A report on Oxonbirds yesterday of a confiding Black Redstart that was discovered frequenting the churchyard of St Mary-Le-More in the centre of Wallingford was too tempting to pass by and a blustery, grey and slightly damp morning found me entering the churchyard at around 11am.
Wallingford is a pleasant, busy, small town by the River Thames on the southern edge of Oxfordshire and the church is situated right in the heart of the older part of the town on one side of the market place, surrounded by a mixture of older buildings blended in with newer but tastefully designed properties. The churchyard itself is very small and is dominated by a huge Beech tree whose branches reach out as if to protect the few ancient lichen encrusted gravestones below.
The small churchyard at the back of the church
The front of St Mary-Le-More Church
I stood in the tiny windy churchyard as fallen leaves were hurried along by the cold northwest wind and contemplated a bleak scene with no sign of any bird, let alone a Black Redstart. Five minutes later my mood changed very much for the better as a jaunty shape, silhouetted against the sky, showed itself in the great skeletal boughs of the Beech tree. Robin like, it performed a perfunctory curtsey and quivered its tail, confirming its identity as a Black Redstart.
At first it flitted about the great tree, working its way upwards through the branches, seizing tiny prey from the boughs and twigs but then dropped vertically to settle on a gravestone before descending to the ground to seize what looked like a spider, spending some time dismembering it amongst the dead leaves and beech nut husks.
Having consumed the spider it sat on the ground for a while as if replete and was in no hurry to find further sustenance.
After a few minutes it flew up into the top of the tree and commenced giving its whit whit whit alarm call and then disappeared over the surrounding rooftops. Possibly it was upset by the presence of several Red Kites swooping across the churchyard at rooftop level, forever on the look out for something to scavenge.
I sought shelter from the wind in the angle formed by the corner of the back door entrance to the church and the adjoining side wall of the church, planning to discreetly wait here, partially concealed, for the redstart to return. The business of the town carried on around me, with people coming and going about their daily lives along the two narrow roads each side of the churchyard. A cleaning lady came out from the back door of the church and nearly jumped out of her skin, having at first not noticed me huddled into the corner. 'Heavens I thought you had risen from the dead in all these graves' she exclaimed. 'No, it's alright I am just auditioning' I jokingly replied. She returned to the church after I told her I was looking for an unusual bird. 'Fancy that, a rare bird in Wallingford. Whatever next' she remarked and disappeared back into the inner sanctum of the church shutting the great wooden door firmly behind her.
My wait extended into thirty minutes with no sign of the redstart. Paul Chandler joined me and we waited together by the side of the church but another half an hour passed before Paul noticed a slight movement in the tree signifying the long awaited return of the redstart. We fully expected it to come down to perch on the gravestones and the ground as before but it had other ideas and proceeded to go on a tour of virtually every branch of the tree, finding its prey secreted in the bark of the branches and the trunk. Would it ever come down? Not a chance evidently, as it continued searching every branch and twig for the next half an hour, raising false hopes as it occasionally dropped to the lower branches but then ascending upwards again, much to our frustration.
Finally, having examined what seemed every limb and twig of the tree it dropped lower and then flew to and landed on a gravestone in front of us and proceeded to give the photo opportunities we craved.
The Wickster, taking his lunch break, leant over the low churchyard wall enquiring if the Black Redstart was still about. I mutely pointed at the gravestone and The Wickster rapidly went round to the churchyard gate and joined us. The Black Redstart flew to another gravestone around the side of the church and we followed, finding it perched there before it seized a large green caterpillar which it then, with much effort managed to swallow before flying to an adjacent roof to digest it.
From behind the church door the organ commenced playing Bach's sublime 'Jesus, Joy of Man's Desiring'. It somehow seemed appropriate to leave on this cerebral, uplifting note.