The other morning I was heading downstairs to do the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual event is one I’ve been partaking in since 2011 when my interest in birdwatching got real.
I opened the curtains as I do each day (obviously?) and saw a lovely sunny winter’s morning out there. The street was filled with sunshine and, down by the tyre of a parked car, I noticed a small grey bird basking in the sun.
Sparrow, I thought.
As the seconds passed I thought of how usually there are more of them together, usually they make noise. Their markings are different, too.
A dunnock, then, I thought.
But then it flew up onto a wall and I picked up my binoculars. It was neither of those birds.
The other day I had been visiting a churchyard in the Sussex Weald when I noticed another sparrow-like bird perched in an unusual place – on the corner of one of the lower roofs. When travelling in France, Germany, Spain and Czechia, I had become used to seeing a little bird in this spot. It was then that I realised what the bird in the churchyard and, subsequently, the street was.
This is bird very close to a robin in appearance but they are rare in Britain. In winter they spend time here if pushed across to Plague/Brexit Island by extreme cold weather. On the continent, robins are more scarce, a role-reversal of sorts and they spend more of their time in woodlands, rather than gardens or parks in towns. This is thought to be because robins established themselves in Britain before black redstarts could get a foothold after the end of the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. I can’t back that theory up here unfortunately.
In Czechia the name for black redstart is a beautiful one: rehek domácí. They are known as ‘little chimney men’, as my friend translated it, because they appear covered in soot and they spend their time on chimneys. I don’t think we have bird names in the English language that can match that.
The ‘start’ refers to the tail of the bird, an old English word in the way that ‘shank’ means leg (rather than its more grisly modern meaning). Its tail is indeed red.
Thanks for reading.