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News for May 2000

Bird On! News
8th May 2000

David Tomlinson

By early May, most of our summer visitors are back on their breeding grounds, though there are several species that have yet to arrive. The first swifts invariably appear in southern England in late April, but the main arrival is usually around May 5th, and it will be another week or two before the most northerly nesting birds have returned to their breeding territories. When they do arrive, swifts are both noisy and conspicuous, rushing past their nesting areas (usually churches or old buildings) in spectacular screaming parties.

Just two species return even later than the swifts: spotted flycatchers and nightjars. Both winter in southern Africa, so have a long journey back to Britain. In recent years spotted flycatchers have declined alarmingly; according to the British Trust for Ornithology, numbers have fallen by 78% in the last 25 years. No bird is more characteristic of the English country garden than the spotted flycatcher. They love to hawk for flies from prominent perches, such as the netting surrounding tennis courts, catching their victim with an audible snap of the beak, before returning back to the same perch.

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Instant adoption

Spotted flycatchers like to build their nests in wisteria, honeysuckle, Virginia creeper or any other plants growing against buildings. They will, however, readily adopt open-fronted nest boxes. A few years ago a pair appeared in my garden in late May and showed a great deal of interest in one of my artificial house martin nests, despite the fact that it was already occupied. I responded by putting an open-fronted box on the side of the house, close by. Within minutes the flycatchers were inspecting the box, and they did nest in it. The Schwegler open-fronted nest boxes, supplied by Jacobi Jayne, are ideal for flycatchers. They are best erected among climbing plants but flycatchers will adopt boxes even if they are more exposed.

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The last to arrive

Nightjars are usually the last of our migrants to return. I once saw a cock at Minsmere, in Suffolk, on April 30th, but this was exceptionally early, and May 15th is a more typical date for the first arrivals. Nightjars are crepuscular, which means they fly at dawn and dusk, as well as during the night, and it is rare to see one on the wing during the day. Their favoured habitats are heaths and commons but they also occur in young forestry plantations and young chestnut coppice.

Evening excursions are needed to locate nightjars, and the best way to find them is to listen for the cock's distinctive and far-carrying churring call. When they first arrive, the cocks will churr for minutes on end, invariably finishing with a distinctive clap of wings. They will continue to churr throughout the summer, usually at dawn and dusk, but by August the bursts of song are much shorter in duration.

Twenty years ago nightjars were declining in numbers but the Great Storm of 1987 opened up lots of new habitat for them and in recent years their numbers appear to have been increasing. Though much more common in southern England, they do nest regularly in North Wales and the Lake District, with the occasional pair in the Highlands of Scotland.

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Mixed news on nightingales

I heard my first nightjar of the year last spring when I was out taking part in the BTO's Nightingale Survey. As I had just found two unexpected singing nightingales, I was delighted to find a nightjar too. The preliminary results of the nightjar survey, in which more than 1,000 people took part, have just been published. Though the overall figure of 4,407 singing males is only down by 8% from the last BTO survey in 1980, it was found that nightingales had gone from over 20% of the 10-km squares where they were recorded 19 years ago. The BTO's preliminary report doesn't make any suggestion as to why the nightingale's range should have contracted, but most nightingale experts believe that there is a strong connection between England's growing deer population and nightingale decline.

Nightingales like to nest in woodland coppice. The practice of coppicing has declined in recent years, while roe and muntjac deer are quick to move into coppiced woods, and like to browse out the coppice. They thus destroy the nightingales' favoured nesting habitat. The survey did find that nightingales are now found more in scrub than young woodland and coppice, and that scrub growing in gravel pits has now become a key habitat in several counties, including Cambridgeshire and Berkshire. It is no accident that gravel pits are not favoured by deer, or that Kent, the county with the most nightingales, has yet to be invaded by muntjac.

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A celebration of nightingales

If you are not lucky enough to live in a part of the country where nightingales occur but would like to listen to their wonderful song, then you must buy a copy of Nightingales: A Celebration, available as either a CD or cassette for 10, post free, from Jacobi Jayne. All proceeds go to the BTO's Nightingale Appeal.

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Boxes with martin appeal

April has been such a wet month throughout much of Britain that the thoughts of May being dry and rainless seem improbable. However, it is often one of the driest months of the year, and this can create problems for house martins. These members of the swallow family need mud to make their nests, and if no mud is available they are in trouble. They will attempt to build their nests with mud that isn't really wet enough, and these nests invariably fall down.

One way of helping them is to erect artificial house martin boxes under your eaves. I usually have two or three pairs of house martins nesting on my house, and at least two pairs use artificial nests. Schwegler make durable boxes that look just like the nests the martins build themselves, but they have the added advantage of being more durable and (as long as you fix them correctly) unlikely to fall down. Available as a single or double, they are strongly recommended.

Artificial house martin boxes are only likely to attract martins if there is a colony close by. If you do have martins in your vicinity, and have seen the birds prospecting under your eaves, then it is a good idea to put a box up. Last spring a pair of martins suddenly starting prospecting under the eaves at the front of my house, where they have never nested before. Fortunately I had a spare box to hand, which I speedily put up. The fist martin was in the box before I had put the ladder away, and two broods were raised successfully. House martins often delay nesting if the weather is bad, so boxes erected as late as mid June may still be used this year.

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Carry on feeding

In past years I used to stop feeding my garden birds at the end of April, believing that there was sufficient natural food to keep them sustained. In fact May is arguably the most important month of the year to keep feeding, as birds need all the high-protein food they can get when they are busy laying eggs and rearing young. I now keep two nut feeders and one sunflower feeder going all summer, and the reward is a garden full of birds throughout the year.

There used to be a worry that feeding birds peanuts in the spring was dangerous, as adult tits would give them to their young. Peanuts are not a suitable diet for nestlings, which are unable to digest them (caterpillars are their staple diet). However, we now know that tits are brighter than we thought, and though the parents will stop for a snack on nuts, they continue to feed their chicks on more suitable fare.

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Prison for Parrot Smuggler

Courts have rarely imposed the full penalties available to them for wildlife crimes but the recent jailing of the UK's best-known parrot breeder, Harry Sissen, suggests a new tougher attitude. Sissen was found guilty of illegally importing three Lear's macaws into Britain, smuggling the Brazilian birds into the country via Yugoslavia and Slovakia. He received a 21/2-year prison sentence, and was ordered to pay 5,000 costs. Lear's macaws are one of the world's rarest birds, with a wild population thought to number 160-180 individuals, and a further 18 birds in captivity. This handsome macaw was originally described by Napoleon's nephew, Charles Lucien Bonaparte, in 1858, and it takes its English name from the bird artist Edward Lear who first illustrated it. It was unknown in the wild until ornithologist Helmut Sick finally found a flock of 20 birds in Bahia, North-East Brazil, in December 1978.


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