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Two calling birds... stonechats and the return of ravens to Cambridge?

Martin Walters writes: A Happy Christmas to all our readers, What, I hear you ask, no holly, mistletoe, robins, Christmas trees, partridges, pear trees, turtle doves, geese a-laying, French hens?… But wait, we do have good news about two calling birds! Over to you Bob Jarman…

A male stonechat. Picture: Jon Heath
A male stonechat. Picture: Jon Heath

My first optical equipment for birdwatching was given to me by my grandfather. It was a small monocular with x6 magnification from the Great War 1914-18. It was like a small periscope that folded open.

I could never work out its original use, perhaps as a rifle sight or to look through a spy hole in the trenches across no-man’s land.

I first used it on a family holiday in the mid 1960s to Ilfracombe in Devon and found breeding stonechats and ravens on the gorse and heather-covered clifftops.

A female stonechat. Picture: Jon Heath
A female stonechat. Picture: Jon Heath

Stonechats are in the same family as robins and about the same size. They eat insects which they catch in flight from a perch. The males have a black head, a distinct white collar and reddish chest, while the females have a duller plumage.

I still clearly remember finding them, watching them and hearing their distinctive call – a whistle followed by “chack, chack” - just like two stones being hit together, hence their name.

Stonechats can be found from Shetland to the Sinai and to the steppes of eastern Europe and typically nest on sandy heather heaths with gorse, like the Ilfracombe birds.

For exercise during the Covid lockdowns, I cycled around Cambridge. To my surprise I found stonechats. They are uncommon non-breeding birds in Cambridgeshire.

Out of the breeding season stonechats usually associate in over-wintering pairs. I found pairs at Hobson’s Park, a pair near Eddington, a single male nearby, a pair along the Huntingdon Road/Histon Road footpath, a pair on nearby agricultural land, and at Trumpington Meadows. Most of them remained until late March and I hoped they would stay and nest, especially the Hobson’s Park pair, but by the end of March they were all gone.

A male stonechat at Hobson's Park. Picture: Bob Jarman
A male stonechat at Hobson's Park. Picture: Bob Jarman

Records from the Cambridgeshire Bird Club show that stonechats bred in the county in 2009, which was the first time since the harsh winter of 1962-63. In 2009, 30 county records of stonechats were received for the winter periods, and in 2020 there were 153 records.

Clearly the wintering population is increasing. During the period 2009 to 2019 single pairs bred sporadically, but in 2020 four pairs bred. This was probably the small colony that has become established at the Wildlife Trust’s Great Fen reserve near Peterborough.

Perhaps Cambridge does not yet have the right habitat for stonechats to breed, but things are changing. If they can overwinter successfully then maybe this delightful bird will stay and breed. Warming summers and sites with plenty of insects may just create the habitat for them to nest successfully and become a new breeding bird for the city.

Ravens are getting nearer and nearer! They have been seen and heard flying over the city and breed nearby in west Cambridgeshire. They once had a thuggish reputation and were accused of killing lambs, and persecution kept numbers low.

A raven. Picture: Jon Heath
A raven. Picture: Jon Heath

Like red kites, they are mainly carrion feeders and were wrongly blamed when they were probably scavenging still-born carcasses and afterbirths. But bad reputations remain. Over the last two decades they have been gradually moving east.

They begin breeding in early February. I have seen them displaying over Madingley and near the crematorium and recently they were reported over Huntingdon Road. Listen for their distinctive deep ‘cronking’ call.

During the summer we stayed at Southwold. On the beach one day we found pebbles that had been hand-painted with words and pictures. One had written on it “Memories never change”. This has bothered me ever since. Is it true? Do good memories stay good and do bad memories remain bad?

Certainly, my wonderful memories of finding and hearing my first stonechats and ravens all those years ago on the cliffs near Ilfracombe have never changed!

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