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Fruit trees, fledgelings and flycatchers

Outdoor Living

BUTTERFLY'S BANE A specialised predator, the spotted flycatcher has a taste for butterflies.

Country Sights and Sounds
John Shelley

When James came calling I thought he had it in mind to cajole me into another one-sided angling contest, with the loser (likely to be me once more) supplying the inevitable winner with liberal quantities of porter followed by a large feed of fried chicken.
But, no, this time he surprised me. In one hand he wielded a large pair of secateurs that would have taken the legs off an elephant; with the other he gestured widely, toward my mini-orchard.
“I was just learning about growing fruit,” he pronounced, “and you’re doing it wrong.”
“What do you mean?” I demanded. “Just look. I never saw such apples.” To be truthful I could have been more definitive and said “I never saw such small apples” but I wasn’t going to give him that satisfaction.
He pulled himself up to his full height. “What you need to do,” he told me, “is prune. If you cut back the branches the apples will grow. If you don’t, they won’t. It’s as simple as that. It was on the radio.” So saying, he walked across to the nearest tree, took hold of one of the lower branches and gave it a shake. Half a dozen apples dropped in to the grass.
“Hey,” I objected. “Watch what you’re doing.”
“Don’t mind them,’ said James, ‘the rest will grow bigger without those weedlings to hold them back, especially if we get a bit of trimming done.” He closed his secateurs at the base of the branch and gave a hearty pull on the handles. The wood fell away, leaving a lopsided gap in the foliage. There was nothing for it but to pitch into the job myself, before each of my trees was reduced to little more than a stump.
Despite myself, I had to acknowledge there was truth to what he said. Thinning out the crop would allow the remaining fruit to develop better. There would still be far more than I knew what to do with. So, working together, we trimmed back the new growth without knocking many more apples off.
A robin came to join us in our work, it’s pale breast indicating it to be one of this year’s youngsters. The parents had raised two broods, with at least three fledglings in each, yet there has been no appreciable increase in the number of robins around us. Something is keeping their numbers in check. Pongo the pine marten likely has something to do with it. We know he hunts roosting birds from dusk until dawn, and that he kills even what he cannot eat.
That is the price we pay for being able to entertain such an interesting animal. Just last week one visitor exclaimed in astonishment, “Look! There’s a weasel in your garden!” and there was Pongo hunting for scraps at the edge of the flowerbed.
The robin kept pace with us, inspecting the underside of discarded leaves for morsels. I looked to see what was there, and found tiny, pale green caterpillars, the larvae of some kind of moth.
Another bird arrived on the scene. Similar in size to the robin, this one was pale, grey brown above with large, dark eyes and a freckled front. It sat upright and motionless on the top of a nearby post for several minutes, before finally darting out to snatch a flying insect from the air with a clearly audible snap of its beak. Then back it went to the same post to sit and wait once more, until another insect fled from our work for the safety of the crab tree, only to fall victim to those snapping mandibles.
The spotted flycatcher is a specialised predator that quite likes a diet of butterflies if these are available. It’s typical feeding behaviour is just as we were able to observe. It will sit and wait and watch, and as soon as anything worth the trouble comes within range it swoops in chase, often twisting and turning in flight in pursuit of it’s prey. Favourite feeding places are often in sunlit areas at the edge of woodland, where butterflies can be found in numbers, and any quantity of butterfly wings on the ground indicate that a flycatcher is operating in the area.
We spent a pleasant hour trimming the apple trees and at the end of it they did look rather smart with their new haircuts. Now I shall wait for the apples to plump up nicely. There will be enough for all. For the birds, for Pongo, for myself, and perhaps the odd one for James.


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