The Redstart overwinters in Africa and arrives in the UK around the end of April to early May. At this time their hesitant metallic warble, that always seems to come to a rather abrupt end, can be heard from tree tops as the males stake a claim to a territory and try to attract a female. Naturally the birds would nest in a tree hole but with their preference for the woodland edge will often set up their temporary home in the walls of derelict stone buildings. It was at such a ruin of a building I first found these birds and then spent the next three years from mid-May to early June trying to photograph them. Access to the site proved interesting as the old building was located on an Outdoor Education Centre for school children which then required me to go through all kinds of background checks to allow me to set foot in the place with a camera!
My approach for these birds was to set up a small feeding station, away from the nest, providing live insect food in their main foraging area. This allowed me to direct the birds to where I wanted them in terms of light and perches and in return provided them with a readily available good food source to assist in rearing their young. It was interesting to watch them go about their daily foraging, as despite the abundance of provided food, they would often spend considerable time collecting other insects to provide a varied diet to the growing young. When you think about it this make sense, as you would not expect to have healthy children if you fed them solely on hamburgers :). The condition of the fledged young is important as they have a long and perilous migration to make back to Africa in the autumn (fall) and only a couple of months after leaving the nest. As with the previous species in my two last posts the Redstart is another migrant which overwinters in Africa and has suffered marked declines. There has been an estimated 55% reduction in the population in the last 25years, despite its adaptability in using alternative nesting accommodation.
It was interesting how quickly the birds started using the new free food source which was usually within an hour of the first set-up. I still remember vividly my first photography session with the Redstarts. The bird I had marvelled over for so long in books was now before me alert, vibrant and characteristically flicking her red tail.
The female arrived first but the moment when the male finally appeared was a breath draining moment. Such a beautiful bird. It was then I realised that male was actually going to be quite tricky to photograph in terms of photo exposure with its black head and brilliant white cap. A very fine balance in terms of camera control was going to be required to keep the feather detail in each.
Over the next three years I spent many happy hours photographing the birds and watching them return each year to successfully rear another brood. The young birds appear almost identical almost identical to the UK Robin, except for their red tail.
I usually stopped photographing the birds shortly after the fledglings appeared but would always carry on feeding for at least another month to help get them in prime condition for their long journey ahead.
Last year I decided not to visit the site as I was busy concentrating photographing another species at the same time of year. I suspect my access to the site has now been lost through the frequent change of manager, however, I will always remember with great fondness those warm late spring days sharing many wonderful hours with these stunning birds.