by Matt Parkins
Just as the robin has been voted Britain’s favourite bird, the Fingle Woods breeding bird survey has revealed that there are more robins in this part of the Teign valley than any other bird. Over the last two years Rob Macklin, a Devon based ecologist, has surveyed the entire site to pinpoint each bird’s territory. I was lucky enough to catch up with him on the final morning of his 2015 survey.
As we started our walk into the woods he described how, during 12 visits each spring, he has identified individual birds by sight or their songs; there are around 40 species here to be mapped. As we approached the first gate a pair of ravens were chatting while flying over the woods. Rob explained that there are three ravens’ nests in the Fingle tree tops and, though they tolerate neighbouring buzzards, they don’t take kindly to other large predatory birds nearby. Entering an area of healthy oak woodland with a good layer of shrubs and wildflowers the early morning bird song was humming and, though we heard blackbirds, wrens and nuthatches, we were really hoping to hear the redstart, pied flycatcher and wood warbler, a fiercely territorial ground nester. There are seven known pairs of this small migratory bird here at Fingle.
Walking slowly and listening intently we entered an area of dense douglas fir where the avian activity was subdued, though a few goldcrests and an occasional coal tit used the coniferous fringe. In fact, most birds do prefer the broad leaved woods but one of the evergreen specialists is the siskin which will need some well managed conifers if they are to remain a part of the woodland after restoration. These areas may become attractive to the crossbill which is not currently resident in Fingle but does live in other Dartmoor plantations further west.
Scanning the trees in another oak wood we were hoping to hear a great spotted woodpecker but there was no sight or sound of them which was a bit of a surprise because they should have been actively rearing young. There were blackcaps though; a bird with an interesting migration story. Our summer blackcaps fly to North Africa or Spain while the eastern European blackcaps fly to the UK for winter. Warmer weather is all relative!
Clambering back across a steeply sloping section of oak wood we were still listening out for the elusive redstart. Only three territories were identified last year and this was an ideal habitat with a shrub layer providing good cover and tree holes offering nesting sites. Typically for the world of nature we didn’t find out target bird but a tree creeper was in the vicinity and a protective mistle thrush gave us a warning to move on.
Back in the woods a mile down the hill we chatted about the jay. There are around 12 of their territories here but, interestingly, no magpies. They appear to leave the woods to the jay and take up a similar role among the bird life in the more open areas. Approaching a set of nest boxes we stopped to watch a female pied flycatcher busily darting around, catching flies to feed her young in the nest. We waited while she flitted in and out of the box. This is another long distance migratory bird; an impressive feat for one of its tiny size and only 8 pairs made the journey in 2014.
The survey results will now be collated and compared with those from last year and in time they will show how woodland restoration is affecting the bird life. Achieving the balance will be a challenge but with all the available space in the valley there will be opportunities for many bird species to thrive.