Saturday, 18 May 2019

In Search of the Pied Flycatcher & Podcast

This is an experimental first by me. A combination of a blog post and a podcast. What can possibly go wrong. The link here will take you to the 30 minute podcast which accompanies the short blog posting below.



When I began this idea to head off to Hodder's Combe in Somerset, it was late on a Wednesday afternoon. The post noon sun had gained a strength to make it feel hot, summer is calling at the door of spring, the call of the wild beckoned as I sat in my dark office. A days leave requested and duly accepted, tomorrow then, with the forecast set fair, I planned a Thursday perambulation in the Quantocks in search of a pied flycatcher.

My idea behind this podcast cum posting isn't new. The world of audio is changing and now anyone can post a recording and have it listened to by everyone. The podcast world is here.

That said after a decade making wildlife programmes for a living, actually going out and wandering about, talking, thinking, observing, is not that easy. As I discovered in Hodder's Combe. To cut down on the clobber I had to carry (professional kit is heavy and cumbersome) I only took my very basic £80 recorder with me. It does the job reasonably well, slightly better than using an i-phone, but listening back to the recordings I'd forgotten how overly sensitive the inbuilt microphones are and how the dynamic range is limited. Next time I'll use my external microphone. That grumble aside, it's small, lightweight and allowed me to spend what was nearly 4 hours in this glorious sessile oak woodland without becoming exhausted.

So why was I here?

Well simply, to walk up the Combe in the hope I may spot a pied flycatcher. As I set off up the path rambling into the microphone, my thoughts were on the fact that in 55 years I'd never seen a pied flycatcher. These monochromatic summer migrants frequent open oak woodlands mainly. Their main range is the West Country, up through Wales, North West England and a little bit of the Scottish Borders. Interestingly although it is thought numbers of pairs are declining, their range seems to be spreading north. Possibly numbers are better than suggested, not helped by the fact that despite being black and white they are surprisingly hard to spot, even on a perch. Unlike its cousin the spotted flycatcher (who often uses the same perch repeatedly), pied flycatchers move about from perch to perch, darting out to nab a flying morsel. So the guides say. In reality it is like looking for a flycatcher in a haystack. Possibly then why I'd not seen one and why I found myself outdoors. And it was very nice.

I'd never been to Hodder's Combe. I've lived in Somerset for nearly as long as I'd lived up'north. I like the Quantocks a lot, and often visit. But never to Hodder's Combe, despite driving past it many times. I discovered a magical place which on my visit was alive with birdsong. Mid May, and all the summer migrants had now arrived. Wood warblers, with their descending 'spinning coin' call. Willow warblers 'fairy ballerina skipping down the stairs' call, were in full  'get off my land' shout. Chiffchaff and cuckoo too. This latter harbinger of spring is a worry for me, as in 2018 I failed to hear a cuckoo at all for the first year ever. Until my visit to Hodder's Combe I'd not heard one this year either, but then I not only heard at least two different birds, but saw one. It's not that long ago since I could hear cuckoos from my house, not any more. However it was the black and white summer migrant I'd come here to find. I set off up the path. 

The Hodder stream runs the entire length of the Combe. My sort of feature. Shallow enough to wade through, meandering, and full of interesting nooks and crannies for birds like the dipper and grey wagtail to exploit.  

Now I have to make a confession here. I messed up with the grey wagtail recording. Messed up is too simple an explanation for the fact I absolutely failed to record anything. And the award winning image below isn't something I'm proud of either. Multitasking failure. At this point in the walk I stumbled across 3 or maybe 4 grey wagtails. The male was in full showing off display flight mode. Perching on this log (the pair if you look closely) he'd fly up and perform a figure of eight up and down the stream, before a flamboyant parachute flight onto a riparian rock. A quick call and tail wag, then he'd fly back to the perch. Sometimes a chase between male and female took place, generally though this fallen tree was a preferred spot. In my defence of a poor photo, it was quite a way away and I was concentrating on a superb recording, describing this wonderful immersion into bird behaviour. Except I had the recorded on pre-record, not record. Moving swiftly on....

Still no pied flycatchers by the mid point but the woodland itself enveloped me. A great spotted woodpecker entertained me, elusively landing on the far side of every tree rendering photography useless. This time however I recorded my excitement. 

The wren though was handsomely obliging as it's diminutive body shivered under the enormity of its song. Good lad, don't hold back, let the woodland have it large. I love wrens. When they call the often shimmer their tiny wings at great speed. It's almost as if they're in an enormous rage with the world and bursting for a fight.

There were few insects of note in the woodland, a buff tailed bumblebee, a few holly blue butterflies and this simply named Athous haemorrhoidalis who shared a log with me. I have to confess I didnt know what this was at the time, remedied at home with a flick through  my insect guide. A member of the click beetle brigade, which if provoked can flick itself into the air with a loud click. If I'd known that it could have had a longer inclusion in the podcast.

The reason for being here still avoided me. But I was enjoying myself just walking through this woodland. The Hodder stream had to be forded at times. When I say forded, one long stride and I was across. It's been a dry spring so far, we could do with a lot more rain. As rain brings out more insects for my quest the pied flycatcher. And there it was.....

I was crossing another part of the river when this bird flashed across the path.To be honest and this is in the podcast I wasn't entirely sure I'd seen a pied flycatcher. Confidence was teetering on the side of yes of course I have. But this elusive little chap was out of sight almost as quickly as I'd seen it. Positioning myself on a handy log I scanned the shrubs in front of me for what seemed hours. Then, there, a movement. I fired off a few camera shots, not really sure what I was seeing. And then it was gone. I didn't see it fly off, presumably away from me out of vision. It was only when I got home and looked at the images that one confirmed what I'd seen, a male pied flycatcher. Points are being awarded if you can spot it.

The excitement in me was visible, it was also audible. My first ever pied flycatcher. Except apparently it wasn't. Later in the day posting my find on Facebook, my friend Annali left a comment....and I quote.

"Dawesy we saw these when we were doing field work in a woodland glade somewhere back in the BSc days... I am sure you were there too. It was the last time I have seen them...1991! (Lucky you though!)"

1991 - I can't remember.that far back!

So did it work, bird watching, podcasting and photographing? Well partly. Trying to do all three meant that I forgot to record the good bits (to be fair I thought I was but didn't have my glasses on). Concentrating on birdwatching meant I'd forget to say anything. And talking into the microphone made bird-watching less productive. Trying to take images, and talk, and observe a bird was impossible. That's why when I made wildlife programmes, I recorded, the presenter talked and the expert found things. Simple really when you know how.  And.... it was my first visit here and to be honest I really had no idea where I was going. So a fair attempt I'd say. Much room for improvement for the next podcast. 

But above anything else I really enjoyed my 4 hours in a Somerset woodland.

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