Stonechats on Brean Down

I took these photos of a female (left) and male (right) European Stonechat (Saxicola rubicola) on the north-facing slope of Brean Down yesterday afternoon. Over most of our region Stonechats only occur in the winter and on migration, but there is a small breeding population of around 10 pairs in the western Mendip Hills, with the greatest concentration on Blackdown, their highest point. Pairs are seen in summer on Brean Down most years, and the habitat certainly looks suitable for a nesting attempt.

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Stonechats of one kind or another are found virtually throughout the entire Old World. Their treatment as either full species or races of the same species follows a pattern seen in many widespread species: originally, prior to the twentieth century, each slightly different-looking form of Stonechat found in a new part of the world was described as a new species. Then, following changes in biological thinking in the mid-twentieth century, it was proposed that all of the different stonechats (from birds in South Africa that look like this, to birds in Europe like those above, to birds in south-east Asia that look like this) were in fact all one species, comprising 25 races.

In the last couple of decades, decisions like these have been re-evaluated in the light of new data, and the stonechats are one group that has been unpicked as a result. The mid-twentieth century ‘lumping’ into one species has been replaced by a three way split into African, European and Asian species. The position with the Asian stonechats could well be more complicated and when more detailed studies are done on the Asian races, some of them may be split further.

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