Something about wheatears always sets my pulse racing. Yes, in part it’s because they’re beautiful birds. They’re decked out in delicate pale shades of orange, buff, brown and grey, set off by steel and black on adult males, with a bold black highwayman’s mask. Most striking of all and present in all plumages is the unmistakable tail pattern, an inverted black T set against a white rump. (There’s a little clue to the etymology of their name. No, it has nothing to do with ears!)
And it’s also partly because wheatears move about as subtly as they dress. They can take you by surprise, since standing still they have surprisingly effective camouflage, but as soon as they move the game is up. They’re darting specialists, always dashing to and fro just ahead as you walk, and then bobbing up and down impatiently on a prominent rock. Some are as bold as their garden-dwelling cousins, the robin. The one pictured here, seen on the Hampshire coast this Wednesday, seemed most curious as to what this strange, five-legged creature (three for the scope, remember) was up to and hopped ever closer to me, head cocked, eyes bright. I believe this might be an immature male, but I’m not so great at identifying which wheatear plumage I’m looking at and would value readers’ input.
A little later I was watching a dragonfly, which I briefly lost when it flew behind me. As I turned to relocate it, I saw a flash of white and black as the same wheatear darted back into view and alighted, my quarry proving to have also been its quarry, and to have been summarily snatched from mid-air and despatched. It was a small dragonfly species, probably a common darter (though I never did get the chance to identify it!). Here is the wheatear, proudly displaying a snack that, whilst small for a dragonfly, looks like substantial eating of a sort that a hobby or other such predator would not turn its beak up at.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes: wheatears are primarily thrilling because if I’m seeing wheatears, it means good things are happening. It usually means that spring or autumn passage is underway, the most exciting time of year for most birders and indeed for the birds themselves (who have even more important things to be worrying about at such a dangerous time than list-building, believe it or not). Or if I’m really lucky, it means I’ve taken a trip in summer to some northern or western cliff top or grass-green island, one of the near endless choices of wild stretches of shore that Britain is so blessed with. Those are my absolute favourite sorts of places in the world to be. In part, because they’re full of wheatears. It was on a very special one of them, the Isle of Iona, that I recall seeing my first wheatear, one of the first birds I really ‘noticed’, and whenever I see one now I’m transported. I can feel the wind, hear the waves, taste the salt, feel the peace. Wheatears are very much alive, and they make me feel the same way.