14 August 2010

Spotted flycatchers

A new little bird appeared yesterday morning at the corner of the road, perching on a telephone wire high above the pavement. It first attracted attention by its call – a characteristic wee tuc-tucc, wee tuc which, once heard and learned, is never forgotten.

The owner of this cry is just the sort of small brown bird to puzzle the beginner, with mousy plumage above, paler underparts and a few dark streaks on the breast. But its upright, watchful posture and, above all, its behaviour, confirmed the identification at once.

From its perch on the wire the bird made repeated swooping sallies at flying insects, swerving in mid air to return to the same spot. After a short rest it ventured forth again, returning this time to a bare twig in one of the trees that line the road here.

Gilbert White, in his letter to Thomas Pennant of 4 August 1767, says: “The stoparola of Ray (for which we have as yet no name in these parts) is called, in your Zoology, the fly-catcher. There is one circumstance characteristic of this bird, which seems to have escaped observation; and that is, it takes its stand on the top of some stake or post, from whence it springs forth on its prey, catching a fly in the air, and hardly ever touching the ground, but returning still to the same stand for many times together.”

The good curate of Farringdon, in Hampshire, was as precise in this as in all the observations contained in his Natural History of Selborne: the bird on the corner was indeed a fly-catcher: a spotted flycatcher, to be exact, the Muscicapa striata of our zoology.

It was still present this afternoon, although it had moved a few yards along the road. It is on its way to Africa for the winter and, as flycatchers do, has taken a sudden and unaccountable liking to this place.

The preference of the flycatcher for one location over another is something of an enigma. On the one hand the bird tolerates man, often building its nest close to a busy path; on the other it seems attracted by the tranquillity of an unfrequented garden or woodland clearing.

One pair which nested in a small copse adjoining the school swimming bath were, with their fledglings, much in evidence when no one was about, perching now on the close-boarded fence by the grass, now on the diamond-mesh fence running from the changing shed to the filter house. The sound of the filters, the smooth surface of the deserted pool, the blue reflections and refractions, the dense foliage of the oaks and lindens of the copse: all this gave the place an air of magical seclusion of which the flycatchers seemed to form a natural part.

They were brought here by the many insects attracted to the water. Even when the flycatchers’ domain was invaded by a solitary swimmer they continued to feed. But as soon as more people arrived, the birds withdrew, emerging again only later when peace resumed.

Flycatchers are like this in gardens too. Best of all is a garden untenanted, overgrown, with plenty of neglected corners to bring the insects and a sufficiency of bare twigs for feeding-perches. Next best is a garden frequented, if at all, only by one or two gentle souls with trugs and secateurs. The passage flycatchers appear at hedge-clipping time. They do not object to the click of hand-shears, but vanish at the whine and rattle of electric cutters, or at the noise of all the other mechanical abominations with which even the smallest garden now abounds.

Yet the spotted flycatcher is one of the few species – the others are the chaffinch, great and blue tits, song thrush, blackbird, dunnock, and wren – that can thrive in the gardens of Inner London. They are able to do this because their requirements for food and nest-sites are comparatively unaffected by lack of undergrowth. Flies may be found almost everywhere, and their catchers are content to nest on a beam or branch close to a wall or tree trunk, or in a crevice in masonry. Thus flycatchers are among the few species able to breed in the Royal Parks or in the squares of Mayfair or Bloomsbury.

There is another sort of breeding British flycatcher, the pied flycatcher, with a more westerly distribution. This bird has been seen in the district only on a handful of occasions, usually on autumn passage. The spotted and the pied are typical of the flycatchers found in Europe, with flat, rather broad bills surrounded by bristles which help direct the prey into the gape.

Elsewhere in the world, especially in the tropics, there is a large and diverse array of birds of the flycatcher tribe. Some are brilliantly coloured, as small as wrens or as large as thrushes; many have habits nothing like those of our own native species. In New Guinea, for example, many of the fifty or so breeding species behave more like warblers, chats, or even shrikes than flycatchers. In Madagascar live species which live sociably in the tree canopy, just like our native blue tits and great tits. In south-east Asia are flycatchers which keep to the shadows of the undergrowth, like our robin.

But they all share a certain special elegance and grace, and give a peculiar impression of rightness in their habits and form. The flycatcher on the corner, by choosing this place for his halt on the journey south, has, in his own small way, conferred on it the accolade of his approval and made it better than it was before.

Probably he will be there tomorrow too, but the following day he may well be gone, leaving behind a sense of flatness, emptiness, and loss: a sense of impending autumn.

(Introduction to these pieces; see all)

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