Foods of the Dartford warbler Sylvia undata on southern English heathland (Aves: Sylviidae)

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Abstract

This paper describes the invertebrates of Callunetum and gorse on lowland heaths in Dorset and relates how these were exploited by the Dartford warbler Sylvia undata, a scarce bird of interest to nature conservation and one of the small number of wholly insectivorous resident passerines in Britain. Gorse had a denser invertebrate fauna than Callunetum and was used for feeding at a frequency out of proportion to its abundance. Diets of adult birds closely reflected the taxonomic composition of the gorse and Callunetum faunas exploited in the observed proportions, though some noxious taxa were avoided and below a certain limit, creatures of above average size were selected. Major foods were beetles, spiders, lepidopteran larvae and bugs. Nestling birds received a diet differing in taxonomic composition and size from that of the adults, and variations between habitats were found which accorded with observations on the habitat preferences of the Dartford warbler. An experimental investigation showed the importance of gorse as a source of food for young and the adults flew considerable distances ignoring extensive deep stands of heather nearer to the nest. The possible influence of competing insectivorous vertebrates on Dartford warblers is discussed. Various mammals and reptiles appeared to be the major vertebrate predators in Callunetum, but little competition was anticipated in gorse. Scarcity of gorse on the heaths and low densities of invertebrates in heather explained the low densities at which Dartford warblers occur.

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