An old friend returns after 30 years

A spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) in Rupert Evershed's garden.

A spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) in Rupert Evershed's garden. - Credit: Rupert Evershed

Just recently, an old friend came to visit. In fact, he brought a couple of mates, but they didn’t really get on and, when in each other’s vicinity, gave chase with scolding notes of disapproval.

I am of course not talking about human friends but three birds – spotted flycatchers – that enlivened my garden for a few days this autumn.

I was thrilled to discover them in the garden and immediately reverted to a childlike wonder as I searched for them in the surrounding trees.

My childish excitement was not without good grounds for the last time I had seen these birds in the garden was in the late 1980s, over 30 years ago! 

At that time, they were annual visitors, nesting on a stone ledge in our porch.  They were part and parcel of our daily lives: arriving in May and raising their brood before departing sometime in late summer.

I remember finding their tiny, empty eggshells dropped on the porch step below. All that remains of their nest now are a few dropping marks on the ledge, but the memory is as fresh today as if it were yesterday.

An archive picture of a spotted flycatcher adult feeding a whole peacock butterfly to its chick.

An archive picture of a spotted flycatcher adult feeding a whole peacock butterfly to its chick. - Credit: Archant

Watching the flycatchers this last month, it struck me that my relationship with these birds has changed from one of intimacy to a more distant affair.

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When they bred in the garden, they were ever-present, fly-catching from low branches – a favourite sticking out over the pond – and didn’t seem to mind our presence at all.

The fact they nested in our porch shows the security they felt, and we never gave them undue attention either as they were taken for granted: like the swallows that nested in the eaves, they were part of the fabric of the garden in summer. 

Now, I invariably have to wait for spring or autumn to catch these birds on migration. They have never returned to the garden, that is until this autumn, but no longer to breed but to join the throng of passage birds, largely anonymous in the flock.

My unreserved excitement over these little brown birds stems partly from their rarity but mainly from the reconnection with a lost friend. Although their behaviour is now more distant – largely confined to the tops of the tallest trees – there are moments of familiarity for they are birds I know so well.

Watching them catch flies, I soon discover they have decided on a favourite perch:  an exposed branch with all-round views. From here they sit and wait but all the while their eye follows the path of the fly, demanding jerky head movements as they weigh up each potential morsel.

There are clearly insects to leave, insects to consider and the those that don’t require a moment’s thought.  In a flash they loop out, up and down, returning to the perch with whatever took their fancy. 

They were a joy to watch but they really didn’t seem to like each other!  Invade the other’s ‘fly-space’ and you risk being chased off with loud ‘chacking’ calls. It is not until each flycatcher is stationed atop different trees that peaceful feeding can resume.

They stayed for a few days and seemed very at home, finding plenty of flies but I couldn’t help wondering if they would ever return to breed again.

Their disappearance from my garden in the early 1990s mirrored a pattern across the county and by 2010 surveys showed that 89 per cent of the population of this once common garden bird had disappeared since the late 1960s.

They have now been placed on the Red List as a bird of greatest conservation concern but the reasons for their sudden demise are still far from clear. 

Graham Appleton of the BTO believes we may even be witnessing the collapse of the species’ range with numbers so decimated that the population is unable to sustain its spread.

I, for one, sincerely hope not as this little unassuming brown bird packed with character is typical of our English fauna that we are apt to take for granted until it is gone.

Let’s hope their fortunes change and once again spotted flycatchers become a familiar denizen of our summer gardens.