Yet another damp morning saw me out in the Brecks and on my way to my pair of crayfish traps. These are part of a monitoring programme being operated on the River Lark; the traps put in place for twenty-four hours, once every two weeks. On this occasion my walk in towards the river drew a series of harsh, scolding calls from one of the scattered bushes; each agitated call resonating and reminiscent of a pair of small pebbles being struck together. The source of such harassment was a male stonechat, resplendent in his finery – a black head, warm russet underparts and a beautiful white collar that curved down from his nape and around between the edge of his wing and his proud chest. This nervy little bird was a welcome sight on such a miserably damp morning.
The stonechat used to be a familiar sight over much of Britain, favouring the scruffy uncultivated habitats that made up a sizeable portion of the landscape in those halcyon days towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. Sadly, as land was claimed for agriculture and forestry, so the stonechat was squeezed out of its former haunts and vast tracts of eastern England were left without this delightful bird. Here, within Norfolk, that great champion of Breckland, W. G. Clarke, reported stonechats breeding on my local patch – Barnham Cross Common (just on the southern edge of Thetford). That was in 1937, yet by 1946 the species had been lost completely as a breeder from the whole of Norfolk. The cold winter of 1940 and the aforestation of so many Breckland heaths had both taken their toll; it was not until 1961 that breeding was again confirmed within the county. I mention severe winter weather here because the stonechat is largely insectivorous, something that is fairly unusual in a resident, and this makes it susceptible to periods of pronounced bad weather. Unable to find sufficient invertebrate prey, overwinter mortality can be high. Fortunately, with the capacity for three broods of chicks each year, the reproductive potential can help populations bounce back after a difficult period.
The recovery of the stonechat population within Norfolk, from its low point of the 1940s and 1950s, is something of a recent phenomenon and even now the population probably only numbers 50 or so breeding pairs. These are centred on the Brecks and on the coastal heathlands. While it seems unlikely that the species will ever recover its full former breeding range, there is every hope that the breeding population here in Norfolk will increase further. Maybe the scolding calls of this fidgety and restless bird will be heard more often from suitable patches of uncultivated land.