Sunday 19 July 2020

Spot the Fly 18th July 2020

Near to my home is a tiny hamlet, tucked in a dip where the road levels out as it wends its way down and across the undulating contours of rural Oxfordshire. The hamlet, consisting of no more than three or four huge houses, now the homes of very rich people, and a classic tiny church, are all spaced loosely around a small green. It is the quintessential rural location, the kind beloved by period TV dramas, a perfect image to put on the lid of an old fashioned biscuit tin and if Miss Marple appeared riding her bike along the lane you would not be surprised.

Today I went there in search of Spotted Flycatchers. They have returned here every year despite the species having experienced a drastic decline in Britain. Their continued presence is another reason to feel one is retreating back in time, as formerly they were to be found in virtually every rural village, churchyard and area of open parkland, a common but welcome summer visitor, their unobtrusive presence taken for granted.

Sadly that is no more, as they are now hard to find and no one is quite sure why they have declined so drastically. Possibly it is the catastrophic fall in insect numbers as we deny nature and spray our crops, even our own gardens with herbicides and insecticides, unwilling to acknowledge we are contributing to our ultimate downfall. 

I parked my car underneath a huge horse chestnut tree on the edge of the small green  and walked a few metres up a narrow lane that runs between a huge house with massive trees in its walled garden and the picturesque church. From past experience I knew this was the best place to look for the pair of Spotted Flycatchers that annually arrive to occupy these pleasant surroundings. I had already seen them here earlier this year, in late spring, flycatching from telephone wires and the outbuildings of the big house.

Today I wondered at what stage of their breeding cycle they might be. At this time of year I would anticipate them to have a second nest and possibly young but would not know until I found them. I stood alongside the wall running beside the small churchyard and looked up to the high trees in the walled garden opposite, their canopy high above me. I could hear a flycatcher calling its unremarkable seeeiip seeeiip note but where was it? I looked higher in the branches of the nearest tree and there it was, perched on a lichen encrusted branch doing, well, not very much. It remained almost motionless for a long period, not even showing interest in any passing insect and then with a flick of its wings it was gone, vanishing into a mass of leaves and branches. 

It was, refreshingly, as easy and as sudden as that to find one. However I was no wiser as to what stage they were in their breeding cycle but assumed, as the flycatcher was showing little urgency in catching flies, it did not have young.

I waited for quite some time but there was no further sign of any flycatcher. Time took a back seat. No one came down the lane and no one went up it. I was alone with my thoughts. Then above me the flycatcher suddenly sailed out of the tall trees and chased an insect at high speed. Swooping across the lane it settled in an apple tree in the garden of the house adjacent to the church.

Here it actively hunted flies for minutes on end. flying out in a dodging, darting flight to seize an insect and then return to the same perch. Eventually it started to collect insects in its bill rather than swallow them.  

So now I knew it had young and stood watching as it collected more insects, each insect being caught with a swooping flight of supreme grace, speed and agility before making a return to its original perch to resume its surveillance, a paragon of attentiveness and alertness, all bright eyes and nervous flicks of its wings, its head in constant movement, watching for suitable flying prey.

With another beakful of insect prey it flew, low and fast from the apple tree, crossing the church yard and disappeared into the tall trees beyond and beside which ran a small stream. I lost sight of it but soon it returned with beak now empty. So its nest must be over there in the trees, possibly hidden in the ivy that embraced the vast tree trunks. I walked a little way up the lane and could see another or was it the same flycatcher perched on the railings that formed the boundary between the churchyard and the manicured lawns of another large house. 

It hunted flies energetically from the railings. sallying out low to catch a passing insect, sometimes dropping to the ground to seize an insect in the short grass. Once it had collected another beakful it flew to a small tree by the stream. I lost sight of it once again and resolved  to make my way closer and wait.

The flycatcher returned to the railings and commenced to hunt for flies once more. Again it collected a beakful and  flew towards the same small tree as before. I looked to where it landed on a bare branch and now saw two flycatchers, the adult and a fledged youngster waiting to be fed, which the adult duly did, thrusting its bill deep into the juvenile's yellow gape. 

Juvenile Spotted Flycatcher

Adult and juvenile Spotted Flycatchers
The plumage of the young bird explained exactly why they are called Spotted Flycatchers, for in complete contrast to the adult, which is plain brown above and dull white below with just a few brown streaks on forehead and breast the juvenile showed conspicuous buff and white spotting all over its greyish brown upperparts and irregular brown spots on its white underparts.

The juvenile moved position into some taller trees running parallel with the churchyard railings. Both adults were now hunting insects from the railings and for a brief time the juvenile joined them on the railings, begging for food but obviously felt exposed away from the cover of the trees and retreated to them whilst the adults continued to hunt insects to feed it.

The juveniles soon moult from this, their first plumage and adopt an appearance very similar to the adult, preparatory to undertaking their long and hazardous migration to southern Africa. I have seen them in Tanzania in early March where they all undergo a moult before setting off northwards for Europe to breed.They are one of our latest summer migrants to arrive, usually in mid May or even early June

Moulting Spotted Flycatcher in Tanzania
I stood under the tall trees entirely alone, as the flycatchers slowly followed the line of trees and became more distant. I was untroubled by the presence of anyone, just as I had been for the last ninety minutes.

My mind rewound to memories of when I lived in what was then a rural part of Surrey and I would wander the parkland and woods near my home and Spotted Flycatchers seemed to be everywhere. It was not unusual in those days to find four or five pairs nesting in just a few hectares of open woodland and old farm buildings. A melancholy came over me as I contemplated this pair of now scarce Spotted Flycatchers going about their lives unaware of the fact that as a species they are so diminished and in a reverie I revisited those supposedly happy days when the world seemed a much better and safer place.

In those long past times I possessed the innocence of youth and I now can but regret its loss.

Maybe things will get better in the years to come for the Spotted Flycatchers and indeed for all of us but there again ............

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