The first time I saw a spotted flycatcher I was living in Canterbury. My walk to work took me past the castle and I’d noticed that the sparrows sometimes flew in small circles from the tall trees lining the path there. A bit odd, I thought. Later, I moved in to the farm where I worked (looking after someone’s horses) and noticed the same behaviour: a sparrow was perching in an apple tree, flying in a small circle only to land back on its perch. After a few weeks of seeing this the penny finally dropped: these weren’t sparrows, they were flycatchers. I instantly fell in love with this small brown bird.
Spotted flycatchers are a bit of an enigma. They have the least distinct plumage of any small UK bird – their distinguishing feature is that they don’t have any – but their behaviour always gives them away. And once you spot one, you are guaranteed to see them again. Their plumage is dull brown on top and buff underneath, with a streaky chest and forehead. They use perches – usually tree branches or fenceposts – to watch out for flies and other insects. When they spot one they fly in a distinctive circular motion before returning to their post. Flies aren’t as stupid as you’d think, and once they realise there’s a flycatcher about they hide up, so the flycatcher will have a circuit of favourite perches – once you know where these are you will have no problem spotting the birds.
My house overlooked an old orchard and I spent the summer mesmerised by these little birds. As with other insect eaters they are migrants. Flycatchers are reluctant visitors to our shores, arriving in May when most other birds are raising their first or second broods, and leaving in July or August. They are also declining rapidly and are on the Red List of threatened bird species. I felt honoured and privileged to watch my family growing up.
That was eight years ago.
Recently, I was up at Teesdale trudging along the Teesdale Way towards Middleton with my heavy backpack and looking for an excuse to stop, when out of the corner of my eye I caught that diagnostic circular flight and spotted a group of brownish birds sitting on a fence. Surely they can’t be flycatchers? Oh yes they were – my first sighting in eight years! A family of just-fledged youngsters still being fed by their parents. I watched them for a few minutes but my Taller Half had already walked off. Unaccountably, he did not seem to share my interest in small brown birds and was keen to get back to Middleton for our bus. The birds had started to move off anyway, off to their next perch. I felt sad but excited – eight years!
It was not to end there though! We finally stopped for a rest in a hay meadow carpeted with the dried husks of yellow rattle. There were some birds fluttering around on the dry stone wall and at first I assumed they were meadow pipits, but I took a closer look anyway. They weren’t pipits, they were flycatchers – the family had followed us (or were we following them?). I spent the next ten glorious minutes watching five flycatchers, with a bonus of two sunbathing treecreepers.
I can’t explain why I find these birds so delightful – they are not striking or flashy, and are easily mistaken for sparrows or pipits – but they are one of my favourite birds and I feel truly privileged to have become reacquainted with them this summer. They will be off to Africa very soon, but I will look forward to meeting them again next year.