A partnership between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust

Out of Africa, into Fingle Woods

Bird survey part 2

Every year, as the days get longer, the sunlit spots between the trees of Fingle Woods become the summer home of the pied flycatcher. This remarkable little black and white bird migrates from Africa to the woods around Dartmoor to find a mate and rear the next generation. It’s a long journey and there are many threats along the way so, to keep an eye on them a team of volunteers is monitoring their progress. In fact, this is a well-established team who work across southwest of England to record data in many of the region’s woodlands.

In Fingle Woods there are two sets of nest boxes that have been set up to mimic the natural holes and cracks in the broadleaved trees the birds prefer to use as nesting sites. Each batch of boxes is monitored by volunteers who live near the woods and one of those is willing helpers is Julia Mockett.

One Sunday morning in June I had the chance to see first-hand what the pied flycatcher monitoring was all about. After a sudden cool period in the early summer and another rain sodden night, Julia and I set off through the knee high bilberry in the oak woods. Quietly approaching and carefully opening each of the boxes the anticipation of what might be inside made a wet walk in the woods quite exciting.

blue tit chicks

Blue tit chicks all ready to go

Many of the boxes had no nest, but those that had, seemed to be occupied by blue tits or occasional great tits. Each time a lid was lifted, small rows of shiny black eyes would peer up waiting for their parents to return. It was becoming clear though, in some of the boxes there was no bustling movement, no shuffling sounds …. and no life! Tiny corpses lay in silent nests. Had some unexplained factor affected the younger, weaker birds? As we checked more boxes we found a few more nests that had been struck by the mystery phenomenon. Nature can be cruel sometimes, and when you are involved at close quarters, you can sense the real struggle for survival these creatures face each year to keep their species going. Checking more of the boxes we confirmed the stronger chicks had safely fledged, it was only the younger ones that had died. Perhaps the food supply had become scarce after a sudden change in the weather. A cold wet spell may be the reason the adult birds had abandoned the nests. It’s tough out there in the woods! Fortunately, the last few boxes we checked that morning contained pied flycatcher nests. Their chicks had managed to get ahead, putting on enough growth to build up the strength to survive. The good news is that by mid-June pied flycatcher chicks were ready to fledge in three boxes and another clutch had already flown. With wet boots and a deeper appreciation of the trials of life in the woods we put our notebooks in our pockets and left for home.

Five pied flycatcher chicks almost fledged

Five pied flycatcher chicks almost fledged

For more information and photos of pied flycatchers around Dartmoor see Adrian Colston’s blog

Find out more about the network of pied flycatcher monitors at www.piedfly.net

by Matt Parkins

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