The true harbinger of spring

Posted on April 4, 2016 · Posted in News

For many people, returning swallows herald the start of spring, but for me it’s the first appearance of another migrant that warrants a mark on the calendar. Wheatears are the earliest spring migrants to return to Britain and Ireland from their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa, usually reaching the south coast in early March but on rare occasions in late February.

The timing of their arrival in the hills around Bron y Llys varies from year to year, but a date early in April seems usual. This year I saw my first wheatear on 25th March while walking between Glaslyn and Bugeilyn on a day of blue skies and a light but chilly breeze. It was a male, as the first arrivals often are; the females start their spring migration one or two weeks later on average. A male wheatear in breeding plumage is a striking bird and sometimes behaves as if he knows it, obligingly sitting on a fence post to provide a photo opportunity. Wheatears will continue to arrive for the next month. One year in mid-April we saw about a dozen on the shore at Mwnt where they appeared to have just made landfall.

The name wheatear has no reference to any of the bird’s features and is the misleading product of sensitive Victorians who couldn’t handle the earlier and perfectly descriptive ‘white arse’.

Incidentally I also saw my first swallows of the year during that same walk (two birds passing Glaslyn at high speed). We don’t normally see them this high in the Cambrian Mountains until April, so I was tempted to write this blog about swallows instead. But wheatears are a characteristic summer bird of these hills and I think their return deserves a small celebration.