Juvenile Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe, on lichen covered rock, Ramsey Island RSPB reserve, Wales

Wheatear migration

Wheatears are an early summer visitor to the UK.

Wheatears through the seasons

All wheatears spend winter in tropical Africa, then head north in spring. Our race arrives in the UK during March – sometimes as early as late February.

Males are first to arrive. Look out for them around the coast at this time, before they move to their inland breeding sites. By mid-May the female has usually laid 4-7 eggs in a rough nest on the ground but early first clutches can be laid before the end of April. The young are independent after about 30 days. Two broods are usual but sometimes a third is raised.

The other race, known as the Greenland wheatear, arrives a little later in April. It is in a hurry to reach its breeding sites on the other side of the Atlantic, so doesn’t stay for long. It heads northwest across the sea, via Iceland, until it reaches the Arctic tundra of Greenland and northern Canada. By June, it has started to breed there.

By August, most of our breeding wheatears are heading back south. But Greenland wheatears only leave their breeding grounds in August, so reach us in September – and sometimes even in October. Some bypass the UK entirely. They use strong winds to make a 30-hour, non-stop flight of 2,400 km (1,500 miles), directly from Greenland to southern Europe. 

All wheatears cross the Mediterranean to Africa via Spain. They migrate by night, relying on their fat reserves for energy. Many make a refuelling stopover in North Africa. Greenland wheatears, which fly furthest, put on more fat before leaving and spend longer at stopovers. Wheatears spend winter in a broad belt across central Africa – from Senegal to Kenya – where they set up feeding territories in bare, stony areas.