-ese’ song, and the warbling notes of the whitethroat.

The whitethroat is a summer migrant; these hedgerow singers have only recently arrived back from their wintering grounds on the other side of the Sahara desert. Unsurprisingly, whitethroats have white throats, set off nicely by a grey head. If seen in profile, you’ll see copper-coloured wings too. The male’s throat is more obvious than the female’s, especially if he allows you to get close enough to see him singing in the sunshine from the top of a hedge.

As we walk south from home, into the next village, there is a great patch with a really tall hedge, sprinkled with trees, on each side of the road. It must be 20ft wide at the base, as the hawthorn, rose and blackthorns meet bramble, nettles and other low vegetation. This dense cover provides excellent foraging areas for bullfinches, tits and most warblers but isn’t quite what the whitethroats seem to like best. They’re mainly to be found another mile or so further on, where arable farming takes over from grass fields. These hedges are still quite thick, probably decades or even centuries old, 10 or more feet tall with the odd tree but they are set within more open farmland, with crops of oil seed rape, cereals and broad beans. In this arable patchwork there’s a singing male whitethroat every 100 metres or so, loudly proclaiming his presence to the world and able to keep an ear open for his competitors.

One of the great changes that we’ve been seeing recently is the appearance of new hedges around arable fields, as farmers have responded positively to subsidies that encourage them to include wildlife-friendly features within their farms. It will be interesting to see how many birds are attracted to these new habitats as the young trees grow. Some will be able to forage in the crops and just need a secure nesting site, in the hedge or hedge-bottom, whilst others will not benefit until crops of berries and communities of insects become established. With a bit of luck, future generations of whitethroat will have new opportunities to explore, as long as farmers allow the hedges to develop their full potential and don’t see them as green replacements for fences.

Next time: Woodcock – strange noises in the night