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A passage migrant in spring and autumn


Photograph by: 
Debby Saunders

Wheatear: it wont stay here

Post date: Monday, 17 March, 2014 - 00:00

During the spring thousands and thousands of birds pass through Dorset as they return from the far south to their breeding grounds across the United Kingdom. Many go unseen, they do not stop as there is an urgency and a drive to get 'home'. The autumn is a little different, many stop off here for a final meal before setting off across the Channel on their long journey to their winter quarters.

One of the first to arrive in spring is the wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) and from mid-March and into April it is not unusual to find one along the coast of Dorset or on high ground across the county. The wheatear will not stay here though, it is a common bird in the uplands of Wales, northern England and throughout Scotland and it soon continues on its journey back home.

It is a distinctive bird in appearance, an upright stance and about the size of a startling but the most obvious feature is its white rear that cannot be missed when it is in flight and it is what probably gives it its name - white rear = wheatear!

It is often seen standing on rocks and boulders surveying the surrounding grassy areas for likely insects to eat. 


The wheatear in Dorset: what your tweets tell us

Post date: Saturday, 1 December, 2018 - 16:09

At the time of writing (December 2018) the wheatear has more entries in the Nature of Dorset database than any other species; 460 in 23 months. Initially I found that surprising but then just what species would I have thought would be number one? With some reflection the reasons, I think, become more apparent.

First and foremost the wheatear is not a 'usual' Dorset bird (if there is such a thing as a usual Dorset bird). It is not a species resident all year round or for any extended length of time during a season. It is not regarded as a breeding species in Dorset either although there is an indication that at least one pair may have bred successfully here in 2018. So not being a 'usual' Dorset species it engenders a degree of interest when seen and that means it is more likely to get a mention in a tweet.

The wheatear is, like many other species, a 'passage migrant'; seen in spring on its way north to its breeding grounds on the moors up north and in autumn on their way back to southern climes for the winter. What marks the wheatear out as special is that it tends to be one of the earliest movers and so their appearance in Dorset usually signals the start of the migration season and that engenders tweets as observers see their first of the season or see one after the main flow seems to have finished. The chart of weekly records shows this quite well with the earliest spring arrivals coming in around week 10 which is mid-March, long before many other migrant species. They reach their peak around week 16 (early April) and the inflow is over by about week 21 or early May. The autumn departure seem to start around week 30 (late July) again before many other species start south. Departures peak in week 36, or late August, but they can still be seen right through until week 43, mid to late October.

On top of this is the fact that the wheatear does not seem to migrate in flocks but as single birds. This means that they can turn up almost anywhere along the coast in Dorset in small numbers rather than a large number being seen in one place. A look at the distribution map of sightings quite clearly shows this with hardly a coastal site where they have not been recorded over the last two years. They are also highly visible birds as they seem to prefer open rough grassy habitats where they tend to perch on exposed rocks or on fence posts and the like. Couple this with their characteristic upright stance and their unmistakable white rump when they fly and they are easy to spot.

If you not seen one then Portland and Ferrybridge are probably the best places to go in April and August.  


The records for this species have been organised into reports, charts, maps and photos. Click a pic below to see the detail:

Sites List Distribution Map Some Charts Some Photographs Original Tweets Relatives Guidance Notes
Common Name Wheatear
Scientific Name Oenanthe oenanthe
Status Occasional
Interest Level
Species Family Chats
  • 03 - March
  • 04 - April
  • 05 - May
  • 09 - September
  • 08 - August
  • 10 - October
Preferred Environment
  • Downland and scrub
Look for The white rump when it flies
Additional Identification Notes
  • One of the first migratory birds to arrive in spring and leave in autumn
  • Seen in open habitats and can be quite frequent here but it does not breed in Dorset
  • Distinctive markings but well known for its white rump that shows clearly when it flies 
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