The story so far.....share your thoughts and photos about stonechats and other ground-nesting birds to help us create a community Top 50!

Barbury Castle in Wiltshire is one of many places along The Ridgeway where people enjoy listening to Yellowhammers and Skylarks. The ground may not be an obvious place to look for birds, but these birds are two of several species which nest on or close to the ground along The Ridgeway. Some have probably evolved to do so because of a lack of trees in their habitats – coastal shorelines, expansive arable fields, grassland downlands etc. Camouflaged nests and eggs, as well as surrounding vegetation, help to guard against predators and there is also the advantage that there is no risk of eggs or chicks falling out of the nest! Read on below to find out more….

Thanks for contributions to this Top 50 from P Brunt.

Banner image: Credit Partonez, Wikicommons

Stonechats are a nice spot/sound along the Trail and luckily a few breed along The Ridgeway, nesting near to the ground. The RSPB suggests there are 65,000 breeding Stonechat pairs in the UK, compared to 5,050,000 breeding Blackbird pairs! They are the size of a robin and get their name from their distinctive call which sounds like two stones chipping against each other – this video illustrates this. Their nest is a deep cup of grass, leaves, roots and stems lined with softer materials such as hair wool and feathers.

An even rarer sight is the Stone Curlew with 365+ UK breeding pairs concentrated in Wiltshire, around Salisbury Plain, and the Brecks in Norfolk. They migrate from southern Spain and northern Africa to the UK in March and depart in October. Males return to the area they were hatched and seek out bare, stony ground or very short vegetation where they create a simple scrape, lined with small stones, rabbit droppings or pieces of vegetation. In early spring, the males’ eerie curlew-like calls can be heard at night. As shown in this RSPB video, they are a crow-sized bird with a large head, long yellow legs and relatively long wings and tail….and large yellow eyes which earnt them the nickname ‘goggle-eyed plover’! Being ‘crepuscular’ – mainly active at night – their eyes, which point slightly downwards, enable them to search across the ground for beetles and worms.

The Stone Curlew is amongst over half of England’s most threatened breeding species which nest on the ground, including Curlew, Little Tern, Nightjar and Lapwing. Farmers along The Ridgeway play a critical role providing nesting areas for Stone Curlew – numbers in Wessex dropped to 30 breeding pairs in the 1980s! Their future is dependent upon nest protection from predators such as foxes but also from disturbance by humans and dogs. Adult Stone Curlew can be disturbed by human presence as much as a third of a mile (500m) away and have usually crept silently out of sight before being noticed. When adults leave the nest, their eggs and chicks are left vulnerable to cold, hunger and predators, and repeated disturbance compounds the problem.

Clare Balding can be seen in this video talking about the impact of disturbance on Skylarks and how walkers can take care of their dogs to help ground-nesting birds. To help wildlife thrive along The Ridgeway, visitors should follow the Countryside Code i.e. keep themselves and their dogs on the Trail and other rights of way so that disturbance doesn’t spread into adjacent fields. If you see an adult bird calling out or flying up into the air in distress or trying to catch your attention, please back away carefully to avoid further disturbance.

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