Country diary: A stonechat watches the kerfuffle in silence

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Geoffrey Swaine/Rex/Shutterstock

A cast of hundreds has descended on the farm fields in midwinter. Out in the winter wheat, a rowdy assortment of crows behave like gatecrashers at a party where the booze has already run out. Trampling their restlessness over the first leaves of grass, cawing and wing-flapping, they claw at chilled soil where frost-averse invertebrates are dead, dormant or deep below. The crows don’t stay long.

The hedge alongside is bare of berries and bursting with birds. Bush to bush, twig to twig, a flock of chaffinches is whipped along by “pink pink” exclamations, and their speed-foraging seems too fast for them to glean anything worthwhile out of split-second pauses. Some spill out over the ground beside, and pick over earth that has been picked over by innumerable beaks before. Within seconds, the whole band – maybe 50-strong – has abandoned cover and struck out across the fields.

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An even bigger group of linnets drop into the hedge top, using the barrier only as a staging and perhaps regrouping post. They, too, move on into open country, searching seed banks that haven’t been replenished in months.

Watching these itinerant flocks come and go is another traveller, a mute local whose horizons have shrunk to the end of a stick. Most birdwatchers know it as a voice of the uplands, its persistent flint-knapping call giving rise to its name. The stonechat has left its rocks on the moors and cliffs to endure the colder months here in silence. But like most of the stonechats that migrate to Bedfordshire, it has brought company. The roaming pair occupy a small niche – in three or four months, I’ve never seen them more than a half mile from here.

An endearing “there’s one, where’s the other?” constant along the hedges and drainage ditches, they are always a short distance apart, always poised at the tip of a dead stem. I know this big-headed bird on the hedge by its relentless fidgeting, twisting this way and that, flicking its tail. The tiny in search of the minute, it ekes out an existence here by being alert to grab at any little scrap of life.

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