Stonechats

There’s a walk we used to do when my wife worked in Cardiff; it started at Llantwit Major station and followed the Nash Brook down to Cwm Nash, emerging onto the beach through a huge notch in the cliffs. There was a café there – a couple of leathery surfers wouldn’t look out of place lounging by it. The first image represents the view to the left.

The limestone pavement and cliffs run all the way to Nash Point, where there is a lighthouse and a foghorn to warn mariners of the considerable perils of Bristol Channel. I was a strict manual camera user then, shooting only slide film, probably Kodachrome 64 in this case. The image is scanned from a slide so it’s grainy but the point of the image is the grandeur of the beachscape.

A path rises up the cliff from Cwm Nash and takes you along the top with spectacular views and when we visited, Choughs, corkscrewing and calling up and down the sheer faces, red talons extended and red bills agape. I wish I had tried to photograph them but I was all set up for landscape and thought success most unlikely. The landscape by Nash Point was crossed by old stone walls and studded with gorse bushes, and it resounded with sharp and insistent percussion. Wrens perhaps? Not quite the right sound. And then we were able to see a small bird, and then a pair of them, perching and dipping, then making short swooping flights to another perch nearby. As we advanced, they would work around us and follow us back into their territory. Stonechats of course, unmistakeable with hindsight and a good look at the book.

Stevenston is a good place for them closer to home and that’s where most of my pictures come from. There’s rough ground all along the top of the beach with a great range of perches and, or so I would imagine, a lot of insect habitats. We’ve also seen them regularly on the way up the Kilpatrick Hills. Even with up to a year between the visits, the Stonechats are never far from where we saw them first.

I had assumed from these regular-as-clockwork sightings that Stonechats were sedentary but Callion (British Birds, 2015, 108, 648-659) shows otherwise in a rigorous study of a Cumbrian population in which there was considerable mobility between breeding and wintering territories, and further afield.

Small birds which eat mostly insects are very vulnerable in hard winters. Stephen Moss wrote a nice piece about them in the Guardian in 2013 (though with a truly awful illustration) and there is an interesting account of their wintering behaviour in Cheshire and on the Wirral, based on work carried out by the BTO and using ringing data. The executive summary involves a combination of shocking levels of Stonechat mortality, mitigated by southerly migration followed by furious levels of breeding activity to restore numbers.

Stonechats always command a vantage point; no skulking in the lower branches for them. Naturally, a Stonechat would find the highest point of a rose bush for a perch (a female this time, above), all the better if it’s atop some prettily coloured rosehips for that extra inch or two, or – below – on the most slender stalks in the parched grassland with the best view of the surrounding microforest.

Once seen, never forgotten and always a most cheering sight. Some more poised and nicely posed Stonechats follow in the gallery.

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