My bird of the month for May is the northern wheatear. It is always exciting to see the first birds arrive back from Africa in March and April, but May is one of the best months to see them on their upland breeding sites. Listen out for their stonechat-like ‘clacking’ call. In May, you can also hear the males singing a scratchy and rushed-sounding song. I will be looking out for the characteristic flash of its white bottom across Shetland this month.
The northern wheatear is a smallish songbird that looks superficially like a member of the thrush family. When they arrive in spring, males have a soft grey head and back with a striking black eye mask and wings. Their throat and underparts are a lovely buff colour.
Females are more subtly marked, with pale brown backs and buff underparts. After breeding, males moult to look more like the females, although they will still have black wings.
What you will often see first, though, is a wheatear’s flashing white rump as it flies away a short distance ahead of you if disturbed. Both sexes have this white rear, and this is actually where they get their name from. ‘Wheatear’ is nothing to do with ears of wheat but comes from the Old English for ‘white arse’! Maybe not the most delicate name for such a pretty bird!
Juveniles are a fairly non-descript grey-brown colour which helps them blend into their rock and moor homes.
Northern wheatears breed across Europe, Asia and in parts of North America, but winter in central Africa. The race of birds that breed here have a relatively short migration and males usually arrive back in March. By April, they will be paired up and on their upland nesting sites. They are ground-nesting birds and often use rock crevices and old burrows.
However, because this species only winters in Africa, some birds cover astounding distances on migration. Birds that breed in Greenland make one of the longest ocean crossings of any songbird to get from Africa to Europe then across to Greenland in spring. Because their breeding grounds will be frozen later than UK sites, we see them on migration in the UK after our birds are already on the nest. They are bigger, brighter birds that are worth looking out for at coastal sites in May.
Birds that breed in Alaska and western Canada travel even further. After breeding, they fly west across Siberia and then Asia and Arabia to reach Africa, a distance of about 9,000 miles. This is almost certainly the longest migration of any songbird and probably the result of the species expanding its range after the last ice age. As the ice retreated, they moved north, both to east and west, but have remained genetically tied to wintering in Africa, rather than switching to southern Asia to shorten the journey.
As a brief aside, I visited Almeria in southern Spain in 2015 and got to see two different members of the wheatear genus, the black-eared wheatear and the black wheatear. The black-eared wheatear is a migrant to southern Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, but the black wheatear is resident to Spain and parts of north Africa. Both were stunning birds and a real treat to see.
Northern wheatears are charismatic birds that breed in the UK in rocky, open upland country. As well as seeing them on the ground, you will often see them fly up to a wall or fence. For some reason we often seem to see them around old croft sites in Scotland, possibly because the walls make good vantage spots. Cemeteries are also good for the same reason! Once disturbed, they never fly far away but you can’t miss that white rump as it flashes ahead of you in a sure sign that summer is just around the corner.