Spotted flycatcher

Bird of the Month May 2024: Spotted Flycatcher

By the start of May, many of the UK’s summer migrants will have been back on their territories for a few weeks. Some may even have eggs in the nest. Not so the spotted flycatcher, however. One of our latest returnees, this understated but charismatic little bird arrives back on the breeding grounds in late April at the earliest. Once back, though, they certainly live up to the second part of their names. Their short dashes into the air to catch insects are a delight to watch. Once common in semi-open woodland, parks and gardens across the UK, they have suffered huge declines over the last 50 years. This makes it more important than ever to celebrate this lovely little bird.

The Not So Spotted Flycatcher

Spotted flycatchers could be described as a classic little-brown-job, or LBJ. LBJ is a somewhat dismissive term that birdwatchers sometimes apply to any small, hard to distinguish passerine. In some ways, spotted flycatchers fit the bill. They are reasonably small, have brownish grey wings and a cream breast. The breast and crown are streaked rather than spotted, though, despite the name. Perhaps the more definitive sounding spotted was used because there are no other really distinguishing features to name the bird for. ‘Streaked flycatcher’ sounds quite wishy washy, after all. On closer inspection, however, this is a subtly beautiful bird. Its relatively large eyes, open face and upright stance give it bags of character.

Spotted flycatcher
Spotted flycatchers have relatively large eyes giving them a ‘sweet’ appearance

Their behaviour makes them particularly engaging to watch. As their names suggest, they feed almost exclusively on flying insects. Most of these they catch on the wing. To do this they sit still on a favourite perch watching for flying prey, although they will sometimes forage directly from leaves or bark if necessary. Butterflies, moths, flies, bees and wasps are all on the menu. When they see something tasty, they perform a characteristic short flight from their perch to catch it, before returning to the same spot. When looking for spotted flycatchers in suitable territory, it is often this short dash out from the perch that helps draw attention to a bird that would otherwise be easy to miss. Their songs and calls are also fairly inconspicuous, consisting of a few unmusical, high-pitched seeps and trills.

Spotted flycatcher
Birds will sometimes use fences as hunting perches

Out of Africa

We tend to think of summer visitors to the UK as ‘our’ birds because they breed here each year. However, when it comes to passerines especially, they actually spend more time in their winter quarters than here. This is particularly true of species like the spotted flycatcher and swift that arrive back later than our other migrants. Most UK breeding spotted flycatchers aren’t back on their territories until early May. Some even leave it as late as June. This strategy ensures they time their arrival with peak insect availability. Once here, they favour open woodland, parkland and gardens containing enough perches for those hunting sallies. Pairs build their nests in sheltered nooks and crannies, such as within a broken branch or tree trunk. They will also sometimes nest behind the ivy of an overgrown wall, with rural churchyards a classic location. The species will also happily use artificial nest boxes as long as they are more open in design.

Spotted flycatcher
Gardens containing trees and shrubs are good flycatcher habitat

Despite their late arrival back each spring, many pairs will manage to produce two broods during their short stay. Four to five eggs is the norm. The juveniles have more markings than their parents, although are still not really spotty. By August, with the young fledged, birds will start to leave their breeding territories. As with most summer migrants, the journey south is much more drawn out and without the sense of urgency of spring’s flight. Birds will stop off en route at suitable habitat to feed up on invertebrates, preparing for the long journey. Once they leave our shores, spotted flycatchers migrate to sub-Saharan West Africa for the winter. Some birds travel further south, as far as 7,000 km away. The average lifespan is two years. The maximum age revealed by bird-ringing is eight years old, however.

Spotted flycatcher juvenile
Juveniles are more heavily marked than adult birds

The Disappearing Flycatcher

Sadly, the UK breeding population of spotted flycatchers has declined by a staggering 92% over the past 50 years. At one time they would have been a common sight in woods and parks across much of the UK. Now, though, much suitable habitat is empty of the species, although they do seem to do better in gardens. As a consequence of the huge declines, they are on the UK’s Red List as a Bird of Conservation Concern. Perhaps even more worrying is the fact that scientists are not certain about the causes of decline. The BTO’s research suggests that the number of nests failing each year hasn’t increased. Their modelling does hint that the problem may be connected to a drop in the likelihood of birds surviving their first year. This will of course have an effect on how many birds return to breed each year.

Spotted flycatcher
A classic spotted flycatcher pose

What is causing this trend is also unknown. Scientists don’t yet have the data to show whether the problems are occurring before young birds leave the UK for the first time after fledging or if there are issues in their African wintering grounds. One possible factor is the catastrophic decline of flying insects in the UK. BugLife’s Bugs Matter citizen science project shows a 78% drop in flying insects recorded via car number plate splats over the last 20 years, for example. With spotted flycatchers relying almost exclusively on them for food, this could well be contributing to their own declines. What is clear is that more research is needed and quickly if we aren’t to lose this charismatic little visitor as a breeding bird in the UK. It is also clear how important gardens are as proxy wildlife reserves in our nature-depleted country. If you are lucky enough to have a pair breeding near you, be sure to give this little brown job the appreciation it deserves.

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