This attractive, Robin-sized bird is very confiding and habitually perches prominently on the tops of bushes on the lookout for its insect prey, which it may take either on the ground or, less frequently, in the air. It is common in all open areas and will even come into rural gardens. It is usually found in pairs, or in small family parties in the long breeding season, when three or even four broods can be raised. The female is much duller than the male.
The Stonechat seems to be the prototype for the whole chat family, with a wider global range than any other comparable species. The nominate form (the scientific binomial given to the type specimen) is found in South Africa, but the species also occurs throughout Europe and Asia in a multitude of different races. Some of these are, somewhat controversially, regarded as separate species. A whiter-tailed version in Pakistan, for example, is confined solely to the major river systems in the Sub-Continent.
The males of the resident form in Portugal (see photograph) are much darker-backed and have larger areas of white in the plumage than those breeding in north-western Europe, including the British Isles. Many of the latter reach Portugal in the autumn, escaping the northern winter. Curiously, I found an ‘Iberian-type’ male breeding in a remote glen in northern Scotland and its genetic legacy was still evident there many years later. The Siberian or Eastern Stonechat, which has a distinctive, paler immature plumage, is occurring in western Europe in autumn with increasing frequency and could also conceivably reach Iberia. I have to my credit the first sight record of this form in Britain in 1960 (four specimens had previously been ‘obtained’), so it would be nice to find one in the Algarve sixty years later!
The Stonechat is not a great songster and you have to be quite close to hear the short, high-pitched, rather ‘tinny’ warbling. It may be delivered from a perch or during a song flight. Despite the short, rounded wings, one of my local males even managed a prolonged hover, about 20 metres above ground level. The low ‘buzzing’ contact or alarm call, heard throughout the year, is much easier to detect.