Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Wheatears, glorious Wheatears

Without doubt wheatears of the genus Oenanthe are among the most popular model objects studied in ornithology. I guess one of the reasons for this is they live in open landscapes where they can be easily observed, although their bold markings and often confiding nature must surely also add to their attraction. Some of the most prominent world ornithologists have dealt with these birds discussing such things as wheatear taxonomy and a range of biological problems i.e. genetic polymorphism and evolutionary origin. Some 14 species of wheatear inhabit the Paleartic region, 15¹ if you count Oenanthe seebohmi as a separate species.

My introduction to this remarkable family began with various studies concerning Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe. For me, this species will always stand apart from its relatives as something very special, for instance it has the most extensive breeding range of any of the wheatears and is regarded by many as a pioneer species and has even colonised new continents! It is a species which is astonishing for its ability to cover huge distances during their seasonal migrations; birds nesting in Alaska and wintering in Equatorial Africa complete a twice yearly journey of not less than 20 to 30 thousand kilometres, staggering for such a small bird!

In more recent times I have been fortunate to travel to various countries throughout the world and this has allowed me to see a wide range of wheatears. With Spanish Nature, excursions to Morocco occur on a regular basis and, for me at least, seeing several wheatear species in this exotic destination is a constant source of excitement. Observing Red-rumped Wheatear O.moesta in spring and again in the autumn is a privilege with such fine colours and birds always confiding, although constantly busy! These large sized wheatears are readily distinguished from all other Oenanthe by the unusual and considerable amount of white on the median and greater wing coverts, clearly visible both when perched and in flight. During a good tour of Morocco it is not unusual to see no less than 8¹ species of wheatear and this can make any visit worthwhile.

Being based in Andalucia, I also have 3 species of breeding wheatears here on my doorstep and along with Northern and the very handsome Black-eared Wheatear O.hispanica, the largest among all the Paleartic representatives of the genus, Black Wheatear O.leucura, is an ever present and locally common resident. Untypical of wheatears in general, the Black Wheatear is heavily built and with a weight of around 40 g² it matches the size of another bird of the mountains here Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush Monticola saxatilis! It is a source of amusement to see such a heavy wheatear with untypical short wings taking reluctant flight from one part of its territory to another, rather like watching an overloaded plane taking off.

So, if like me, you want to observe members of this stunning family of birds, why not join us on tours to Morocco or here in my heartland of Spain?

Suggested tours suited for observing wheatears and of course many other species of birds:

¹ The figure of 8 species does not include Seebohmi Wheatear, which the author considers a separate species.

² The author has controlled and released an individual male Black Wheatear weighing 50 g!

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