Fence-Hoppers

A Yellowhammer, one of the less-shy species of open country

Over the years, while out walking on the Wiltshire downs and on Salisbury Plain, I’ve noticed a small  species of bird that has a habit of sitting on fence posts along tracks you’re walking down, just far enough away so that you can’t see them well enough to attempt an identification.

As you walk closer they fly off to another fence post down the track which is out of range again. And as you get closer again, they do the same thing again. And again and again. Until they fly off in a long arc back to where you saw them in the first place. 

I have this fantasy that they’re perching there waiting for another walker, also inexperienced at identifying birds of open country and who is also without a pair of binoculars or a guidebook, who they can have fun with all over again. They’ve certainly done it enough times with me over the years.

The birds in question are about robin-sized or perhaps a little larger, small brown jobs with their main noticeable characteristic being, at least for someone whose usual relationship with them is of them flying away, a pale rump. 

I thought I might have identified the species a month or two back (blogging delay due to Lockdown Lackadasia) while out walking on the plain. I was making my way along a newish barbed wire fence that has been erected to protect a local SSSI, when I saw a bird with a pale-ish rump behaving in that familiar way about fifty yards off. The difference this time was that I had my telephoto-lensed camera with me.

There were two of them, and I could see through the lens straight away that they were Stonechats, male, above. And a female, below.

Not great pics but enough to identify them. So that was the species that had been playing with me all these years: mystery solved. Or so I thought.

When I got back home and was looking at the pictures on my computer, I thought I’d double check and do an internet search on “UK, bird, white, rump”. 

One of the first images it came up with was a Wheatear.

I cross-checked in our RSPB Complete Birds of Britain and Europe guide book and found the following sentence in the Wheatear entry:

“It frequently flies ahead of people, not going far, and revealing its distinctive white rump each time it moves.”

So. There you go. After all that, the evasive birds I’d seen before may well have been Wheatears rather than Stonechats.

Not sure there’s a message here, except perhaps that identifying shy birds of open country is not always straight forward and some similar-looking birds (at least in the distance) of a similar size (the Wheatear is about an inch longer than the Stonechat) have similar behaviours. Now and again.

Anyway, whatever, I’m looking forward to getting my first picture of a Wheatear some time down the line – it’ll probably be next year now – for personal satisfaction if nothing else. I may have to travel a bit for an opportunity as I haven’t been aware of many close by. There are plenty of Stonechats though, I see quite a few of them in the summer up on the plain where we regularly walk the dogs. They’re becoming a favourite. The same day that I saw the pair fence-hopping I took a picture of what I decided, when I checked out the picture at home, was a Stonechat fledgeling. It could have been the progeny of the pair on the barbed wire fence as it wasn’t far away. With its mottled markings it reminded me of a Robin fledgeling. Pretty certain this is a young Stonechat though, as I’ve never seen Robins anywhere near.

A charming little Stonechat fledgeling

Then again on current identification form, I wouldn’t bet the house on it.