Sunday, 30 June 2013

The pied flycatchers of Lyme

Every summer, sixteen million birds make the long, perilous flight from mainland sub-Saharan Africa to reach Britain.
Swallows, warblers, wagtails, wheatears, martins, thrushes, pipits, cuckoos, chats, all these and more have traversed land and sea to seek out a patch to call their own in the British Isles. And some of those that have made the journey are right here, within the boundaries of Lyme Park.

The stunning male pied flycatcher (left) and  female with a mouthful of food (right)
(Photos from Rich Steel)
The reason? To breed in our northern temperate zone, where for a few, all-to-fleeting months, the climate is perfect. Invertebrates such as flies, caterpillars and insect larvae are abundant to ensure both adults and chicks have a good food supply, and the daylight hours draw out longer, allowing more valuable time to feed and build up reserves for the long flight back south.
Amongst these long haul fliers is a bird that has been monitored closely at Lyme for the last 22 years: the pied flycatcher. It typically arrives on our shores around mid-April, and leaves around September. It's found in mature woodlands in the west of the UK, and as such is a bit of a specialist. According to Natural England, the UK's breeding population of these birds declined by a staggering 51% between 1994 and 2009.
 A brood of 6 pied flycatcher chicks in a nest-box at Lyme Park
On Monday evening I met up with volunteers Clive Richards and Dave Bissett, who have been closely monitoring the fluctuating breeding populations of these birds at Lyme Park since 1991.
Like blue tits and great tits, pied flycatchers take readily to nest-boxes in woodlands. The nest-boxes replicate the natural hollow cavities of trees, which are typically found in ancient woodlands. Over the years, Clive and Dave have put up around 30 boxes to encourage the "pied fly's" to choose the wooded areas of Lyme to breed. Each winter, Dave cleans out the old nesting material in anticipation of the arrival of these elusive migrants. And every summer, each box is monitored to keep track of the numbers of breeding pairs present.

This nest-box is one of the original boxes put up by Clive and Dave in 1991,
and it's still being used today!
In addition to this, Clive is a registered "ringer" with the South Manchester Ringing Group, which is licenced by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). Each year he rings the pied flycatcher chicks inside the active nest-boxes. In other words, he places a lightweight, uniquely numbered, metal ring around one leg of each bird in the brood. The reason for doing this is to generate information on the survival, productivity and movements of birds.
So, to put this into context; if one of the birds that has been ringed here in Lyme Park is found by someone in the middle of the Sahara desert in a few years time, that someone can contact the BTO, and we can trace that bird back to it's humble beginnings in Crow Wood, or Hamper's Wood.

With this data, scientists can gain a fascinating insight into the migratory routes that these birds take, how long they can live for, survival rates, a whole host of key information. And by understanding these factors, they can begin to understand how it affects population trends, which in turn provides knowledge that is vital for the future conservation of birds such as the pied flycatcher.

It's because of schemes like this, carried out by Clive and Dave, that will hopefully ensure that these birds will be returning to Lyme Park for many years to come.

With a bit of luck, one of these chicks could be returning to
Lyme Park in the future to lay a brood of their own

Pied flycatchers aren't the only birds of note recently seen at Lyme. Sightings of wood warbler, garden warbler, redstart, stonechat, wheatear, grey wagtail, green woodpecker and yellowhammer have also been reported. If you see any other notable sightings, please let me know on 

For further information on the BTO's ringing programme, visit

Or for results of ringing on pied flycatchers, visit:

I'll leave you with an extract from Ted Hughes' poem, "Swifts", a poem in praise of our summer migrants:
They've made it again,
Which means the globe's still working, the Creation's
Still waking refreshed, our summer's
Still all to come -




Sunday, 9 June 2013

Better late than never...

Walk down West Park Drive, or through Crow or Elmerhurst Wood at this time of year, and you’ll be struck by the familiar sight and scent of British bluebells in full bloom.

But what makes our bluebell woods so iconic? Well, for a start, even though they are several weeks late this year after our long winter, to many people they symbolise the arrival of Spring. They thrive on a relatively short window of time in which they can bloom. Conditions need to be perfect, as their late show this year has proven. The key is to have enough light reaching the ground floor from the canopy before woodland trees come into leaf. For this reason they only flower for several weeks before setting seed. 

Haze Bank and West Park Drive are areas of "ancient woodland". This is defined as a place that has been continually wooded since at least 1600AD. Bluebells are one of a number of species that are known as ancient woodland "indicator species". Other plants to look out for are wild garlic (often called ramsons), wood sorrel, wood anenome, lesser celendine, ground elder and violets. If you find these growing somewhere, it's more than likely that you're either in ancient woodland, or in a place that was once ancient woodland.

 Above- the on-going removal of rhododendron down West Park Drive.
With this invasive species eradicated, bluebells will thrive once more.
It's because of the ecological importance of these areas as ancient woodland sites that we are removing large tracts of Rhododendron ponticum. We are hoping to restore this once wooded area to it's former glory by removing this invasive species. Rhododendron was introduced to Lyme in this area in the 1900s, and has spread considerably since then, sweeping through native broadleaf woodland and altering the pH level of the soil. To put it simply, bluebells and rhododendron don't get on!

Britain holds a staggering 50% of the world's bluebells. The vast quantities of bluebells present in Britain is likely to be in part due to the fact that the bulbs are poisonous to most british mammals such as badgers and foxes, who may otherwise dig them up. Wild boar is the only british mammal that is known to unearth bluebells, but fortunately we don't have any of them here at Lyme. Well, none that we know of anyway!

Traditionally in Britain, we have managed our woodlands through coppicing, which is a method of cutting wood on a rotation. This allowed our ancestors to take wood in a sustainable way, which they would have used for fuel, and to make tools. Coppicing also benefits ground flora such as bluebells as it allows more sunlight to the woodland floor, allowing ground dwelling plants to thrive. This in turn benefits other woodland species such as butterflies, which in turn supports woodland birds and mammals.

I'll leave the last word to a visitor who flagged me down as I was driving down West Park Drive this evening. Her exact words were: "This is the best display of bluebells I've ever seen!" And to be honest, I found it hard to disagree.

Bluebells FACTFILE:
Latin name: Hyacinthoides non-scripta
Alternative names: wild hyacinth, wood bell, fairy flower, bell bottle
Habitat: Ancient woodlands,  hedgerows, shady banks, under bracken on coastal cliffs and uplands
  • Their rich nectar provides food for many butterflies and other insects.
  • Bluebells contain toxic glycosides and humans can be poisoned if the bulbs are mistaken for spring onions and eaten.
  • The bulbs were once used as glue, particularly for bookbinding.
  • The species has greatly declined over the past 50 years and is globally threatened.  It is illegal to collect seed or bulbs from the wild.
  • One of the biggest threats to the survival of our British bluebells is the introduction of non-native Spanish bluebells. Find out more by watching this short video on the Natural History Museum website: