Capturing the pied flycatcher on camera

  • Contributor information: CNP

16 July 2018

Wildlife photographer Craig Jones takes us through his incredible experience capturing the tiny pied flycatcher on camera in the Peak District as part of our #summerofbeauty blog series. 

One project I’ve been working on recently is pied flycatchers in the Peak District National Park. These birds are so beautiful and visit our shores during the spring and summer months from their wintering home of West Africa and live manly in woodland habitat. Their numbers are quite low and they are on the “amber” list of species by the RSPB meaning they aren’t rare but not common too.

Male pied flycatcher by Craig Jones

Pied flycatchers are not easily seen as they tend to keep to the upper branches of trees. The males have a striking plumage consisting of a white underside and black back, black head mask and black primary wing feathers. There is a noticeable white patch on the upper wing and a less conspicuous one on the forehead at the base of the upper part of the bill. Females have a brown back and head mask, while the upper wings and tail are darker grey-brown. The underside is more buff in colour than the striking white of the male.

They are incredibly fast and nimble. photographing them in the dense woodland habitat they favour is difficult. I found two nestboxes that had young inside. So I set my hide up near to one that I favoured due to the light and lower natural branches the birds often land on. I was a good distance back and hidden away from the nestbox in order to present as little disturbance as possible to these birds.

The knock on effect with nature from our cold spell in early Spring has been quite significant I’m noticeing. With these birds and many others laying their eggs much later due to the cold weather and heavy snow we had in March and April. Lets hope this isn’t the shape of things to come, placing nature under alot more stress than it already is!

Flycatcher nestbox by Craig Jones

This image above shows where this pair of Pied Flycatchers had set up home.  The nestbox is well hidden in a really overgrown area of this wood. These birds are so fast, landing without warning, then moving off just as fast. Its almost impossible to work out where they will land, take off from in order to get any photographs. So I’m listening for their telltale hovering sound they make with their wings, its something they do alot in and around the nestbox.

Due to being in a hide my vision is often restricted so listening to their flight patterns is a great way of locating them much quicker I’m finding. Inside this wood is so quiet and after time you become so tuned in that you literally hear everything. Anything that breaks that stillness, no matter how small you instantly become aware off due to the sheer silence.

Male flycatcher in flight by Craig Jones

I used a long lens within my hide and also a second camera system with a wide angled lens placed not far from the nestbox. I covered it in camouflage and wrapped material around it to dull the noise to minimise any disturbance to the birds. I used a remote control release on the second camera body with the wide angled lens attached. It was very much hit and miss with the results, with more blurred images than sharp ones.

Using manual focus, I per-focus just in front of the nestbox, using my hand to replicate the subject. I used a high ISO and wide open aperture to give me a decent shutter speed. No flash was used in these images as I don’t use any sort of flash within my wildlife photography because it blinds and disturbs wildlife. My aim with these wide angled images was to show the woodland habitat in which these birds are living and rearing their young.

feeding a chick by Craig Jones

These birds are stunning and one of my favorite summer migrants. Small in size, big in character with a beautiful call that rings out among this shaded, dense habitat they live in. During my many visits to this area the feeding had increased and I could hear the calls of the young inside the nestbox gradually becoming louder and louder as they grew.

Towards the end of the third week the noises from the nestbox when the adults approached with food were really loud. I knew the chicks inside were getting close to fledgling. So I spent day after day hoping to see this and be present. The hours paid off as on the very day they fledged I was there and it was wonderful too see and quite moving.

The adult birds were trying to coax all of the young out by providing them food on branches that surrounded the nestbox. Without warning two chicks flew out and upwards into the treetops. This left at least two inside as I could heard two different calls. Over the next couple of hours the adults flew at the box with food in their beaks, then flew away hoping the young would follow them and leave.

They didn’t seem to want to leave though due to the warmth and safety of the nextbox. Then one came to the entrance of the nestbox, looked up and left, flying for a nearby branch. Not long after the last one came to the entrance but started to beg and was fed. After a couple of reassuring feeds the last chick left the home that had kept them safe for the last two weeks.

As all four were in the trees around me calling for food I went closer to look at their home, I looked inside to see where they had lived for the last few weeks. I removed the lid, took a few photos with my phone then put the lid back on and wished them all well on their onward journey to Africa.

flycatcher chick by Craig Jones

Its been amazing to witness these Pied Flycatchers over the last few weeks rearing their young and seeing them fledge. Fingers crossed they all make it back safety to West Africa later in the year.

No bait, mealworms, false perches, bird callers or trickery was used in this project or any of my work. I don’t use the many “pay-as-you go set up sites throughout the UK, where food is placed out on walls, perches etc and hidden to make it look natural. I find my own sights and subjects which is really important as a professional wildlife photographer I believe. 

By Craig Jones Wildlife Photography 

This article was originally published here and is recreated with the permission of the Author. 

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