Sur­pris­ing Stonechat

One birdwatching joy is learn­ing some­thing new – if you thought the Stonechat was a res­i­dent bird, then pre­pare to be sur­prised…

Bird Watching (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: IAN PAR­SONS

Birder Ian Par­sons was amazed to dis­cover a fact about the Stonechat that he never knew

THE THING I love most about be­ing a bird­watcher is that you are al­ways learn­ing some­thing new. Whether you have been bird­ing all your life or have only just started, whether you are a pro­fes­sional or­nithol­o­gist or a keen am­a­teur, there is al­ways some­thing new to learn about birds. I re­cently learned some­thing new about a bird that I thought I knew very well – the Stonechat. But more about that later...

The Stonechat is a real char­ac­ter of our avi­fauna. It is small, roughly the size of a Robin, but a showy bird, that is found in a wide range of scrubby habi­tats, par­tic­u­larly heath­land and coastal sites. It mainly breeds in the west and south of Bri­tain, but in the win­ter, it is more wide­spread, fre­quent­ing the eastern side of the coun­try, too. Typ­i­cally, it is seen sit­ting on the top of a small bush, Gorse of­ten be­ing a favourite, from where it will ut­ter the call that gives it its name. Sound­ing like two stones be­ing tapped to­gether, the Stonechat’s call is part con­tact call and part warn­ing call and is read­ily used to scold you if you dare to fre­quent its patch! The male is in­stantly recog­nis­able, with a black head set off with a bright white col­lar and a lovely orange-red breast. It is a smart bird and one that isn’t easy to con­fuse with any other. The fe­male is a much more subtly marked bird. She does have a no­tice­ably orange breast, al­though it is not as strongly coloured as the male, but lacks the black head and white col­lar that makes the male so dis­tinc­tive. It is pos­si­ble to con­fuse her with her close rel­a­tive, and sum­mer visi­tor to many parts of Bri­tain, the Whin­chat. But care­ful ob­ser­va­tion will help you dis­tin­guish be­tween these two species. While I have al­ways en­joyed watch­ing Stonechats, es­pe­cially when they dash off from

The Stonechat is a real char­ac­ter of our avi­fauna. It is small, roughly the size of a Robin, but a showy bird

their el­e­vated perch, snatch an in­sect, re­turn back to their look­out, flick their wings and tail and then set­tle down to eat their prize, I hadn’t re­ally given them much thought. That was, un­til re­cently, when I dis­cov­ered that there is a lot more to this colour­ful lit­tle bird than you may re­alise. These birds can travel. I was chat­ting to a ringer from Cum­bria who hap­pened to men­tion, as we were watch­ing a Stonechat, that he had rung one in Cum­bria as a chick in the nest and then, three months later, it had been re­cov­ered from near Va­len­cia in Spain. This was a sur­prise to me, I had al­ways thought that Stonechats were res­i­dent in Bri­tain and, while I ex­pected the young to dis­perse a lit­tle bit once they had fledged, I cer­tainly hadn’t ex­pected them to dis­perse more than 1,000 miles! This con­ver­sa­tion got me think­ing, was this nor­mal be­hav­iour for our lit­tle Stonechat, a bird that we can all too eas­ily take for granted? I checked the Span­ish records and up to 2012, there had been 25 re­cov­er­ies of Stonechats that had been rung in Bri­tain and had sub­se­quently been found in Spain. Now 25 might not seem like a lot, but the vast ma­jor­ity of Stonechats in Bri­tain aren’t rung and, as ev­ery ringer knows, the num­ber of re­cov­er­ies of birds that have been rung is very low in­deed. The widely quoted fig­ure of just 2% of birds rung be­ing re­cov­ered gives you some idea of how large the num­bers of ‘Bri­tish’ Stonechats that travel to Spain could ac­tu­ally be. This made me re­alise that a bird I had al­ways as­sumed to be a res­i­dent must ac­tu­ally be a par­tial mi­grant. I dived into some field guides, but they all said that Stonechats were res­i­dent birds. How­ever, a quick look on the very in­for­ma­tive web­site of the BTO (found at, re­vealed that

While I ex­pected the young to dis­perse a lit­tle bit, I cer­tainly hadn’t ex­pected them to dis­perse more than 1,000 miles!

they were in­deed par­tial mi­grants. A species that is de­scribed as a par­tial mi­grant is one that, within its breed­ing pop­u­la­tion, has some birds that are res­i­dent, some that mi­grate short dis­tances, for ex­am­ple mov­ing from a moor­land site to a nearby coastal site for the win­ter, and some that mi­grate much fur­ther, cross­ing ge­o­graph­i­cal bar­ri­ers, such as seas. Fol­low­ing a suc­ces­sion of mild win­ters in Bri­tain, which has led to a gen­eral in­crease in num­bers of the Stonechat, most birds that you see are likely to be res­i­dents or those that have only moved short dis­tances away from their breed­ing sites. How­ever, a pro­por­tion of the birds you see dur­ing the breed­ing sea­son will be true mi­grants and you might be sur­prised to learn just how far these birds have trav­elled. Stonechats are highly vul­ner­a­ble to harsh win­ters; al­most the en­tire res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion can be wiped out dur­ing pro­longed cold, win­try weather. When this hap­pens, the birds that are seen the fol­low­ing spring are re­turn­ing mi­grants who take up the va­cant ter­ri­to­ries and be­gin the process of re­pop­u­lat­ing. So, where do these mi­grant Stonechats sit out the win­ter? It would ap­pear that the ma­jor­ity travel down through France and into Spain, where they while away the win­ter months close to the Mediter­ranean coast. But not all stop there. There are also sev­eral ring­ing re­cov­er­ies from Morocco and Al­ge­ria on the North African coast, show­ing that these small birds are real trav­ellers. The next time I am up on the north­ern edge of Dart­moor, lis­ten­ing to the dis­tinc­tive call of a Stonechat, I am go­ing to be think­ing about where this bird spent the win­ter; was it on the Devon coast or was it, per­haps, lap­ping up the sun on the edge of Tang­iers? It is great when you learn some­thing new, but it is even greater that there is al­ways some­thing else for you to learn and dis­cover. Ian Par­sons would like to thank Greg Con­way of the BTO for his as­sis­tance.

Stonechats are highly vul­ner­a­ble to harsh win­ters; al­most the en­tire res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion can be wiped out


Breed­ing males are un­mis­tak­able, with black head and throat , white col­lar, dark back and orange breast

Baby Stonechats look like small, short-tailed, speck­led ver­sions of their mothers

IN­SECT EATERS Stonechats feed their young on arthro­pods, such as spi­ders and in­sects FE­MALE Fe­male Stonechats are more subtly plumaged than the males


Stonechats (this is a male) typ­i­cally sit high on ex­posed perches to sur­vey the sur­round­ings An­other fe­male in typ­i­cal win­ter habi­tat of tall weeds on which to perch

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