After a couple of visits to Maxey GP in the hope of seeing my first returning Wheatear I finally succeeded in seeing a lovely male today.
The Wheatear is a bird that comes to Britain in the summer months to breed mainly in the western and northern parts of the country, but during migration it can be seen all over the place (I have even seen one on return migration on the pitch at The Oval cricket ground in Surrey)! Maxey GP is a place where you are likely to see a few birds on their journey and over the next few weeks there will be more.
The bird is larger than a Robin, neat, sleak and short-tailed with an extensive area of white on the rump and upper tail, indeed its name is a corruption of `white-arse`. The male is blue-grey with black wings and white underparts with an orange flush on the breast. It has black cheeks and a white stripe over the eye and across the forehead. In the autumn after moulting it is much browner but retains its dark cheeks and the pale stripe over the eye (known as the supercilium). The female is sandy brown with a less well-marked face and browner wings. The juvenile has spotted/mottled upperparts and breast.
The Wheatear breeds in rocky/stony places, upland pastures with dry-stone walls and on moorland. It also breeds on short grassland in lowland areas, often in coastal areas. They lay between 4 and 7 eggs and these are brooded by the female and they take around 13 days to hatch when the young are fed by both the male and female. The young leave the nest at around 10 days old and can fly from 15 days where they become independant after 28-32 days.
The birds start to arrive in Britain between March and May, with most starting to leave in August. Movement is south-west through Europe and many land on the coast of North Africa before setting off again for their wintering grounds in central Africa. The slightly larger Greenland race of this bird migrates from Africa to its breeding grounds in the Arctic. On its return journey it flies non-stop for 30 hours and 2,400 km from Greenland to western Europe!
There are over 55,000 pairs of this bird that breed in Britain and Ireland, but over the past 60 years they have suffered a slight decline. This could be due to a number of factors, including the ploughing of old grasslands and successive droughts in Africa.