Summer is definitely on the wane and signs of encroaching autumn are becoming increasingly apparent on an almost daily basis. The hoped-for Indian Summer has yet to arrive and the weather continues to be as unpredictable as ever. It keeps life interesting though and the new season has already brought forth some amazing sightings of birds that threaten to dominate the blog now if I’m not careful. I thought I might feature one particular species of bird every week or so, beginning with the Northern Wheatear as they are clearly on migration now and sightings will probably be sporadic and for a brief time only.
Walking along the promenade between Rhos-on-Sea and Penrhyn Bay I stopped to watch some Pied Wagtails that were chasing flies along a length of the wall and over the big boulders of the sea defense. I love their agility and grace and could watch them for ages, but today I was distracted from their antics by the presence of a less common visitor, a handsome Northern Wheatear.
The Northern Wheatear or Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) is a small passerine bird that was formerly classed as a member of the thrush family Turdidae, but is now more generally considered to be an Old World flycatcher, Muscicapidae. It is the most widespread member of the wheatear genus Oenanthe in Europe and Asia.
The Northern Wheatear is a migratory insectivorous species breeding in open stony country in Europe and Asia with footholds in northeastern Canada and Greenland as well as in northwestern Canada and Alaska. It nests in rock crevices and rabbitburrows. All birds winter in Africa.
I am more used to seeing these birds in their summer breeding plumage; in Spain they breed in the mountains, and in Wales I have seen them in mainland Pembrokeshire and on Skomer Island,when males and females have been easy to separate. The distinctive plumage of the summer male has grey upperparts, buff throat and black wings and face mask. However, in autumn it resembles the female apart from the black wings. The female is pale brown above and buff below with darker brown wings.
I’m not altogether sure what sex the ones I saw belong to – the difference in the strength of colour on the breasts was quite marked, with some individuals being a very warm pink-orange and others a paler buff-pink.
The male has a whistling, crackly song. Its call is a typical chat chack noise.
The birds I am seeing here will be on their return journey to Africa where they will spend the winter, stopping over to take advantage of any available food to fuel the next stage of their journey south.
The Northern Wheatear makes one of the longest journeys of any small bird, crossing ocean, ice, and desert. It migrates from Sub-Saharan Africa in Spring over a vast area of the northern hemisphere that includes northern and central Asia, Europe, Greenland, Alaska, and parts of Canada. In Autumn all return to Africa, where their ancestors have wintered.
Birds of the large, bright Greenland race, leucorhoa, makes one of the longest transoceanic crossings of any passerine. In spring most migrate along a route (commonly used by waders and waterfowl) from Africa via continental Europe, the British Isles, and Iceland to Greenland. However, autumn sightings from ships suggest that some birds cross the North Atlantic directly from Canada and Greenland to southwest Europe (a distance of up to 2500 km). Birds breeding in eastern Canada are thought to fly from Newfoundland to the Azores (a distance of 1600 km) before flying onwards to Africa. Other populations from western Canada and Alaska migrate by flying over much of Eurasia to Africa.