The natural environment of Hastings is surprisingly diverse and rich, with sandstone cliffs, gill woodland, reedbeds, vegetated shingle beaches and flower-rich meadows. Even the most built up areas of the town can be home to unusual and colourful wildlife. The Black Redstart is a great example of this. So the next time you are shopping in the town centre or waiting for a train at Ore station listen out for its scratchy warbling song or look out for the flash and flicker of its orange tail at the top of buildings or on rail side fences.
(Photo above by Mali Halls)
Identifying Black Redstarts
Black Redstarts (Phoenicurus ochruros) are closely related to robins, wheatears and nightingales all of which are in the thrush family Turdidae. Black Redstarts are immediately recognizable with their charcoal grey plumage and bright orange red tail. Adult males are particularly distinctive with their black face mask and white wing patches.
The only similar looking bird to be found in Britain is the Common Redstart which has an orange red breast and white streak above the eye. The female Common Redstarts pale orange breast and belly contrasts with its brown back and wings, whereas a female Black Redstarts brownish grey breast and belly is very similar in colour to its back and wings.
Where do they live?
Black Redstarts live amongst rocky outcrops and scree within most of Europe’s mountain ranges. They also breed on rocky sea cliffs, quarries and within urban habitats, especially industrial estates and derelict brown field sites. They are widespread throughout Europe even breeding as far north as Finland. There is estimated to be between 3-6 million pairs throughout Europe.
In winter most Black Redstarts winter along the Mediterranean coast and then migrate north in early spring sometimes reaching southern Britain as early as late February to reach their breeding grounds further north and east to start breeding in April. A small number, about 500, spend the winter in coastal habitats in southern Britain.
The breeding population in Britain is very low and fluctuates between about 25 to 100 pairs. So even though they are easy to see when on holiday in the Mediterranean or in central Europe it is always a delight to see them breeding in Britain due to their relative rarity. They first bred in Britain in 1923 on the cliffs in Hastings and the area remains a stronghold for the species in Sussex with between 2 and 8 pairs breeding each year (although some years no count is taken). Black Redstarts can be seen all year round in Hastings with migrants appearing in gardens and green spaces throughout the town from February to May, breeding pairs from April to July and autumn migrants and wintering birds from August through to March.
Where can they be seen in Hastings?
The most reliable places to see Black Redstarts in Hastings are probably Glyne Gap beach (near the base of the cliffs or on the sea defence rocks) in winter and the cliffs below the East Hill, Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve in spring and summer. In spring and autumn they can turn up anywhere and if you live near the sea you might see them almost every year in your garden, although they only usually stay for one or two days before moving on.
When watching for Black Redstarts on the cliffs at Hastings Country Park, bear in mind the risk of falling rocks and getting cut off by the rising tide. The best time to look for them is at low tide when it is possible to walk at a safe distance from the base of the cliff along the beach. Binoculars or a small telescope will be needed to scan the cliffs for movement, but once found you can get good views of the birds hunting for food.
Black Redstart Habitats
On migration and during winter Black Redstarts will stop and feed anywhere there is food and that has an open structure and perching posts such as gardens, heathland, vegetated beaches etc. They primarily feed on insects and spiders so a garden or green space that is managed with wildlife in mind will provide a large diversity of insects and spiders for them to feed on. Setting aside a portion of your lawn that is only cut once a year will provide an abundance of food for birds and mammals that feed on insects. Digging a small shallow pond that dries out in summer is also very beneficial as well as planting native species of trees and shrub such as hawthorn, elder, guelder rose and honeysuckle.
To breed they need bare rocky areas such as the cliffs at Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve or a substitute for bare rocky areas such as rubble on derelict brown field sites or the concrete flat roofs on the top of tall buildings. To ensure cliffs always have bare ground and cliff base debris it is important no measures are taken to stabilise the cliffs or prevent erosion. This is why the management plan for Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve lists objectives for allowing the free functioning of coastal erosion without human intervention.
Development on brown field sites can replace lost habitat by creating green roofs, or even better rubble roofs on any new buildings especially tall building where a green roof would remain undisturbed. Distributing some building rubble or rocks and patches of sand and gravel on top of a green roof will also provide homes for insects and spiders providing food for any resident Black Redstarts.