A Seldom Spotted Flycatcher

1957: Ernest Woods in A Zen Dictionary (sic!)

What the birds in the garden have in their daily life, and which I don’t have in my daily life, actually becomes mine when I come to know what it is like to be what they are.

Spotted Flycatcher Maweni Farm near Soni in the West Usambaras, Tanzania. January 2009 (M.P.Goodey)

Pretty plain, grey-brown of plumage, yet the long-winged “Spotted Fly” is graceful in the air. A delightful Eurasian passerine.

Twenty-one years ago the status of the Spotted Flycatcher here was succinctly described in a fine volume on East African birds as: a widespread often common palearctic migrant October-April.

In the northern winters of 2006-7 and 2007-8 a Spotted Flycatcher came to roost each night in a tangle of creepers outside my kitchen window. A window onto an equatorial wildlife garden on the slopes of Mount Meru in Tanzania.

Each morning at daybreak this little bird would leave its safe haven to forage around the tiny fields that surrounded the garden. It would spend the day catching insects – doubtless both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – within our neighbour’s shambas. A shamba is an East African small-holding.

It thereby provided our neighbours (as Spotted Flycatchers have been wont to do) a useful service in pest control, snatching flies around their huts, and out over their little vegetable gardens. And every dusk it would come back to sleep at ours. It became my habit to share the last moments of daylight with this flycatcher. A comrade from Ulaya (Europe) until the bird disappeared into those creepers once darkness had ushered-in the night.

Each evening in those two ‘winters’, I came to relish the tender, protective feelings I experienced as my bird returned, and as it disappeared into that tangle of lantana and bougainvillea which draped itself over the spindly juniper right outside our house.

In November-December of 2009 our Spotted Flycatcher failed to return. In fact during the southward migration of 2009 we only once observed a Spotted Flycatcher in our garden. It failed to return, but from where?

Well, most likely our bird was from a breeding site in Europe, or in European Russia.

In those great lands far away ‘up-north‘ a flycatcher’s nest to be successful must, of course, be in a place rich in flying insects! So it would most likely be around an old-fashioned mixed farm or a somewhat dilapidated country house (or dacha) in a place where cattle are pretty much free to roam, where the owners remain conservative of habit, if not yet deliberately benign as our eco-friendly youth may yearn to be. Perhaps the nest would be in a well-timbered churchyard, or in the half-empty corner of a garden in an English country pub – one may here substitute French, Dutch, German, Swedish etc.  Perhaps it would be in a rock cleft by a clear-flowing woodland stream, or along a sparkling highland river, one beloved by trout and salmon, overhung with old deciduous trees. And so on. You get the picture?

Obviously I am a great admirer of the Spotted Flycatcher and their habits. No, let’s be honest, I love them! And moreover I love those exact places from which I remember them! And there are many.

This small bird is, or rather used to be, a common summer visitor to my homeland. To an England that we’ve all but destroyed, trashed for financial profit, and likely even more ruthlessly than those defeated Nazis, Nips and Commies might have done.

Increasingly thinking of this bird, now absent from my list of daily birds, conjures companionable memories of one young boy’s delight. A delight amid personal tragedy. Delight in nature’s power for renewal. In the joy of spring. The magnificence of  May, our queen of months. Drifts of bluebells (wild hyacinth) and the intelligence of hazel, the folk-friendly understory of so many ancient woods. Of orange-tip butterflies scattered across a sunlit flood meadow on that first warm afternoon of spring. And, perhaps most of all, my memories of sultry summer scrambles along canal and river banks, and over arching bridges into the Wayside and Woodland of a Warwickshire countryside in a semi-secret early sixties youth.

If only that Warwickshire countryside, which I so vividly recall, might one day restore itself to ecological wholesomeness. If not to those capitalistic conditions of agricultural enclosure that brought it into being. Perhaps. My youth of course is clearly gone, and I doubt I’ll live long enough to see for myself the bright buds of our ecological renaissance!

Never mind, you can appreciate how feel about this bird. About this species.

For sure, for quite a few of us, this is an icon species, to use the green-speak of those career conservationists in whom we’ve placed our trust for the continued sanctuary of Nature. Without doubt the Spotted Flycatcher is an appropriate biodiversity indicator demonstrating something’s gone seriously wrong. Not just with our birds but with our appetites and our window on the world.

Perhaps the surviving Spotted Flycatchers might like to know, and appreciate, that they have been the beneficiaries of a (British) biodiversity action plan, if not yet of any meaningful action!

Even now, in December 2014, quite a few professional conservationists, in their homes and offices in Europe, speak as if they still believe the seeds of this bird’s demise lie down here, around the equator, in Africa’s darkness where so many uneducated peasants live short lives in damp mud (or cement) huts, scratching a meagre living from the Earth. Poor Africans who are unaware of the joys of the Consumer Christmas. Could they be the folk who are screwing-up the security of our homeland’s birds together with their own?

Yet seriously, the decline of so many, possibly all, of Europe’s sub-Saharan migrant birds, the perfect canaries for a globalised mine mentality, demonstrates just how badly we’ve allowed ourselves to abuse the workings of Nature. Abused ever increasingly, as globalisation has expanded these past three hundred years. We’ve abused Nature by the limitations of our socio-economic system. One that, whilst constantly banging-on about freedom, demands a linear conformity of mind, achieved largely through the development of subtle propagandas, that have become increasingly effective no matter where in the world we may live.

I think that contemplating the lives of these small birds can assist us to understand our own, and to act in ways that might transform this poisoned mine-and-mill set for good. No longer shall we pass the buck, whilst reconciling our conscience with the apparent inevitability of a chaotic suffocation of life. An extinction of diversity thanks largely to our anarchistic selfishness. A process that will otherwise continue to undermine Earth’s ecosystems as we spiral further down the commodification line. We must not allow our former diversity to be doomed by our lack of forethought and the reluctance to act outside the box, to accept a bit more risk. And to stand up for what we love. It is my romantic belief that people protect what they have come to trust, and love, far more than that which is only useful to them as a means of exchange – as money.

Anyway, that’s enough rambling from me! I’ll leave it to the lives of others, sadly now departed, to speak a little on behalf of my beloved Spotted Flycatcher and hope that my sources are properly acknowledged.

1920: Thomas Coward: in The Birds of the British Isles : And their Eggs 

It “is one of the last of the summer visitors to arrive in Britain. It is well distributed, nowhere abundant, but, except in some of the northern isles, nowhere uncommon. Many birds capture flying insects, but none so adroitly as the Spotted Flycatcher.. when perched it has an air of studied indifference .. little escapes its bright eye; its flights are timed with such precision that it seldom misses its quarry. Naturally the look-out is best where the space in front is open: thus the flycatcher frequents the border of a lawn, the outskirts of a wood or edge of a clearing, or the branches of willow or alder overhanging a stream.

1953: David Bannerman: in The Birds of the British Isles:

This is a summer visitor in great numbers … all kinds of insect form the prey – diptera, lepidoptera, coleoptera and odonata are mentioned in the Handbook. Spotted Flycatchers never appear to venture very far from their accustomed haunts and day after day the same bird may be seen in the same place – as likely as not a particular gable or a farm or barn roof from which it can survey the neighbourhood, making repeated sallies into the air. Its behaviour in Africa is much the same as in Europe; it will sit for hours in the sun waiting for passing insects, and the state of its plumage shows much sign of weathering and of exposure to the strong light.

1955: C.W. Mackworth-Praed and C.H.B. Grant in African Handbook of Birds:

 “Its habits .. it spends its time on a low bare branch or perch from which it makes dashes at passing insects, very rarely missing them.

1972: Reginald Moreau in Palearctic-African Bird Migration Systems:

In its migratory habits it differs strikingly from the Ficedula spp. in that in the Mediterranean basin from one end to the other it is commonly seen on migration in both spring and autumn and is every where an aerial (and opportunist) feeder at low heights above the ground.” “The total breeding area is about 16 million km2. .. 990,000 pairs in Finland .. extrapolated over the entire range we get an estimated population of 280 million. From Kenya south the birds are plentiful up to about 1800 m with neumanni predominating in Zambia, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe – the commonest muscicapine in boreal winter R.K. Brooke) and Botswana. The habitat is unspecialised, any woodland or any ecotone

1996: Dale Zimmerman, Don Turner and David Pearson in Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania:

Found “in light woodland, riverine acacias, bush with scattered trees, gardens and forest edge, from sea-level to 2200 m. Widespread and often common on passage. Winters more locally, mainly south of 1 degree N, notably in the Rift Valley highlands, dry south-eastern plateau country and in coastal lowlands, including Pemba Island. Our birds are mostly of the greyer eastern M.s.neumanni, but nominate striata is also represented.

1997: Urban, Fry and Keith in The Birds of Africa Volume 5:

There is Little evidence of non-stop flights rather birds progress gradually, apparently in relation to rains. Winters south of 10 degrees N, mainly south of the equator. Thus Finnish birds spend three months in breeding area, four months on wintering grounds (average stay of 121 days at Bloemfontein) and five months along migration routes.

2002: UK Biodiversity Action Plan for the Spotted Flycatcher :

Reasons for loss or decline:

Number 4) Changes in agriculture. Firm data on the importance of this for spotted flycatcher are lacking, but there is growing evidence that a range of birds found on lowland farmland are affected by low invertebrate availability during the summer.

The ‘report’ in essence continues along these lines –

 We’re not sure. Trends. Downward. Drivers. Data. It could be this. It could be that. Long distance migration. More research needed. Data. Jobs. Funding. Money. Please donate now.

And so forth, I’m sure you are all familiar with the infuriating procrastination of those who are bound to preserve the status quo whilst giving the public impression that whatever the issue of concern – “we‘re on it“.

To finish this post I’ve opted for the following snippet from the shires of England:

2009: Peter Marren in British Wildlife 20:5 p376:

Try the marvellous chapter (in Michael McCarthy’sSay Goodbye to the Cuckoo“) entitled Understatement on a Fence Post, where he tracks down a whole community of Spotted Flycatcher spotters living around Bredon Hill. At the end of it all , he shares a sense of why we love birds – our urban need for wildness, our cold-climate longing for the sun, the sense of renewal through the return of the summer visitors. Yet none of the experts came up with adequate words to express what we might feel if it really was goodbye to the cuckoo. Maybe it would need a poet like Ted Hughes:

‘They’ve made it again…the globe’s still working!’

Except that they didn’t and it isn’t“.

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