The stonechat: one of our most widespread residents
It’s great to be writing for the Resident again in 2019 and this year I hope to bring you not only exciting news of my ventures around the Algarve and Portugal, but I also want to continue to help identify species that may be living on your doorstep. This month’s article is about a very common small bird, the European stonechat.
The European stonechat (scientific name of Saxicola rubicola) can be seen almost everywhere in Portugal, often perched on branches, fences, electricity cables or anywhere it can find a prominent location to observe and hunt its favourite food of insects. They also eat seeds and small fruit.
Identification of this small bird of around 12cm, particularly the male, is easy due to a contrasting plumage. The male has a rusty-orange breast and throat with white belly and vent. He has a very contrasting black head, white collar and black upperparts. The female is less colourful and lacks the black contrast with a brown head and upperparts. The stonechat varies its plumage throughout the winter and the male can look similar to the female.
They are widespread and resident throughout Portugal with the possibility of some moving to the southern regions during the colder months.
The song is a high-pitched twitter similar to that of the dunnock, but it’s characteristic sound is the alarm call which resembles the knocking together of two stones, where the name stonechat is derived. They often sound this unique alarm call when a human stumbles into their territory. I also use it as I do with all bird alarm calls to investigate other intruders such as birds of prey, predatory mammals or even snakes being spotted.
There has been some controversy over recent years due to a DNA study in the early 2000s which suggests that there are different species of stonechat.
Historically, the Common stonechat (scientific name of Saxicola torques) covered the entire species, but this study resulted in separation of species, giving the European stonechat its own species status. Not all references and sources have adopted this new species status, causing confusion.
To add more confusion, the European stonechat also has two separate subspecies of Saxicola rubicola rubicola found in the more southern areas of Europe and Saxicoloa rubicola hibernans found in the northern areas of Europe. It is contested that both species exist in Portugal. Confusing, eh? Are you still following?
The Siberian stonechat (scientific name of Saxicola maurus) is another species created as part of the DNA study and although it is very similar to the European stonechat, the male lacks the browner colours found amongst the black areas of the European variety. They are infrequently spotted in Portugal during the winter and very difficult to identify unless close-up.
I spotted what I thought was a Siberian stonechat a few weeks back but, unfortunately, it fled before I managed to get a close-up shot so was unable to confirm for definite. I am lucky to have stonechats visiting my garden ‘hide and reflection table’ so can capture many close-up shots.
We often see stonechats on my Free Nature Walks here in the hills of the Algarve and, after a short winter break, these will be starting back up again soon. There is no charge for these relaxed walks. More details can be found on my website. All are welcome.
By Craig Rogers
Craig Rogers is a Wildlife and Nature photographer from Wales now living in the Algarve offering Photography Workshops. More information, photographs and blog can be found on his website at www.craigrogers.photography