The Northern wheatear is a small songbird that mainly lives on the ground hopping or running around. It makes one of the longest migrations of any bird crossing oceans, ice and deserts, breeding as far north as the Arctic tundra of Canada, Alaska, and Greenland before returning to their wintering grounds of sub-Saharan Africa. Tracking devices have recorded journeys of 30,000 km.
Scientific name: Oenanthe oenanthe
Status: Breeding summer visitor and passage migrant
Breeding birds: 240,000 pairs
Conservation status: Green
Length: 14 – 15 cm
Wingspan: 26 – 32 cm
Weight: 18 – 33 g
Adult male wheatears have blue-grey upperparts with black wings. They have a white rump and white tail with a black terminal band and central rectrices. Their underparts are pale buff and yellowish-buff on the breast and throat.
Their crowns are blue-grey and the forehead and supercilium are white They have a black mask with a white line below. Their eyes are dark brown, their bill is black, as are their legs and feet.
Outside breeding season male wheatears have a brown back and crown and their ear coverts are washed brown. Their wing feathers are edged with pale buff and their underparts are yellowish-buff.
Female wheatears in breeding plumage resembles the male except the upperparts and wings are dull brown and they have a duller head pattern.
In non-breeding plumage female wheatears have pale buff upperparts, wing feathers edged with white and buff, the supercilium is pale buff, and the ear coverts are rufous. The underparts are pale buff.
Juvenile wheatears are similar to females but the upperparts are speckled buff and the underparts are scaled brown.
Wheatears breed in May and June. They nest on the ground in a hole under rock, in rock crevices, or in an abandoned burrow. The female builds the nest which is an open-cup made from leaves, stems, moss, feathers, and fur, lined with softer materials, and laid on a foundation of dried stems and grasses.
Wheatears lay 4-8 pale blue eggs with pale brown markings which are incubated for 12-14 days by both the female and the male. Chicks are fed by both parents and fledge at about 15-17 days after hatching. They depend on their parents for a further 12-13 days and reach sexual maturity at a year.
Wheatears eat insects such as beetles and ants, larvae, snails, and worms, and in autumn will supplement their diet with berries.
Where to see them
Wheatears can be seen in the UK between March and October. In breeding season they are found in upland habitats in the north and west. During passage look out for them on the southern and eastern coasts.
Did you know?
The scientific name oenanthe is from the Greek for ‘wine-flower’ and is also the name of a plant genus, the water dropworts, whose flowers smell like wine. It refers to the wheatear’s return to Greece just as the grapevines blossom.
Its English name comes from ‘white-arse’ which refers to its white rump.