Meadow yellow

Meadow yellow
Bulbous Buttercup (Ranunculus bulbosus) in a Devon meadow

Saturday, 3 July 2010

There and Back again

There and Back again (better known as ‘The Hobbit’ by Tolkien)

(Image copyright of Andrew Easton)

A couple of weeks ago I was watching BBC Springwatch on iPlayer with my youngest, with the presenters introducing a new bird for the series, when a movement caught my eye out in the garden through the window. A dusky, non-descript bird flying repeatedly back and forth to the same perch on a warm summers evening - it could only be the Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata), the same bird Peckham & Dumble were so proudly talking about. Coincidental! This hunting behaviour is unique in birds, having been described as the only such species that is a ‘sit-and-wait’ predator of aerial insects (1). It can also be identified by a characteristic upright stance and the streaked markings on the forehead – it is the young that are more truly spotted.

Last year we had a pair of Spotted Flycatchers try and nest in the Wisteria on the South-facing wall of the house, but without success. So it was reassuring to see them back this year, a late migrant from Southern Africa. They are a bird in some crisis, with growing conservation concern following a period of prolonged and accelerating decline of over 50% in the UK over the past 25 years (2), putting them high on the at danger ‘Red List’. The factors affecting the population decline is still unclear, but it does appear to be broad-scale, affecting populations in all habitats and regions equally (2).

As a child I used to look forward every summer to visiting my grandparents in the Cotswolds and seeking out these birds near a small sewage treatment site, where they used nearby barbed wire fencing as a perch to hunt from. Now here in 2010, as I watch and show my daughter these precious birds flying back and forth from favourite perches, I wonder if she will have the same opportunity with her children - For that, these and others will have to fly there and back again many times, both to catch millions of insects and travel repeatedly across continents.

(1) Davies, N.B. 1977. Prey selection and the search strategy of the Spotted Flycatcher. Animal Behaviour. 25: 1016–1033.
(2) Freeman, S.N. & Crick, H.Q.P (2003) The decline of the Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata in the UK: an integrated population model. Ibis, 145:400–412

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