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Stone-haunting bird of the furze


Unquiet: Stonechat

Unquiet: Stonechat

Unquiet: Stonechat

The attractive song of the blackcap (sylvia atricapilla) has earned it the appellation of 'northern nightingale', according to the Irish naturalist David Cabot.

There are reckoned to be about 40,000 pairs here but many arrive in gardens from northern and eastern Europe in winter while the Irish ones have fled the dismal weather to Africa's burning shores.

Their black hoods are similar to those of the shorter, more rounded stonechat (saxicola torquatta) which differs in shape and posture - the chat stands upright while perched as if on sentry duty.

The stonechat's cousin, the whinchat (s.rubitra), is a summer visitor only. Both species can be easily confused. The two have streaky brown upper-parts and warm buff throats and chests and have a similar perching pattern (the tops of small bushes) and flitting movements with shirt wings and tails.

Their scolding calls are similar but the stonechat's sharp "weet, tack-tack-tack-tack" is loud and persistent. It may be clearly heard but seeking the bird's exact location is usually difficult, it has been my experience.

The stonechat's name is said to have come about because of the similarity of the tacking sound to two pebbles being knocked together. The poet W H Auden has written of "a bird stone-haunting, an unquiet bird".

Like the tiny wrens, stonechats are susceptible to harsh weather and that is why they may be found more easily in western and southern areas perched on stone walls and farm buildings as well as the crowns of bushes, including furze or whins.

Winter brings risks to many small birds but depleted ranks of stonechats recover as they can raise up to three broods in summer producing up to 15 youngsters.

The birds begin pairing this month and will nest-build before April. They are very careful and secretive homemakers.

The 19th-century Cork-born naturalist Rev F O Morris described their nest as "exceedingly difficult" to find.

It is large and loose and comprised of moss and dry grass, lined with hair, feathers and wool and is placed at the bottom of a bush or within the bush itself which may also be in a cluster of furze bushes.

The hen bird sits very tight and when off the nest is watchful, hopping from bush to bush before suddenly disappearing into cover.

Five or six eggs are laid in mid-April and are hatched a month later. The young may be seen emerging from the family bush to be fed by anxious parents and then immediately disappearing, "returning to their concealment", as Morris has it.

The parents may fly about "showing great anxiety drawing strangers away from the nest".

The stonechat's Irish name is "caislin dearg" (speckled little bird: Dineen). There are an estimated 15,000 pairs here, mostly along western and southern seaboard counties - Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Connemara, north-west Mayo and south-west Donegal, no doubt seeking whatever milder weather conditions there may be found there.

Sunday Independent