Tag Archives: stonechat

The White Arse and other grassland birds

One of the most interesting things about birds’ names is that many of them are so strange you might find yourself wondering where they came from. However, in many cases they were changed slightly from their original, simple meaning because they were considered uncouth or not politically correct, particularly during the Victorian era of the 19th century. Such is the case with this handsome grassland bird, which likes to let approaching walkers get only so close before it suddenly flies off to land on a more distant fence post, usually just out of camera range.

Birdwatchers will immediately recognise this as the Wheatear (Oenanthe oenantha). I often wondered about the name ‘wheatear’ or ‘wheat ear’ and where it came from, and I did think it was a very romantic name. Presumably these birds frequented wheat fields… it makes sense. However, the truth is very different – the Wheatear has a huge patch of solid white at the top of its tail, and since the Middle Ages has been known as White Arse, as it’s particularly noticeable when this handsome, but otherwise drab bird, flies past. Many other birds have equally prosaic names, such as this infuriatingly difficult-to-photograph species:

When you get close it hides behind leaves, and only when it’s at a safe distance does it fully reveal itself, singing its grating, chortling call from a barbwire fence while simultaneously holding insect prey in its beak:

This infuriating little bird is the Whitethroat (Sylvia communis), which is a species of warbler, closely-related to the equally prosaically-named Blackcap. Many of the grassland birds could better be described as ‘fence birds’ as they like to perch on fences watching as you scare up insects which they then snatch. For some it’s a whole way of life, such as this common and beautiful species below, the Stonechat (Saxicola torquata):

The male of the species is very boldly marked, and in many ways is very similar to the European Robin, which it was once believed to be closely-related to. Females can even be confused with young robins, and juveniles too:

Not all birds are insectivores, some prefer seeds, some mostly seeds but will also supplement their diets with some insects too. This is typical of sparrows, but also the Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) which moves in small flocks. The individual below is a male, but there were females on the wire directly below him as he kept watch while they fed from grass heads:

I photographed all of these birds, and many more, in the space of two hours on the path leading from the main site of the East Coast Nature Reserve along the railway tracks to Blackditch Woods, which due to the prolonged drought and very recent heavy, thundery rains is now a veritable jungle, and well worth seeing… but watch out for the horseflies. Below is yours truly on the path, with the fences which the birds like to perch on. The birds – about a dozen of them altogether – are behind the camera and preceding me as I walk along.