Monday, 30 March 2015

Next Term, 5: Wheatear

Male Wheatear
As mentioned last time Wheatears are another member of the chat family. These are among some of the earliest spring migrants to return in March, but their migration time is also one of the most prolonged with some arrivals still taking place well into May. Male Wheatears are extremely handsome birds with blue-grey blacks, apricot underparts, a dashing black mask through the eye, and the tell-tale white rump. It is the latter that has given the bird it's rather misleading contemporary name. The Wheatear isn't named after its failure to breed in wheat fields among ears of corn, rather it is a corruption over many years from the original old English name "White arse." Before the world of binoculars the most noticeable feature of the wheatear was its white rump as it was flushed. 
On a Tyre
 in Damp Pasture
 On the Rocks
Female Wheatears are also attractive birds with brown upperparts, apricot underparts, the stunning white rump, but no black marks through the eye. 
On Oilseed Rape
Unfortunately, Wheatears do not breed locally, but pass through the county twice a year: before breeding begins, and the long slow autumnal post-breeding migration. Wheatears are birds of higher altitudes than the sea level offered by coastal East Yorkshire. They can be found nesting in drystone walls in West and North Yorkshire, but they are also birds of mountains and moorland. 
Wheatear in Flight - displaying rump
 7 Wheatears on a woodpile
Some years the slightly larger Greenland race birds also pass through in significant numbers, but this is highly dependant on prevailing weather conditions.  
9 Wheatears on 2 woodpiles
 A Wheatear on Autumn Migration

On migration Wheatears will tend to be located near livestock, or where there is a ready supply of insects for them to devour and fatten on before continuing on their way. They often perch in prominent positions. I have seen them on fence-posts, dung-heaps and even tyres, all of these on the coast. One of the most surprising locations was far inland at North Cliffe Wood on a gorse bush. It continued on its migration as we watched, setting off far into the air in a northerly direction. The most amazing spectacle was 7 jockeying for position on one pile of wood at Kilnsea, with 2 also present on the adjacent wood pile!

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