Saturday 4 October 2014

Week 37: Migrant Stonechat & Sibling King

Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) (video grab)
Over the last week, it has been raining Stonechats…sort of! Dainty, orangey-brown puffs of down have been turning up in unusually high numbers, sitting pretty on prominent perches and showing themselves off to all and sundry...if you’re lucky. Ordinarily, a handful on Ivinghoe Beacon constitutes a good year. Last week, 19 were reported in one day! Dan of Hemel Birding found at least 3 at Water End, near Great Gaddesden last week. And, if ever there was a chance for one to turn up on Box Moor Trust land it was now, following what has obviously been an extraordinarily good breeding season. They are a resident species in the south and west of the UK but only really present in Hertfordshire during passage migration, with a few birds over-wintering. Their name, I guess, stems from their call, which starts with a whistle and ends with what sounds like two stones being bashed together.

Wednesday morning was my first opportunity this week to get out around Box Moor and I headed for Roughdown Common. I scoured all the obvious places a Stonechat might hang out and some not so obvious ones, just in case. I walked the moors, from Station Road to Two Waters Road, scanning the fence lines for bundles of feathers propelling themselves up into the air (or down onto the grass) to catch insects. No sign. However, I did come across a good dozen Common Darter dragonflies (Sympetrum striolatum), including a mating pair, on the river Bulbourne in exactly the same area that the damselflies had frequented in June. There is obviously something about the habitat in this location which is just right for damsels and dragons.

Wending my way back upriver, to the area which the Kingfishers favour (just downstream from the footbridge and weir between Harding’s Moor and Bulbourne Meadow), I got lucky. A Kingfisher was perched on a branch, attention firmly on the water. I inched my way nearer, trying to keep myself hidden, eventually getting as close as the cover would allow. I had about 90 precious seconds with the bird before we were disturbed by walkers and the encounter evaporated. But, more on that to follow.

Back to the Stonechat search. Thursday afternoon, off I went to Westbrook Hay. Dellfield had been transformed by the hay cut and, having photographed the Oak, I thought I’d just check Bovingdon Reach meadow for Stonechats or other migrants. It’s not difficult to imagine my delight when, up ahead of me, I saw a little bird fly up into the air and come back down to land on the top of a bush. It was unmistakably a Stonechat, enjoying the flies and insects accompanying the sheep, grazing the meadow. It was favouring the small “island” of vegetation on the south-east side, near Hay Wood. The next hour and half were spent watching and filming the immature male (fledged this year) as he fed on Hawthorn berries and tasty morsels plucked from flight and, on a couple of occasions, looked as though he was about to explode (you'll see what I mean if you watch the clip…). [The HD version is available on Vimeo: just click the HD button, bottom right corner, and follow the link]

Ok, returning to the Kingfisher story. The bird I saw on Wednesday was obviously a male but it wasn’t until I got home and went through the photographs that I was able to put the bird in context. It is in fact another immature bird (white tip to the bill and dark tops to the feet/legs) and is likely the sibling of the immature female I saw last week. He has a slightly deformed/damaged lower mandible, which will make him easy to identify in the near future. It really is fantastic news that the resident adult pair managed to successfully raise at least 2 fledglings this year.

Below are a series of shots of the young male as he preened. Heavy crops and backlit but I thought them worth sharing. I watched the bird dive into the water; emerge; settle, and then set about sorting out his feathers. Wonderful stuff.

This week's Oak photograph and Dellfield after the hay cut

Finally, the mothing team have trapped on Trust land a few times in recent weeks. You can read Ben’s latest reports and enjoy their best finds here and here.


Martin Parr said...

More great work Lucy, lovely footage of the Stonechat, well found! And an excellent close set of the kingfisher!! Well done!

Lucy @ A Natural Interlude said...

Thanks again Martin. I hope all is going well down at Maple Lodge!