Wednesday, 11 January 2012


I apologise in advance for what is a highly predicatable post, but one that is wholly consistent with what birding means to me. It’s about Wheatears, and their almost imminent arrival. Over the last three years, Wheatears have arrived on Wanstead Flats on March 14th, March 20th, and March 29th. Doing the maths, if you take the median, it’s the 20th; if you take the average, it’s the 21st. I wonder what the median for this post is? Anyway, this year is a leap year, obviously none of the last three were, and even though the Wheatears are likely oblivious, the earlier date is perhaps the more accurate to use. Actually it’s probably not accurate at all, the birds will come when they come, but either way it could be excitingly soon. 69 days - that's less than ten weeks.

By then the light will be birdable by about 5.20am. That’s not the best time for passerines, they tend to rise later, but it gives me a chance to get out and have a poke around before needing to be back for the school run. You cannot possibly conceive of how tragically excited I already am. In terms of excitement levels, it’s a toss up between January 1st and Wheatear arrival. Or perhaps I’m just a tosser? No matter. Non-birders, non patch-workers, may sneer at the pathetic dribble that is my life, but there is practically nothing that I look forward to more in March, not even my birthday. Which as it happens is also in March, so there is the possibility that the first Wheatear will arrive on THE day, and that I will find it. Hasn’t happened yet, but you would hear the whoops from anywhere within the M25 I reckon.


So, just what is it about Wheatears? There are very few other regular birds that provoke these feelings. Firecrests, for example, are pretty damn smart, and I never tire of seeing them, but they’re not in the same league as Wheatears, or at least not for me. Perhaps it’s that Wheatears are the first trans-Saharan migrants to make it back each year. For us, having just gone though a miserable and dark four or five months, they probably herald the start of warmth and daylight. It’s true that I don’t look forward to the first returning autumn birds in the same way, but then again, a 1W Wheatear isn’t quite the same as a spring male. Spring male Wheatears are the birds that words like “cracking” and “stonking” were designed for. You can say that about Red-flanked Bluetails and Red-breasted Flycatchers, but deep down you know you should be reserving the accolade for talking about Wheatears. The sparkling silvery-grey mantle and head, the white forehead contrasting beautifully with the broad black eye-stripe, the warm throat and slightly buffy flanks. And the rump! The flash of white that catches your eye, that draws you in. That’s what you have drilled into your subconscious in March – visions of bounding white.


  1. There's a man after my own heart. My earliest, on my favoured patch (alongside the northbound A1M between jct 6 & 7) was 16th March. Race you to 'em?

  2. You are not on your own.
    For me a traditional trip down to Rye in late March heralds the end of the dismal winter months especially when I see my first Wheatears and Sandwich Terns. It does feel like the start of something.

  3. Of course, there's none in Shetland. Not a single one. It's been two years since our trip there and I can still hear the bloody things 'chacking' away. 'S ok, I'm just jealous.