The common redstart is one of the more colourful summer migrants that arrives in Britain to breed each summer. For the best chance of spotting one, head to Wales and northern England, where they nest in hedgerows and oak woodlands from April onwards.
Male redstarts have a distinctive colouring that makes them reasonably easy to identify. They have a black face and throat, marked with a bold white eyestripe below a blue-grey crown.
Their nape and upper back are also blue-grey, darkening into a darker shade of grey on the wings, which also have some lighter secondary feathers.
Beneath the male redstart’s black throat is a contrasting bright orange-red breast and belly and flanks, with paler white-buff underparts. Their tail and rump are a deep orange-red, fringed with brown, a distinguishing feature shared with females and juvenile birds.
Male Common Redstart
At first glance and from a distance, female redstarts are similar in colouring to robins, with brown crown, nape, back and wings, and an orange-red throat and breast, fading into buff-orange underparts.
As well as the orange-red tail, another difference is that in female redstarts a narrow, white ring is visible around the eye.
Juvenile redstarts are very similar in appearance to immature robins, with heavily speckled light brown plumage all over, darker on the back than on the breast and belly. Their tail is what marks them out as redstarts, with a vibrant orange already visible on both the upper tail and underneath.
As well as having some similarities in colour to robins, redstarts are also the same size as their fellow red-breasted songbirds. Redstarts do, however, have longer tails and are marginally slimmer. There is no difference in measurement between the sexes of this species.
Common Redstarts are a similar size to a European Robin
Male redstarts can be heard singing a tuneful repeated two-phrase song, with whistling notes followed by buzzing sounds. A harsh warble serves as a warning to rivals, and ‘twick’ and ‘chak’ contact calls are also made.
Redstarts are mainly insectivorous, but in late summer and early autumn, berries are also added to their diet. Sawflies, ants, wasps and hoverflies are among the chief prey, found by foraging in foliage or from leaves, branches and tree trunks.
Flying insects may also be caught using the ‘sallying’ technique, with male redstarts in particular observed to catch prey mid-flight by hovering or fluttering in pursuit of flies.
In their early days, young redstarts are fed on beetles and their larvae, flies and butterflies, moths and caterpillars. Spiders and some small crustaceans may also be brought to the nest.
Redstart feeding recently fledged chick with insects
Redstarts are primarily a tree-dwelling species and are rarely seen at ground level. Optimum breeding conditions are found in mild, wet wooded areas, including oak, birch and, in the extreme north of their range, coniferous woodlands.
Mature trees are preferred, as these offer wider opportunities for nest cavities, but may resort to using nest boxes if no natural alternatives are available.
Redstarts may be seen in parks, gardens and orchards with dead trees and suitable tree cover for foraging opportunities. Areas with intense agricultural cultivation are also avoided, and upland landscapes are favoured.
Redstarts breed across much of Europe and Asia, from Wales in the west and eastwards throughout Russia as far as Siberia. Their presence is patchy across Spain, and some breeding does occur in northern Africa, in Morocco and Algeria. To the south-east, redstarts are found across Greece, Turkey and into Kazakhstan.
The winter range is more limited, with all European populations heading to the same sub-Saharan African zone across into the Middle East each autumn, and spending winters in the region from Senegal in the west to Yemen in the east.
Redstarts are rarely seen at ground level
Despite the species being in decline across Europe, redstart populations are especially numerous in Finland, Romania, France, and Germany. Up to 1 million pairs of redstarts breed in Russia each year.
With up to 135,000 pairs of redstarts breeding in Britain each year, they are fairly widespread within their range of upland terrain in northern England and throughout Wales each summer. Outside of this period, sightings would be highly uncommon, as all redstarts migrate to Africa for the winter.
Wales and northern England are particular ‘hotspots’ for breeding redstarts, which can be seen in the UK between April and September. Breeding also takes place in the north-west of Scotland and at isolated spots across south-western England.
During migration passage to and from their African wintering grounds, you may catch sight of redstarts on thickets and coastal scrubland.
Male Redstart about to take off, after having a drink and bathing
The oldest recorded redstart was 8 years and 8 days, but an average life expectancy of 2 years is more typical. Redstarts breed for the first time at 1 year.
Not much is known about the predators of redstarts, which are known to be a particularly elusive and secretive species. Their nests are, however, frequently targeted by cuckoos as a host species, with redstarts raising cuckoo chicks alongside their own young.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, was introduced to offer protection for wild birds in Britain, including redstarts, against being intentionally killed, injured or caught.
Redstart numbers are in decline across Europe, and have been negatively impacted by drought conditions in their African wintering grounds during the 1960s as well as habitat loss. In the UK, redstarts have Amber status on the Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Close up of a female Redstart perched on a branch
Redstarts are a cavity nesting species, building a cup-shaped nest from grass, roots and moss in a cavity in a tree or tree stump, and lining it with hair or feathers.
Nest sites are usually between 1 m and 8 m (3 ft to 26 ft) off the ground, and occasionally artificial nest boxes may be used if a naturally occurring hollow cannot be found.
A typical redstart clutch consists of between 5 and 7 eggs, which are pale to greenish blue in colour, and sometimes speckled with red-brown markings.
Eggs, which measure 19 mm by 14 mm (0.7 in by 0.4 in) are incubated by the female alone for 13 to 14 days while the male remains nearby and sings with a characteristic burst of renewed intensity.
Redstart pairs remain together for the duration of the breeding season, usually raising two broods together. Males arrive on breeding territories a few days ahead of females, and claim a patch as their own. Some records of males maintaining two separate territories for two mates do exist.
Five unhatched Redstart eggs in the nest
Some level of territorial aggression is observed in nesting redstarts, particularly males. Song is used to warn off rivals and encroaching birds. Outside of this period, redstarts may form large flocks for migration.
As a tree-dwelling species, it is reasonable to assume that night-time roosting spots are found in the branches of trees.
Little is known about the nocturnal preferences of common redstarts, but as their daily lives are spent foraging in the branches, it’s likely that their nights are spent in similar concealed environments while they safely catch up on some overnight rest.
Common Redstart in flight
A fully migratory species, redstarts hold distinct breeding and wintering territories and move between these each spring and autumn.
Non-breeding seasons are spent in Africa, in a band across the continent from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia and Sudan in the east and in parts of Yemen. Breeding takes place to the north, across much of Europe and into parts of northern and central Asia.
Redstarts are not native to the UK but are regular and established breeding visitors each spring, arriving from early April onwards to nest and raise their young, before departing in September for their winter territories in Africa and parts of the Middle East.
Redstart foraging on the ground for insects
Up to 135,000 breeding pairs of redstarts are estimated to spend the spring and summer raising their young in the UK each year. From October to late February, there are no resident redstarts, as they depart from their British breeding territories in search of warmer conditions.
In the absence of natural tree hollows, redstarts will occasionally set up home in a manmade nest box, and one way to make your garden as appealing as possible is to encourage a wide variety of insect life for them to forage on.
Planting a mix of insect-friendly plants and flowers, and leaving weeds to grow wild, may bring you some success in attracting Redstarts.
Redstart sightings are increasingly being reported in urban areas, such as parks and residential areas, so it is not impossible for breeding redstarts to nest in a back garden in the regions in which they are most widespread.
13cm to 14.5cm
20cm to 24cm
11g to 23g
Blue Rock Thrush
Widespread throughout Southern Europe, North Africa and Southern Asia, the blue rock thrush is a large sized chat which is predominantly sedentary, although a partial migrant within specific narrow geographical areas.
Whinchats are small heathland birds with a striking orange, brown and white plumage. They arrive in northern Europe to breed each spring, before breed in northern Europe returning to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa each autumn.
Sparrow-sized summer visitors to rocky uplands across Scotland, Wales and parts of England, wheatears are distinctive orange, black and grey songbirds that nest at ground level in burrows or crevices between rocks.
A familiar bird of open habitats in the UK countryside, Stonechats are conspicuous and easy to spot. They are often seen in pairs, although the sexes are easily confused for different species.
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.
The bluethroat is a member of the chat family and like the larger thrushes, falls under the scientific umbrella of Turdidae. Turdus in Latin means thrush. There are some 300 different species of chats and thrushes within the Turdidae family.
First recorded as a breeding bird in the UK in 1926, black redstarts have gradually become more established although they remain a rare British bird species. Numbers increase in winter with the arrival of migrants from north-eastern Europe, and passage sightings are regularly reported in spring and autumn across eastern England.
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