The Zoologist/4th series, vol 5 (1901)/Issue 716/Distribution of the Stonechat (''Pratincola rubicola'') in Yorkshire, Butterfield
DISTRIBUTION OF THE STONECHAT (PRATINCOLA
RUBICOLA) IN YORKSHIRE.
By E.P. Butterfield.
A detailed account of the county of broad acres in this article would be out of place, suffice it to say that Yorkshire is the largest, and, with Lancashire, the most southern of the six northern counties of England, nearly through the centre of which runs the parallel of 54° north latitude, and contains 6095 square miles, or about 3,882,000 acres, and is divided into three Ridings, North, West, and East. The North Riding includes that portion of the county between the river Derwent and the county of Durham, the West Riding being separated therefrom by the Ouse, Ure, and the hills above Wharfedale; whilst the East Riding occupies the south-eastern portion of the county, and is divided by the Ouse from the West, and the river Derwent from the North Riding. One of the most striking physical features of the shire is the great central vale of York, which is narrow and somewhat elevated in the north, but as it approaches the Humber widens out into a large and swampy flat. East and west of this valley is enclosed by tracts of considerable elevation, which in the former terminates in the north in bleak moorlands, which attain a height of over 1000 ft.; in the latter the ground gradually increases in height until it ultimately forms part of the Pennine chain, which in Yorkshire attains some of its highest elevations on Whernside (2414 ft.), Penyghent (2273 ft.), Ingleborough (2373 ft.), and Dent Crag (2253 ft.), whose eastern sides give rise to the waters of the Wharfe, Aire, Nidd, tributaries of the Ouse, which flows into the Humber, the latter of which receives nearly all the drainage of the whole county; the exceptional portions of the county not drained by the Humber being a small portion of the west, which is drained by the Ribble, the north by the Tees, and the east directly by the German Ocean. The elevated tracts of the south of the east of the vale of York, here called wolds, do not reach to the coast, but form, where the Yorkshire water system combines to form the Humber, a large alluvial tract of country known as the Holderness.
The geology of the county is of a varied character; the limestones and shales form the mountain masses in the north-west, and are succeeded in the south-east by the millstone grit formation; whilst west and south-west of the central vale the carboniferous system attains its maximum development. In the west the Silurian occasionally crops up, and a belt of lias skirts the coast south of Whitby, and after a very circuitous course comes into contact with the chalk near Market Weighton. As might be expected from such a diversity of physical conditions, the climate varies greatly, being dry and bleak in the east, comparatively mild in the central vale; whilst the elevated portions of the west and north-west are marked by a tolerably healthy climate, but are swept by high winds, and have a heavy rainfall. This is well shown by the fact that while the mean annual rainfall of the east is 26 inches, that of the west is 36·44 inches. This heavy rainfall in the West Riding is probably due to the land there being aggregated in mountain masses, and as the prevalent winds are from the west and south-west, they come laden with aqueous vapour, which, on coming into contact with the high ground, is precipitated as rain. This excessive rainfall and low temperature may account to some extent for the absence or extreme scarcity of a few of our summer migrants in the north-west fells.
The Stonechat in Yorkshire used to be regarded as "common and generally distributed in suitable localities"; but, if so once, is so no longer, and is now both local and scarce, and very erratic in its distribution. It is, however, highly probable, if not certain, that formerly it was commoner than at present, at least in the north-western portion of the county, and it is to be feared that, as a breeding species, it is dying out. In this district (Wilsden) I am not aware of its having bred for over thirty years, which is very strange, as gorse is quite common on the waste lands, and flourishes up to 1000 ft.
An old friend once told me that he found what he took to be the nest of the Stonechat near here, which must be forty if not fifty years ago. This instance, and another recorded by Mr. Ellison, of Steeton, which he found some years ago near Keighley, are the only records I know of the breeding of the Stonechat in Upper Airedale. Further north-west, Mr. Peake, in his list of Settle birds, knows but one instance of its nesting in that district (1896); whilst for the Sedbergh district, the extreme north-west, Mr. Richardson states that there is no satisfactory record; and it is marked as of doubtful occurrence for Langsthothdale (midwest). Messrs. Clarke and Roebuck omit it from the list of birds for Washburndale, but it is included in their list for Nidderdale as rare, but unfortunately not stated whether it breeds, and Mr. Lucas omits it altogether from his list of birds of this dale. Mr. Thomasson informs me, quoting from Mr. Backhouse's 'Guide to Upper Teesdale,' that it does not occur in Upper Teesdale; but, curious to say, it breeds, and not uncommonly, in Weardale, the next valley to the north. Mr. Jas. Carter includes it amongst the rarer birds of Leyburn (North Riding), but nothing is said of its breeding; and Mr. Chapman has known of but one nest in Wensleydale. Mr. Tinkler has not observed it in Swaledale, although "he has kept a sharp look-out for it." Mr. Goodchild, however, remarks, relative to its distribution in Swaledale, that the "Whinchat is commonest in summer? Stonechat less common." It is reported to breed near Richmond, but is not said with what frequency, but is omitted from the list of Aysgarth birds. In Ryedale (north-east) it is said to be rarely observed. I did not notice it in the neighbourhood of Whitby in the spring of 1898, but it is quite probable it might have been overlooked, as I have seen it during the breeding season at Flamborough Head. In the list of Flamborough birds, revised by the late Mr. Cordeaux, it is stated to be "resident, but very local." Mr. S. L. Mosley, of Huddersfield, writes me that it "used to be fairly common at Fiamborough Head"; but Mr. Oxley Grabham, who resides in the north-east district, remarks, in the 'Yorkshire Weekly Post,' Oct. 10th, 1900, that it is "very local and sparsely distributed" in Yorkshire; so, if it were once fairly common at Flamborough Head, it would appear to be dying out there. The Stonechat is mentioned in the list of birds given by the Rev. E.M. Cole, M.A., for the vale of York, in the excursion circular of the Yorkshire Nat. Union; but, again, nothing is said whether as a breeding species or on migration. Mr. Boyes, of Beverley, in a letter recently, informs me that "it is fast dying out here. It was never plentiful, always local and scarce, and found in but one or two localities as a breeding species."
In South Yorkshire Mr. Dixon states that it breeds, but does not say whether commonly or but occasionally, in the Rivalin Valley; and the late Mr. Lister includes it in his list of spring migrants. It is certainly rare now in South-west Yorkshire. Mr. S.L. Moseley recently informed me that he had never known of its occurrence in the Huddersfield district but twice; and it is exceptionally rare about Hebden Bridge. There is no doubt but that it occasionally breeds in the Wakefield district, as mentioned by the late Mr. Talbot; and the same remark applies to the Leeds district, though it would appear to breed less occasionally as the north-west fells are approached.
After reviewing all the information to hand regarding the distribution of the Stonechat in Yorkshire, it cannot be said with exactitude to be common in any district, and, contrary to what one might expect, as it was formerly thought to be more of a sub-alpine species, it is more common in the extreme east than in the west, more especially the north-west fells, where it appears to have almost died out as a nesting species, occurring occasionally on migration, but chiefly in spring; and it would be interesting to ascertain whither these are bound, and by what migration route they arrive. So far as my experience goes, this species, other conditions being similar, prefers the coast to the inland districts. Of course these notes are not given with any pretensions to completeness or finality, but as a small contribution to a subject which is much shrouded in mystery; and it is to be hoped they will elicit further information from naturalists in all parts of the county. It might be stated here that the observations of ornithologists would possess a higher value if they would state with clearness whether, in including the Stonechat in any local lists, it was to be regarded as a breeding species, and with what frequency, or merely on migration.