Kings of the Conifers: Telling a Firecrest From a Goldcrest

In meteorological terms, we are now exactly two months into the autumn season. As is the case with many wildlife enthusiasts, this is one of my favourite times of the year. After a summer of very little bird activity, it is with great anticipation that we wait to welcome back the migrant birds that left us earlier in the year. We’ve said goodbye to the swifts and swallows and now scan the fields and berry-laden bushes for flocks of redwing and fieldfare, fresh from Northern Europe.

One particular bird that becomes much easier to spot at this time of year is the firecrest but it is easy to confuse with its more common relative, the goldcrest. Both birds are absolutely tiny, weighing around 5g, but the firecrest is only slightly longer than the goldcrest’s 9cm, making the latter the smallest bird in Britain. The firecrest is predominantly found in the South East with some arriving in autumn, whereas goldcrests are widespread across the UK. Anyone who has seen either of them before will know how quickly they move around, with rapid, darting movements that make it particularly tricky to make an identification. The best way to tell them apart is by their colouration.

Let’s start with Regulus regulus, the goldcrest. As the name suggests, the top of the head is crested in a stripe of yellow bordered by black. On female birds, this is a pale yellow which sets them apart from the males’ slightly more orange patch in the centre. When annoyed, the crest of a male will become bristled and upright in an attempt to make it appear more intimidating. Goldcrests’ eyes are ringed with white and they have muted olive/grey backs, with buff undersides. The tips of their tertial wings are distinctly white.

Goldcrest - adult

Image courtesy of RSPB

The simplest distinction between a goldcrest and Regulus ignicapillus is, of course, the colour of the crest. Male firecrests have a bold, orange stripe which might be confused with that of a male goldcrest. However, take a look at the area around the eye and you’ll soon be able to distinguish one from the other. The firecrest has a prominent black stripe across the eye that gives it a slightly more intimidating appearance. The surrounding area, known as the supercilium, is also much whiter and reaches right up to the crest. Although the wing tips are significantly paler than a goldcrest’s, the olive colouring is very bold, as if someone has turned up the saturation, with a bright patch of burnt orange around the collar area.

Firecrest

Image courtesy of RSPB

Goldcrests and firecrests share much of the same habitats. During the rest of the year they primarily stay in areas of coniferous woodland, where they can pick out tiny insects from between the pine needles using a specially adapted thin beak. During the colder months, they do venture to other habitats, including our back gardens, where you might spot them dangling from the ends of spindly branches. One advantage of their tiny build is their ability to feed in areas that can only support the lightest of animals, meaning they aren’t as vulnerable to predation. On the other hand, them being so small makes it very easy to overlook them, especially when they are flitting around so quickly.

During these next months, if you are walking past a bank of smaller trees and hedges and you can see a few small birds jumping through the branches, make sure to stop and check that there isn’t a firecrest in among the blue tits, as they do move in a similar way. Listen out for the song, a succession of short,high-pitched notes like a whistle being blown rapidly, and keep an eye out for a bird that, in appearance if not in temperament, is a bolder and angrier version of its cousin, the goldcrest.

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Emily Summers
I am a Zoology student, wildlife volunteer, blogger, artist and aspiring conservationist. You can read about my experiences with nature on my blog The Art of Nature www.artofnatureuk.blogspot.com

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