Forest birding

I’ve discovered that birding in forests requires different skills than around wetlands. At somewhere like Slimbridge or Saltholme, the birds are often easily visible on the water or striding along the water’s edge. However, in a forest, if the tastiest insects are high up in the canopy, why would a bird want to come down and wave its feathers just so a human can see it?

Desiring to become proficient in forest birding, I’ve visited the RSPB reserve at Nagshead in the Forest of Dean a few times. However, each time I went, I came away having seen very little of the star species there. (I did see a family of wild boar trotting through on one occasion, though!) Top of my list was to see a spotted flycatcher… I spent two hours at a prime location, and saw nothing… only to see later in the day that someone else on the reserve (actually, the warden) had seen eight pairs!!

All this led me to whinge to the reserve warden, Lewis Thomson, about my lack of luck at Nagshead – so he kindly agreed to take me on an early morning bird walk. It’s surprising how different the place looks when you have an expert to show you!

Hawfinch chomping rowan berries. Photo: Lewis Thomson

Our first stop was a set of large rowan trees, full of berries. This is a regular, early morning stop for local hawfinches – but which tend to disappear into the heart of the forest once the day wears on and people are around. This large, massively-billed finch is nationally scarce, but the Forest of Dean is a stronghold for them. There were about five which flew around the rowans, guzzling the abundant berries, often sitting long enough on exposed branches for one to be able to admire them properly. There were also some pied flycatchers around, which are impressive birds in themselves, although this time the hawfinches were the more attention-grabbing.

Shortly after leaving the rowans, I received some big lessons in forest birding. As we walked slowly along one of the paths, Lewis heard a redstart, and shortly after spotted it flitting around one of the trees. Clearly, being able to recognise the songs and calls is an important skill when leaves and branches so often get in the way, whereas it’s almost unnecessary near wetlands. Then we waited, and eventually the redstart – a female – became readily visible. Lewis explained that it’s a mistake to follow after a bird that has disappeared into a bush – this will only force it to fly away. If one waits, the bird may well hop into view, becoming relatively comfortable with being watched.

Our walk lasted about a couple of hours, and has given me a new appreciation of forest birding. But we dipped on spotted flycatchers… I’ll have to wait until next spring for them, I think!

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