Pied flycatchers at Longshaw

Pied flycatcher

Mark Bull celebrated the arrival of spring in the Peak District by popping more than 50 corks to welcome the season’s visitors flying in from Africa. As the National Park’s pied flycatchers begin looking for nest sites in the ancient oak woodlands around Padley Gorge, ranger Mark and his team of National Trust volunteers carefully time the removal of dozens of wooden ‘corks’ from nest boxes to provide family homes for the distinctive black and white birds as soon as they arrive from west Africa.

“I had a panic last year that we’d forgotten to take all the bungs out, and had to text from a beach in Portugal while I was on holiday,” Mark said.

“I texted him back to say ‘it’s fine, panic over, the flycatchers are in,” said volunteer ranger Angela Pilcher.

National Trust volunteer ranger Angela Pilcher removing a cork from a nest box
uncorking a nestbox
National Trust volunteer ranger Angela Pilcher removing a cork from a nest box

The National Trust and local conservation and school groups have set up more than 100 nest boxes around Padley over the last thirty years, but Mark and colleagues realised that resident blue and great tits were able to move into the boxes before the migrant flycatchers arrived back from the Ivory Coast and Liberia in the first weeks of April. So to solve the housing crisis, the rangers began corking up half the boxes over the winter, and only uncorking them once the first pied flycatchers returned.

“After months of working in the woods in the freezing cold over the winter, to see the birds coming back is amazing,” said Mark. “It makes all the hard work worthwhile.” The National Trust is working to keep the woodlands around Padley attractive to flycatchers and other wildllife by managing open land around the ancient trees, and keeping out grazing animals that can damage young trees and other woodland plants.

Along with the nestbox corking, the strategy has worked: pied flycatcher nests in the Trust’s boxes have increased from 9 in 2000 to 29 last year. The species is becoming rare in many parts of the UK and was recently added to the official ‘red data list’ of UK birds which are of concern due to a decline in numbers.

“The woods around Padley are one of the best places to see pied flycatchers in this area, and it’s really nice to have a red data list species increasing here,” said Mark. “We’re now getting other groups coming to see how we’ve done it.”

Burbage Brook rushes into Padley Gorge
A stream rushes through Padley woods
Burbage Brook rushes into Padley Gorge

The male birds are black and white while females are a greyer colour. The birds eat insects and caterpillars, and can be seen hovering to catch flying insects. The best time to see pied flycatchers is when they begin feeding their brood of 6-7 chicks in May. “If you sit down on a rock about 20 yards or so from a nest box, they seem to know you’re not going to disturb them,” said volunteer ranger Keith Fisher.

One year, Mark encountered an impatient male flycatcher who was anything but disturbed by the ranger team. “I’d taken the bung out, and before I’d even got off the ladder he flew straight into the box. I think it must have been the nest he’d used the year before, and he’d been waiting for me to let him in. I moved the ladder and watched, and as he came out, I’m sure he winked at me.”