18 October 2009

Stonechat at Leam Valley

Tit flocks are an under-rated feature of autumn wildlife watching. Perhaps it's the name - it's hard to explain this point without someone cracking a smile, if not a nudge-nudge-wink-wink comment. Know what I mean?

Still, the fact remains that while the headlines are grabbed by the rare passage migrants (yesterday's glossy ibis in north Warwickshire for example) and the new arrivals that will stay through our winter (the redwings, fieldfare, siskins and so on), the coming together of the various tit species into sizeable foraging flocks can be a spectacular sight.

This morning's birding at Leam Valley was initially saved by one such flock. It had been a woeful start. There were isolated common species here and there around the reserve itself, but really nothing of note - not helped by the extremely low levels of water on the scrape. But as I left the reserve and headed just a hundred yards or so into the Offchurch Bury estate, I walked underneath an oak tree and was suddenly surrounded by scores of birds.

It was a fantastic flurry of colourful activity, blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits all together, and I stood there for perhaps 15 minutes, enjoying the spectacle and trying to grab the perfect picture (as you can see, I failed). Such was my enjoyment that long-tailed tit looked a nailed on certainty for my coveted 'bird of the day' title - until, that is, a Marsh Tit turned up, a fairly rare sight round these parts. I had a new 'bird of the day'.

So there I was, my day salvaged and about to turn for home. When...

A stonechat! An actual female / juvenile stonechat sat high on a hedge not 20 yards away. Not rare in birding circles of course, but bloody rare on my patch - in fact it has been top of my patch wish list for five years or so! A quick and distant photograph for the record, and my morning was complete. A decent haul in the end included sparrowhawk, green and great-spotted woodpecker, 40 fieldfares (my first big flock of the year) - and when I got home, I found two coal tits on the feeders as well. 30+ species for the morning is a pretty good local haul.

Bird of the day: Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), an upright little bird, slightly smaller than a robin, which loves to show itself from handy vantage points. The male is striking in red, black and white - my female was a little more subdued, but still a lovely little bird.

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