The Wrekin Forest supports a variety of woodland habitat from upland oak and beech to dense coniferous plantations and steep-sided alder-lined streams valleys. The subtle (and not so subtle) changes in topography and drainage shaping these variations in ground cover make the area very attractive to a range of birdlife and, for an iconic but increasingly scarce trio of summer visitors, the Wrekin Hills are nothing less than a stronghold…
Pied Flycatcher, Common Redstart and Wood Warbler have a deep association with the upland oak woods of Wales and Western England, where they arrive from sub-Saharan Africa every April. Nowhere near as common as they once were, the Wrekin Hills play a vital role in maintaining their local population, right on the edge of its range. All three synchronise their breeding activity with the peak abundance of defoliating caterpillars in May and June, upon which they feed their young. Thankfully, the trio are all fairly conspicuous, with distinctive plumages, songs and calls that all aid identification.
Pied Flycatcher and Redstart are both Robin-sized birds — males of the latter even have a red breast. However, their slate-grey upper bodies, black faces and quivering rufous tails reduce the chances of mistaken identity. As the name suggests, Pied Flycatcher are predominantly black and white, although, like the Redstart, females appear much browner in colour. Both species feed on insects and can regularly be seen perched just above, or darting across, the woodland floor in search of prey.
While Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts make frequent use of the forest at ground level, a great deal of the Wood Warbler’s springtime activity takes place in tree-tops. However, discovering this bright, greenish-yellow bird should not represent too big a problem, for its song is a unique, accelerating trill said to resemble the sound of ‘sixpence [coming to rest] on a plate’. Delivered from a perch high up in the canopy, it can continue from dawn ‘til dusk and is one of the Wrekin Forest’s true spring delights. From mid-May Wood Warblers retreat to ground level, nesting on open slopes (particularly in Wavy Hair-grass) with a typical gradient of around forty degrees. However they will still return to feed in canopy on the defoliating caterpillars of Oak Tortrix and Winter Moth.
Pied Flycatcher (Ficedula hypoleuca): male is black and white, female (and juveniles) are brown; both sexes have distinctive white wing patch. Song is a high-pitched, melodious warble reminiscent of the phrase ‘tree, tree I come to thee’. Prefer relatively open woodland with scattered tree cover, typically hunting for insects from a perch. Nest in tree cavities and nestboxes on sunny, south-facing slopes. Often referred to as the ‘bigamy bird’ because of male tendency to move around the woodland in search of another female once first partner is incubating eggs! Breeding is generally completed by late June, when the birds melt away from The Wrekin before migrating in September and October. UK red-listed species that has declined by over 50% since the mid-1990s. The Wrekin Forest is located on the eastern fringe of its UK breeding range and is an extremely important site for the species.
Common Redstart (Phoenicurus phoenicurus): Robin-sized chat, with slate grey upper parts, black head, red breast and rump; females and juveniles are buff brown but all have distinctive rufous tail. Song is a short warble that begins with the phrase ‘shree’ and can continue into July (long after Pied Flycatchers have fallen silent). Insects are taken in flight but also from the ground, often around tree trunks, with a Robin-like hop. These birds are rarely found far from vegetation. UK amber-listed species, its numbers are now thought to be relatively stable following a long-term decline.
Wood Warbler (Phylloscopus sibilatrix): vivid leaf warbler with bright yellow-green upper and white underparts, more clearly divided than superficially similar Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. Distinctive song, delivered from a perch high in the canopy, that sounds like a coin coming to rest on a hard surface. UK red-listed species that has declined rapidly in lowland areas within the last twenty years (it was still green-listed in 2002). The Wrekin supports just a few pairs but since disappearing from the Severn Gorge it is now a significant regional breeding site for the species.
Pied Flycatcher, Redstart and Wood Warbler are particularly evident on the northeastern slopes of The Wrekin. The mature woodlands surrounding the main track from the Forest Glen to the Halfway House (before it reaches the first bend) are well worthy of springtime attention and just standing on the spot for a few minutes here can often deliver positive results. Redstart and Pied Flycatchers are natural tree hole nesters but regularly utilise the many nestboxes scattered around this area. Scolding ‘tics’ warning of your approach should serve notice of a situation that is definitely not vacant! The woodlands immediately beyond the southern flanks of the Ercall Quarries are another good place to hear spring-calling Wood Warblers, while the less accessible Sessile Oak woods on the western slopes of the hill support small communities of all three birds.
The Wood Warbler is the largest of the UK’s three leaf warbler species, all of which visit the Wrekin Forest. Listening for the songs of its smaller cousins, the Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler, is by far the easiest way to tell these notoriously inseparable species apart: the ‘zip-zap-zip’ call of the former, and melodious, trickling warble of the latter, are very common indeed in spring and early summer.
The Garden Warbler, a bird that rarely lives up to the first part of its name, is another regular visitor to the Wrekin Hills. This plain brown species’ most distinguishing feature is that it has no distinguishing features, although it does possess a beautiful song reminiscent of the Blackcap, another Sylvia warbler (a group of around 20 very active, insect eating birds) that is both a migrant and native to this area. Garden Warblers are fond of scrub habitat and can turn up just about anywhere it exists, including the dense stands of bramble, nettles and hawthorn around the Ercall Reservoirs, atop The Wrekin and around the Halfway House.
Away from the warbler family, the Spotted Flycatcher (an equally scarce cousin of the Pied Flycatcher) is just about hanging on in the Wrekin Forest. It inhabits the same areas of hillside woodland as its insect catching relative — albeit in much smaller numbers. It is also worth scanning higher up the canopy, as this species can nest in quite exposed cavities on trunks or branches. When hunting, the typical modus operandi of this noisy brown bird is a short aerial foray to and from the same perch, an eye-catching manoeuvre that is typically carried out in very efficient fashion!