At this time of year, birds that have made the UK their home during the summer are packing their proverbial bags for the journey south. Over at Cardiff Riding School the “resident” swallows are joined by others of their kind but at this time of year it is the species visiting the paddocks that begin to interest me.
On a recent autumnal wander I had one species in mind – spotted flycatcher. Perhaps not a showy as its relative the pied flycatcher, the spotted flycatcher, (or spofl) is one of my favourite summer migrants. To be honest it, it would feature highly in my top-ten of British Birds.
Bonus points were scored early with a wheatear on the paddock known as Pope’s field. As I tried (and failed) to cut this bird off at the pass to get a better view, I noticed another small bird perched on a bare alder branch on the corner of the field. As binoculars were raised in heart racing haste, the unmistakeable profile of a spotted flycatcher came in to focus.
I’ve struggled to catch up with spofls this year, despite work taking me to sites that usually make the sure the species is added to the year list.This isn’t surprising as the spofl is one of a myriad migrants that has been declining in recent years in the UK and beyond; a trend that Bird Atlas 2007-11 brings in to sharp relief. This gargantuan project, that saw over 40,000 volunteers surveying almost all of Britain and Ireland, presents a number of maps for each species encountered. Looking at the change in the breeding abundance (see right) of the spofl between the last breeding atlas (1988-91) and this one makes for depressing viewing, with the species having declined in all bar a sprinkling of places.
No sooner had my eyes began to soak in the sight of the spofl than it was off, diving back behind into a small patch of alder. Moments later, I stood trying to follow up every twitch in the twigs for signs and was rewarded as one alighted on a branch a few meters away from me. And then another! These were fleeting glimpses, almost as fleeting as the flitting of the supporting cast of blackcap, willow warbler and chiffchaff but soon my tally was up to four birds. Four spotted flycatchers where before I had none!
As I watched these elegant and understated migrants going about their business, elation began to fade and was replaced with a sense of sadness. What makes the decline of our migrant protagonist so sad is that it is a species of catholic taste when it comes breeding locations, being equally at home in church yards, parks and gardens as it is in more traditional woodland. In the 1970’s and perhaps the early 1980’s this species bred in good numbers in and around the location I was standing. In my lifetime this breeding population has declined and disappeared; the species is just a passage migrant. Perhaps the odd pair does still breeds there but I’ve heard no rumours or seen no signs. Who knows, if I had been born a decade earlier then spofls, not swallows, would be the subject of my studies.