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1 Mar 2020

Creature feature: wheatear

Written by Ciaran Hatsell, Ranger, St Abb’s Head NNR
A wheatear sits on a rocky area, with a bright blue sky behind.
A stunning male wheatear – always a welcome sight in March
Wheatears are small migrant birds with white rumps and grey backs. The males have a black ‘bandit’ mask.

The small and mighty wheatear really is a migration machine. Breeding as far north as Greenland, Canada and Alaska, these birds will migrate to sub-Saharan Africa for the winter – that’s a return journey of up to 18,640 miles! Through tracking studies, it has been shown that some birds breeding in Alaska and eastern Canada will travel via Greenland and Ireland before crossing the sea to Portugal/the Azores. This means crossing around 2,000 miles of the Atlantic without taking a rest. Astonishing!

As well as being a migratory miracle, the wheatear is also one of our earliest arriving migrants and is often thought of as a harbinger of spring. Seeing a wheatear standing on a cliff top, puffing out its chest having crossed the sea, is truly one of the most uplifting of spring sights! The earliest to arrive are usually the males in late March, many of which will breed in the UK. These birds are returning to claim the best territories before the females arrive, which is usually into April. By staking a claim to the best territories, they maximise their chances of attracting a mate. By late April and May, we see a pulse of more northern breeders passing through, heading up to Greenland (and sometimes beyond) where the breeding season doesn’t start until later in the summer.

A female wheatear stands on some grass at the side of a rocky path.
Female birds are not so strikingly marked, but look out for the diagnostic white rump patch when they fly.

How do they do it though?! Such a small bird travelling such vast distances almost appears to defy logic. The secret lies in their ability to convert fat stores into energy. Birds have naturally high metabolisms and require large amounts of energy for their daily lives, including maintaining body heat, providing food for chicks, mating, etc. Migration is another feat entirely and takes an enormous amount of energy. The wheatear is highly specialised to be able to accumulate massive fat stores (up to 50–60% of its body mass) and is able to transport and oxidise fatty acids at very high rates. This means they are able to convert these fat stores to energy for flight and sustain themselves over vast distances, often making long ocean crossings without the possibility of rest. Pre-migration weights of some birds breeding in the far north can be more than double that of birds breeding in the UK!

So, there’s much more to the humble wheatear than meets the eye – their ability to cross oceans, deserts and mountain ranges is truly mind-boggling. What a privilege it is to have them at St Abb’s Head, even if it is for a quick rest and refuel before their onward journey.

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