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.
A distinguishing feature of the wood warbler is its lemon-yellow upper breast, yellow stripe above the eye and yellow throat. It has a long tail and its wings are long and pointed.
Female and male wood warblers are alike in size and plumage.
Juvenile wood warblers have a greyish tinge to their upper parts. Their plumage is more washed out than that of adult birds, and the yellow colouring on their throats and breasts is not as clear or extensive as that seen in adults of the species.
Close up of a perched Wood warbler
Close up of a Wood warbler
Wood warblers have two song types: a high-pitched metallic flowing trill of notes, likened to the sound made by a coin spinning on a tabletop, and a rapid series of descending lower pitch notes. Contact calls heard in aggression or nest defence include a harsh ‘pip’ or ‘sip’ sound.
Wood warblers are primarily insectivorous, but later in the year, some fruit may be taken. Flying insects, including mayflies, sawflies, damselflies and lacewings, are frequently caught by the sallying technique of pursuing prey and catching them midflight.
Smaller bugs, larvae, spiders, earwigs and beetles are taken from leaves and tree trunks, as well as from undergrowth.
Fruits that form part of a wood warbler’s late summer diet include buckthorn, plum, elder, bramble and bilberry.
Young wood warblers are mainly fed on caterpillars and larvae initially, with flies gradually being introduced as they prepare to fend for themselves.
Wood warblers are primarily insectivorous
Deciduous woodland with little low-level shrubbery are the most common habitat sought by wood warblers. Beech, oak, hornbeam and sweet chestnut are all popular choices for nesting and foraging.The species prefers closed canopy without clearings, and across Europe, lowland forests are the chief habitat.
In the UK, breeding wood warblers are mainly found in oak woodlands in uplands to the west of the country, which characteristically benefit from a mild, wet Atlantic climate.
Wood warblers breed from the British Isles and western Norway in the west across northern Europe to south-central Siberia in the east.
In the south, the south of France, southern Italy, northern Greece, and north-west Turkey form the extremes of the species’ range, and breeding occasionally takes place further west, into Kazakhstan and the Caucasus region.
Winters are spent south of the Sahara from Senegal in the west, across to South Sudan, and are fairly common winter residents in forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Somalia.
Wood warblers are usually found in deciduous woodlands
Within Europe, Germany, Estonia, and Latvia have the most stable populations of wood warblers, while in Belarus and Russia the species is prevalent, with estimates of up to 100 million pairs in Russia.
In the UK, wood warblers are considered a rare summer visitor, with an estimated 6,500 males arriving to breed each year. This number has fallen dramatically since the 1980s, when annual estimates stood at 17,200 males.
Due to their unobtrusive nature of blending into their woodland surroundings, Wood warblers are fairly hard to spot, making sightings quite rare.
The highest concentrations of wood warblers in Britain are found in oak woodlands of western Wales. The Scottish borders and parts of northern England also welcome visiting breeding wood warblers each spring.
In Ireland, a small but well-established breeding ground can be found in County Wicklow, on the east coast.
Wood warbler singing on a branch
The oldest recorded wood warbler reached 6 years and 11 months. A typical lifespan is much shorter, between 1 and 4 years, with first time breeding in their first year
Wood warblers are a species protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, which states that it is against the law to knowingly kill, injure or take one into captivity.
Wood warbler numbers have fallen significantly in Britain, leading to their classification initially as an Amber status species on the UK Birds of Conservation Concern list in 2002, before being reassessed as a higher risk Red status bird in 2009.
Once relatively common in lowland England, the species is now considered rare in most of the country and breeding is mainly restricted to parts of Wales and regions along the England-Scotland border.
Front on view of a Wood warbler
While trees are used for foraging, nest sites established by willow warblers are usually at a much lower level, for example concealed in ground-level vegetation, or against a grassy tussock or a fallen tree.
Nests are dome-shaped, and built from dry grasses, bark, leaves, stems and animal fur, with nest construction undertaken by the female over a period of 3 to 4 days.
Wood warblers lay between 5 and 7 highly speckled glossy white eggs, measuring around 16 mm by 13 mm (0.6 in by 0.5 in). Eggs are laid in late May, with females alone incubating the clutch for 12 to 13 days.
Most wood warbler pairs remain together for the duration of one breeding season, typically raising one brood together. In subsequent years, a different mate will be chosen. Some extra-pair copulation occasionally does occur.
Wood warbler nest with young chicks inside
Vocal aggression may be shown between rival males, or when a threat is sensed near to a nest site, but otherwise wood warblers are generally relatively passive and tolerant of other species on the same territory.
While wood warblers usually forage alone or in pairs, small groups may be seen together in winter with 3 or 4 birds. Migration flocks of up to 15 birds, sometimes mixed-species flocks, may form in passage.
Little is known about overnight roosting habits of wood warblers. They are thought to head to the upper canopy of woodland to rest each night, where they are sheltered and protected from ground predators.
Wood warbler singing from a branch in the spring
Wood warblers are a fully migrational species, breeding across northern, central and southern Europe, before heading across the Mediterranean and northern Africa to spend winters in forested territories south of the Sahara desert.
Wood warblers come to the UK to breed, but leave each autumn to return to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.
No wood warblers remain in Britain during the winter, instead heading for humid evergreen forests, mangroves and wooded savannahs once the British weather starts to become less appealing.
First winter Wood warbler
Wood warblers are not frequent visitors to residential areas or urban settings, and seek wooded environments for nesting that offer a rich and diverse range of insects to provide them with foraging opportunities.
On the rarest of occasions, migrating wood warblers may be tempted to take a brief stopover in landscapes with native trees and a variety of insect-attracting flowering plants, such as redtwig dogwood, hibiscus, raspberry, goldenrod and pussy willow.
12cm to 13cm
19.5cm to 24cm
8g to 12g
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.
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.
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.
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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