Sunday, 17 March 2013

Birds of East Kent: Wheatear

Latest in an occasional series of posts discussing the different birds that can be found in East Kent and how easy (or not) it is to get a decent picture of them.

North Foreland, Broadstairs, September 2012

Supposedly named for the white rump it shows during flight (Wheatear = "white arse", geddit?), the Northern Wheatear (to give it its full title) is perhaps East Kent's best example of a passage migrant. We see them twice a year: once in springtime when they stop off on their way to their breeding grounds, and again in autumn as they prepare to make the long journey back to sub-Saharan Africa.

Appearance-wise, they're hard to confuse with any other bird. The spring male in its full breeding plumage is a particularly impressive sight with its dark chocolate-brown wings, blue-grey back, black eye-mask and peach-coloured flush on its breast and throat.

Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)
Bishopstone, Reculver, April 2010

Wheatears are fairly easy birds to locate, as they can be seen just about anywhere along the coast during the peak of the spring and autumn migrations. The rocks at Bishopstone are usually a reliable place to look, as are the scrubby cliff-tops and strips of grass between North Foreland and Foreness.

In some years, if the weather keeps them grounded, they can build up to impressive numbers as they gather along the coast. I remember one autumn afternoon when they were literally popping up out of every bush I passed as I walked from King George VI park to Broadstairs. (I suppose this was the Wheatear equivalent of Operation Stack.)

However, getting close enough to acquire a decent photo requires a little forethought. Although Wheatears spend a lot of their time on the ground, they frequently fly up to the nearest available perch to see what's going on around them. One method (a trick I learned from observing similar behaviour in Stonechats) is to advance quickly while they're feeding and immediately freeze as soon as they fly to their perch. It may take a while, but with practice and persistence you should be able to get very close indeed. Another method is to observe if they're moving in a particular direction and surreptitiously get ahead of them. Then it's a matter of keeping still as they work their way towards you. (And of course not making making the schoolboy error of suddenly raising your camera.)

Wheatear at Viking Bay
Viking Bay, Broadstairs, October 2011

Wikipedia lists 21 other species of Wheatear, a couple of which occasionally make it to British shores. But considering how far these birds travel, it's a privilege to see even the regular ones.

See also:
More of my Wheatear photos on Flickr
Wheatear (RSPB)
Wheatear (Birdforum)
Wheatear (Birdguides)