Stonechats in the New Forest

In which I listen to Stonechats and read some poetry

In last week’s post, I completed a walk, accompanied most of the way by Joan Begbie and her dogs (Bill, a white bull terrier, and Mr. Bundy, a diminutive griffon) by tramping enjoyably back to my car across Ocknell Plain.

As anyone who walks across the heathlands of the New Forest will know, such walks are always, especially in summer, joined by Stonechats in abundance, perching on top of gorse bushes or thorns, their chic – chic – chic call unmistakeable. Two stones rubbing together: that’s what their call is meant to sound like, and I suppose it does, though two stones rasping together would make my teeth hurt, whereas a Stonechat chuntering makes me smile. 

You tend to hear them before you see them, but look carefully, and the source of the call will be bustling and fluttering nearby, before the bird flits off to the next bush, and the next, and the next…

Anyway, I’ve been away from the New Forest this week so, as I’ve been listening to Stonechats a lot on walks recently, I thought I’d leave you with Joan Begbie’s brilliant and comical description of them in Walking in the New Forest. She clearly liked them.

Stonechats, exquisite little fellows like clerical red-breasts with their round white collars and dark jackets, were jigging up and down on the unsteadiest of gorse tops and chit-chatting away at us for all they were worth…

Joan Begbie, Walking in the New Forest, 1934

Incidentally, I recently found a wonderful poem about Stonechats by the Scottish poet Norman MacCaig, Stonechat on Cul Beg, published in 1975. Here’s a quotation from it, and I recommend you read the whole poem (it’s not very long) if you, too, like Stonechats.

A flint-on-flint ticking – and there he is,
Trim and dandy – in square miles of bracken
And bogs and boulders a tiny work of art,
Bright as an illumination on a monkish parchment.

Norman MacCaig, Stonechat on Cul Beg, 1975

Joan would have liked Norman MacCaig’s poem, written at the other end of the country and a few decades after Joan wrote her book, but about the same familiar, charming little heathland bird.

A female Stonechat. Females are less flamboyant in colouring than the male (see the photo of the male at the top of this post), especially in winter.

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