An unexpected encounter with a little devil

European_Stonechat-CROPPED

A new tradition was born yesterday as my partner and I stepped out for our inaugural ‘New Year’s Day Family Bird Walk’. It sounds geeky and it is and I don’t care. Birds are a very visible reminder of an important fact — that we are only a small part of our universe’s hard-beating heart. They keep me grounded with every beat of their wings.

Our plan is simple: to devote a portion of the first day of each year to a stroll in some wild place and find as many birds as we can. It’s a small way for us and our child to stay in touch with life as nature sees it. So I’m glad to report that our inaugural bird walk bore rewarding fruit, in the form of a small creature with a hint of the devil about him.

To begin our new tradition, we followed the advice of David Lindo and took a walk around Wormwood Scrubs, a nature reserve in a part of London best known for the prison of the same name. The sun was out and the sky cloudless. In just over an hour we had hit our modest target of 15 species.

The highlight was a male Stonechat just like the one in the photo above. I used to see this species back home on the island of Jersey but never expected to find it so close to the centre of big old urban London. As I watched the bird forage I realised how little I knew about this species apart from its name. Here’s what I have since learned…

This plucky little creature is rare among insect-eating birds in braving the British winter instead of flying South. It gets its name from the noise it makes when alarmed — a sharp “tyeck!-tyeck!” that you can recreate if you strike one pebble against another. But like most British birds, it has several other names that have fallen into obscurity. They include Blacky-top, Chickstone, Furze Chitter, Stanechacker, Stane Chipper and Stonesmith. Some of these refer to the way the bird will jerk its tail and beat a stone on which it perches.

So far, so standard, but the Stonechat also features in some stories from near-forgotten folklore. One says that toads will sit on, and even hatch, a Stonechat’s eggs when it leaves the nest. Another says the bird carries a drop of the devil’s blood. A Scottish rhyme warns that anyone who meddles with the birds nest “will never rest, will meet the pest”. To ram the message home it adds that the devil will break the back of anyone who dares to take the bird’s eggs.

But the bird was only a blessing as it brightened our day. We didn’t expect to meet an avian emissary of Satan but I’m glad we did. Life’s more interesting with a splash of colour — like that bloodspot on the Stonechat’s chest. I hope our future New Year’s walks produce similar surprises.

Photo credit: Amurfalcon

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