Time for a Chat?! (8 June 2004)

Stonechat Saxicola torquata femaleStonechat Saxicola torquata male

Whilst staying on Walney Island, Cumbria, 20-22 May to catch the last of the spring passage waders, one evening I set a couple of spring traps baited with mealworms and quickly caught this pair of Stonechats Saxicola torquata. These delightful birds are quite scarce in the home area of Merseyside Ringing Group, but one of the commoner breeding birds along the Cumbrian coast. They start breeding early, and the first brood of chicks from this pair had already left the nest and were fending for themselves as the female regained her energy for a second clutch.

It was quite surprising that neither of these birds was already ringed, as Stonechat is one of the best-studied species in Cumbria. John Callion and his team find many nests and ring hundreds of chicks every year, with colour-ringing to enable birds to be individually identified in the field.

This is another of the species that gains its breeding head plumage by abrasion, like Brambling and Chaffinch. The remnants of the buffish-brown tips can be seen on some feathers:

Stonechat Saxicola torquata male

A fairly close relative of the Stonechat, with which I am rather more familiar, is the Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus:

Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus male

The male Redstart is perhaps one of the few British woodland birds that can compete with the North American species for glamour, even a second-year bird like the one depicted above. Redstart is a scarce but regular visitor to one of my main study areas, Delamere Forest in central Cheshire. I was especially pleased this year to find a pair in the same territory as was occupied last year, and a few days ago observed them feeding young in their nest hole, an old Great Spotted Woodpecker Dencrocopos major nest in a birch Betula pendula tree:

Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus male near nestRedstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus female with food at nest

Although I have not caught either of the adult birds this year, they are both wearing rings and it seems reasonable to assume that they are the same pair that bred in this territory in 2003, as they are the only Redstarts known to be ringed for many miles around. They migrate to winter south of the Sahara, in the soudan and guinea savannah belts from central Senegal southwards, so these birds have undertaken a 6,000-mile (9,000 km) round trip to return to the same territory and breed together again. Did they stay together all year round?

The female bird provides an even nicer record as she was ringed as a chick in a nest-box in 2002 and returned to the Forest in 2003 to breed in a natural hole about 1 km from her natal site, and is again (2004) breeding in the same territory. This year's nest is 50 metres from the one used last year, also an old Great Spotted Woodpecker nest in a decaying birch.

Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus maleRedstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus female

They fly actively round their territory, giving the alarm call - a disyllabic 'whee-tuck' call, with the second part of it sounding similar to a Stonechat - and frequently flicking their chestnut-red tails after which the species is named. 'Start' is the old English word for tail and indeed the scientific name phoenicurus is a transliteration of the Greek 'red tail', a name given by Aristotle.

As well as the red tail, the white front on the male's head is important in his display, especially when inviting females to view the nest-site that he has chosen. This feature is recognised in the French name Rougequeue front blanc ('Red-tail with a white front'). A view of the top of the male's head might make quite a good mystery photograph:

 Redstart Phoenicurus phoenicurus male

Who would quickly recognise this as a Redstart?


David Norman.