by Paul Cormacain
THE stonechats were out and about.
These are birds which are with us all year round, yet I only associate them with the summer. In fact, I do not remember ever seeing them in the winter. Perhaps my eyesight gets poorer in winter!
Stonechats can be noisy, and if a group, say a family of them, are together they are invariably noisy. Their most common contact call sounds like two pebbles being knocked together. Can you imagine how they got their name?
When the male bird is feeling good in the spring he has a tuneful jingle of song, and this he produces when he flutters in a bouncy flight up to thirty metres in altitude.
This has been known to impress the ladies. Young ladies are impressed to the extent that they will produce one or two broods per year, in their first breeding year.
The older ladies do better, and are capable of producing perhaps four clutches annually. Each clutch could number five or six eggs, which sounds to me like a large amount of stonechats. The nest tends to be very well hidden, and is generally deep in the base of a whin bush, or even in a spot of long thick grass.
This bird inhabits rough and uncultivated open terrain, but it likes the land to be reasonably dry, with plenty of whin bushes, or other bushes.
The stonechat likes to sit on bushes, but it also has this habit of wanting to sit on wires. So it likes wire fences, and it likes higher sites that are provided by overhead cables, which means that it likes places where there is electricity and phones, and few folk. It sits on high, in an alert mode, flicking the tail and wings, but keeping a searching eye open for food. The bird scans the ground for breakfast, or lunch, or dinner, which means insects.
Because more and more houses are being built in country areas, more and more areas are going from a wild state to a cultivated state, and this has not helped stonechats.
The fact that more land is being reclaimed, especially scrubby marginal land which is being used for agriculture, has also not helped. This trend has affected the European population of the bird.
Stonechats have an extensive distribution. As well as being found in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, they are found over most of Europe, then eastwards.
The range stretches over Eurasia to Japan, and southwards through Africa as far as the southern Cape. I never did see any in Africa or Asia, or if I did there was not an instant recognition. Well, I did not expect to meet up with them there. The birds which are usually resident in western and southern Europe tend to stay resident. Stonechats which breed further north usually have to move south in the winter.
There is also a bird called the whinchat. It tends to live here during the summer months, and in some respects it is somewhat similar to the stonechat.
It favours similar areas to the stonechat, but can cope with the ground being a bit damper. The appearance of both chats is quite distinctive, the male stonechat having a black head and white neck patches. The male whinchat has a long white stripe above the eye, and above this is a mixture of black and brown stripes.
The back of the male stonechat turns a gradual black later on in the year, and the buff on the tail coverts will wear off, leaving them white.
The female is drabber than the male, but in winter brown feathers edges tone down both sexes, so the birds become more similar in the winter plumage. We tend not to see the whinchats in winter.
One difference in the birds has already been partly noted. The stonechat feeds on insects, many of which it sees from its perch. The whinchat tends to feed on butterflies, moths and flies. It mostly catches them when they come to rest in the long grass. Sometimes it catches flying insects, just like the fly-catchers do.
The experts tell us that the stonechat is decreasing in numbers, but if this summer is anything to go by there are plenty of stonechats around. Keep an eye open for them!
To Wednesday August 31 - Castle Espie is hosting a Feathertastic Trail; a self guided trail for all the family, sounds fantastic! Contact Espie on 9187 4146 for details.
Saturday August 6 - Canoe the river Blackwater, details
from Oxford Island on 3832 2205.
The National Trust invites parents with children who just might be bored to Mount Stewart.
Sunday August 7 - The National Trust is providing jazz
at Castle Coole in Fermanagh.
Guided Walk on Bog Meadows, at 2pm, call The Wildlife Trust on 4483 0282.
Tuesdays August 2, 9, 16, 23 - Environment Matters Talks at 7.30pm, talks by local experts on environmental topics, in Portrush Countryside Centre, details phone 7082 3600.