Spotted Flycatcher Survey 2002
by Richard Bashford
Spotted Flycatcher has always been one of my favourite birds. Indeed, a pair nesting in my Sandy garden in the late 1970s stimulated my interest in birdwatching. In recent years, despite almost daily birdwatching, I have been struck by how few records I’d collected in the course of a year. The only birds I was recording were those seen where I worked (in the Nunnery Grounds in Thetford, in the Lodge grounds in Sandy) or in Moggerhanger churchyard opposite my parents house. My experience seemed to be reflected in the records sent in to the Bedfordshire Bird Club with only 10-15 breeding pairs being reported annually. One just didn’t come across Spotted Flycatcher in the course of normal birdwatching. Now red listed (greater than 50% decline over that last 25 years), it is also classed as a species undergoing rapid long term decline (1970-1999) – source BTO. As the species has declined, it seems to have moved away from the more usual and expected breeding areas such as woodland and gardens and can now only be found in perhaps, more optimum habitats such as churchyards and large mature gardens. Smaller numbers could be found in woodland.
I wondered whether a concerted effort looking for this species in these habitats would paint a truer picture of this species’ distribution in the county. Would the county’s birdwatchers take up the challenge and leave their gravel pits for a few minutes and check out that churchyard!
Time was short since I started thinking about this in late June, and the birds already present in the county for some six weeks. Clearly there was no time to print a request in the club newsletter to encourage people out into the field. However, the active and well supported Bedsbirds email group was a different story. With around 130 members at that time, and following the rush of emails following Nigel Wood’s requests for Little Owl records a week or so before, I requested any Spotted Flycatcher records on 26 June. I asked specifically for dates and number of birds seen (to help ascertain breeding), and six figure grid reference. At a similar time, David Kramer contacted me on behalf of the Bird Club’s Research and Records Committee. Spotted Flycatcher was one of four species for which they required more information and highlighted the need to collected grid references and evidence of breeding.
It was a bad start with the first four replies being negative. However, my own efforts and those of Tim Sharrock started to collect a few records from churchyards. This developed into a coordinated search of north and east Bedfordshire churchyards over the first few days of July. By the 9th, more people were beginning to contribute and by the middle of the month, there were many people searching and sending in records. By this time, I decided to be a bit more proactive. I spent a bit of time creating a spreadsheet of all the county’s churchyards and contacted various, strategically placed birders to ask if they would mind checking specific churchyards. Since I had no idea which of the churchyards were likely to hold Spotted Flycatchers, I asked the observer to comment on suitability. Peter Almond in particular (working as a volunteer at the Lodge and so easily collared by me!), kindly checked over 20 sites – some more than once, and personally found around 15 pairs. As the end of the month arrived, I estimated Bedfordshire birders had visited at least 90% of the county’s churchyards alongside numerous other woodland and garden sites.
Some interesting results were starting to emerge. In particular, Tim Sharrock and I visited the same churchyards on different days and collected very different results, suggesting one visit was not enough to confirm presence. Recent RSPB fieldwork on this species suggests that as few as one visit in three will detect a pair.
By the 27 July, Steve Blain created and posted a map onto the Bedsbirds website of the 70-80 pairs so far recorded.
A few more records came to light in emails during August and via the Bird Club Website, where a request for records had been placed by Andy Banthorpe. A request for all Spotted Flycatcher records was also placed in The Hobby. At the end of the year when record cards were returned, I augmented more ‘non email’ records to the database. Finally, a couple more pairs were confirmed through the bird club’s garden bird survey organised by Barry Nightingale.
One hundred and twenty two emails were received as a result of my request.
I asked for records of all birds seen and negative records from sites where they were recorded in the previous year. Despite the worrying start to the survey, only eight sites fell into the latter category. The map shows confirmed pairs (94), including five sites with two pairs and four sites with three pairs. In addition, there were 28 sites where only single birds were recorded. Most of these were from suitable breeding areas, so given more time it is likely that more breeding pairs could be confirmed.
To provide an indication of the breadth of coverage, I have included those 74 sites (90% of which were churchyards) that were searched but no birds found. It is worth noting that not all these churchyards would be suitable for Spotted Flycatchers and at least 18 were recorded as unsuitable. At least 40 were recorded as suitable.
Summary and conclusion
A simple and immediate request for records for a particular species via email has provided the county with truer picture of Spotted Flycatcher distribution. While the species has declined sharply across the UK in recent years, and retreated to its optimum habitat, (and away from the more usual sites visited by birdwatchers!), a coordinated effort to visit suitable areas has resulted in an increased in the number of breeding pairs recorded from around 15 to 94 pairs.
A similar survey of churchyards in five/ten years time would enable us to measure the local population of this species.
In addition, the relative ease of organising the survey, suggests that surveys for other species should be organised for the benefit of our local bird life.
Many thanks to all the county’s birdwatchers who contributed to this survey.
Richard Bashford, 6 Brook Road, Eaton Ford, St Neots, Cambridgeshire PE19 7AX