Stonechat: An Edgeland Visitor

stonechatAfter a very wet start to the day the Autumn sun began to shine at lunchtime but it wasn’t until around 3:30pm that I decided to head out to the edgeland. I tend to take my walks to the edgeland either in the early morning or evening because from experience this is the time of day when I tend to see more wildlife activity but as the darker nights have begun to draw in, so the walks have become that little bit earlier.

I needn’t have worried about the light fading today though as clear blue skies cascaded down onto the afternoon and that bronze-edged sunlight blushed the tall grasses, teasel, cow parsley and bramble hedges with a wonderful warm autumnal glow.

As expected, it was deathly quiet beyond the rail bridge and in the first two fields nothing stirred beyond the rattle of a Magpie from a tall Willow beside the gravel pit. I had hoped to see the arrival of Fieldfare and Redwing following the strong easterly winds last week but it’s still mild here and they don’t seem to have moved this far in land yet. When they do arrive they should be pleased with the masses of berries born on the Hawthorn hedges this year as it looks like a bumper crop. Things soon picked up though when I heard a quiet trill resonating from the hedge in the next field opposite the locks across the canal. Drawing my binoculars close I tried to pinpoint the location of the sound and found a Robin sized bird perched on a bramble. The sun had momentarily dipped behind a brief interlude of cloud and from this distance I couldn’t make out the colours of the plumage. I stood and waited for the sun to re-emerge and for my lenses to capture the light.

Stonechat. One of my favourite birds. Leicester is my home but Cornwall has my heart and I visit St Ives every year to take in the sea air, stunning views and unmatchable sunlight (plus amazing food, drink, beeches and slow pace of life). Around Porthmeor beach and onto the South-West Coastpath heading towards Zennor, Stonechats are all around and their song the soundtrack to every walk I’ve ever taken there. So to see this small but stunning bird on my patch in Leicestershire is a very welcome cure to my daily Cornish cravings. It’s a bit of a local rarity too.

Stonechats are resident in the UK all year round but they only spread this far into the Midlands (from their western and southern breeding grounds) in Autumn and winter and although they are not totally uncommon in North-West Leicestershire (where there is higher, rockier ground and pockets of heath) to see them in South Leicestershire is not common at all. They will often spread West to East in small ‘flocks’ over winter but the one I’m eyeing through my binoculars appears to be a lone female. I suspect there are others in the vicinity. I watch for quite a while as she flits from perch to perch, catching the odd fly in mid-air as she does. Even though only the male (as shown above) carries the dark black plumage around the head the female is still a beautiful, striking bird with the same buff-copper coloured breast and faint white stripe below the cheek.

Reluctantly I move on over the locks and into the river meadow where the Sence is flowing fast having been topped up somewhat by this mornings heavy rain. There is the odd Blue Tit and a Great Tit around and I’m pleased to see Common Carder bees still working the last of the dandelions in the long grass but in the main it is quiet and subdued. Even the Moorhen and Mallard are absent from the river and the only thing in abundance are a growing crowed of Rooks and Black-Headed Gulls on the ploughed land between the Sence and the Sewage works. I follow the river for a while before I come to a wooded section I call the Island. The river snakes here in an almost complete loop save for a small slither of land at the northern tip creating an island and moat type patch of land completely cloaked in Birch, Willow and Elder. A refuge from prying eyes like mine as the only entry point is on private land the other side of the river.

A sudden flush of panic comes from the trees. Pigeons clattering wing-beats clap like thunder as a dozen or so of them spring from the island and as I wonder what all the fuss is about I catch a glimpse of their tormentor. A Sparrowhawk flashes through my gaze like a bolt of lightning and just as soon as the cogs turn in my brain to tell me what I’ve seen it has already gone. Another, very brief highlight from an otherwise still afternoon.

I make my way back across the locks and back into the field where I saw the Stonechat. She’s still there in pretty much the exact same spot. I stand and watch her again through binoculars, this time the setting sun bouncing perfectly from her rust-orange breast. A real sight to behold.

It’s funny when you come across a ‘rarity’ in an area of land like this, the edgeland. When you hear about rare sightings you imagine them to be in harsh, distant or inaccessible places of wild and beauty where twitchers drive 600 miles to scramble through hedge, bog and mountain rock to catch a fleeting glimpse. This little bird on my little patch proves nature is not bound by our invented rules of urban and rural, managed and wild or the boundary-lines on bird book distribution maps. Real wildlife is around us everywhere and anywhere, there to be seen. We just need to open out eyes from time to time.



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