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See a sample issue of The Irish Garden!

July 2012

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Aerobatic antics!

Dick Warner describes the modus operandi of an occasional garden visitor

The spotted flycatcher is one of the icons of summer in my garden. The Irish population over-winters in Africa and is one of the last of the summer migrants to arrive, often not showing up until the end of April or beginning of May and leaving again in early September. Despite this they usually manage to rear two broods during their short stay. The bird is about the size of a robin and it is not beauty of plumage that makes them attractive. The plumage is a distinctly understated mix of browns and greys and, despite the name, more streaked than spotted. To ensure that they win no beauty contests, they are also equipped with a head that seems one size too big for the body.

Spotted Flycatcher

It is the spotted flycatcher's behaviour, not its appearance, that makes it a welcome addition to the garden. Their typical method of feeding is to select a perch fairly high up in a tree, adopt a strangely erect stance and scan the surroundings. When a flying insect is spotted it is pursued, and if the insect takes evasive action this can involve some incredibly aerobatic flying by the bird, which then catches it in mid-air, often with an audible clap of the beak, before bringing it back to the perch. There it's either eaten or fed to the young in the nearby nest. Occasionally in fine weather spotted flycatchers will search for insects crawling on twigs or leaves but their main speciality is catching them in flight.

They have evolved to hunt in woodland glades and so are more likely to be found in larger, more mature gardens with good-sized trees. The favourite hunting perch in my garden is the pruned-back branch of a large ‘Bramley's Seedling' apple tree which grows near the vegetable garden. They catch insects as big as large white butterflies, so they perform a function in protecting my cabbage plants from caterpillar attacks.

Unfortunately the population of spotted flycatchers that spends its summers in Europe has been in decline for the last decade or so. Once they would have been occupying that perch on the apple tree every July. Now a whole summer can go by without me seeing a single bird. They are amber-listed in Ireland, which means they are of medium conservation concern, and red-listed in Britain which denotes high conservation concern.

The decline in numbers appears to be accelerating and British ornithologists have carried out a lot of research on it. Unfortunately this research has failed to come to a definitive conclusion about the cause of the decline. I've waded through some of the scientific papers, which are mostly rather dense and difficult, and it appears to me that the evidence points to some factor in the parts of Africa where they spend the winter, or possibly something on their long migration route. In many parts of Africa the landscape has changed quite dramatically in recent decades as a result of climate change, over-grazing and a fuel-wood crisis leading to deforestation.

Whatever the reason for the decline, Irish gardens have become a significant habitat for the survival of these little birds. If you are lucky enough to still have them in your garden you can contribute to the conservation effort by providing them with a suitable nest box. It should be a small box of the open fronted type with a front rim six centimetres high. It's best fixed to a tree between four and six metres above ground level. It is good if ivy or another creeper disguises the outline of the box but spotted flycatchers like to have a good view of their surroundings while they're incubating and will probably reject a nest box in thick cover.




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