The Black Redstart

Isn’t February just the worst? This time last year I was in Goa on the west coast of India, drinking piña coladas every morning and swimming in warm seas under soaring ospreys. This year life is quite different; rather than relaxing in the heat and finishing the manuscript for my first book, I’m tying off the loose ends at my job and preparing to go freelance at the end of the month. I am, as someone observed yesterday, ‘chomping at the bit’ to start freelance life, but for now I must absorb the last grey days of February and look desperately for signs of spring.

On Sunday we hiked for eight miles to a small village that lies along the valley of the River Meon in Hampshire. This area has housed a hugely successful conservation project over the last few years, after American mink were eradicated from the river and our native water voles reintroduced. In 2008, water voles became locally extinct to the Meon through pollution, habitat loss and hunting by the non-native mink, released into the countryside decades ago when fur farms started to close. Around 3,000 water voles were released back into the river over a five year period, and the population is now self-sustaining.

No voles for us, but we did find red kites, yellowhammers, long tailed tits, buzzards, kestrels and a grey wagtail. When we reached the edge of East Meon, we stopped to eat lunch on a stone wall beside the stream and watched a wren sneaking through the shrubs on the bank, and as we ate, another bird hopped onto the wall several feet ahead of us. He was slate grey, almost blue in the afternoon light, with a red tail that flashed as he flew past. I am the worst birder in the world – terrible at any kind of identification – but I was sure we’d found a black redstart (Phoenicurus ochruros). After refusing to pose for a portrait, I managed to snap him as he stared across the river, and confirmed through the magic of Twitter that he was indeed a black redstart! With fewer than 100 breeding pairs in Britain, this sharp, little male was the perfect tonic to what is otherwise an absolute slump of a month.

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