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Part 30 - The Wood Warbler and the Spotted Flycatcher

Wood Warbler Phylloscopus sibilatrix

I used to see and hear a lot of wood warblers when visiting my parents in Devon in the 1970s and early 1980s and the beautiful song, a long and almost quivering cadence, is one of those that lodges permanently in your head. Even so, I couldn’t quite believe my ears when I encountered this tiny bird near the junction of The Avenue and Church Lane late in April eight years ago; wood warblers are very infrequently found in this part of the world and rarely seen on migration. But there it certainly was and as if to quell any lingering doubts it sang again, this time out in the open where its surprisingly bright yellow breast was very obvious. These warblers are marginally larger than the very closely related chiffchaffs and willow warblers – which is to say intermediate in size between the larger house sparrow and the smaller blue tit. In Britain, they are birds mostly of western oakwoods, common enough in Wales, the Lake District and further north. It has never been widespread in Sussex and the most recent surveys showed a marked decline from even that low base with just two pairs in Ashdown Forest, one of its former county strongholds.

Wood warblers are unusual in many respects. They are ground-nesters, unlike most warblers, and their migration pattern is still relatively unknown, so few birds having been ringed and so few of those recovered. However, it does seem that they may cross the Sahara directly rather than passing down its western side along the coast as most migrants – very sensibly! – do. This is an amazing feat for any bird but truly astonishing for one of this size. They winter in afforested areas from the Ivory Coast to the Congo.

Spotted flycatcher Muscipapa striata

Wood warblers don’t normally arrive back from Africa until the third week of April but the spotted flycatcher comes later still, typically in the second week of May.

Although this is still rated as a common summer visitor, it has been declining in England for at least forty years and it’s unlikely ever to have been common in Kingston, being essentially a woodland species. I’ve seen only a very few here and none for more than a decade, all my sightings having been in the wood at the top of The Street. However, one pair was reported as possibly breeding in a mature garden in Kingston last year so there is a point in looking out for them: you never know your luck. If you do find one, you’re unlikely to mistake it for anything else. Spotted flycatchers may be dull looking, with no real distinctive markings at all – not even a wing bar or an eyestripe – and they may make no really memorable noises, their “song” being some rather harsh and squeaky notes, almost randomly flung together, but their behaviour marks them out as distinctly as the gaudiest plumage as they fly out repeatedly from a prominent perch to do what their name suggests. Their diet, however, is very far from being confined to flies and anything small and airborne may be taken, from butterflies to beetles and wasps to bees.

These birds often use nest boxes – as those who enjoy watching the birds on BBC’s Springwatch programmes so much that they can even tolerate Bill Oddie’s endlessly irritating attempts to deprive his co-presenter Kate Humble of any attention by the camera, may recall. A pair of flycatchers featured a couple of years ago.

Possibly more irritating even than Bill Oddie is the wearisome clich´┐Ż about the “lesser spotted” something or other! In fact, just one British bird has both these adjectives prefixed while the spotted flycatcher is the only common one with half of them. One other species of flycatcher breeds in Britain – the pied. Its habitat is very similar to that of the wood warbler and it’s unlikely to turn up locally.

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