One of my favourite places in Cumbria has to be Burney and Subberthwaite Common. On a clear day the views here are spectacular – from the Duddon Estuary and Black Combe round by the Stickle Pikes and Caw to the Coniston Fells, with the Scafells in the distance (see photo). The Common is rich in wildlife with over 11 species of dragonfly recorded here, all the British amphibians and numerous butterflies. It’s a place which teams with birdlife in the spring; the calls of cuckoos, ravens and buzzards echo across the wide open spaces, but it is the return of the songbirds that I await with interest each year. Migrant Wheatears and Whinchats return from Africa and Stonechats and Yellowhammers start to occupy territory. Redpoll occasionally turn up in the area of Burney Tarn.
Male Wheatears usually arrive towards the end of March, followed some days later by females. By mid-April they are joined by many pairs of Stonechat which have wintered elsewhere in Britain; in mild winters this species may breed here very early. Whinchats are later arrivals in early to mid-May. Each announces its presence with a flick of the tail and the characteristic hard chak or chat call.
The three species have experienced widely diifferent fortunes in recent years. Numbers of Stonechat have increased markedly as the species has survived more successfully in milder British winters. This has encoraged it to breed away from the coast in places like Subberthwaite. On Burney and Subberthwaite there are now literally dozens of breeding pairs. Wheatear numbers have held up well and the species is very common and widely distributed throughout the county. However, Whinchat numbers have fallen markedly – an observation supported by reports from throughout Cumbria. The Coniston Fells used to be a stronghold of the species but now they take some finding each spring. Observers are now asked to report all sightings of Whinchat.
The advantage of the open country chosen by these species for breeding is that it is easier to watch the behaviour of juvenile birds and compare their plumage with that of the adult than it is for many other species. By mid-May family parties of Stonechat and by mid-June Wheatear can be watched, the former as they move about in the gorse, but the latter more usually on the ground. Whinchat youngsters typically appear from late June and early July.
Juvenile Wheatears are much browner and less grey than the adults. Stonechat young have a brown slightly speckled appearance rather like that of a newly fledged robin, a close relative. They are often seen being watched over by Dad. Juvenile Whinchat show the most divergence in this group from the appearance of the adult. They have a much weaker white eyestripe but the plumage is an overall buff-yellow colour meaning that they do not obviously strike you as Whinchat on first seeing them.
As autumn approaches birds can be seen in juvenile plumage as migration gets under way. Walney Island is a good place to see them right through the autumn. Immature Stonechats are particularly attractive – the males don’t yet have that jet black head which masks the black eye.
Whinchat and Wheatear prepare to leave the country altogether, but the Stonechat is a partial migrant – some stay, some move south. This stategy seems to have served it well in recent years. Migration is risky, staying put is better if food is available and the weather mild. But staying put in Cumbria is to risk cold weather! However, in recent years there have been plenty about during the winter, throughout the Furness peninsula for example, although given the high rate of successful breeding many, especially young birds, must have left for warmer climes.