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 Dartford Warbler - Fact File
Dartford Warbler
Sylvia undata
Resident in small numbers mostly on the heathlands of southern England, particularly Dorset, but slowly spreading (after a run of mild winters) and a few pairs now breed in East Anglia for instance. Badly hit by hard winters which can devastate the population.
Mostly found on heaths with gorse and heather.

Small warbler with long tail, often cocked. Female browner above and paler pink below than male (illustrated). Often seen flitting restlessly from bush to bush when long tail can help identify. Scratchy song given from top of small bush or in hovering song flight.

13 cm (5")

Dartford Warbler

It is intriguing to forecast the next addition to Suffolk's lengthy list of breeders. The highly secretive Dartford warbler could be a likely candidate. (Editor's note: Dartford warbler has now returned as a breeding bird to Suffolk)

In fact this one-time Suffolk resident lingered in the county until at least the late 1920s. Southernmost England is on the northern fringe of the range of this essentially Mediterranean bird.

Fortunately a succession of mild winters has meant that the remaining gorse-clad heaths in Surrey, the New Forest, Dorset and Devon are at present holding perhaps as many as a thousand pairs of Dartfords.

However, harsh winters with snow lingering more than a few days can prove devastating. The prolonged and bitterly cold 1962/3 winter reduced England's Dartford warbler population to less than a dozen pairs — probably the lowest total on record. Extensive heath fires are another hazard.

The literature suggests the Dartford warbler was always scarce in Suffolk, for years hovering on the verge of extinction. Strongholds were the coastal heaths between Southwold and Aldeburgh. During the last decade Dartfords have again been reported in Suffolk. A juvenile appeared briefly at Felixstowe Ferry, frequenting the golf links and saltings adjacent to the Deben.

This wanderer could have been swept here by the October 1987 storm. The next year one was spotted in the bushes at Minsmere sluice. Dunwich Heath, an excellent choice, attracted another late in 1992. This male remained over eight months.

Many admirers made regular pilgrimages to enjoy watching him. Discovery was made easier by the often skulking warbler's habit of associating with a pair of stonechats which delighted in seeking perches providing commanding views. This companionship extended into early summer when the stonechat family was fed both in and out of the nest by the lonely Dartford. Such an association is well documented.

The massive Birds of the Western Palearctic refers to wandering groups of both species in winter. Communal warbler roosts are regularly occupied at that season. Up to eight warblers may arrive in dense gorse thickets, particularly on clear, cold nights.

Recent Dartford warbler arrivals included a male at Sizewell in December 1994 which stayed until early January followed by another at Walberswick Common (a former nesting haunt) throughout January, February and March 1995.

This bird spent much time hidden in gorse especially during windy days. Usual views were brief, the bird flying weakly and soon disappearing from view once again.

Norfolk may be too far north to attract nesting Dartfords — there is no evidence of breeding from old-time collectors. Still, a portrait of one on Blakeney Point three days in May 1986 adorns the county bird report.

Since then singles have provided red-letter days for patient watchers at Winterton, Waxham, Cromer and Weybourne. Among consolations north of the county border are a thriving colony of Cetti's warblers in Broadland — the only other resident British warbler. And an increasing number of stonechats doubtless due to recent mild winters.

The Dartford warbler is one of the most characteristic birds of lowland heath, a unique habitat nowadays, much reduced and fragmented. Largest population is found in the New Forest which is highly important as a reservoir from which other areas can be recolonised following severe winters.

Young Dartfords have a high tendency to wander in their first autumn — especially at times of high population levels. Most travellers seek gorse brakes or brambles, but others have been discovered in such unlikely spots as reedbeds and saltings.

.By Michael J Seago

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Copyright Information

  • Article: © Eastern Counties Newspapers Group
  • Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge © Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.
  • Other material: © Birds Of Britain