We are just at the beginning of the best time to see our key woodland species, knowing a little bit about the habitats these birds use and their behaviour can be the key to getting to see them. Below I will go through some of the best places to spot one of our key species and how to give yourself the best chance of memorable encounter. Pied Flycatcher’s are the species a lot of people come to Ynys-hir wanting to see, here’s a bit of advice on seeing these beautiful small birds.
Pied Flycatcher’s are a small bird, slightly smaller than a sparrow, the males are black and white with two white dots above their beak and the females are brown and white. They are busy birds, often moving quickly between perches, however they will sometimes perch for longer and can provide great views and photo opportunities.
Pied Flycatcher’s are a species associated with open canopy, predominantly Oak woodland, they prefer an open understory (woodland ground level vegetation) with lots of access to the ground. Early in the season, before the caterpillars are abundant on the Oak leaves they feed a lot by picking small invertebrates from the ground. Access to the ground is also vital when there is heavy rain in the spring, this rain can knock caterpillars (their main food source) from the leaves which requires the Pied Flycatcher’s to go foraging for them at ground level. Despite their name they don’t actually catch that many flies on the wing when in Britain, they will do it on and off later in the season but this flycatching behaviour has been seen much more on their migration staging areas and wintering grounds in sub-saharan Africa.
How to see them
Listening for these birds can give you a better opportunity of seeing them but their song is quite subtle, it took me a long time to learn and to distinguish from all the other birdsong in the woods. If you don’t know the song then there are other ways to get a look at these beautiful birds.
It is important to remember that Pied Flycatcher’s are birds of woodland edge, fringe habitats allow access to open areas for feeding, so standing in an open area at the edge of the woodland is a where you want to be. The Blue route at Ynys-hir takes you through a series of these edge habitats and is often where visitors get best views of Pied Flycatchers.
Helpfully these small birds have a real preference for nest boxes, we have lots of these boxes dotted round the woodlands, if you see a nest box then it is worth taking a moment to see if anything is hanging around it, if you’re lucky then it will be occupied by a Pied Flycatcher. Please remember not to get too close, if you observe from a distance you are far more likely to see some interesting behaviour.
Finally, and this by far the most important piece of advice I can give you – stop and be still, don’t talk or think or move around, just be still and quiet and observe. If you put yourself in the right habitat and you stay nice and quiet and wait then things will start happening around you. Just because you don’t see anything doesn’t mean they aren’t there, often your presence will have spooked the birds and given time they will begin to settle back down and get braver. All our trails are loops but that doesn’t you mean you have to walk all the way round them, there are plenty of benches and tree stumps around the reserve, no one is going to stop you sitting under a tree and watching the world go by. Watching wildlife is a mixture between a bit of knowledge, a lot of patience and blind luck, there’s nothing you can do about luck but the other two are in your hands.
The good thing is that all of the above also applies to one of our other migrants, the redstart, these birds share the same sort of habitat so keep your eyes out for a flash of red when looking for Pied Flycatchers.
Why not join our Wardens on our Dawn Chorus event on the 12th May where you will have their expert advice on hand. Click on the link below for booking information or ring 01654 700222.
Did you know, we have just over 300 nest boxes at Ynys-hir for our small birds? In the past few weeks we’ve been busy cleaning out all boxes and mending any problems before the birds start surveying for potential nest sites in the coming weeks. Raising a brood of chicks can leave a box looking (and smelling) pretty bad so we give the birds a helping hand by removing any old nest material from the previous year, this helps keep the vast amount of fleas and parasites away from any young vulnerable chicks.
The target species we’re hoping to attract is pied flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca), but we also get a fair amount of blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus) and great tit (Parus major) too. The pied flycatcher is a long-distance migrant, travelling all the way from sub-Saharan Africa to spend the spring and summer with us. Sadly their numbers are declining fast but mid-west Wales is a hotspot for these birds and Ynys-hir is no exception. Pied flycatchers breed here every year and studies have shown that these birds are very faithful to their breeding sites, often returning year after year to raise a brood in the same woodland or even the same nestbox- that’s pretty impressive!
Our interns and conservation volunteers have been working hard in the woodland over the winter to remove sections of bramble (in some places by hand!) to reduce vegetation grow-back in the spring and summer. Having clear areas of understorey to forage is vital for pied flycatcher as they increase their intake of caterpillars and other leaf-munching bugs to feed their chicks. More boxes have been installed in these areas of management so we can monitor the effects (if any) on the pied flycatcher breeding population.
This year we’re also adding 10 new boxes along the red trail for redstarts (Phoenicurus phoenicurus). These birds are spring migrants too and like to nest in rot holes and open cavities but will happily take to artificial boxes provided the hole is big enough (at least 42mm). Their nests look very similar to pied flycatcher, a cup woven from grass and leaves but then furnished with a layer of soft feathers whereas flycatchers leave theirs bare.
National Nest Box Week takes place every year in the second full week of February, this year it’s the 14th-21st February. Why not get into the spirit at RSPB Ynys-hir by making a nest box on Wednesday 21st February 1-3pm Nestbox’s £5 per kit.
My intention was to write a blog all about the wonders of the Greenland White Fronted Goose, their journey from their breeding grounds on the low arctic tundra of Western Greenland to the Celtic fringes of Britain via southern Iceland. And trust me they are fascinating birds, like a lot of other goose species they are highly social, have a fascinating life cycle and are extremely site faithful. It is this last fact that made me want to change the direction of this post. The stark reality is that the wintering Greenland White Fronted Goose population has declined rapidly on the Dyfi over the past few decades, in just the past ten years the number has dropped from 106 in the winter of 1997/98 to 25 this year, so we face the very real possibility that the wonderful high pitched call of these charismatic geese could no longer be a feature of our valley. This is the down side of birds which are so highly site faithful, once they are gone they are gone.
So what do we do? We are faced with a species that doesn’t breed in Britain, whose breeding success is being impacted by a shifting climate in the low arctic, and whose breeding condition is partly dictated by availability of food in southern Iceland in Spring. Well the first thing to do is to recognise that a group of very dedicated scientists and conservationists have been studying these geese for a long time, from expeditions to the breeding grounds to satellite tagging projects there is a lot of data, information and advice available. For example an awful lot of the knowledge I have picked up about the geese has been from reading the work of Dr Anthony Fox who has been studying this species for many years and Carl Mitchell who too has been working for decades to conserve Greenland White fronted Geese.
What comes out from that data is that these geese, like all birds, have a complex life cycle. Their ability to breed successfully is heavily influenced by their body condition when they arrive in Greenland, their body condition when they arrive in Greenland is in turn linked to how much condition they have put on on their stop-over in Iceland and this is all dictated by the condition they are in when they leave Britain. The low breeding success of these birds is in large part caused by the fact that they will not breed if they are not in good condition, in many cases they won’t even attempt to breed if their body condition is not good enough.
Like many geese they lose weight in the short winter days simply because there is less light and therefore less time to feed, added to that the cold conditions mean that food is less nutritious and less readily available. In early spring they begin to put on weight, some of this is stored fat but a lot of the extra weight goes into increased muscle mass, in short their bodies start to change from being designed for short flight and fat storage to long haul flight and muscle mass. The more weight they put on and the stronger they are the more excess reserves they will have when they reach Iceland and the easier it will be for them to reach peak breeding condition.
What these geese need from us then is the conditions which allow them to fatten up and build muscle when they need to. This means multiple suitable feeding areas close to their roost site, this way they are not expending energy flying long distances to seek food in winter and can rotate around feeding areas. So we need to know what they eat, where they eat and at what time of year, this is where the satellite tag data comes in so handy. We can see the areas they prefer, these are usually areas with a bit of standing water, topographical features like shallow ditches and hollows and usually fairly remote. What we can then do is look for other areas close by which may have some of these features but not all and work to make them more suitable for the geese. The satellite data also tells us that the geese like to roost on open water on the reserve, in the areas they prefer we can make sure that there is always open water available to them.
So from thinking ‘what can we do’ we can go through a process whereby we learn from what others have discovered, utilise technology and carry out management which will hopefully improve the birds chances of leaving the valley in good condition. It won’t always work and some of the time the geese may choose to feed elsewhere, but we still need to make sure we are providing good conditions where we can, should they chose to feed in the areas we manage.
The last and most important thing we can do is being part of the Greenland White fronted goose partnership, a group made up of several organisations including BACS, WWT and NRW. It is this group which has been the driving force behind all the work which has been carried out to date and who continue to work to preserve this unique species on the Dyfi. We can do our best to create better feeding areas on the reserve but it is the work of the partnership informing land owners over the whole valley that will give these geese a wide range of options in terms of feeding areas and therefore a better chance of breeding successfully when they return to Greenland. Only by working together to gather knowledge, share ideas and work on a landscape scale will we be able to improve the prospects of the Greenland White fronted Goose on the Dyfi.
Anyone who has had the privilege to see these birds will know that Greenland White fronted Geese are a fascinating, hugely charismatic and beautiful bird. They have survived Arctic Foxes and traversed harsh tundra to get to us, they are a part of what makes our valley unique and we will continue to do everything we can to keep them coming back for years to come.