The Wheatear is an attractive robin-sized bird that breeds in Britain in the summer and winters in Central Africa, at this time of year a walk along the south coast is likely to give you a few sightings of this bird as their numbers build up in preparation for migration. When I walked the Dorset coast path the week before last I was constantly putting up Wheatears from the grassy cliff tops, some bouncing away to perch on rocks and some alighting on nearby fence posts, seemingly not too bothered by my presence. These are lovely birds which alas rarely breed in Sussex but are at least one of the earliest (if not the earliest) returning spring migrants on the south coast.
- We only have the one species – Northern Wheatear – as a breeder in the UK but there are 23 species in the same genus found across the Old World, all of them share the characteristic white rump patch with a black ‘T’ shaped patch on the tail.
- The unusual name ‘Wheatear’ has nothing to do with the crop, instead it is a corruption of the words ‘white-arse’, the original rustic name of this familiar country bird, referring of course to its white rump feathers.
- The scientific name ‘Oenanthe’ however translates from Greek as ‘wine-flower’ given to this bird because its arrival back in Greece in spring coincided with the blossoming of grape vines.
- They breed in open country, such as heathland, moors, sand dunes or steppes – nesting in stone walls or holes in the ground such as old rabbit burrows, they are insectivorous and need short turf for feeding and display – reduction of grazing by sheep or rabbits can result in declines in their numbers.
- Remarkably this bird has spread its range from western Europe, across central Asia all the way to breed in parts of Alaska and Canada (east and west coasts) – yet still they all return to Africa in the winter, regardless of where they bred – an incredible migration for such a small bird.
- The Victorians considered Wheatears a delicacy and when the birds were flocking along the coasts before migration they would be shot and served up on rich dinner tables across the country.
- Rarely you may hear the males song, a gentle warble emitted in flight or from a perch on the ground, mostly they just make ‘chakking’ noises. The male has an interesting display to the female where he prances and jumps around her with feathers fluffed up before throwing himself down in front of her!