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A summer visitor but also an influx from the north in winter


Blackcap: is it coming or going?

Post date: Sunday, 9 March, 2014 - 00:00

It may not be a common sight but a blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla) in gardens in winter is certainly not unusual. Now to me the blackcap is a welcome summer visitor to our woodlands and hedgerows. Its lovely, intense, warbling song is one of the highlights of spring each year. Frequently the song will be heard but the bird will be difficult to spot as it often sings from the among leaf canopy; a real poor man's nightingale! It is also a bit of a fidget and keeps moving around! 

However, this is not the only side of the blackcap as this picture taken on our garden bird feeders clearly shows! We usually get a least one blackcap visit our garden each winter but I just said that the blackcap is a summer visitor so what is it doing turning up in a Dorset garden in winter? When I started 'birding' nearly forty years ago people were puzzled as to why most blackcaps went south in the autumn but a few stayed behind. Nowadays our knowledge is so much more developed and, thanks to ringing, we now know that these wintering birds are not the same ones that spend the summer here. These are birds from much farther north in Europe and for them the long winter trip south is to us here in southern England.

So, as our wintering blackcaps leave us in spring to return north the summer migrants are coming back to our shores and from mid-April we have the joy of seeing and hearing them in our countryside. 


Blackcap in Dorset; what your tweets tell us

Post date: Friday, 7 December, 2018 - 18:10

The blackcap is essentially a summer visitor to Dorset arriving in spring after a long journey from Africa where it spends the winter. Its warbling song can be heard from trees and tall hedgerow shrubs from mid April onwards into May and possibly early June but once a territory is established, a nest built and young birds have hatched and need feeding the singing stops. This is quite common species in Dorset in summer although the weekly reporting chart might not give that impression as it shows a low number of reports from week 19 to 34, that is late May through until mid-August. This is because as it is common it becomes of less interest and so is less likely to be included in a tweet.

The bulk of reports occur over the five weeks from week 14 onwards, mid-April to late May; this is when the inward migration is at its peak. After the summer lull reports from Autumn migration start coming in in mid-August and has a fairly short peak but then, rather than decline rapidly and fade away, reports keep coming right through until December. This extended autumn season is due to a 'buffering' effect. The birds that nested here leave for Africa with their young ones first but are then replaced by birds that nested much further north, often in Scandinavia and northern Europe. The bulk of these birds will then almost certainly move on further south when the harder weather hits us early in the new year and records for January and February do occur but are generally more sparse. 

The distribution map shows just how widespread the blackcap is in Dorset during the summer but autumn and winter records tend to come from ringing sites and from Portland where they are seen (or trapped) on migration. The summer breeding observations come mainly, but not exclusively, from woodland sites.

To add blackcap to your list go to virtually any wooded area in May and listen for a sweet undulating burst of song. You may have to watch closely amongst the higher branches covered in leaves to actually get a glimpse of one. 

The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Sites List Distribution Map Some Charts Some Photographs Original Tweets Relatives Guidance Notes
Common Name Blackcap
Scientific Name Sylvia atricapilla
Status Frequent
Interest Level
Species Family Warblers
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 06 - June
  • 07 - July
  • 08 - August
  • 09 - September
  • 01 - January
  • 02 - February
  • 03 - March
  • 10 - October
  • 11 - November
  • 12 - December
Preferred Environment
  • Hedgerows
  • Woodland - broadleaf
Look for A small warbler with a black or brown cap
Additional Identification Notes
  • The black cap of the male is clearly diagnostic, this is brown in the female
  • A summer visitor but can be seen in gardens in winter and these are immigrant birds from Europe
  • Noted for its lovely song and known as the poor man's nightingale!
Similar Species