Wednesday, 8 July 2015

It seems like yesterday 7th July 2015



European Stonechat drawn by my good friend John Reaney of Brighton
More years ago than I care to remember, maybe around thirty although it is hard to believe it can really be that long ago, I lived in a village called Ditchling, in the shadow of the Sussex South Downs and much of my free time was spent studying the stonechats that bred along the gorse topped cliffs of Beachy Head, further east in Sussex. In those days they used to be called Common Stonechats but are now European Stonechats.

I loved the times I spent at Beachy Head and was never happier. There are so many fond memories associated with 'my' stonechats such as the time I was ringing a brood of stonechats and looking up noticed a Crag Martin flying back and fore just above me. I finished ringing the stonechats and then watched the martin for another twenty minutes, feeding above the grassy slope before it disappeared off to the east never to be seen again. I was completely alone at the time as it was July, the  dead time for birding. My sighting of the Crag Martin turned out to be only the second ever record for Great Britain. 

Another time and another year I was lower down the same slope trying to find a stonechat's nest when a strange melodic call came from a small hawthorn. I went to investigate and a non descript greyish bird, about the size of a Greenfinch, with a few dark streaks on its breast and a beady black eye revealed itself to be the origin of the call. It flew to the next bush. It was another rare bird, a Common Rosefinch or Scarlet Grosbeak as it was in those days. Again there was no one else around to tell. 

Finally a famous pop and session musician as well as good friend, who also lived in Ditchling, asked to come one morning to share the experience of checking stonechat nests in my study area. His name was Herbie Flowers, formerly of T Rex and who played the famous base accompaniment on Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side'. That morning I learnt an awful lot about the pop music industry, its stars and gossip whilst Herbie learnt a lot about stonechats and watched me ringing a couple of broods.

I was asked to write a book about stonechats and their relatives which I eventually did and it was published in 2002 under the title 'Stonechats. A Guide to the Genus Saxicola.' The book that finally appeared was, as befitted the modern trend full of technical detail but I always regretted that it could not be allowed to be written in the relaxed style of the bird books of old. I was brought up on the likes of Walpole Bond and Bannerman who were both excellent ornithologists and capable of writing in an interesting and fluent style. They were so much more readable and to my mind just as instructive without being burdened by the now fashionable scientific approach of churning out a wealth of sterile statistics, graphs and genetics which in some cases can render the book concerned almost unreadable to the average person with an interest in birds.

Below is the preamble to the original manuscript I wrote but was considered not suitable for the book in its final form, which I completely understand but to my dying day will regret could not be included. I scribbled it down in a quiet moment as I was sitting on a steep, sunny slope at Beachy Head watching my beloved stonechats.

'On an early morning in June with the sun just two hours above the horizon I am sitting on a steep grassy slope called Cow Gap just east of Beachy Head and where the chalk of the South Downs meets the sea. I am waiting to find a stonechat's nest which is somewhere hidden in the rank grass further down the slope. Some hundred metres below me the slope flattens out to a wide flat area covered in an abundance of downland flowers that runs down to the sea. Marbled Whites, Dark Green Fritillaries, countless Meadow Browns and Chalkhill Blues cruise and flutter over and amongst the Purple Knapweed, Yellow Rattle, Spotted and Fragrant Orchids and swaying downland grasses. The scent of Wild Thyme blows on the warm breeze, the sea is a dull murmur on the distant shore and my arms glow yellow with reflected colour from a swathe of Horseshoe Vetch stretching away on the bank to my left. This is the haunt of the stonechat.


Conspicuous on top of a small hawthorn bush, framed by the colours of the early summer flowers and the blue sea sits a male stonechat. His black busby head, white neck flashes and orange breast handsome and bright against the backdrop of sea and sky.

Somewhere fairly nearby his mate is sitting on a nest incubating red stippled blue eggs but it is useless to randomly search for the nest as stonechat nests are always wonderfully well concealed and as is the way of such things, that which is most desired is often the hardest to obtain or in this case to find.

But I am now, from much practice, familiar with the ways of the stonechat and know that the best way to find the nest is to be patient and wait for the female to leave her nest and appear on one of her feeding trips which usually occur every forty to sixty minutes. It is of course no hardship to sit here patient and solitary in such spiritually uplifting surroundings. I have no idea how long I will need to wait but the secret is to keep a constant eye on the male as he never remains far from his incubating mate and will accompany her when she leaves the nest to feed. Time drifts by on the breeze. An Adder appears out of the gorse winding its way through the grass below my feet as I sit silent and motionless, then coils itself sinuously into a tiny grassy hollow to absorb the sun. Its head rests on its coiled body. A black unlidded eye, glittering in the sun, is unfathomable. The three week old Fox cubs, yet to learn caution and in between bickering and play fighting are also sunning themselves at the entrance to their Earth under a Wayfarer bush whilst the male stonechat sits atop his hawthorn doing very little. I keep watching him. We are both waiting.

Suddenly he becomes excited, flicking his wings and flirting his tail. I scan my binoculars some ten metres to his right and there is his mate, perched on another small hawthorn bush busily preening and shaking her feathers, a sure sign she has just left the nest. She is the epitomy of  nervous impatience as she flies a few metres at a time from perch to perch, dropping to pick prey from the ground at every stop, constantly in agitated motion. I follow her intently with my binoculars, ignoring the male. She is soon many metres away from where she first appeared but finally starts heading back in a series of longer flights between perches. It will not be long now as she is concerned for her eggs. Five, ten minutes is the longest she wants to leave them. Arriving at a small bramble spray half risen above the grass, she is edgy and alert, constantly flicking tail and wings. She looks around anxiously, furtively, a slight hesitation and then makes a sudden dive into the grass and is gone from sight. I wait for five minutes but she does not re-appear. Unknowingly she has revealed her nest but she and its contents are safe. Known only to me and I will return but once to disturb her and hopefully ring the young stonechats in a couple of weeks from now.

6 comments:

  1. Another wonderful natural experience shared by you, and so enjoyed by the rest of us.
    The Feather.

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    1. Many thanks Barry.Good to see you the other night
      All the best
      Ewan

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  2. I've lurked quite a while as I like your writing style, even though my knowledge of birding is pretty minimal. This post suggests there's a 'writer' inside you and whether you incline toward fiction or non-fiction I think you ought to consider a more substantial platform than the ephemeral world of blogging, entertaining though it is.

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    1. Dear Colin.Thank you for your kind comments. I feel too modest to think I am worthy of a wider audience but am happy to share my thoughts and impressions of the natural world and glad others seem to get as much enjoyment out of it as do I
      Best wishes
      Ewan

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  3. I think anybody who reads your blog knows you have a way with words,it's one of the reasons I read it. I quite agree with your views on modern bird books and their slightly over attention to the technical details of the birds appearance. I picked up an 1888 copy of British Birds in their haunts by Rev.C.A.Johns and the birds suddenly become vitally alive with his descriptions of their little habits

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  4. Many thanks Steve.I still miss those halcyon days in Sussex terribly but at least can write about it and live on the memories
    Best wishes
    Ewan

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