I’m writing this on a bleak mid-winter’s day – all grey skies and biting winds. As consolation I find my mind turning to warmer thoughts and Devon’s summer migrant birds which are now in sunny western and southern Africa.
The familiar calls of cuckoos and chiffchaffs, the tumbling melody of the willow warbler’s song and the night time churring of the nightjar have been keynotes in Devon’s spring soundtrack for centuries. But the musical highlights from all these Devon birds form only one stage of an intercontinental tour. The pied flycatchers breeding in nestboxes at Devon Wildlife Trust’s nature reserves Dunsford and Halsdon fly 3,000 miles to west Africa each autumn, while the swallow’s flight from Devon to southern Africa is an astonishing 5,500 miles.
Thanks to satellite tagging of birds we now know more than ever about migration. And as our knowledge grows, so we appreciate more the list of threats faced by long distance migrant species. With mountains, deserts, forest loss and human hunters between Africa and Devon, it’s amazing that any of these birds complete the roundtrip.
Some of our migrant birds have declined severely in recent decades. The UK breeding population of willow warblers has plummeted by 70% since the 1980s, while the number of sites across Devon where cuckoos were recorded has fallen by nearly three-quarters in the last 40 years.
But populations of some African migrant birds – such as wheatears and swallows – have been relatively stable over the same time period. And nightjar populations have actually increased in Devon.
So the loss of so many cuckoos, willow warblers, redstarts, pied flycatchers and other migrants from the Devon countryside cannot solely be down to overseas threats. What has changed in the Devon countryside since the mid-20th century to contribute to these declines?
The biggest factor has been the shift to the way land is managed. This has led to loss of good habitat for nesting for many species. And all these birds are insect-eaters. The loss of abundant insect populations in our wider countryside mean the remaining migrant birds often now rely on nature reserves and other land managed for wildlife, as the only places with sufficient food supplies to feed hungry chicks.
The good news is many migrant birds are thriving on Devon Wildlife Trust nature reserves. For example, last summer pied flycatchers using nest boxes at our Dunsford reserve in the Teign valley had one of their most successful breeding seasons since records began in 1979, with 130 young birds fledged from 26 broods. Nightjars are another species to have fared well and with improved heathland management we’re now seeing the return of these fascinating birds to our Chudleigh Knighton Heath nature reserve, close to Bovey Tracey. Meanwhile our Emsworthy Mire reserve on Dartmoor remains one of Devon’s best remaining places to still see and hear cuckoos.
So what’s the key to these successes? The short answer is that well-managed nature reserves are vital to turning around such bird declines. These sites are the wildlife-rich ‘reservoirs’, from which recovery into the wider countryside can flow. Without them we risk losing the sights and sounds which have warmed the hearts of people in Devon for centuries.
You can help give these special birds a ‘Welcome Home’
This winter Devon Wildlife Trust has launched its ‘Welcome Home’ appeal in order to carry out essential management work on a number of its 50 nature reserves. Our plan is to help migrant birds – including cuckoo, redstart, nightjar, pied flycatcher and willow warbler – before they return to breed in spring. You can find out more and show your support at www.devonwildlifetrust.org
Featured image ‘Nightjar’ by Chris Root
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