Wheatear: The arrival of the white-arsed vanguard of summer

, 20 March 2014

Author Michael Blencowe

Lewes Community Wildlife Officer

There�s nothing that can lift my spirits more than learning that the first wheatears have started to arrive on the Sussex coast. After enduring the worst winter ever, I greeted the news of the first wheatear of 2014 with mild euphoria and I wanted to run out into the street and hug the first person I saw. Luckily, for the residents of Sussex, I was able to apply some restraint � although I did punch the air and update my Facebook status.

As our earliest returning African migrants wheatears are at the forefront of the annual summer invasion. Not far behind them thousands and thousands of beating hearts and beating wings are currently powering tiny bodies through North African skies. It�s a fast 3000 mile flight from Sierra Leone to Sussex for a one ounce wheatear and they�ve been recorded migrating at 500 miles a day. The dashing males arrive first. Their soft sun bleached shades of pink and buff topped with a dapper black bandit�s mask. At the Sussex Wildlife Trust�s Southerham nature reserve you�ll see them scurrying over the grazed downland turf, refuelling after their flight. When they fly wheatears flash the white rump which gave them their name. Because wheatears have nothing to do with wheat or ears. Their original name was �white arse�. Victorians and vicars birdwatching in mixed company blushed when they spotted one. So their name was subtly censored.

Wheatear is a more palatable name for a tragically palatable bird. In Sussex they were considered a local delicacy and were served at the finest banquets in Lewes, Brighton and Eastbourne. South Downs shepherds would trap them to increase their income. Gluttonous gourmets were so desperate for fresh wheatear that they would prowl the downs and take birds straight from unmanned traps leaving a pile of coins for the shepherds.

In 1900 outspoken and outraged Sussex conservationist W. H. Hudson wrote

�It is not fair that wheatears should be killed merely to enable London stockbrokers, sporting men, and other gorgeous persons who visit the coast, accompanied by ladies with yellow hair, to feed on them at the big Brighton hotels.�

But the damage was done. Trapping and, more importantly, the gradual loss of their sheep-grazed downland habitat caused the birds to disappear from Sussex. The wheatears we now see in Sussex unsurprisingly don�t hang around. Each spring they briefly return to their old downland haunts, flash their white arses at the people of Sussex and keep on movin�. From Sussex they�ll head onwards to breeding sites in northern England and northern Europe. But for some of these birds their amazing migration is far from over and will continue for a further 2000 miles over cold oceans to Greenland and Arctic Canada. Yet a few wheatears do breed here and we�re proud that Rye Harbour Nature Reserve is one of the few places in Sussex that they still call home.

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  • Andrew Russell:


    A very interesting article, I never knew they were Victoria delicacies. The Victorians were barbaric in many ways.
    I am in Kazakhstan and thought you might want to know that the first of the Eastern Black Eared Wheatear was spotted last week. Two birds only, both almost completely without any ochre or pink (to my eyes) both looked to be strictly black and white.

    The wheatear of whatever species, never disappoint

    08 May 2014 10:37:31

  • Margaret Eldridge:

    No doubt about it folks Wheatears and warblers? sedge definitely come to our farm, Beaulieu, 740 The Ridge, St. Leonards on Sea TN37 7PS each summer for last 3 or 4 years. Have been puzzled and too busy but tonight looking up owl noises, definitely 3 Tawny in residence, hear each night from about 7pm to 6.00 am’ish.I go out early and listen, watch dawn… Search led me on to other birds… thus the Wheatear and warblers.
    Back to owls, presumably then plenty of food for them, even on dreaded Ridge by Conquest Hospital!!

    20 Jan 2023 01:08:00