Yesterday morning, I received an email from Lewis Thomson, the warden at the RSPB’s Nagshead reserve in the Forest of Dean, that made me immediately change my plans for the day. He said: “Just to let you know there are lots of Spotted Flycatchers at Nagshead at the moment. They are much easier to see now as family parties feed in prominent locations before leaving for Africa.” I had to go!
Spotted flycatchers have become something of a bogey bird for me. It started back in May, when a comment by Ian Forrest – about how easy they were to see in Tilery Woods near Stockton – led me to a dawn walk there, and my first blank. Nagshead is another place where they are fairly abundant, although four separate trips there this summer, with the explicit aim of seeing them, all drew a blank. (How I managed this is still beyond me, as they were seen easily on other occasions)
Spotted flycatchers are one of a number of migratory bird species that are suffering a serious crash in numbers over the last few decades, for reasons that are not entirely clear. Michael McCarthy has drawn attention to their plight in his excellent and very readable book, “Say goodbye to the cuckoo“. Birds from sub-Saharan Africa are suffering particularly badly: although it is possible that conditions where they winter may be deteriorating, McCarthy suspects that global warming is to blame. For example, as Britain warms up, the caterpillar glut that takes place in spring happens earlier, before the migrant birds arrive; but if the trigger that leads to their leaving Africa is not changing, then they will struggle to adapt to the changes in their food supply. Either way, their population across Europe has halved in the last 25 years.
I have vague memories, from when I was a kid, of Dad excitedly showing me a flycatcher that had arrived in the garden, and was hunting insects from a prominent perch. Some years later I saw one on the edge of a copse on the way up Leckhampton Hill, doing the same thing. Nevertheless I had not seen one recently – not since taking up birdwatching seriously – and was keen to do so.
Just outside the Lower Hide at Nagshead is a dead tree, which is a favourite perch for flycatchers. Except yesterday. I waited there expectantly for a while, hearing only a distant sniggering – “He’s back, let’s hide!”. A suitably spotted bird arrived near the top of the tree and I was momentarily excited – before realising that the large hooked beak could only be that of a crossbill. Nevertheless a kingfisher appeared at the lower pond, and did so while a young family was there, who’d never been in a bird hide before: it was a delight and privilege to share the excitement with them.
I bumped into Lewis during the afternoon, who was staggered at my lack of luck with the flycatchers. A little while later he heard and saw them flying around the conifer plantation near the lower hide, and found me to point them out to me. By the time I arrived they had disappeared into the upper canopy! At this point it began to rain and he had to leave, but I was determined to stay on, sheltering under a branch while the rain toppled down. As it was clearing up, I noticed a small family of spotted flycatchers, close to where Lewis had last seen them, but settled and prominent enough for me to be sure what they were before they flew off. The frustration was finally over – and it seemed fitting that it should happen at the end of a rain storm!