A family of birds which I always enjoy are the flycatchers, no prizes for guessing why they are so called and by definition almost the name suggests they must be migrants and indeed they are, after all we don’t get many insects in Stean in winter. What we do get in Summer however are two species of flycatcher, the splendid, pied and the much plainer spotted, both are hanging on in Upper Nidderdale when they have if not disappeared certainly dramatically reduced in numbers elsewhere not only in Nidderdale but the country, a familiar tale and one we would do well to do our utmost to reverse. Indeed the first point of call for me to see either bird is Upper Nidderdale, around the ‘tunnel’ on the Scar road for pied and How Stean cafe and Stean village for the spotted. The BTO describes the pied flycatcher as conservation status red data list species because, “because Recent Breeding Population Decline (1981-2010), Recent Winter Population Decline (1981-2010), Recent Breeding Range Decline (1969-2010), Recent Winter Range Decline (1981-2010).” Spotted flycatcher, birders tend to drop the catcher bit and refer to them as pied fly or spotted fly, has suffered in the same way and has the same red conservation status.
Flycatchers have one endearing habit which from a bird watchers point of view is very helpful, the sit on a perch and fly out to catch a passing insect before frequently returning to the same or nearby perch, so once you see one there’s every chance you will get a good view and great opportunity to positively identify it. The male pied fly, as the name suggests is a smart black and white bird around the size of a robin it has a further redeeming feature aided and abetted by kindly local bird enthusiasts, it likes nest boxes, so if you see a nest box in suitable habitat then wait around and see what’s around and it may be a pied fly. They prefer deciduous woodland with plenty of mature oak trees and there’s many places in the Dales which fulfil this requirement and a few in Upper Nidderdale. The female is brown where the male is black and the white areas are less bright. I have reason to believe that pied flys may not be the most clever of birds after watching a female in a wood just above Lofthouse, on the Nidderdale Way, working hard to collect nesting material to line it’s chosen nestbox. Meanwhile nearby a female chaffinch was under taking a similar task building it’s nest high in the canopy. Every time the pied fly returned to the nestbox with more nesting material the chaffinch waited until the pied had gone off on another foray before entering the nestbox and stealing the material for it’s own nest. I didn’t wait around too long but guess the one unsuspecting Nidderdale pied flycatcher built two nests that year. Unlike in humans it seemed that the males paid no role in these nest building activities! One of the reasons for this may be because the male indulges itself in Polygyny, the marriage of a man with several women. It does however help with feeding the young. Pied flycatchers winter in West Africa.
Spotted flys are almost LBJs, little Brown Jobs to the uninitiated. I say almost because they are really little smashers and despite their somewhat dull uniform they somehow over come this, in human terms, handicap and stand out as they wait erect on their chosen branch, sitting quite erect and flicking their tails as they wait for a passing insects to chose the wrong route. it’s streaky breast is always a give away. Spotted flys seem to almost enjoy human company and one nested for a couple of years within a few feet of the entrance to How Stean cafe, they are also more likely to be seen in villages and around buildings than pied fly and they prefer open nestboxes and not the enclosed holes of a pied’s choice. Sadly this must make them more vulnerable to predation and may account for why both male and female spotted flycatcher have the same lack of identification species.
Now’s the time to look out for these lovely birds, but remember they are both reducing in numbers in the spotted flys case dramatically so, so please look and leave don’t do anything which might draw their present to predators or even fellow human beings with less kindly thoughts than your good self.
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)
How Stean Blog April 2017