The presence of a whinchat on the BTO Nunnery Lakes Reserve for a few days earlier in the month hinted at echoes of an older Breckland. This small bird, related to the more familiar stonechat, last bred in the county back in 1992 (at Horsey) and it now only occurs as a passage migrant during spring and autumn. Back in the 19th Century the whinchat was commonly encountered throughout Norfolk, with pairs breeding on heathland sites, including Mousehold Heath where 14 nests were found in 1864. Many of the nests were associated with gorse, something that led to the adopted local name for this bird of ‘furr chuck’.
Over time, and in common with populations elsewhere across south-east England, breeding numbers began to decline, leaving the species increasingly restricted to the old warrens and heaths of south-west Norfolk and, later, to the young plantation forestry becoming established across much of Breckland. The loss of the whinchat from Norfolk appears to be part of as much wider contraction in breeding range, the numbers in the UK falling by 57% between 1995 and 2010 according to the BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey.
I still see whinchats most years, typically during periods of spring or autumn passage. Unlike many of the other migrants passing through Norfolk, which appear on the coast, passage whinchats also turn up at inland sites, some of which are former breeding haunts. Very occasionally a pair may turn up together and there also almost annual reports of male whinchats singing from what appear to be suitable breeding sites.
At the end of the breeding season our whinchats depart, migrating long-distance to cross the Sahara and reach tropical Africa. We know very little about the wintering areas used by British whinchats or, indeed, about the nature of the migratory flights that get them there. It is thought that the birds overfly the Sahara in a single hop, having left from stop-over sites in southern Europe but this has yet to be confirmed from ringing studies. Increased understanding of the migration behaviour is much-needed, not least because it might help to explain why the whinchat has declined so dramatically as a breeding species in Britain. It could be that problems on the wintering areas, such as habitat loss or a changing climate, are behind the decline. Alternatively, the birds may be encountering new problems during migration or, possibly, once they return to Britain to breed. Those birds present in Norfolk during spring could be from breeding populations located in northern Britain or they could from populations located further east, the birds perhaps pushed across the North Sea by easterly winds. Either way, it is good to see one here in the Brecks.