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Flycatchers and the Wildlife Sound Recordist

By Philip Radford

This article was originally published in the Journal of the Wildlife Sound Recording Society Vol4 No5 Spring 1983

When considering recordings of the sounds of pied flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca one has, obviously, to think of the breeding distribution of the species. This is in some of the finest parts of Britain from the scenic point of view, mainly in the western aspects of England and the central parts of Wales; old, mature oak-woods are preferred where suitable nesting cavities can be found. Of late, there has been a northward extension by the bird to Scotland; here, well-grown deciduous woods have been colonised where nesting holes are available and bare, dead branches are present as perches. Not infrequently, an old nesting site of a great spotted woodpecker Dendrocopos major is adopted. 


Pied flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca photo Gareth Thomas FRPS

In many breeding areas, there is an association with wood warblers Phylloscopus sibilatrix and both species may be found at high altitudes, as on the hillsides of the Lake District, Wales, the Quantock Hills or Exmoor, to give well-known examples. Breeding may occur almost up to the limit of the tree line. The distinctively patterned males, with white foreheads, wing-bars, abdomens and breasts contrasting with their otherwise black plumage, normally arrive from their migration before the duller, brown females. They nay be seen while on passage, when they are usually silent, or in their breeding haunts from the middle of April onwards. 

We admire the birds as they feed, flying from branch to branch after airborne insects or descending to the ground to take beetles, spiders or caterpillars; when hunting in the zir, pied flycatchers do not return to the same perch in the manner of spotted flycatchers Euscicapa striata. Indeed, it is a characteristic of the pied flycatcher that a considerable proportion of its food is secured on the ground. One male I watched one April, during a heavy and unexpected fall of snow, certainly behaved in this way and fed repeatedly from the surface of a country lane in spite of interruption from motor traffic. I was reminded that, like all birds, its eyesight must have been remarkably keen for I could find no invertebrates on the partly snow-covered lane surface, or anything else edible for that matter. As the bird fed for several hours at the same site where there was relative shelter from the snow-storm, it could have hardly have been selecting and swallowing grit all that time -as was seriously suggested to me by a local naturalist ! 

When reading the bird books, I have the impression that the musical quality of the male pied flycatcher's song is underestimated. Naturally, certain individuals are indifferent songsters but, to my ear, many contribute some of the most pleasing of woodland spring songs. These utterances are varied sequences of high-pitched melodic notes, although usually only two syllables are involved. There is a basic pattern to the song but it does not appear to be monotonous. Moreover, it must be realised that a male pied flycatcher proclaiming its territory may well sing its admittedly simple cadence over two thousand times in one day. So, superficially at least, one might think that there could be no excuse for the recordist who failed to achieve a recording of reasonable quality.

The loud song rattle has something of the form of that of the redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus, as it asserts its presence from an aged oak; further, it is not uncommon to hear both redstart and pied flycatcher singing together in the same wood. The two species may breed in the same woodland clearing or timbered valley: in western areas of England or central Wales, durmast or sessile oakwoods are colonised by both birds. When they are in full song, preferably soon after dawn, pied flycatchers are not difficult to approach for recording purposes but there is much individual variation in their reactions to the presence of humans.

Pied flycatcher, Kessick, Inverness. Recorded by Roger Boughton 30 July 1994 

Although the notes of the song are high-pitched, the risk of recording over-modulation[1] is not great as far as my experience goes. It is easier to over-record the anxiety, alarm or call notes of the bird which are given, as would be expected, by either sex. However, it is when young are in the nest, which is normally situated in a cavity in a tree, wall or rock-face, that alarm notes are most likely to be heard. A perched bird-of-prey, an inquisitive grey squirrel or hunting stoat will all incite such calls from the parent birds; essentially, the notes are a repeated and high-pitched "wh-eet". 

There are variations on such calls and increased emphasis is given, understandably, should a potential predator investigate the nest entrance. Alarm notes are not so likely to be heard once the young have left the nest as the birds usualiy move to the tops of trees and, as these are then in full leaf, the newly-flown young are most difficult to detect. 

spottedflycatcherspotted flycatcher Muscicapa striata photo Gareth Thomas FRPS

Sound is not a conspicuous feature as spotted flycatchers arrive in their nesting territories. It is true that the male, streaked on the breast rather than being spotted, will sing a high-pitched warble from time to time but this occurrence is far from being common and it is no disgrace for an ornithologist to admit that he has never heard the true song. Spotted flycatchers arrive later than pied flycatchers, being one of the last of the summer migrants to reach their breeding quarters; usually they come in around the middle of May when the hatch of flying insects is increasing. Still called post or beam birds in some country districts, they are distributed over the whole of the British Isles in suitable habitats, frequenting woodland clearings, farms, orchards or village gardens, The distribution is thus quite distinct from the western oakwoods preference of the pied flycatcher and tends to be at a lower altitude. 

Spotted flycatchers only become conspicuous on account of their skilful flights in pursuit of flying insects, such as hover-flies, which are often selected as prey. During nest-building, perhaps on a creeper branch or ledge of masonry, courtship feeding of the female by the male is not uncommon. Occasionally, usually early in the day, coitus will occur; this is preceded by a spectacular display of high tail elevation, followed by depression, by the presumed male, As both sexes of the spotted flycatcher look alike and both will nest-build, it is sometimes difficult to be sure of the gender of the bird one is observing although actually seeing the act of copulation should solve the problem, at least at that time.

Probably most of the building of the nest is carried out by the female encouraged and rewarded by tempting food morsels brought by the male. Yet it is not only while constructing the nest that insect prey is carried to the female, for she is often fed as she incubates the eggs and as she is laying them. At times, prey items of the size of large butterflies may be utilised and more than once I have witnessed a peacock butterfly being offered to the waiting female, Interestingly, when a spotted flycatcher takes butterflies to its mate, the wings are torn off beforehand yet, when butterflies are fed to nestlings, the wings are left intact. I can only assume that the relatively large gape of a maturing nestling, made up of somewhat elastic structures, is able to cope with the complete insect, while the presence of wings would interfere with ingestion with regard to the more rigid mouth and throat parts of the adults.

In the same way, bees and wasps are fed to the young spotted flycatchers with their wings remaining although a bee, when secured, is rubbed on a tree or post in order to remove the sting. If a nestling was stung, I would think the effect would be fatal. Nevertheless, I have seen the young being fed with bees when I have not noticed any prior preparation; maybe the bees being offered were males which, of course, are stingless. When available, large prey items are captured near the spotted flycatchers' nesting area; otherwise, smaller and more easily caugnt flies or gnats are taken, perhaps two or three at a time, from zones round the tree-tops. 

As well as butterflies and bees, moths may be taken as food for the nestlings; in this connection, I have seen identifiable night-flying moths fed to the young. It would seem that such moths, if caugnt in daylight, must have been located as they rested, cryptically patterned and coloured, amongst herbage. Then, as nocturnal moths may be picked from concealing foliage or tree trunks by day, so caterpillars can be seized as well and it is not uncommon to see them brought to the nest and the same applies occasionally to small snails. In the case of snails,
this would represent a valuable source of calcium and they may be offered by the male to the female during courtship, as well as to the young. The ingestion of small snails by the female spotted flycatcher during production of her eggs should be helpful nutritionally.

Spotted flycatcher, Ennerdale, Cumbria. Recorded by Roger Boughton 2- June 1990  

It might be thought that sound would not be associated with spotted flycatchers when they are catching flies and feeding hungry nestlings. But the snap of a spotted flycatcher's bill when a flying insect has successfully evaded capture is loud and alerting although often difficult to localise. One problem is that a series of snapping sounds usually ceases when one's recording apparatus has been set up: as with fishing, the more dramatic and desirable prizes are those which get away!

Nestling spotted flycatchers, especially when they are nearly ready to fly, can be heard making shrill, peeping food-begging calls. Their acuity of hearing must be highly sensitive; when I have observed nests of the young birds I have noticed the broods becoming vigilant, with the hung ones gaping, well before I could detect the approaching food-carrying adult Even so, I have found that it is difficult to record the relatively loud high-frequency notes of the nestlings as over-modulation[1] occurs so readily and, again, when I have been able to get near to a calling, newly-flown juvenile, recording distortion has led to disappointing results.

As the fledglings grow In the nest, so the parents become more demonstrative if an enemy comes near. X perching magpie Pica pica, for instance, is esyecially disliked and the adult spotted flycatchers react with hard, ticking notes of alarm, interspersed with high-pitched peeps.

These notes, like the calls of the nestlings, are surprisingly easy to over-record, even with good quality apparatus. Typically, the basic anxiety notes comprise a high-pitched, long call followed by two short ticks: "se-ee,..tac, tac"; variations occur, such as "se-ee...tac" or "se-ee ...tac, tac, tac" or just "tac, tac, tac". 

When alarmed, a perched bird will continue to emit such calls for minutes on end and the sounds will continue for a significant time after danger has passed; spotted flycatchers with large young in the nest are very easily "wound-up" in the acoustic sense. As indicated, the constituent calls of an alarm sequence are loud, high-pitched and follow each other quickly. Analysis of these sounds is possible by playing the recording at half speed; I nave found it to be impossible to be accurate when attempting analysis at normal speed. One bird which spotted flycatchers react adversely towards is the cuckoo Cuculus canorus, although most species of small birds in Britain seem to share such feeling.

Rarely, a cuckoo has been known to lay an egg in a spotted flycatcher's nest but it is said that most of these eggs are rejected or, I would imagine, the nest gets deserted. Last summer, I recall, I watched a spotted flycatcher which was reacting with alarm calling because a cuckoo had perched in a bush nearby; the flycatcher, which was incubating eggs at the time, refused to return to its nest until several minutes after the cuckoo had flown off. 

An increase in the rate of delivery of the ticking notes of an alarming spotted flycatcher suggests greater danger for the eggs or brood, as would be expected. There are occasions, however, when a spotted flycatcher will join in a general mobbing reaction, as when a perched predator is discovered in a place with a sizeable population of small birds; this can happen if a flycatcher is hunting insects away from its immediate nesting territory or even when on migration. When a spotted flycatcher, however, has young which are about to quit the nest, it becomes more vocal; moreover, I have noticed that at this time some of the ticking notes become slurred in form and an emphasised tick may alternate with a slurred one, Slurring continues for a few days after the young have flown; unfortunately, I have not been able, as yet, to record any satisfactory examples of these calls. In any case, slurring seems to do nothing to reduce the possibility of over-modulation.[1]

In my view, spotted flycatchers present a greater challenge to the wildlife recordist than do pied flycatchers; happily, both species are reasonably common so there should be opportunities for the recordist to contact both birds during the spring and summer. The attractive distinctiveness of the male pied flycatcher's spring plumage is
admittedly more eye-catching than the duller feathering of the spotted flycatcher but this is balanced by the spotted flycatcher's grace as an aerial acrobat. Both species are clearly assets in their differing habitats; should either be missing, we sense the impoverishment that has occurred. Visually, the two birds give pleasure, surely, to all naturalists. Vocally, they are not so well known and it is up to the wildlife sound recordist to draw attention to the varied and intriguing nature of their scngs and calls, It is only by this means that the significance of their vocalizations can become better understood..

  1. Editor's note: When this article was written in 1983 analogue recording was commonly used. High frequencies were boosted (pre-emphasis) before recording onto the tape, then reduced on playback to minimise tape hiss with typical music programme material. High-pitched wildlife sounds could easily end up over-recorded as the frequency spectrum is not always similar to that of music, and such sounds were easily overmodulated though the meteirng indicated things were fine. This is not such a problem now as digital recording does not usually use high frequency pre-emphasis.

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