Monday, 17 June 2013

The Watchers

The Devil’s Punch Bowl is one of my old haunts and it is always a great delight to return here in the company of Tony Davies, who used to warden this patch in his younger days. This morning we are watching the activity of a pair of stonechats, the birds feeding over an area of heather and short turf. The male is alert, perching prominently and remaining close to his mate, who is making short flights down to the ground to collect insects for a brood of chicks that we have yet to locate. 

It seems that we are not the only watchers with an interest in the stonechats this morning. Off to our left the bright sunshine catches the back of a fox, his coat intense and vibrant in the flattering light. The fox is hunting, working the heather patches methodically and dipping in and out of sight. Soon he has worked his way closer towards the stonechats, the birds still unaware of his presence. It is not until the female stonechat makes a longer flight with a beak full of food – the flight which should see her return to the nest – that they become aware of his presence. The female breaks off abruptly and flies up to the top of a bush, the male joining her and the two alarming at the intruder.

Unphased, or perhaps even encouraged by the response he is getting, the fox continues to search the heather. Stonechats are thin on the ground this year, no doubt a consequence of the harsh winter weather, and Tony is keen not to see a brood of young lost to a predator. Tony stands and walks towards the fox in the hope that it will move away. After a brief stand-off, the fox slinks away and can be seen disappearing down the valley.

Twenty minutes later and the stonechats have settled back into their routine, the female feeding and the male perching sentinel. We watch as the female breaks these foraging flights with the longer flight back to the nest, the location of which is in the centre of a broad patch of heather. The nest will be well hidden and, we hope, far enough into the heather to avoid the unwelcome attentions of the fox, should he return.

Stonechat nest, Mike Toms
You'll have to take my word for it - this is the Stonechat nest, beautifully hidden.

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