Sunday, March 2, 2014

The upright stonechat

Stonechat - Bicaqq tas-Silla - Saxicola torquata

The Maltese countryside in winter is enriched by several species of passerine birds that spend several months in the Mediterranean region to avoid the colder winter further north. Some species are also seen in urban areas and often visit gardens and rooftops even in areas in very built up localities.

In garigue areas, from late autumn to late winter one stands a very good chance of meeting the stonechat. This is a small bird that spends a lot of time keeping a lookout about a metre above the ground on top of a bush or some other perch.  From there they make regular sallies to the ground to pick up small creatures such as spiders and insects on which they feed.

The male and female have different plumage but both are easily recognised by their general shape and behaviour. They have a characteristic upright posture and often perch on the highest part of a bush. Most of the time both sexes make a clicking sound like two stones being hit together, hence this bird’s English name. Even the Maltese name, buċċaqq tax-xitwa is partly onomatopoeic. 

The male stonechat has a black head, back and tail. The wings are also black but have a large white patch on the wings. It also has a distinctive white collar which separates its head from its dark orange-red upper breast.

Females are less colourful. They are mostly brown with chestnut-buff underparts.

Stonechats are found breeding throughout most of Europe, Northwest Africa and the Middle East. Other species of stonechat are found in other parts of the world.

European stonechats are non-migratory although individuals that live in the north move south for the winter. A related species, the whinchat, breeds in Europe and western Asia and visits Malta on migration. It is called buċċaqq tas-silla. Silla is sulla, a spring crop and gives a good indication of the time when it is seen in the Maltese islands. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 1 January 2014

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