Oh OK then. Wheatears are one of God’s gifts to birders, designed purely to make people happy. They are the antithesis of Gulls, which were placed on this earth simply to irritate and confuse us. Wheatears don’t loaf around rubbish tips and then attack people for chips and ice-cream, they perch up on prominent landmarks looking divine. They’re small birds, thrush or chat sized, and most of the species live in arid climes where they live on an insect diet and typically nest in crevasses or under rocks. Plumages are largely based on combinations of black and white, with a bit of grey, peach, beige and rufous thrown in here and there. Just one – the Northern Wheatear – breeds in the UK and further up, and here in Wanstead they pass through from mid-March, returning to their wintering grounds in Africa just a few months later. These are the ones that send me into a state of rapture every year, followed by deep depression when they leave again, and the long dark Wheatearless winter of discontent sets in. Six months of pain and hardship.
For the rest of them you have travel unless you are lucky enough to connect with a vagrant here. Desert Wheatear is the most frequent straggler, and there are occasional records of Isabelline, Pied, and sometimes even Black-eared. Whilst Desert Wheatear is a late vagrant, if you want a Wheatear fix between October and March, the onus is on you to visit them. As part of my aforementioned mission, this is something I am trying to do each winter. So last year I went off to the Emirates to pay my respects to Red-tailed, Variable, Hume’s and Hooded Wheatears, and this weekend just gone I went to Cyprus to prostrate myself before the altar of Finsch’s Wheatear.
Finsch’s Wheatear is one of the best there is, as the following image demonstrates.
Ooof! What a belter! 4 inches of feathers stuffed with personality and awesomeness. Finsch’s Wheatear breeds no closer to us than Eastern Turkey. The range extends further than that to places that are not really conducive to tourism, or at least not by pale-skinned westerners whose countries are engaged in bombing raids in the Middle East. And that is frequently the problem with many Wheatear species – their breeding ranges are in distinctly unsafe parts of the world. And whilst it is obviously my life’s aim to see all the world’s Wheatears, it would be a shame for this to also precipitate the end of my life. Luckily for me a small number of Finsch’s Wheatears decide to spend the winter in Cyprus, which despite its relative proximity to places overrun by black-clad terrorist death cults, remains as safe as houses. The biggest risk in Cyprus is being run over by a geriatric Brit on a mobility scooter following one too many G&Ts.
There are 23 species of Wheatear, and so far I have seen 15 of them. Eight therefore remain. Two are found in the Middle East, and six breed in Africa, largely in the Horn, though two, Capped Wheatear and Mountain Wheatear, extend all the way to South Africa. The Horn of Africa isn't a great place to get to unfortunately - one does not simply walk into Somalia. So seeing the remaining eight species is going to require quite a lot of planning. And quite a lot of permission seeking, and I don't suspect it is going to happen any time soon. Many of my Wheatear missions have been quick weekend trips that have been pretty successful, however I'm not sure I can get to Angola and back in a weekend.
For now though this is OK, as I have a side mission - to photograph all the Wheatear species. But not just, you know, record shots. Yeah, I know you know. What I mean is proper photos. Photos showing Wheatears in all their glory, like this fabulous White-crowned Wheatear that I saw in Morocco.
I have ended up becoming quite obsessive about Wheatear photos, and whilst I have images of all 15 of the species I have seen, some of them I am not happy with as I know that the full fabulousness of the bird is not adequately represented in the artistic manner that it merits. Here are a couple of examples. Padding, moi? The first is of a Hume's Wheatear on a fence. There is nothing wrong with the fence per se, but a bird this good is crying out for a decent rock. The trouble is the bird really liked the fence, so I am very seriously considering flying to Abu Dhabi in order to place a rock on the fence in the hope it might hop up onto it. The second is a Hooded Wheatear, and it is sat on a wheelie bin. I would rather it were sat on, well, anything really, but it is the only photo I have of this species. So far....