Chemical Ruin & A Fly Shaped Absence.
Wait. Another of our songbirds is missing. Its disappearance has been worrying away at the frayed fabric of my summers in recent years – their usual perches and glad, familiar silhouettes, vacant. It isn’t an iconic summer visitor like a cuckoo, or a turtle dove, a nightingale, swallow, swift or house martin (all birds that have suffered declines, most of them catastrophically) but just ten years ago, it was considered common and widespread; a bird of woodland edges and gateways, of public footpaths and rural bus stops, of farmyards, vicarage gardens and churchyards.
The spotted flycatcher is a sweet, mouse-breasted little bird, though (to an uninitiated eye) indistinct – and partly-streaky rather than spotted. Its song is terrible. But it makes up for that in character. Once known, its slim body, large eye, high forehead and gentle, inquiring expression, along with its actions, make it an unmistakable and joyful ‘spot’. Spotted flycatchers are confiding and nest happily under eaves, in Virginia creeper or ivy and readily take to nestboxes (or at least, their roofs). Last year, one nested under the porch of the village hall, the hen bird sitting tight on her nest, like the lid on a butter dish.
Nest places aren’t so much the problem. But sixty years of unrelenting pesticide use is. We continue to destroy their food with new generation chemicals when there is growing opposition against them, due to increasing evidence of their indiscriminate destruction of our insect life. The UK lifted an EU temporary ban on two neonicotinoids this summer. Researcher and author of The Systematic Insecticides: a disaster in the making, Henk Tennekes explains how neonicotinoids “are put inside seeds and permeate the whole plant because they are water-soluble … any insect that feeds on the crop dies”. They are cumulative and leach into ground water, where they are insinuated by rivers and taken up by wild plants, making those poisonous too. We are losing our bees, other pollinators and our bird food, repeating actions from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s when we almost lost peregrine falcons and otters.
Spotted flycatchers are hypnotic, absorbing birds to watch. They fly out from a favourite perch, to ambush passing flies (often acrobatically and with an audible ‘snap’) to return (often) to the same perch, looping out and back again repeatedly, with the fluidity of a needle sewing a hem.
Sewing up the hem of my daughter’s school trousers, (bought too long, so they might last a year) I think of them now – I saw three birds last year and just two this year, both on the same day as we all walked another stretch of the Test Way in this strange summer. I was so excited to see them – an individual bird, then, about half-a-mile on, a whole family, sallying forth to snap up flies from a cluster of upcurved ash branches overhanging a chalky wheat field. We stood for quite some time watching them swing out and return, swing out and return. But I’ve not seen any locally this year, however often I’ve checked: this gatepost, or that dead branch, the footpath sign, all horribly still and empty. There is a loss.
Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have considered counting them, any more than I would count craneflies, sparrows, or butterflies. But of course, that’s what we do now. Counting is good: when trying to save species, it involves, galvanises and utilises people and is the only way we know for certain that things are disappearing and that conservation works. I just don’t want to be counting this little bird of pub gardens, picnics and village greens – out.