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The Song and Dance Man

by Michael Thompson

male whitethroat photo Trains used to run regularly from Malton to Thirsk, passing through Slingsby and Hovingham stations, but, in August 1964, the line was axed by Lord Beeching. A year later all the rails and sleepers had been removed, and some of the bridges dismantled. Much of the track was incorporated in agricultural land but other sections, such as that between Slingsby and Hovingham, became a public right of way for walkers, cyclists and horses. The Slingsby end remains as wide as the original cinder track and is bounded on most of its northern side by a deep drainage ditch and a small lagoon excavated in the 1850s to provide materials for the creation of the line. The southern boundary consists of inadequately maintained hedgerows and post-railway scrub. Like other disused railway lines, it has become an ideal linear nature reserve, of about a mile in length from Slingsby to the point that the track crosses Fryton Lane. The track changes in character the further west it goes. I have walked it on a regular basis since 1969 and have recorded 55 species of birds along it, several mammal species, such as water voles and roe deer, a number of different butterflies and some interesting plants.

Besides the occasional kingfisher flying along the ditch, the summer migrant bird that really has attracted my attention has been the whitethroat Sylvia communis – or the song and dance man, a name given to it by some country folk. The colloquial name aptly describes the song-flight of the male whitethroat. The song has been described as a scratchy, hoarse, gruff voice that is delivered in a jerky manner, but there are variations. It is uttered from a perch from which the male sallies forth vertically uttering his song, before returning to the original perch or another. There is also an alarm call.

The first whitethroats arrive along the railway track between the last week of April and the first week of May. Their presence is often first announced by the male‘s song, which may, initially, be partial and soft. Both sexes have a white throat, but the male has a more colourful plumage with a grey head, brown back and a white eye-ring. The females arrive a little latter and can be found skulking in the undergrowth. By mid-May other males have joined the song and dance routine, thereby announcing their territories. In 1996 I only located one territory, but by 2006 there were six; the average over recent years is between three and four territories. Whitethroats are also established elsewhere around Slingsby, especially along a country lane called Totten Lane, initially called Town End Lane. In 1969 the whitethroat population crashed, so that only 25% of their usual numbers reached Britain. This crash was due to an extensive drought in their wintering quarters in Africa, that continued over the next five years. Since then there has been a gradual recovery in numbers from the late 1980s onwards, which shows up on the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Bird Track graphs for 2005 to 2007.

I do not look for nests, often found amongst brambles, fearing that an unknown predator is lurking in the undergrowth and ready to pounce. However, I look out for juvenile whitethroats being fed by adult birds, which gives me some idea of how successful the breeding season has been. Normally I find two or three young being fed during the last two weeks of June, the earliest record being 15th of the month in 1997 and 2005; the last such feeding record being 3rd July 2005 suggesting two broods in that year. Adults collect insects from the ditch, including a species of crane-fly Tipula. Juvenile birds remain around the railway track until the first week of August (1.8.04), with adults disappearing from the habitat mid-August (17.8.04) to mid-September (12.9.05). There was a very early departure in 2007 due to a very wet summer (25.7.07).

I now await with pleasure the return of the Song and Dance Man.

© Michael Thompson 2007

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