Linking with the Peak District

This year I was lucky enough to be successful in applying for the National Trust’s Ranger Link Award. This award provides the opportunity for Rangers to visit and exchange experiences with another property. I had chosen to visit Mark Bull at the Longshaw estate in the Peak District for my visit.

Last spring I had observed a couple of singing pied flycatchers in woodland in Bransdale. These little birds are on the red list meaning that they are of the highest conservation priority as their population is in serious decline. Most common in western oak woodlands, the North York Moors is at the edge of their range so we’re lucky for have them in our woods in Bransdale. They readily take to nest boxes so we’ve been putting plenty up over winter ready for this year’s breeding season, but I wanted to find out more about how to make the nest box scheme a success and what makes the best habitat for them. A quick search on the internet helped me find out about Mark and the work he’d been doing in the Peak District, so I got in touch and arranged my visit through the Ranger Link scheme.

Mark started my visit by showing me around the woodlands where they have installed nest boxes for the pied flycatchers. We started off in Padley Wood, which is well known by local bird watchers as a place to see the species. It didn’t take long to see the birds as they busily flitted around catching insects on the wing and zipping in and out of the nest boxes. The woods here were ideal habitat with well-spaced mature oak trees, a fairly closed canopy, not too much understory and plenty of nest boxes.

Pied flycatcher singing

A male pied flycatcher singing

After this we visited some of the other woods in the estate. Mark has been putting boxes up in suitable woodland over the years and there are now over 200 boxes on the estate. As a result pied flycatchers have spread into more areas and the population is now thriving.

One of the reasons that nest box schemes can be so beneficial for pied flycatchers is that they can struggle to find natural nesting sites. They are late migrants, only returning from their wintering grounds in West Africa in Late April or even May in the North York Moors. By then other hole nesting species such as blue tits and great tits will have already taken the best nesting spots. To counter this Mark has started bunging the holes in some of his nest boxes. The bungs are removed once the first returning flycatcher is spotted. This means there will always be plenty of available nest sites, but it is labour intensive. Mark replies on a team of volunteers to help with the bunging and unbunging of the boxes and to survey them throughout the season to see how the birds get on.

It was a great first day that gave me plenty to think about for the coming years as we expand the scheme in Bransdale.

On my second day Mark had arranged for me to go out with Kim, an ecologist from the Eastern Moors Partnership. The Eastern Moors Partnership is a joint venture between the National Trust and the RSPB, managing the Eastern Moors on behalf of the Peak District National Park Authority. Kim’s main role is monitoring and protecting the ring ouzels that nest in the area.

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A ring ouzel, or mountain blackbird (northeastwildlife.co.uk)

Ring ouzels are another red listed bird that can be found in both the Peak District and the North York Moors. The grit stone edges of the Eastern Moors are a stronghold for this enigmatic bird of the uplands. Clumps of vegetation such as heather, bilberry and bracken underneath the rocky crags make ideal nesting habitat. Unfortunately the crags of the Peak District are also extremely popular with walkers and rock climbers

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The year’s first egg

and disturbance can often cause ring ouzel nests to fail. Kim and I went to check on a couple of territories he had been monitoring. While we weren’t lucky enough to spot any birds, we did manage to check one of the nests which contained a single egg that would have been laid that morning. The female will lay two or three more over the coming days before starting to incubate. Now that she’s started laying, Kim will return with warning signs to ask people to stay out of the area until the chicks have fledged.

Kim was extremely knowledgeable about birds and I was able to quiz him about a whole range of subjects and have come back with ideas of how we can better manage habitat and monitor for species like whinchat and curlew as well as ring ouzels.

In the afternoon I looked at some more woodland habitat management work the team had been doing with Mark to benefit species like spotted flycatcher, redstart and lesser spotted woodpecker before helping with building a tree guard. All too soon it was time to get on my way back to North Yorkshire.

Many thanks to Mark, Kim and the rest of the team at the Longshaw Estate for making me feel welcome and taking the time to show me the work you do.

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