Tuesday 30 July 2019

Spot the Fly 29th July 2019

I know of a place in northwest Oxfordshire that currently defies the general situation concerning Spotted Flycatchers. For those who are unaware, Spotted Flycatchers in Britain have suffered a catastrophic decline of 86% in their population during the period 1967-2006 and this is being repeated in Europe where numbers have fallen by 59% since 1980. The alarming and depressing decline in Britain continues to this day and is especially marked in south and east England and at the moment there is not a lot of optimism about the future, as the causes of the decline are unknown. What is known is that there is some factor causing first year birds to die before they return to breed. Why this is happening and whether this happens in Britain before they depart for their first winter in Africa or, more likely, in the areas they pass through on their southward migration or where they spend the winter, is currently an unknown

They are now a hard bird to find in Oxfordshire. Would that we could go back thirty years when they were to be found in every churchyard and village, not just in Oxfordshire but throughout England. I can recall them being commonplace in the wooded parkland near my childhood home and up to four pairs bred in Kingham, the Oxfordshire village I lived in for thirty years, even nesting in the clematis climbing the wall of our house but these are now long gone, just distant and fading memories.

The small village I drove to today is tucked away in quintessentially English countryside, the stuff beloved of coffee table glossy magazines and has now become a very upmarket place with a defunct church but carefully tended churchyard plus a few very grand houses and their landscaped gardens, containing mature oak trees and paddocks. 

It is typical Spotted Flycatcher habitat and it is here that at least two pairs of Spotted Flycatchers are nesting in very close proximity and defying the current downward trend of their species.

It was reported only a few days ago that up to thirteen Spotted Flycatchers had been seen here, which in this day and age is almost unheard of and if I had not seen it with my own eyes would not have believed it possible.  I determined to see for myself, yesterday, and indeed found two pairs, one pair still feeding their young in a nest wedged into ivy climbing up a rather grand oak tree while other fledged young were calling from the surrounding trees.While not quite managing to see thirteen I did see or hear at least ten.

Spotted Flycatchers are unremarkable in virtually all aspects, being an  unobtrusive bird apart from when they make themselves obvious by perching on prominent twigs, fences and telephone wires, even gravestones, from which they fly out to chase and seize passing insects. Their song is also nothing to write home about, being a series of unmelodic hesitant squeaks. They are also not spotted, at least not the adults, but the young, after fledging have spots on their scaly upperpart feathers but these are moulted before they migrate south. The adult is nothing short of drab, appearing dull greyish brown on the upperparts and  dull white with grey streaks on its underparts, the streaking also prominent on its forehead. 

However its migration to Britain is remarkable, being one of the latest if not last migrant breeding bird to arrive here, the bulk of those arriving no earlier than the middle of May. They can begin to move south again as early as late July but the majority return south from August to September.They follow a route through western France and Iberia and reach North Africa in September with many spending the winter in coastal West Africa. Others continue further, crossing the Equator and even reaching South Africa. Personally I have seen a few wintering in northern Tanzania when they were in heavy wing moult.

The weather on Sunday was dull and cloudy and although I saw the flycatchers well I decided to return this Monday morning for another look. After all, this unprecedented flycatcher bonanza surely deserved a second look, especially as today was forecast to be pleasantly sunny throughout. 

I set off on a half hour drive through rural Oxfordshire, with a pale blue sky stretching forever above me, punctuated by occasional meringue shaped white clouds. The journey was idyllic, through dappled sunlight and along tree shaded roads, running through a pastoral landscape burgeoning with summer's plenty.

I came, as I did yesterday, to the village church and parked in a quiet gated lane by an ancient wall. 

As soon as I left the car I could hear and see the Spotted Flycatchers doing pretty much what they were doing yesterday, ceaselessly and acrobatically flying from exposed perches, swooping low over the ground, to seize an unfortunate insect then returning to their perch, before making another frenzied flight after another unsuspecting insect. 

I walked a few yards up the lane and leant on the graveyard wall by a tall oak and watched a pair of Spotted Flycatchers using a metal rail and wooden fence to sally forth after insects. They hardly ever stopped, frantically chasing and catching insects for their young. Forever looking around and up to seek their next victim, then flying and swooping at great speed after it. They were inactive for no more than a few seconds as they garnered beakful after beakful of prey and then flew up to the nest to deliver the insects, then down to the railing once more. It was ceaseless movement and action and I marvelled at these small birds stamina and resolve.

Although they are here for such a short time, Spotted Flycatchers can usually manage to raise two broods.The first brood has four or five young but the second, more often than not is only three or four, possibly reflecting the lack of insect prey later in the season. Although primarily insectivorous the Spotted Flycatcher can adapt on cold or rainy days to gleaning small invertebrates amongst the foliage of trees but such periods of weather can also adversely affect the success of a second brood.

So I stood for an hour in the sunlight, quietly content in this forgotten and peaceful corner of Oxfordshire.No one came up the lane and I was alone with the Spotted Flycatchers. listening to their bills snapping as they caught insects for their young.What does the future hold for these particular birds? Will they return next year to this lovely spot? 

I do hope so.

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