Smaller and less common than the closely related whitethroat, the Lesser Whitethroat, is a hard-to-spot breeding visitor to the UK, due to its unremarkable plumage and favoured habitats of dense hedgerow vegetation.
Male and female lesser whitethroats are alike in appearance, with a mid-grey head and nape, a darker grey facial mask with charcoal grey cheeks, a characteristically white throat, off-white underparts and a darker brown back and upper wings.
In some birds, a lighter eye stripe is faintly visible. Its tail is relatively short, dark grey-brown with white edges, and it has greyish legs.
They can be told apart from the larger whitethroat as they have shorter tails, and the darker cheek patches are missing in the larger species.
Lesser Whitethroat perching on the rocks
Tiny and lightweight, lesser whitethroats are slightly larger than a blue tit and a couple of centimetres smaller than the common whitethroat. Males and females are the same size and weight.
Lesser Whitethroat sitting on a branch looking angry
The harsh, cackling song of a lesser whitethroat is often the first indication that one is nearby, as they are fairly hard to spot, but their distinctive rattling cry gives away their presence.
Another familiar song consists of repeated warbling trilled notes and some mimicry of other species.
Lesser Whitethroat warbling
Lesser whitethroats are mainly insectivorous, with insects the chief prey taken in summer months.
Invertebrates that are commonly eaten include larvae, ants, beetles, bugs, and flies, as well as some slugs and small snails.
Outside of the breeding season, fruit, nectar and berries become more important, as well as some seeds and pollen.
Caterpillars are among the most common prey fed to lesser whitethroat nestlings in the early stages of life. Other food in a young lesser whitethroat’s diet includes larvae, bugs and flies.
Lesser Whitethroat feeding its young at its nest
Lesser whitethroats breed in areas of dense shrubbery and vegetation cover, around the edges of forests, with plenty of foliage, as well as scrubland, areas of dense farmland hedgerows, parks and gardens, and young conifer plantations.
The breeding range of lesser whitethroats extends from Britain in the west, across Scandinavia and Finland in the north to the Ural Mountains of Russia in the east. To the south, the species breeds across mainland Europe from France and Italy, through the Balkan states into the Middle East, into western Iran.
Winters are spent in north-east and central Africa, as well as the Middle East and parts of south-west Asia.
Across Europe, there are an estimated 4.8 million breeding pairs of lesser whitethroats. Central Europe is a particular stronghold, with Poland, Romania, and Russia supporting stable populations.
Lesser Whitethroat in its natural habitat
Lesser whitethroats are widespread across the UK during the breeding season, but have a reputation for being secretive and relatively hard to spot, which makes sightings rather rare. With around 79,000 breeding pairs, they are certainly not the rarest visitors to breed in the British Isles.
Breeding grounds of lesser whitethroat are found across England, but missing from the uplands of the south-west corner. In Wales and Scotland, the species is only present in scattered lowland areas.
Lesser Whitethroat feeding on insects
The average lifespan of a lesser whitethroat is between 1 and 5 years, with 2 years being typical.
Breeding occurs for the first time at one year. Individual birds have been recorded to live longer, with one ringed lesser whitethroat reaching 9 years of age in 2008.
Cats and squirrels are among the leading predators of lesser whitethroats and their nests, although human activity is also believed to play a part in their mortality rates, with more than 50 percent of deaths of ringed individuals in north-west Europe being due to both accidental and deliberate human involvement.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, of 1981, offers protection to lesser whitethroats, safeguarding them from being deliberately killed, injured, or taken into captivity.
Throughout their European range, lesser whitethroats are considered a species of least concern and they are rated with ‘green’ status on the British birds of Conservation Concern list.
Lesser Whitethroat perching on a branch
Male lesser whitethroats construct a series of temporary nests to attract and impress a potential mate, and the site of one of these may be used for breeding. The nest is then refined by the pair working together to construct a deep cup, tucked into a hedgerow, shrub, or thorny tree, up to 3 m (0.9 ft) off the ground.
Grass, rootlets and twigs are used for the outer nest, which is held in place by moss and spiders’ webs and lined with animal fur and hair.
The breeding season for lesser whitethroats begins in late April and can last until early August. One brood per season is usual, although occasionally a second may be attempted.
Lesser whitethroat eggs are creamy white in colour, and heavily marked with darker grey speckles.
They measure 17 mm by 13 mm (0.7 in by 0.5 in) and are incubated for between 11 and 12 days by both parents in turn. A typical clutch contains 4 to 5 eggs.
Lesser whitethroats pair up ahead of the breeding season and remain together while raising their young. Pair bonds don’t last until the following year, but pairs are monogamous for the duration of the season.
The nest of a Lesser Whitethroat with four eggs
A solitary and territorial bird, the lesser whitethroat does not tolerate the presence of other birds of the same species nearby, particularly while nesting. Vocal aggression around the nest site is frequently heard from defensive males.
Lesser Whitethroat looking for food
The entire European population departs each autumn, heading south or south-east towards the Middle East, where many birds then continue further to reach withering grounds located in central and eastern Africa.
Lesser whitethroats migrate at night, leaving as early as mid-July, with most birds arriving at their winter destination by October. The return trip begins between late January and early April.
No lesser whitethroats are present in the UK all year round, arriving only to breed early in the year and leaving before temperatures drop significantly in the autumn. Sightings are only likely between March and October.
Lesser Whitethroats cooling off in the lake
An elusive reedbed-dwelling songbird, the moustached warbler breeds in marshlands across southern Europe. Rare reports of breeding in the UK do exist, although no sightings of the species have been confirmed in Britain since the 1940s.
This small but long tailed, large headed warbler, is a resident of the Balearic Islands in the western Mediterranean where it is common, although is not present on the island of Menorca.
Widespread across southern Europe and North Africa, Sardinian warblers are known for their chattering, fast-paced song, commonly heard throughout Mediterranean areas.
Yellow-browed warblers are rare winter visitors to the UK, with fewer than 30 birds arriving after their breeding season in Siberia has drawn to a close. A few hundred sightings of these tiny migrants are also recorded in passage each year, along the east coast of Scotland, and eastern and southern coasts of England.
Wood warblers are tuneful breeding visitors, arriving in British woodlands from April onwards. Well hidden in their preferred tree-filled landscapes, their bright yellow breast makes them easily distinguishable from other similar warbler species.
The diminutive Willow warbler is a small bird from the Leaf Warbler family Phylloscopidae which contains 80 species. Willow warblers are primarily insectivorous and are energetic, constantly moving birds that dart their tree and hedgerow habitats. They possess soft and subtle green plumage with a pale green-grey back, wings and tail with a pale grey stomach that has a slight yellow tinge.
Whitethroats are active warblers that can be seen and heard in hedgerows around Britain during spring and summer months, as they raise their young and busily forage for insects. Each autumn, they depart for wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, returning in April to breed once more.
Widespread and common breeding visitors to the UK, sedge warblers arrive on marshlands and reedbeds in April, and spend up to 6 months on British soil (or wetlands, to be more accurate), raising their young, before preparing for lengthy migrations to wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa each autumn.
Savi’s warblers are long-distance migratory songbirds, breeding across continental Europe and north-west Africa, and spending winters in West Africa. Extremely rare in the UK, with only around 5 breeding pairs a year, Savi’s warblers are mostly found in marshlands and habitats with dense reed cover.
A wetland songbird with a rather unremarkable appearance, the reed warbler is a spring visitor to the UK, raising young in wetland reedbeds across England and Wales before returning to African wintering grounds at the end of the summer.
Seen only very occasionally in the UK, the marsh warbler is a long-distance migrant, breeding across central and eastern Europe and spending winters in south-eastern Africa. Sightings in Britain are limited to coastal areas, where up to only around 8 pairs are recorded as breeding each year.
A well-camouflaged visitor to grasslands and reedbeds, grasshopper warblers arrive in Britain to breed each spring. You may stand a better chance of hearing one than actually getting a sighting, as their secretive nature of creeping through vegetation makes them almost impossible to spot.
Garden warblers are unobtrusive, inconspicuous songbirds that are most commonly found foraging in woodlands during spring and summer months, before heading south to wintering grounds in Africa each autumn.
Mainly confined to lowland heaths in southern England, the Dartford warbler is an elusive little resident breeder with distinctive plumage and physical characteristics.
Until recently this small, solitary, old world leaf warbler was classified as being a member of the family Sylviidae, but following extensive research and reclassification, now falls within the family of Phylloscopidae.
A particularly hard-to-spot bush warbler, the Cetti’s warbler bred in Britain for the first time in the 1970s and now is an established species, with an expanded breeding range in wetland reedbeds around the southern, eastern and south-western coasts of England, and the south and north coasts of Wales.
Within its range and to differentiate it from other similar species, it is often referred to as an Eurasian Blackcap. This sexually dichromatic, stocky little warbler, is a member of the genus Sylvia and is sometimes nicknamed the Northern Nightingale due to its beautiful and frequent song.
Aquatic warblers are rare and temporary migrants to parts of southern England each autumn, en-route from their breeding grounds in Poland, Ukraine and Belarus to their winter territories in West Africa. Only around 40 sightings are reported each year, with the species classed as vulnerable and in decline.
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