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Waiting for the Wheatears

February 26, 2013

This article was published in February 2013 by Yorkshire Coast Nature here

If it feels like this winter is never-ending, don’t worry, help is at hand – the harbingers of spring are on the way as you read this, writes Mark James Pearson.

February is traditionally the most frustrating and seemingly endless month of the year, so often characterised by the briefest tastes of what lies ahead, soon snuffed out by a sudden descent back into the depths of winter. Occasional sunny days may inspire half-hearted singing and a little muted romance among our local bird populations, but the signs are always fleeting, and the pursuit of true spring in February is still effectively shadow-chasing.

Of course, March can be just as guilty of successive seasonal false dawns, but there’s one fundamental difference; for all its stalling and patience-trying, it holds true to its promise, in the unmistakably beguiling form of Wheatears.

Wheatears (technically Northern Wheatears, Oenanthe oenanthe) are a joy of a bird on every conceivable level, not least as an – arguably the – iconic symbol of the true arrival of spring. Everybody has their own particular natural alarm clock with which to usher in the new season, often involving the power-surges of our local flora; Wheatears, however, are already well into their herculean effort to reach our shores by the time the first buds appear on the trees and shrubs.

For their epic migration is not an impulse triggered by the what’s happening on (or emerging from) home soil; far from it. Various internal and external factors conspire to tip each individual’s delicate equilibrium at just the right time, and after a season on the hillsides and savannahs of deepest Africa, they finally begin their long, trans-equatorial journeys back north.

Using a complex combination of inherented, learned and honed skills to navigate thousands of miles every spring, the timing of their arrival on our shores varies slightly year-on-year; the vanguard arrives during mid to late March, and fittingly, the first birds often appear around the time of the vernal equinox.

Barely any larger than a European Robin, Wheatears are distinctive birds in both habits and appearance. Essentially ground-dwelling, they favour open spaces, and prefer staying on the deck where possible (although a brief retreat to an exposed perch when flushed isn’t unusual). This means they’re often wonderfully obvious, and can often be very approachable with a little patience.

Spring males are truly stunning creatures, with distinctive black bandit masks, dove-grey upperparts and apricot-stained throats, but birds of both sexes are often initially given away by their striking white rumps (their vernacular name deriving from the old English for ‘white arse’), as they flit low over the clifftops or settle, bolt-upright, on a rock or a mound.

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Their arrival on our coastline is only a small part of their story. Some are nearing the end of their journeys, returning to their natal neighbourhoods in Yorkshire and elsewhere in the north of England; others are approaching the final straight, before a last push to Scotland or Scandinavia; a mind-blowing odyssey across deserts, oceans and countless untold dangers. Incredibly, however, some will be taking a hard-earned break on the way to Arctic North America – the longest-known transoceanic migration of any passerine.

Theoretically they can appear in any conditions, and it takes a harsh weather system to hold them for long en route; even then, it’s only ever a temporary interruption, and the primal urge to drive onwards transcends all others. Come hell or high water, they’ll be here, and it’s always a thrill and a privilege to witness their long-awaited return.

Their spring migration is protracted, lasting throughout the season, with the latest birds – usually the aforementioned olympians bound for the tundra of Greenland and Canada – passing through towards the end of May. Hence, if you miss them at the first few attempts, with persistence you’re sure to connect with them sooner or later.

Look for them anywhere in likely habitat along the coast, whether on the grassy paths around Scarborough Castle, the crumbling badlands of Filey’s Carr Naze, the clifftops around the lighthouse at Flamborough, or on any coastal field, footpath, golf course or rough patch that looks suitable.

And remember, the tail-cocking, pocket-sized navigator extraordinaire you encounter on a seaside walk this spring just might be making a vital pitstop on a unique journey that began in Zambia and will end in arctic Canada…..

Words & pictures copyright Mark James Pearson 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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