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Cuckoos, black caps & flycatchers

Hearing the cuckoo at Escot used to be a given sign of Spring – but then about 15 years ago we stopped hearing its distinct call. Last year we heard it again, but just on a single afternoon. This year, however, we heard it over several days.

Spending the winter months in Africa, cuckoos travel some 4000 miles in little over a week, arriving back in the UK during late April and early May, timing this arrival to match the breeding season of its host species here.

Cuckoo numbers have dropped by 75% since the early 1980s. It has been suggested that declines in its hosts, or climate-induced shifts in the timing of their breeding could have reduced the number of nests available for cuckoos to parasitize.

The main hosts in the UK are the dunnock, meadow pipit, pied wagtail and reed warbler. Of these, meadow pipit is the only species that seems to have declined during 1994-2007 – this only accounts for about 1% of the observed cuckoo decline.

Dunnocks, pied wagtails and reed warblers have shifted their breeding forward by about 5-6 days. Considering the timing of arrival of cuckoos, dunnock and pied wagtail nests are likely to have become less available to cuckoos, but the late breeding reed warbler, more available.

Other plausible explanations for the decline of cuckoos include reduced prey (mainly caterpillars) and deterioration of conditions along migration routes or on over-wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa.

Escot is doing its best to offer them a warm welcome!

The blackcap is a warbler, and warblers are usually nondescript, being a variation on fifty shades of grey – however, surprise, surprise, the male has a black cap, and the female a chestnut one.

The male’s delightful fluting song has earned it the accolade of ‘northern nightingale’. Although primarily a summer visitor, birds from Germany and north-east Europe are increasingly spending the winter in the UK. Larger numbers of blackcaps arrive in the South West than any other part of the country – Escot has plenty and because there is almost no predation from grey squirrels here, they nest very successfully.

It makes ecological sense; there is a short distance to travel from mid Europe to England, and the milder winters are relatively easy for blackcaps to contend with. The increase of wild bird feeders has been acknowledged as having a direct influence on their instinct to stay in the UK over winter, although none have visited our delux and diverse vertical and horizontal table offerings! They are apparently avid eaters of mistletoe berries – now that’s one plant we don’t have any of at Escot despite efforts to introduce it. In April/May there are 1.2 million pairs in the UK rearing the next generation.

The spotted flycatchers should be here any day now – they usually arrive in early May. At first glance, they might seem dull brownish-grey and, well, a bit boring. It’s better to think of them as beautiful in an understated way. Watch them for a short time and you’ll be charmed by their fly-catching antics. They fly from a perch, dash out to grab a flying insect and return to the same spot – so they can easily be mistaken by robins which often feed from a perch. They are found in parks, mature gardens and woodlands with open glades – so they breed readily at Escot. Sadly, the much more striking pied flycatcher, although found in East Devon and preferring mature woodland habitat, has not been recorded here. Both varieties are on the UK conservation red list.

The UK’s Breeding Bird Survey shows a 61% decline between 1995-2015, a mystery that has scientists turning to tracking technology to discover possible answers. No doubt they will be similar to most of our visiting birds.


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