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RICHARD WILLIAMSON: The stonechat is a bird known by many names

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Did you as a child ever read the Arthur Ransome books such as Swallows and Amazons?

If so, you probably went on to enjoy them again as an adult. They give a safe if eccentric haven from the rest of this troubled world through which we have to travel.

The last of these books is Great Northern? about a rare breeding bird the gang of children help to protect from dastardly oologist (egg collector) Mr Jemmerling.

One of the kids’ ploys is to distract the thief by simulating the call of a stonechat.

They do this by clapping two stones together. Nobody is convinced, however, but it’s a good try.

I have myself tried to fool Nature Conservancy staff

with the trick, but they quickly rumbled my deceit.

At Wiggonholt the RSPB give this sound-bite on one of their little notices. They hope stonechats will breed here and they have gone all out to manage the habitat for others such as nightjars, hobbys and woodlarks as well.

All of these need heathery moors with scattered clumps of gorse and a few pines trees here and there for the birds to use as song posts.

If you go to Wiggonholt for this week’s walk, you will I hope sit on one of the comfortable bench seats and admire not just the view which goes deep into Hampshire to the west, but also the managed heathland in the foreground.

On a sunny day it is very attractive, even in winter.

Purple of heather, flaxen tufts of grass make the scene under towering Scots pines colourful in the dead of winter.

Also, you may well see a wintering stonechat. About 100 spend the winter in Sussex, and 100 pairs breed in the county, too.

Most are in Ashdown Forest, but ten are recorded on Iping Common near Midhurst.

It has many old Sussex names, such as furze-chat, heath-jack, hawth-tit, stone-chucker and stone-chatterer.

Further afield in Britain, locals have named it stone smith, click stone, stone chack, black cap or moor titling.

This latter name has also been applied to meadow pipits by last-century fellsmen.

Years ago I had a male stonechat wintering in Kingley Vale, where it stayed in the severe snowy frosts of early 1984.

Most regrettably it drowned in a trough of water in which I had broken the ice only an hour before so that grazing stock could drink.

To return to Arthur Ransome and the great northern diver: although the two birds are poles apart almost literally, Sussex is a county where you might just see one now as well.

Down on the coast, half a dozen spend their winter close to the shore, most off Selsey Bill.

Here again Sussex fishermen nicknamed it with their own ideas of what it did or looked like, so they called it the herring-bar, or herring goose while Scotmen named it rain goose, kakera, speckled diver, and spratoon

If you have never seen or heard of either of these two oddities, it’s time you did. Titty, Roger, Susan, Bridget, Nancy, Peggy and John knew all about them and they were still hardly teenagers.

 

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