With spring just around the corner, one of the birds that will be arriving on the reserve in early March is the Wheatear.
Don’t be confused if you see reference in books to Northern Wheatear, this is the longer name for our Oenanthe oenanthe – there are 28 other species! The name Wheatear derives from the old English name for the bird which was a ‘white arse’. If you spot one on the reserve it is immediately apparent as to why the bird was given this name. Its most obvious feature is the large white rump common to both sexes.
In addition to the white rump one needs to look out for the very long black legs and also the birds upright appearance. The male is a beautiful bird with a grey crown and upper back, a rusty orange breast and a black mask through the eye and including the cheek. They like nothing better than to run along the short grass, stopping to scan the nearby ground and then running forward to pick up a tasty morsel. The short grass by the river mouth being a favoured area to find them. They will also use fence posts to search for prey below them on the ground. The fence line between the Gooders hide and the sea is a popular place for them to feed.
The first migrants start to arrive in small numbers in early March although the main arrival is not until the end of the month. There is often a second smaller influx in May which are a different race and are birds on their way to Greenland or even Alaska! These birds are bigger than the British ones.
Wheatear breeding pairs at Rye Harbour
Wheatears are now a very rare breeding species in southeast England with small numbers here and at Dungeness. Last year six pairs nested on the reserve, the peak number in recent years being seventeen pairs in 1980. It is a common breeder in upland Britain and also the far islands of Scotland. At Rye Harbour they usually nest in either rabbit holes or in purpose built nestboxes that have been part buried in the shingle. They will also use holes in walls if there are any available and on the ground under dense vegetation. They will usually lay five eggs which are incubated for 13 to 14 days. This is the same length of time that the adults look after them until they become fully independent. The parents will usually have two broods and if conditions are right, will sometimes attempt a third brood.
The photo above shows one of our nestboxes - a clay drainage pipe - and the video clip below shows chicks being fed outside one.
A study of their food in Sussex showed the most important prey items were beetles, weevils, shieldbugs and moth caterpillars. Other foods included ants, earwigs, bees, wasps and lacewings. The typical lifespan is only two years but birds have been known to live for longer. The oldest known Wheatear lived for eight years and three months.
In the autumn the birds leave over quite a protracted period. The maximum count in recent years was 37 on 31 August 2016. Birds are however still trickling through in mid October. A nestling ringed on the reserve in May 1991 was found dead in Morocco in March 1992, whilst at Pett Level an autumn migrant was caught that had already been ringed in Iceland. The main wintering ground is south of the Sahara in Africa.
This article was written by Phil Jones for the newsletter of the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve. He is also a volunteer who used to open our old information cabins on a Wednesday and who does regular counts of birds. He is also a committee member of the Friends of Rye Harbour Nature Reserve.