The UK has a small resident breeding population of black redstarts supplemented annually by passage migrants, overwintering birds and summer breeders. Often at home as a city dweller choosing derelict sites, old buildings and industrial areas, the black redstart will also choose cliff ledges, gorges, rock and scree habitats.
The adult male’s summer plumage consists of dark grey upperparts with almost black upperwing markings and a grey cap with a deep black face. The upper tail feathers are black and edged with rust red. On the underparts the black breast is complemented by a rust red lower belly, outer tail and rump. There is a white patch on the wings formed by the secondary feathers particularly visible when the wing is closed. The bird is of a similar overall size to a robin. It has a thin, short black bill and black legs. Adult females are a dull mouse grey colour all over with brownish cheeks and dark upperwings. Juvenile birds are similar to the female but generally darker in hue with scaling on the front of bird extending to the belly. There are five subspecies of the black redstart, phoenicurus ochruros, some of which may turn up in the UK and all with subtle differences in plumage which can complicate accurate identification.
Male Black Redstart
Female Black Redstart
The male has a short, harsh ‘tuc – tuc’ or ‘tsip’ call used for alarm or aggression but can often be heard singing with a hesitant rattled warble like whistle of ‘drrr – drrr – tawidu’.
Female Black Redstart
Black redstarts enjoy a varied diet of invertebrates from earwigs, ants, wasps, bees, grasshoppers, spiders and worms to name but a few, supplemented by flies, berries and seeds of all description.
Black Redstart feeding
Predominantly now occurring in urban areas including brownfield sites within Greater London, Birmingham and the Black Country there are also a few breeding pairs in Liverpool, Manchester, Nottingham and Ipswich. Sightings have also been recorded in power stations along the east and south coast of England. Sparse wasteland with rubble and vegetation on stony ground is an attractive environment to these birds particularly if there are buildings, towers or other tall disused structures close by. During the Spring and Autumn passages of birds through the UK sightings are more frequent and cover the Country although the most likely places to see them are coastal areas in the south and southwest of England.
Black Redstart flying
Whilst adult male black redstarts are easy to distinguish from adult male redstarts this is not the case with corresponding females or juveniles which all appear very similar. An easy guide to identification in this case is the location of the siting. As already stated, the black redstart prefers urban environments such as brownfield sites or industrial areas with few trees whereas the redstart, which only visits the UK between the months of March to October, is a woodland bird. Adult black redstarts can often be seen and heard perching on derelict buildings and industrial architecture overlooking their nest site and feeding grounds.
The nest is cup shaped and constructed of loose grass and moss lined with hair and feathers and can be located either on the ground on stone or rock piles or more commonly in crevices and nooks in buildings or cliff faces. Up to two broods may be produced between May and July each consisting of 4 – 6 pale blue green eggs.
Black Redstart nest with chicks
Juvenile Black Redstart
The lifespan of the black redstart is up to five years although a ringed bird has been recorded as having reached over eight years of age.
Whilst the black redstart is not threatened globally it is listed on the UK Red List for Birds and it is currently estimated that there are less than one hundred breeding pairs of black redstarts within the United Kingdom.
Also known as the Common Nightingale this member of the chat family is a relatively nondescript little bird that has charmed listeners with its powerful and varied song for generations.