Sunday 4 February 2024

My Local Stonechats 3rd February 2024

Saturday. A sunny but blustery Saturday morning. Another visit to my local Farmoor Reservoir. Eschewing the normal entrance to the reservoir that grants access to the main car park I drove up a lane at the back of the reservoir and left my car in a small discrete layby.

From here I walked through a small wood, following a narrow footpath that wound its way outside but close to the perimeter of the reservoir. It felt almost Spring like here, sheltered as it was from the wind and under blue skies with the calls of Great Tits chiming through the sunlit bare trees.

I had chosen to leave the car here as I knew that a combination of good weather and it being a Saturday would render the reservoir busy as both  fishermen and the yacht club took to the water while, by way of relaxation many people would be walking the perimeter track that encircles the reservoir's two basins then maybe paying a visit to the popular Waterside Cafe at the yachting marina.

It is rare for anyone apart from birders to choose to divert from the perceived security and convenience of the tarmac perimeter track and take to the more scenic but so much muddier Thames Path that lies adjacent and below the reservoir's retaining banks. Not that I am complaining as it is in such undisturbed areas one has a much better chance to find birds. 

Contrarily a pair of European Stonechats have decided to spend their winter in an unprepossessing neglected area very close to the reservoir's perimeter track but as far  as suffering from any disturbance from those walking the reservoir goes may as well be a mile away. It is an unlikely looking place, a mown hay meadow that slopes down to the Thames from a. plastic coated chain link fence that once served as a barrier to the reservoir but is now bent and twisted and in severe need of repair or replacement, demonstrating yet more evidence of the neglect that a cash strapped Thames Water shows (apart to shareholders) towards both the infrastructure and natural environment for which they are responsible.

The stonechats spend most of their time perched on the top of the fence, dropping down a few feet to seize their invertebrate prey from the ground below and then returning to the fence for further surveillance. It makes sense as with the lack of any tall vegetation on which to perch, they have, in the elevated vantage point of the fence a substitute vantage point that affords them a better opportunity  of sighting their prey of ants, spiders, caterpillars and the like.

The pair of European Stonechats - female left and male right

The wind was uncomfortably strong as I approached the fence, sweeping in from the southwest across the water meadows, so recently flooded by the swollen, fast running River Thames that flows through them. I was expecting the stonechats  to have abandoned the exposed fence  in favour of somewhere more sheltered as the force of the wind would surely make life very uncomfortable for such small birds.

I should have known better as they are tough and well capable of withstanding most extremes of our capricious winter weather.

I surveyed the fence with my binoculars and felt a surge of pleasure as I  found the male perched  face on into the wind and showing no ill effect from its bluster. The female soon joined him on the fence a few metres further along. I walked slowly towards them but they were having none of it and moved further down the fence when I was still distant.

The male disappeared but the female dropped down to use a couple of ventilation pipes as a hunting perch.I took a couple of images and then she too flew I knew not where, certainly not back to the fence.

I gave up looking for them and decided to go to the bird hide at the nearby Pinkhill Reserve to see what if anything might be on the marsh and water in front of it.There had been the excitement of a Great White Egret yesterday but today it was predictably absent. A couple of Little Grebes have adopted the pond in front of the hide and maybe will remain to breed when the rushes and sedge grow up further.The two seem to be a pair, snuggling close to one another, their buff and brown winter colours rendering them almost invisible against the dead reedmace.

Another sure sign of the approaching Spring, which comes ever earlier as our climate warms, is the presence of a  pair of Gadwall.Where they come from I do not know but certainly they are absent from the reservoir and its surrounds from late autumn until now. I watched them idly feeding on the wind rippled sunlit water. The drake, superficially dull but on closer inspection a masterpiece of understated beauty, the female similar to a female Mallard but with a distinctive orange band running along the edge of her bill. 


Teal have also arrived, the drakes, tiny busybodies that fuss and swim in circles around the females, before convulsing in display with bowed heads and uplifting of tails, accompanied by musical, cricket like calls.

Suddenly there was a panic and scattering of the ducks as a Sparrowhawk flew across the marsh in a slow motion fluttering, swaying flight so different to the usual high speed, low level dash they normally employ when hunting. It was weaving in and out of the bare trunks and branches of the willows and alders at the water's edge, keeping low to the ground, obviously searching for any hiding bird on which to pounce.Maybe a Common Snipe which love to conceal themselves in the waterside sedge below the trees? Unsuccessful in its search it pitched into an Alder, drawing a small gathering of concerned Mallard that congregated on the water in front of it and kept vigil until they saw it depart in that same slow and uncertain flight. 

A Common Chiffchaff, normally a summer migrant but which has spent the winter around the reserve commenced calling anxiously from the trees on the far bank, possibly alarmed by the recent presence of the Sparrowhawk.

I sat alone in the hide for a while. At a loss as to what to do. Unwilling to walk up to the reservoir proper and its over populated perimeter track I took to the lower Thames Path that runs by the river and eventually returned to the stonechats and their favoured fence and meadow. I was now at the bottom of the hay meadow as opposed to the top. Looking up and across the meadow I could see no sign of the stonechats perched on the fence where they would be silhouetted on the skyline.They betray their presence by appearing at distance as distinctive tiny aberrations on the top of the fence, popping up and down as they drop to the ground and back up again. Walking along the lower path and towards the far end of the fence I was expecting nothing but there was a familiar tiny outline. Bins up and I found myself looking at the female stonechat and seconds later the male. 

Feeling I had little chance of getting close to them as there was nowhere to conceal myself on such open terrain I  considered my options.The birds were at the far end of the fence, close to a copse. Maybe I  could walk up at the side of the meadow by the copse as this would to a certain exent conceal my profile although they would undoubtedly be aware of me. I commenced walking very slowly up the slope, praying they remained on the fence.  As I got closer the thrill and adrenalin rush of the moment took hold. I was gambling. How close could I get? Could I get a few steps nearer or would they take fright? Slowly I moved ever closer but still they remained on the fence, no longer feeding and now obviously watching me. Closer and closer until I felt one more step would be too much for them.Slowly raising the camera I took as many images as I wanted of the male which was facing me, head on, his fragile body buffeted by each gust of wind, bracing himself to withstand its force by gripping the fence tightly until the gust abated. 

Male European Stonechat

Female European Stonechat

Emboldened by my success I took one step further and it was one step too far and they flew further along the line of the fence. Enough.

However this is not the end of my story for I decided to go up onto the perimeter track via an access gate and try my luck from the other side of the fence.

The birds were still on the fence as I arrived opposite them on the track and I commenced to walk across the small expanse of grass that separated the track from the fence. The stonechats were now facing away from me into the wind. Conscious of curious passersby wondering what I was doing I found the birds allowed me to get as close if not closer to them than before.

The two birds eventually flew further along the fence and I left them in peace as there was nothing more to be gained. 

I rather like stonechats and know quite a lot about them, so much so I was invited to write a book about them and all their close relatives that comprise the genus Saxicola ( Stonechats.A Guide to the Genus Saxicola 2002). In my opinion it is impossible not to like a stonechat. Perky and with a knowing look, they are much like a Robin but much scarcer, full of character, self publicists as they flirt their tails and flick their wings from a prominent perch, they are the very essence of nervous energy, the male colourful and beautifully patterned. 

So, on every coming visit to the reservoir I will look forward to enjoying the presence of this pair of stonechats. I know that one day soon I will find them gone as they do not breed at Farmoor and that will be a sad day but until then........................  

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