I suspect if you ask anyone with a general interest in birds what is the first returning spring migrant bird they look out for each year; their answer will most likely be the swallow. However, if ask the same question to a birder - and yes there is a difference - then they are more likely to say “wheatear”.

There is nothing more satisfying after a long winter than to see the distinctive white rump of a wheatear flash before your eyes as you drive along an upland road. These birds are arguably the true iconic symbol of spring in a birders’ world, so let’s give them their full name: Northern Wheatear - Oenanthe oenanthe.

They are sub-Saharan migrants which are barely larger than a robin and are a very distinctive bird in both habit and appearance. Essentially a ground-dwelling bird, they favour open spaces and prefer staying on the ground where possible, although when flushed, a brief flight to an exposed perch isn’t unusual. This means hey’re often wonderfully obvious, and with a little patience they can sometimes be very approachable.

Great British Life: Males wheatears are stunning, with a distinctive bandit-style black eye mask, grey upper parts and apricot throatsMales wheatears are stunning, with a distinctive bandit-style black eye mask, grey upper parts and apricot throats (Image: Keith Kirk)

The key dilemma facing these, and essentially any long-distance migrant, is timing. If they arrive too early, they run the risk of not finding enough food and perish before the breeding season has even begun. But if they leave it too late, the best territories will be taken, and they might fail to raise a family. So, hopefully a few weeks ago, a combination of internal and external factors will have conspired to tip each individual’s delicate equilibrium at just the right time, and after a winter on the hillsides and savannahs of deepest Africa, they will have begun their long trans-equatorial journey back to Dumfries & Galloway.

The males are stunning and very photogenic birds, with a distinctive bandit-style black eye mask, grey upper parts and apricot throats. The females are a much more uniform brown-cream colour and although they have a bit of an eye mask, it’s not as pronounced as the male’s. As I said earlier, it’s the wheatear’s striking white rump that will catch your eye, and they both have these, so you’ll need a closer view to determine the sex.

Great British Life: Female WheatearFemale Wheatear (Image: Keith Kirk)

Wheatears navigate thousands of miles every spring using a complex combination of inherited, learned and honed skills. The timing of their arrival in our area does vary slightly year-on-year; with the vanguards arriving during mid to late March, and fittingly, the first birds often appear around the time of the vernal equinox.

The name wheatear has absolutely nothing to do with ears of wheat. Instead, it is a corruption of an Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning “white-arse”, from the bird’s bright white rump.

If you have never seen a wheatear, then here’s a challenge for you this spring. You will mainly find them in open upland areas, but you can also find them along the coast when they first arrive back, and again in late September and October, as they prepare to migrate back to Africa.

Great British Life: Juvenile WheatearJuvenile Wheatear (Image: Keith Kirk)

An estimated 280,000 pairs of wheatears will arrive in the UK each spring ahead of the breeding season. By October, with their breeding and moult complete, these migrant birds will be departing for their African wintering territories.

Like a lot of small long-distance migrant birds, they don’t live that long, with the typical lifespan of a wheatear being between one and two years, with breeding occurring for the first time at one year. Less than two per cent of birds survive longer than five years, although the longevity record for the species was recorded in 2017, for a 10-year-old ringed bird.