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