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Pied Flycatchers - and where to see them

/images/revidgewoods.jpgOn Spring and Autumn migrations, Pied Flycatchers can turn up for a brief moment almost anywhere in England and Wales, but during the breeding season they are confined to a habitat often summarised as “Western oakwoods”.  For much of the last century, this meant Welsh and Lakeland valleys, but these days, certain sites within the Peak District have become some of the best places to find and watch them.

Their local success has been very largely due to the provision of nest-boxes by various wildlife trusts  - in fact, these dainty, elusive creatures respond more readily to our help in this way than any other songbird.  Often they are competing with Great and Blue Tits for natural holes, but once a woodland has been “well-boxed”, provided it has of the right mix of vegetation, Flycatcher numbers can increase dramatically.

Mature, open woodland, mainly of oak and full of insect life, is the essential habitat.  Too much undergrowth restricts their acrobatic, fly-catching flight, though they will happily feed on the ground, also, unlike the more widespread Spotted Flycatcher, which is a far more aerial feeder.  Woods that are partially grazed by animals are often ideal, as they are kept more open.

In summer, the male bird has a smart yet delicate appearance; pied, as the name suggests, slightly smaller than a sparrow, often perched with a cocked tail, giving an upward flick of its wing, on which is a distinctive white bar.  The female has similar markings, but the dark of the plumage is more of a grey-brown than a black.  The male’s song is delicate also, yet quite musical; it has been transcribed as: “Tree, tree, tree, once more I come to thee!”

Once the young have fledged, the birds suddenly become very elusive again, but if you go seek them in May or June, you will find them quite approachable and a real delight to watch.  Much of the delight has to come from the idyllic locations of their nesting sites at this time of year, when the open woods are likely to be carpeted with bluebells, wild garlic and fresh green grass.

Such a spot can be found close to the tiny village of Taxal, near Whalley Bridge in the Goyt Valley. (SK006798 - on the White Peak OS map - at the very top!)  There is a small car park opposite Taxal Church, (with an honesty box for a modest fee to help parish funds) and this is one possible starting point.  Another is to park in the big layby on the A5004, Whaley Bridge to Buxton road, (at SK009799) and walk down the steep path, over the Goyt and up to the church.  From the church, head South along the lane, (part of the Midshires Way) and at a point just over a little wooded stream, take a left fork off the track, across some pasture and then onto a path descending into Hillbridge Wood.  As this path nears the Goyt, you should start to see Pied Flycatchers, flitting from branch to nest-box and back again. 

Sit very still and quiet at some distance and they will scarcely know you are there.  You can make a circular walk of it by crossing the Goyt and walking back along the opposite bank through the water meadows, with plenty of other wildlife on offer, both in and out of the water.  Or, A detour up the hill opposite will bring you to the Shady Oak, on the A5004 at Fernilee, for a pint and a snack.  Taxal is also a pleasant walk from Whaley Bridge station, meaning that this site can be accessed easily by train or by bus.

In the Staffordshire part of the Peak District, the RSPB’s Coombes Valley Nature reserve is the best place to head for. Entry is free and the nature reserve is located at Six Oak Farms, Bradnop, Leek, ST13 7EU.  Telephone, 015383 84017.   Or, in the Staffordshire Moorlands area, the woods below the hill of Revidge hold a few pairs. (078594).  This can approached either by a superb walk over the heather-covered hill from a lane opposite Shawfields Farm, or through the village of Warslow (with a great little food pub in The Greyhound).  About a mile past The Greyhound is the start of a footpath on the right, taking you right past an ancient scrap of oakwood, complete with nest-boxes.

In the South of the region, Shiningcliff Wood is a good bet, off the A6, just North of Ambergate (SK330520).

To end on a sadder note, breeding populations nationally have shown a marked decline in recent years - this seems to be a problem shared with all birds that visit us in the summer, but spend their winters South of the Sahara, (the cuckoo being another example).  The causes would seem to lie in the African environment, rather than here, but much fieldwork needs to be done to get the bottom of the mystery.

Simon Corble