I had a wonderful encounter with a goldcrest while I was on Fair Isle – and one that was completely accidental, as goldcrests were far from my intentions that morning.
I was at the Bird Observatory having a slow start to the day, as I was fighting a cold. However when Chris said, ‘humpback whales off South Lighthouse, are you coming?’ the answer was obviously yes. Six of us piled into a small minibus and headed down, acquiring a couple more on the way. We just got there in time to see the whales slip round the end of the island and out of sight.
The rest tore off up Malcolm’s Peak to see the whales going along the western coast – I would normally have tried to beat them to the top but knew that day I would capsize in a coughing fit. As the last two left they pointed out three goldcrests flitting around a gully. I lined up the camera – and off they flew.
The next hour I rued my luck: there was nothing much around to see or photograph. Eventually I went back to the gully – and saw one of the goldcrests again. This time my photography was more successful – but it was moving so quickly that I had a job to focus and snap while it remained in view. But it kept coming closer and closer – in fact at one point it was too near for me to be able to focus properly.
Around that time there was a wave of goldcrest sightings along the east coast of the UK. Although many are resident in Britain throughout the year, in autumn a large number arrive from Scandinavia, having flown across the North Sea – a distance of at least 250 miles with no stops. It never ceases to amaze me that such a small bird – weighing only 5 or 6 grams (a quarter of an ounce) – can accomplish this.
During the breeding season they tend to frequent the upper canopy of conifers, from which they harvest the abundant insect life – so they are often difficult to see from lower down. While on migration they will be much less fussy as to where they feed – and this is when close encounters are possible.
It’s not just crossing the North Sea that presents a challenge. In the breeding season, the female will lay about ten eggs (collectively weighing about twice her own weight!), and will often lay a second clutch later; of those that fledge, only 20% will survive the next twelve months. The life of a goldcrest is tough – and is somewhat reminiscent of those other tiny insect-eaters, the shrews.
I was so absorbed by the goldcrest that I failed to notice that the minibus had long since left for the observatory…