Stonechats are slightly smaller than Robins, with shorter wings giving a more slender shape. Males are strikingly marked, with black heads and a white collar extending to the sides of the neck, bright orange breasts and mottled brown backs with white also on the wing. Females lack the male’s black head but are brown on the head and back, still with an orange tinge on the chest.
They can often be recognised by their distinct upright perching posture, often on the tops of bushes and they frequently flick their wings, often while calling.
Newly fledged juveniles can often resemble a mottled or washed-out version of the female, before they gradually acquire adult plumage during their first winter. This is a young male.
Often the first indication of a Stonechat’s presence is its call – a ‘wheet-chack’ which resembles stones clicking together, hence their name. This alarm call is given by both adults, but often by the male when defending territory. Although as the breeding season progresses, both male and female will give this call, becoming increasing agitated, with the call getting louder and more frequent the nearer the observer is to either the nest or newly fledged young.
So if you hear the call and it’s obvious that both adults are distressed by your presence, it’s best to move away to allow the birds to settle or you risk delaying food delivery to the young, which could have serious consequences in poor weather, or give away the nest location to a predator.
Norfolk’s Breeding Population
One of the county’s resident breeding birds, Stonechat is listed in the Birds of Norfolk (1999) as a very scarce breeder. So it’s been heartening to see the breeding population at Dersingham Bog increase, almost acting as a nursery which will hopefully help to repopulate at least the North West corner of Norfolk and perhaps beyond.
Stonechats can be adversely affected by bad winters, so we’ve been lucky in recent years that the winters in NW Norfolk have been particularly mild. This has presumably allowed greater survival of birds each year to return to Dersingham Bog in order to breed.
Stonechat breeding habits
The Stonechat breeding season typically lasts from April to early August, but eggs can be laid as early as March and young can still be in the nest for third broods well into August. Pairs can also be occupied with display and courtship behaviour during March and some pairs stay on territory all year round. We’ve certainly found that keeping an eye on likely territories during this early season pays dividends in terms of spotting when first brood nesting attempts begin.
A typical clutch will consist of 5 to 6 eggs and incubation takes around 14 days. This can vary if there is bad weather, especially early in the season and often in the early broods only a couple of eggs may hatch as opposed to the full clutch. Fledging takes around 14 days too, but again is dependent on the weather affecting the availability of a food supply. Some early broods have taken longer to grow / fledge than later nestlings.
Most pairs will usually have 2 broods as a minimum and some will attempt 3 broods. This is especially true if some of the earlier attempts fail but some prolific breeders will have 3 broods regularly. One female, now in her 2nd year of breeding at Dersingham Bog, has raised 3 broods for 2 years running.
Stonechats on Dersingham Bog – who needs gorse?
One of the chief habitats of breeding Stonechat usually is gorse but anyone familiar with Dersingham Bog will remember that it has very little gorse – just a few bushes in one remote corner of the reserve. Neighbouring Dersingham Fen has more gorse but the habitat on Dersingham Bog is chiefly a combination of heather and wet mire, with a small reedbed at the north eastern end, and all fringed with a mix of Scots Pine and birch woodland on the plateau.
So our Stonechats have chosen a wide variety of habitats and vegetation for their nest sites, building in heather, dead bracken and grass tussocks. There has only been one nest so far in a gorse bush, and that failed. On the left is an example of a more conventional nest site out in a sea of heather (and fairly tricky to find)!
It’s tempting to think with the site so full of Stonechat territories, that pairs are being ‘forced’ into whatever habitat is available for them rather than what might have been first choice. This may be true in some densely packed neighbouring territories. However, several pairs have actively chosen a wet location way out in the mire when there was a large area of dry heather to choose from within their territories.
One surprise has been the number of wet areas chosen, with many of the bracken and grass tussock nests being out on very wet mire among bog cotton and even in the middle of a reedbed… like these two.
The nest sites can also vary in terms of position – some females choosing to build nests right on the ground in heather and bracken, or in the top or middle of heather bushes, or even high up in grass tussocks, or in tunnels in dead bracken.
One prolific female is particularly good at long tunnels, often at right angles to the nests, and inevitably has become known as the Tunneller by volunteers! She’s outwitted us a few times…
One female chose a nest in a low heather bush surrounded by ankle deep water, only accessible with wellies… as you can see! And yet there was plenty of dry heather available in another part of the territory which she did then choose for her second nest. But 5 young fledged from this swamp nest so it was obviously a successful strategy.
One feature of some of the sites that our Stonechats have chosen at Dersingham Bog is how close to paths the nest can be, which makes them especially vulnerable to predation and trampling, as well as disturbance by dogs and people. Here are a couple of examples of nests very close to the path, one in heather and one in bracken.
There have been lots of other interesting lessons learned through the past few seasons about the nesting habits and behaviour of this engaging species and the impact the ongoing management work by Natural England has had on increasing breeding numbers. So rather than write reams now, we intend to cover some of them in occasional blog entries, so please check back from time to time or ‘follow’ the site from the link below.