Popping corks for the arrival of rare Peak District visitors

Volunteer ranger Angela Pilcher checking the size of a nest 'cork' against the hole of a kit nest box. Photo: National Trust/David Bocking.
Volunteer ranger Angela Pilcher checking the size of a nest 'cork' against the hole of a kit nest box. Photo: National Trust/David Bocking.

A team of National Trust rangers are preparing to ‘uncork’ new homes for more than 30 migrant couples arriving in the Peak District this spring.

The ancient oak woodlands around Longshaw are home to lots of blue tits and great tits, and after setting up special nest box homes for the much rarer pied flycatcher, the rangers discovered native tits had moved into most of the boxes, long before the pied flycatchers flew in from West Africa to look over their prospective new homes.

Ranger Mark Bull removing a'cork' from a nest box. Photo: National Trust/David Bocking.

Ranger Mark Bull removing a'cork' from a nest box. Photo: National Trust/David Bocking.

“I’d heard about the idea of bunging up the boxes to save them for the flycatchers, but as far as I know this is the only place it’s worked to this level,” said ranger Mark Bull.

Mark’s team of more than 20 volunteers and rangers cork up half the 100 or so nest boxes in March, and then uncork them again when one of the volunteers hears the distinctive song of the first newly arrived male flycatcher in the woods in early April.

By then, the more aggressive tits have already found homes in the uncorked boxes (or in holes in decaying trees), so the unique Longshaw Pied Flycatcher Housing Policy aims to ensure there are homes for everyone.

The recent ‘State of the UK’s Birds’ report showed that pied flycatcher numbers have gone down by 48 per cent in the UK since 1995, but numbers at Longshaw have rocketed as the cork-based housing scheme took shape: in 2000 there were nine nests with around 35 chicks, but last year at least 128 chicks hatched in over 30 nests.

Volunteer ranger Keith Fisher removing a 'cork' from a nest box. Photo: National Trust / David Bocking.

Volunteer ranger Keith Fisher removing a 'cork' from a nest box. Photo: National Trust / David Bocking.

The birds have more than trebled in Padley Gorge and other woodlands at Longshaw, but their decrease elsewhere in the UK means they’re now on the ‘red data list’ of threatened species.

The National Trust has been managing the woodlands to encourage flycatchers and other wildlife, by erecting fences and walls to reduce woodland grazing from sheep and deer (with paths and gates for human visitors) and trimming some trees to keep plenty of open space.

It’s believed that a decline in woodland management may have been one reason for the reduction of pied flycatchers in other UK woodlands.

The best time to see pied flycatchers is when they begin feeding their chicks in May.

Ranger Mark Bull checking a nest box hole after removing the 'cork'. Photo: National Trust / David Bocking.

Ranger Mark Bull checking a nest box hole after removing the 'cork'. Photo: National Trust / David Bocking.

Whereas the females are greyish coloured, the male birds are a striking black and white, around the size of a robin, and can be seen hovering to catch insects in the air.

Volunteers in Padley and Longshaw are now also ringing the new born chicks to check where they go later in life - early results show some are returning to their Peak District homes.

“The woods around Padley are one of the best places there is to see pied flycatchers, and it’s really nice to have a red data list species increasing here,” said Mark.

“We’re now getting other groups coming to see how we’ve done it.

“It’s fantastic to know that we’re helping such a rare bird by using the bird boxes and by simple woodland management techniques.”