NATURE NOTES - Small but perfectly formed

NOW I’ve lost the main way I used to find goldcrests it’s a real treat when I find one!

Even better it was close to home that I saw it – very close as it was in the large larch trees in the garden.

It was doing the famous never still for a moment goldcrest dash, as they do, they are incredibly flittish, appearing never to stay still for a moment.

In close view and against a dark background I could really appreciate the great attraction of this smallest of European birds.

Moss green above and creamy-white below, the plumage set-off by two features: a double whitish wing-bar and the crest.

In both male and female the crests takes the form of a “parting” down the centre of the head and is possibly the reason to it being called the “king of the birds” in European folklore.

Displaying birds fan out their crown feathers to reveal a surprising extent and richness of colour.

Its song is high-pitched, so high that the frequency may be above that perceivable by the ageing human eardrum (to which category I now belong) it is a high, thin warbling song; a high ‘zee-zee-zee’ call.

It was happily feeding away on some insects it was managing to find at the top of the larch. It is incredible how small goldcrests actually are.

They are half the weight of a bluetit and measure about 9cm.

A few years ago I found a goldcrest’s nest suspended right at the end of a cypress branch and what a delight it was.

So tiny and delicate made up of mosses, lichens, cobwebs and small feathers.

The six eggs lying inside the nest were even more amazing – small was not the word – more like miniscule!

It’s hard to imagine a woodland or plantation that hasn’t got its full share of goldcrests, but it’s not always the case.

As you can imagine with such a tiny bird severe winter weather takes a heavy toll and populations can suffer some pretty drastic losses as occurred during the last harsh winters.

On the other hand though there are good reasons to be optimistic as population numbers can quickly recover in milder times due to the quantity of eggs and second broods.

In some areas of woodland, Goldcrests may be so common that they have multi-storey territories, one above another in the same group of trees.

Goldcrests are serial nesters, the female regularly starting the second clutch of eggs before the first brood of nestlings have fledged.

This tremendous breeding effort can produce 20 chicks a year, something that is essential given the very high winter losses and as mentioned after very cold winters there may be only a quarter of the previous autumn’s population left to breed.

Such a tiny bird would seem to be no candidate for long distance migration. Our native resident birds wander but do not really migrate properly.

However, ringing has shown regular movements from countries around the North Sea and Baltic into Britain for the winter.

One has even reached the UK from Russia and several from Poland, Norway, Sweden and Finland.