For calling birds

Cuckoo. Photo, Amy lewis

DWT is raising funds to help Devon’s breeding migrant birds.

Many more than ‘four calling birds’ will benefit, if a new fundraising drive by Devon Wildlife Trust is succesful.

Welcome Home appeal

DWT has launched the Welcome Home appeal to maintain and restore the habitats needed by birds that travel thousands of miles from Africa to breed in Devon each spring.

Many of these species have suffered severe declines in recent decades: the UK breeding population of willow warblers – whose song is one of Devon’s most beautiful spring sounds – has plummeted by 70% since the 1980s. And the number of sites across Devon where cuckoos are recorded has fallen by nearly three-quarters in the last 40 years.

Dartmoor’s cuckoos travel from the Congo rainforest and the pied flycatchers that breed in Devon’s oak woodlands fly 3000 miles from west Africa - so it’s clear that our African migrant birds face threats en route. With mountains, deserts, forest loss and human hunters on their epic journeys, it’s amazing that any of these birds complete the round trip at all.

But for some migrant bird species - for example swallows and wheatears - making the same journeys from Africa, populations in Devon have remained relatively stable. And the numbers of nightjars, another summer visitor, have actually increased in Devon, thanks to active management of the heathland habitat they need for breeding.

Devon Wildlife Trust believes this demonstrates that the loss of so many cuckoos, willow warblers, redstarts, pied flycatchers and other migrant birds from the Devon country cannot solely be down to overseas threats.

DWT’s Dan Smith said: “Changes to the way land is managed in Devon has led to loss and fragmentation of good habitat for nesting for many species. And all these birds are insect-eaters. The loss of abundant insect populations in our wider countryside means the remaining migrant birds often now rely on insect-rich nature reserves and other land managed for wildlife, as the only places with sufficient food supplies to feed hungry chicks.”

There have been recent breeding success stories for some of these species on Devon nature reserves, despite their loss from the wider countryside. So Devon Wildlife Trust is working this winter on management of heathland, grassland and moorland nature reserves to provide the best conditions for migrant birds’ nesting and feeding needs, in time for their spring return.

Thanks to generous donations from bird lovers and wildlife enthusiasts, already more than £16,000 has been raised for this work. But with winter habitat management activities ongoing, DWT is trying to raise at least another £12,000 to give these magnificent birds the best chance of a successful breeding season.

Donations will be used on management work at nature reserves including Dunsford in the Teign Valley and Halsdon, near Winkleigh, where pied flycatchers have taken well to nest-box schemes. And on Dartmoor nature reserves including Emsworthy Mire, near Widecombe – one of the best places in Devon to see and hear cuckoos – and Bellever Moor and Meadows, where redstarts nest in the restored dry stone walls. Donors to this appeal will also be supporting heathland management to benefit nightjars at nature reserves such as Bystock Pools, near Exmouth and Chudleigh Knighton Heath, near Newton Abbot.

DWT’s Dan Smith commented: “Many of these birds rely on nature reserves to raise new generations. We’re very grateful for the contributions we’ve so far received for this appeal and will be inviting donors to special events on nature reserves next spring and summer, so people can see the wild places – and maybe see or hear the very birds – they have helped. Anyone who gives to the Welcome Home appeal this Christmas will be helping these amazing birds thrive on DWT nature reserves – and for thousands of miles beyond the Devon horizon.”

Emily Stallworthy