Wednesday, 4 April 2018

The Early Bird
Wheatear by Sally Douglas

The Early Bird

Many birders like to keep records of their first sightings of our summer migrants and one of the earliest usually seen is the wheatear. They can appear here as early as mid February ,but usually start to turn up from March onwards, sometimes on fields or pastures for just a few hours before moving on to their breeding sites north. They never seem to linger for very long in the Spring , the males desire to reach the best nesting sites further north is strong. For many birders the sight of their first wheatear marks the start of the summer birding year, with the promise of more to come.

Wheatears always appear in the Spring before whinchats, the latter are seen arriving later into April.
Whinchats are slightly smaller than wheatears, with shorter bodies and shorter wings, they will often perch at an angle on low bushes and scrub.
Wheatears like to breed in upland pastures, with walls or rock crevices for nesting. The male's song is rather brief, a creaky warbling and quick finish, sounding like he has forgotten the ending. There is also a charming hovering type song flight to complete the display.
Whinchats like open country, perhaps heathland or rough agricultural land. Their song is also brief , a series of clicks and rattles and metallic warbling notes, more like their close relative the stonechat.

I always seem to be lucky to catch a Spring sighting of either bird, but if I do it's often in the same meadows and pastures they use in the Autumn. When breeding has finished the return journey south is slower paced and this is when both species seem more easy to spot. I've seen more juvenile wheatears in Autumn , they look rather like the females, often hard to tell apart.

Looking at my own records starting in August 1999 to August 2017 ,I noticed the regular appearance of
returning wheatears and whinchats in the same meadow and sometimes on the same fence posts or
hedgerow usually starting in the third week of August.
We know the weather plays a part in migratory movements , but I started to note that passing wheatears
and whinchats were often stopping off at the same spots on this site each year.
So I noted the dates and found the birds start to turn up usually around the 24th August in each year,
most sightings were in this week in August.
Of course I wasn't always able to look on this week in August every year , but a pattern did seem to emerge.
The earliest arriving bird at this site was a whinchat on 8th July ,2012 and the last passing birds were two
wheatears in 2011 on the 7th November , really late !

One very good year was 2011 with 8 sightings from the 9th August to the 7th November, with 4 wheatears
on the 19th August, 4 wheatears on the 23rd August, and a whinchat and wheatear on the 2nd September.
Also 2015 was a good year with 8 sightings on differant days from 28th August to 16th September.
On 9th September 2013 ,3 whinchats and a wheatear appeared all together and in 1999 on 27th August,
2 whinchats and 2 wheatears appeared.
The first wheatear to appear in August 2017 was on the 17th, it stayed until the 18th, when it was joined by a yellow wagtail.

Of course the appearance of any birds could be down to any disturbances on the site or nearby, like crop
harvesting or hedge cutting. Maybe why 2003 and 2004 gave no sightings or perhaps I just didn't look
on the right day or at the right time.

The wheatears seen were usually juveniles or females, harder to tell apart in the autumn. Juveniles have similar colours and plumage pattern to females ,so by the time they are ready to migrate they look very similar. Summer males are really striking with their black mask , white eye stripe, blue-gray crown and back. Both sexes stand very upright on long black legs.
The whinchats have a pale buff eye stripe and warm orange-buff underparts. They look their best in Spring , the blackish crown and whiter eye strip really shows up in the males.
Wheatears like to stay running in the pasture, whinchats prefer a prominent perch to sit on, making them good for spotting.
Both species are a delight to find in Spring or Autumn and as with birding on any site it is always worth being persistent and just keep looking.

4th April, 2018.

Report by Colin Strudwick.