Emerging from the woods at the top of the hill felt like walking on stage. Stretching before me was a glorious view of purpling heather and red-fringed bilberry spreading off downhill.
The extreme heat of mid-July had left its mark: not so long as to brown things off completely, but hurrying things along towards the season’s conclusion. Rowanberries were already orange, and I found myself picking blackberries along with the bilberries that recent rain had fattened. Autumn’s drama seemed prematurely under way.
In the distance, I saw a small knot of cattle, a conservation measure to knock back encroaching scrub, so I followed their trail across the moor. Humans follow paths put there by other humans for purposes that may no longer exist. Cattle mostly have just one thing on their minds, and there was lots of evidence for what that might be in the large number of heavily browsed saplings. One in particular made me pause, a badly stunted rowan with a female stonechat balanced on top.
Perches like this are the anvils on which stonechats forge their living. They use them as lookout towers, dropping down to snatch insects for their young. At first this stonechat seemed cautiously inactive, the breeze ruffling her coppery breast feathers, tail pumping slowly as she gauged the threat I offered, her mate lurking in a nearby birch.
Then she started hunting again, returning to the rowan with a bill full of winged insects before dropping into the birch and out of sight. The male instantly took her place, then he too dropped to the ground before returning to the perch with a beak crammed with food.
Stonechats have up to three broods, raising more chicks than their cousins, the migratory whinchat. Wintering at home, the larger numbers of stonechat young are a strategy to cope with mortality in hard years, increasingly rare in our changing climate. And so they continued, like a tag team, working hard for the new generation, until a mountain biker rushed by on a hidden path, scattering us all for a moment.
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