At the end of a morning’s bird surveying I often treat myself to an extra wander, especially if I’ve ended up somewhere particularly lovely. Freed from the pressure of getting in another count before the late morning lull, it’s finally possible to relax and pay attention to the myriad other sights and smells of spring. For example: earlier this week I finished up next to the adjacent wildlife trust reserve’s information board, which sported a tiny picture of an early purple orchid. Thinking this sounded a good object for a quest, I ignored my stomach’s persistent rumbling requests for the fat rascally deliciousness waiting back at the car, and plunged into the woods in pursuit of the real thing.
Perhaps due to the stop-start-stop nature of this spring, most floral displays I’ve chanced upon so far this year have been of one or two species, desperately throwing their energies into flowering at the first sign of a decent weather window. In one little corner of Berkshire’s Moor Copse, however, the ground flora has got itself organised and put on as varied a display as one might see in a shop window, as if preparing for a one-stop field guide photography session. The show began just a few paces in from the wood’s edge, and I immediately began to lose myself in a reverie of petals and sunlight.
An especially merry reverie, for this was the sort of British wildwood I love. The endless, primordial wildwood of myth and legend has of course long gone, but there are pockets of forest here and there that retain a sense of timelessness. To go to these woods is to enter another realm, where sound and weather and seasons are qualitatively distinct from those in the everyday world outside. The pace of superficial change in a single wood during spring can be startling, as I wrote about last year. But take the long view, and to walk in the woods can be to tap into deep time, a faraway place unchanged from spring to spring and from age to age. This is the disorienting magic of the woods, for in reality ‘ancient’ woodland need only have been around for 400 years or so to be classified as such, and only 14 patches or so in the entire country are larger than a square mile.
As I walked, I recalled that this time two years ago I barely knew the name of a single wildflower. The list of plants of which I know very little is still lengthy, to say the least, but after three seasons’ surveying amid the trees I’m at least able to greet common woodland flowers like a gathering of old friends. The whites of anemones, stitchwort, sorrel and ramsons; yellows of celandine, primroses and archangel; blues and purples from the orchids, violets and bluebells; the bright pink of ‘red’ campion; and the fresh, cool green of wood spurge. Natural artistry bests almost any garden I can think of.
Bird On Wire
Eventually I stumbled back out into the open, and made my way towards Sulham village and snack time. As I passed the wood edge I’d surveyed an hour or so earlier I heard a ‘tseep’ drifting from somewhere high in the trees. Something in the tone hinted at the presence of another old friend. I stopped and waited, straining to hear over the wind and a blackcap’s rich song. The blackcap paused a moment. ‘Tseep,’ went the mystery bird, followed a few seconds later by ‘tsup’. I was pretty sure what I was hearing by now, but peered up at the branches hoping for confirmation. This was hardly as distinctive a song as a chiffchaff, after all. ‘Tseep, tsup, seep,’ it continued, and still no bird was visible. I was just about to give up when the bird revealed itself in a few frenzied seconds of activity: something smallish and brownish, darting out from a lofty branch, performing a couple of loops and then flitting back up to the branch it started from. Unmistakably a spotted flycatcher.
Though undistinguished in appearance and as a vocalist, spotted flycatchers are much loved little birds. Partly for the little out-and-back-again hunting expeditions I witnessed, often described as ‘sallying forth’, but also I think because of their charming, gormless yet mildly proud expressions – both these characteristics are shared, incidentally, with New World flycatchers, despite them not being that closely related. (See peewees!) Flycatchers of any sort tend to be rather endearing.
As a migrant species, spotted flycatchers must annually face an epic, scaled-up version of their little return flights in the shape of a journey to Africa. It’s probably a little nationalistic to think of migrants as ‘our’ birds, since in the flycatcher’s case they spend no more than half the year here, but I like to think that the woods and gardens of Britain where they nest are their home perches, from which they sally every September and to which they’re drawn back every spring, as surely as if they were attached by a piece of elasticised string.
Alas, though, whether because half of those strings snap on the way, because something has changed on the southern African wintering grounds, or because they aren’t productive enough in the breeding season (or all of the above – current evidence is not wholly conclusive), flycatcher numbers in the UK have taken a tumble. Around half as many return each year as used to, a sorry state for a bird that is usually so faithful to a perch. Coming back is in their nature, is surely what they are supposed to do.
What is known is that spotted flycatchers are quite fond of the sort of open, light-filled, mature woodland edge on which I saw the one I’m writing about, a habitat of which I happen to be quite fond, too. I hope they’ll be keeping me company there for many years to come. Spotted flycatchers might not posses one of the quintessential songs of spring, but the season wouldn’t be quite the same without them.
To hear a spotted flycatcher, head outside! Or visit Xeno-Canto
Photos: Early Purple Orchid; Bluebell display at High Wood, Oxfordshire; Stitchwort; Yellow Archangel; our little flycatching friend.