The Wildlife Trust recently erected nesting boxes at Taf Fechan Nature Reserve, Merthyr Tydfil, in an attempt to attract pied flycatcher to the area. They have not been recorded on the reserve since 1969, despite an abundance of suitable habitat, and despite their occasional presence in other woodland a few miles away.
The European pied flycatcher is one of only two members of the large Muscicapidae family to regularly visit the UK. Travelling from sub Saharan Africa they are one of the last summer migrants to reach Britain, and can be found in open deciduous woodlands of western Britain from mid-April until September.
Smaller than the spotted flycatcher, with shorter bills and tails, both sexes of pied flycatcher have distinctive white barring on their wings, and males are particularly distinctive with their boldly pied breeding plumage.
UK and pan-European populations of the species have declined significantly in recent years, and they were recently added to the UK Amber List. Conditions at African wintering grounds or migration stop-off points may be beyond our control, but breeding populations of pied flycatcher in the UK have been shown to respond positively to the provision of nesting boxes, meaning that there is a real opportunity to help preserve the species in its summer territory.
The steeply sloping Taf Fechan valley does not support many very mature trees, and dead trees don’t tend to stand for very long. This characteristic may explain the absence of pied flycatcher from the otherwise suitable pasture woodland, since the species prefers to locate its nests in tree-holes. To remedy this, Wildlife Trust staff and volunteers put nest boxes throughout the woodland, positioning them in pairs so that any blue tits that moved in would defend their neighbouring box from other pairs, ensuring that many remained free until mid-April.
In early May one of the boxes was found to contain a nest which stood apart from the familiar blue tit and great tit nests, though no eggs were present and no birds were seen visiting it that day. A couple of weeks later, Wildlife Trust staff happened to pass through the area on other business and were treated to the delightful sight of a pair of male and female pied flycatcher, busily feeding and darting in and out of the box and clearly in the process of raising a brood.
The sighting marks the reserve’s first pied flycatcher record in over 40 years, and a wonderful success story for conservation efforts. The pair’s nesting success will be monitored, and more nest-boxes will be put up later in the year in the hopes that next season may see an expansion of the population.
Of course, pied flycatchers may well have visited and nested at Taf Fechan Nature Reserve at some point over the last 40 years, but until very recently there was nobody there to keep an eye on such things.
As of March 2012, thanks to a Biffa Award grant, there is a warden to manage and monitor the site, and funds to purchase nest boxes and other equipment to help conserve its species and habitats. The return of the pied flycatcher to Taf Fechan highlights the value of Wildlife Trust staff, volunteers and supporters, and grants like Biffa Award, for the role they play in looking after our wildlife and in ensuring that happy events like these are noticed, and shared.