Saturday 4 June 2022

The smallest forest specialist

The Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva ranks among one of the most mysterious breeding birds in Slovenia. It's not only rare, but also difficult to observe, due to its small size and fleeting behaviour. It inhabits moist, older deciduous and mixed forests where beech Fagus sylvatica is dominant. As a cavity nesters it needs plenty of dead wood in its breeding habitat. Because of its rather narrow habitat requirements it can be considered an old-growth forest specialist.

The species' population's stronghold in Slovenia is in the alpine valleys, but even there, birds are found in low densities. One exception are the Kamnik Alps in northern Slovenia, where Red-breasted Flycatcher seems locally common. Some small and extremely localised populations have been found in the Dinaric mountains too, but the species' presence in this area seems only sporadic. The overall population estimate for Red-breasted Flycatcher in Slovenia is 100-250 breeding pairs, ranking the species among Slovenia's rarest breeding birds.

The end of May and beginning of June is an excellent time to go looking for this bird, which returns from its wintering grounds in India rather late in the season. Recently we've been doing fieldwork mostly in the Karst's dry grasslands (more on that in one of the next blogs), so returning to the forest was a welcome diversion. Last weekend, despite unfavourable weather (pouring rain) we set for the Kamnik Alps. The rain kept coming down for most of the day and we were soaked very soon, but the wet beech forests represented the perfect setting for our observations. Not far from where we started to walk we heard the first singing Red-breasted Flycatcher. With some effort we managed to spot the bird, singing from dead branches in the upper part of the trees. However it was a first-winter bird, with no orange throat.

Moist beech Fagus sylvatica forests in an alpine valley of the Kamnik Alps.

Habitat of the Red-breasted Flycatcher.
First-winter male Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva

Later on as we continued the search, we followed the contact call of a flycatcher that took us to a female collecting food. Nice, but still not the distinctive orange throat we were after! Some hours passed and we began to loose hope. But then, not far from the site of our first observation, we finally spotted an adult male. As it was sticking to a particular area and making regular passages to the same branches, we realised it was collecting food for the young. The nest was probably somewhere around, but because of the thick foliage and overcast skies, the light was very poor and searching for a nest was quite unpractical. Also photography was very tough, hence the poor quality of the photos. Despite this we were happy to observe the species in such "scenic" conditions that are so characteristic of the habitat where Red-breasted Flycatchers live.  

Red-breasted Flycatcher Ficedula parva - at first, up in the canopy.
Then lower down, "flycatching" close to the ground!
Posing and exhitibing its full beauty on a low "flycatching" post.

Like other forest specialists (birds that depend on mature forests) also the Red-breasted Flycatcher is increasingly under pressure by intensive forest management. Given the small population of this species in Slovenia and the intensification of logging in many areas, we should be worried for its long-term survival. This is why we included the Red-breasted Flycatcher as one of the flagship species in our fundraising campaign, aimed at preserving Slovenian old-growth forests. With the help of heartly donors we want to buy a piece of forest and leave it to develop naturally, thus helping preserve forest specialists. If you haven't contributed yet, you can still do so through the website Several celebrities have become supporters of the campaign, including David Lindo - The Urban Birder, now officially Guardian of the Red-breasted Flycatcher (watch video).