Return of the Dartford warbler

A rare songbird is making a surprise comeback in East Anglia. Numbers of the Dartford warbler have shown strong growth since 1994, when they returned after an absence of 50 years to their heathland breeding habitats at Minsmere and Dunwich Heath in Suffolk.

A rare songbird is making a surprise comeback in East Anglia.

Numbers of the Dartford warbler have shown strong growth since 1994, when they returned after an absence of 50 years to their heathland breeding habitats at Minsmere and Dunwich Heath in Suffolk.

And the warmth-loving warbler could now become more prominent in Norfolk as it finds its home comforts further north in the changing climate.

Ian Barthorpe, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), in Suffolk, said: "This species was nearly wiped out by the cold winters of the 1940s and 1950s, but warmer winters have helped the population to increase.

"It is a great reward for all the work we have done on the Suffolk coast to provide a high-quality habitat. The habitat management is crucial to provide the conditions that will allow the warblers to colonise the heaths.

"Without the work we have done for the habitat, the change to a more favourable climate would not matter."

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The bird is a heathland specialist and, unlike other warblers, stays in the UK all year round.

Mr Barthorpe said: "Heathland is a southern British habitat, but they are being sighted out of their normal range in north Norfolk and in the dunes around Winterton.

"We have no reports of them breeding yet, but they have been seen in winter when they disperse from their breeding habits."

The Dartford warbler is distinguished by its short, rattling warble, and its distinctive buzzing call. It is about 13cm long with a wine-red chest, a white belly and a red eye-ring.

An RSPB survey estimates that nationally numbers of the bird have grown from 1,890 to 3,208 pairs during the last 13 years.

Conservationists believe the population boom is partly the result of a £25m heathland protection programme run by the government agency Natural England.

Phil Grice, senior ornithologist at Natural England, said: "The result is a restoration of many of England's treasure trove of heathlands to a healthy condition, supporting delightful native wild species like the Dartford warbler."

The Dartford warbler has come a long way since 1963 when only 11 pairs were counted in the country.

But even now, despite the recovery, conservationists are still concerned enough about its future to place it on the "amber" list of species at risk.

The birds are also found in Canford Heath and Holt Heath in Dorset, Chobham Common in Surrey, and the New Forest in Hampshire

The Dartford warbler survey was a joint effort between the RSPB, Natural England, the Forestry Commission England and The British Trust of Ornithology.

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