Country diary: wheatears on both sides of their migratory journey | Environment

One of the first summer migrants to grace the Highland moors is the wheatear, a dressy little insectivorous “chat” so often seen at the roadside, and instantly identified by its white arse as it flits delicately to the next perch, never very far away. Just how “white arse” evolved into “wheat ear” over the centuries is a mystery to me. It has nothing to do with wheat or ears and everything to do with its flashy white rump.

I was in northern Uganda on the South Sudan border in February, where wintering wheatears were abundant, already in breeding plumage, looking exactly the same as they do when they arrive here: the males dapper in black and silver-grey, rose pink at the throat, and that giveaway bob of Persil white – altogether unmistakable. Their endearing habit of perching atop a boulder, almost always confidingly close, makes Oenanthe oenanthe easy to spot and quick to identify. My wife and I felt a twinge of home and a premature gleam of the Highland spring as we fought off flocks of absurdly gaudy red-breasted bee-eaters, dazzlingly iridescent scarlet-chested sunbirds, and the constantly bickering village weavers (Ploceus cucullatus) in bright ochre and black masks. Their intricately woven nests dangled like Christmas tree baubles from the branches of the ebuli figs (Ficus ovata) that surrounded our camp.

Strangely, among all that super-abundance of fabulous birdlife – Uganda boasts more than a thousand species – the wheatears held their own. Driving through semi-arid savannah and sere grasslands, we often stopped to admire their familiar pert stances on rocks and their short, flickering flights to the next nearby vantage point, exactly as they do here in our glen. We wondered how they would fare on the 4,000-mile migration across the Sahel and the Med, up through Spain and France to the windswept moors of home, theirs and ours, where they will breed. We got there in a matter of hours, of course, but it wasn’t long before they made it too. I saw my first welcome white arse in March, but none since. The late snow and frost has held many summer migrants back.