David Chapman discusses majestic flycatching birds and where you can see them in Somerset

PUBLISHED: 20:02 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:58 20 February 2013

A male pied flycatcher singing to attract females

A male pied flycatcher singing to attract females

Discover where you can watch majestic flycatchers in action around Somerset with expert advice and information from David Chapman.

David Chapman discusses majestic flycatching birds and where you can see them in Somerset

Summer brings with it a whole host of familiar migratory birds. The swift, swallow and cuckoo are amongst the best known but there are many more unheralded arrivals; birds that arrive almost unseen and go about their business in a quiet manner. Of these there are two related birds that both depend on woodland habitat and have a wonderful ability to catch insects - the flycatchers.

Two species of flycatcher visit Somerset for the summer, the pied and spotted flycatchers, both of which spend the winter in Africa. To say that they catch flies is to state the obvious. Many birds 'catch flies', but the flycatchers have mastered the art to perfection. Their distinctive strategy is based on precision.

A flycatcher will perch on a favoured branch of a tree with a good all-round view, and whilst resting there it will watch its air space. When a fly, damselfly or even butterfly comes within range, the flycatcher will dart from its perch and pluck the insect from the air. With amazing agility it may hover momentarily before returning to the same perch with its prey. Well, that's the theory, but even these adept hunters get it wrong sometimes. As anyone who has ever tried to swat a fly will be aware, insects have good eyesight and very fast reflexes, but as they are full of protein, even if the flycatchers miss occasionally, their success rate is high enough to provide nutritious food for themselves and their young.

The pied flycatcher is unlikely to be encountered outside of its chosen habitat of western oak wood where it hunts in clearings and nests in the holes found only in mature trees. Their success in Somerset, as well as the rest of the UK, has depended upon our use of woodland. Many centuries ago, before the removal of a great many trees, they would have been much more numerous than they are today. However, in the second half of the 20th century it was discovered that they will readily take to nest boxes, and through the erection of a large number of nest boxes in suitable habitats, their population has not only recovered but also expanded into new areas including Somerset. Their range in Britain is still biased towards the north and west but it is expanding.

Once a suitable nest hole is found in May, the female pied flycatcher lines it with dead leaves, strips of honeysuckle bark, moss and dried grass. She will then lay between five and eight eggs and incubate them for about two weeks while the male provides her with food. Once the eggs hatch, both parents will contribute to the feeding of their young. So, if a male has many partners his young will receive proportionately less food.

Where nest holes are in short supply, males will frequently fight for their possession as well as chasing females for their attention. As with most birds there is an element of the male's plumage which makes them more successful in finding a mate. In the case of the male pied flycatcher, it is the size of the white patch on his forehead which makes him irresistible to the ladies, but research has shown that good looks are not necessarily an advantage. These good-looking males are more frequently tempted to 'play away' by females attracted to them. As a result, these males have more offspring to provide for and so, ironically, each has less chance of surviving.

The pied flycatcher needs little description beyond its name though it is only the male that is actually black and white; females are a comparatively drab grey-brown and white. Even the young birds have the white wing bar of their parents so they can be readily distinguished from the spotted flycatcher.

Whilst the pied flycatcher might be found within oak woodland, it is the woodland edge and clearings around buildings that is the spotted flycatcher's home. The spotted flycatcher is the more widespread of the two species, occurring across the whole of Britain, and it is more likely to be found in gardens and sometimes churchyards where mature trees overhang clear spaces. However, it isn't necessarily more numerous than the pied flycatcher. With its population more fragmented, it is declining across Britain, and where they choose to nest we should do everything we can to protect them. Their nest site is often a hole in an ivy-clad wall, and though they will take to open-fronted nest boxes, they are not as keen on our assistance as is the pied flycatcher, and that might be one contributory factor for their decline.

The nest of the spotted flycatcher is created by both the male and female who make a rather scruffy collection of moss, hair, wool and feathers. The female will lay around four or five eggs, which are incubated by both sexes for two weeks.

Adult spotted flycatchers are essentially brown though a little paler below with slight spotting on their upper breasts. Juveniles are similar but more spotted for better camouflage. When perching to watch for prey they have a very upright stance with tail held almost vertically downwards. They often return to the same perch after a sortie, and they regularly perch in very visible places such as telegraph poles or wires, chimneys, dead branches or even sign posts.

The months of May and June are the best for finding pied flycatchers. By the time we get into July they seem to become far less obvious and once into August many start to leave the country. By contrast spotted flycatchers can be readily watched throughout the summer and their habit of perching in open spaces helps to make them all the more obvious.

To find a spotted flycatcher, I would recommend starting at your local church, particularly if it has mature trees around it. If not, try looking in the grounds of large stately houses or where farm buildings are surrounded by trees. For a pied flycatcher it will be necessary to head for the oak woods in the hills of the Mendips, Quantocks or Exmoor. It might take a little effort to find either of them but the enjoyment of watching a flycatcher going about its daily business can be one of the most amusing and fascinating of wildlife experiences.

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