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Protected species ecology surveys: Have you seen a black redstart in London?

26th July 2017

Protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), there are thought to be fewer than 100 breeding pairs of this beautiful but elusive robin-sized bird in the UK. The black redstart likes an urban and industrial habitat, and there are reported population strongholds in London. This month, Eight Associates Ecologist Rachel Crookes has been up at dawn taking part in black redstart breeding season surveys.

The black redstart Phoenicurus ochruros is a robin-sized bird, with attractive orange and grey plumage. This small bird is associated with urban, industrial and wasteland areas, feeding on invertebrates that are found in the rubble and weeds in these habitats.

The black redstart population boomed during and after the Second World War due to the bombsites across cities providing ideal foraging habitat. Since then, this charismatic species has been in decline, due in part to the loss of its habitat. There are thought to be fewer than 100 breeding pairs in the UK, with population strongholds located in London, Birmingham and the Black Country. They have been sighted in all of London’s boroughs, but their secretive nature makes them hard to spot.

Due to its small breeding population, the black redstart is listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), giving it full protection against being disturbed when breeding. It is also a Red List Bird of Conservation Concern, one of only two urban species on the list along with the house sparrow Passer domesticus.

Eight Associates ecologists have been out surveying for black redstarts during their breeding period. Sites are first searched for features that the birds can use to nest in, such as a variety of ledges and cavities within buildings and structures, and areas used for foraging such as rubble, stony ground and unmaintained vegetation. Song posts that the birds can use to sing their quiet, scratchy call from are also noted.

We conducted at least two dawn surveys at suitable points on the site, to observe any black redstarts on or around the site. Any singing, foraging and nesting behaviours are recorded, as well as the general bird activity on the site. These surveys, along with the habitat assessment, gives an indication on the impact the development will have on the local black redstart populations, and whether any mitigation is needed. We encourage developers to enhance their sites for black redstarts where possible. This may include installing black redstart-specific bird boxes, or designing features for black redstart foraging on building roofs, such as an area of stones, rubble and pebbles.

With the help of local councils and developers, the black redstart population in UK citites can be maintained and even thrive. Where space is made for these attractive birds, they will almost certainly move in, and could become a more common sight on the rooftops of London.

Black redstart photo credit: Shutterstock/Jude Vincy
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