The Black Wheatear. / P. JONES

Black Wheatear

The Andalucía Bird Society recommends looking out for the Oenanthe leucura leucura this month

PETER JONES

Wheatear, "a folk etymology of white and arse, or more simply put 'white arse', never was this more appropriate than for this LBJ (Little Black Job) the Black Wheatear, where the white arse is among the most prominent within the family of wheatears".

A dull, plain bird, almost unicolour black apart from a white rump, vent and white on the tail, I wonder is this how people think of Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucura), the plain Jane of the wheatear family? Visitors to my area, the Serranía de Ronda in Andalucía, rank this bird as one of their most want to see birds, I guess not surprising given its restricted range where it is confined to the Iberian Peninsula, southwest France (now very rare) and Northwest Africa.

So not just an avid bird lister's target bird, but there are also bird watchers who just want to see and observe this unusual wheatear, which is comforting to this self-confessed and obsessed wheatear nerd.

An unusual wheatear? Well yes, in many ways too. It is our only resident wheatear in Western Europe and whilst there is some evidence to suggest partial migration of northern birds, they are largely sedentary apart from altitudinal dispersal in cold winters.

Whilst those familiar with the wheatear family are used to seeing birds in short, fast dashing flight, these birds are more likened to the flight of an overloaded bomber at take-off, their short wings in relation to their large and heavy bodies produce a whirring of wings rather than short strong flaps associated with other wheatears.

It is a feature that adds to the fun of watching these superb birds. Other major differences are in lifelong pairing and some unique activity whilst nest building.

A pair of adults can hold a wide area as their own and although the territory can be extensive, it is only really defended with any serious degree during the breeding season. In fact, in my study area, I found considerable overlap in neighbouring territories and holding pairs tended to be tolerant of each other and sometimes seen feeding in close proximity outside of the breeding season. Most other territorial disputes involve younger birds seeking to usurp the resident pair; this is met with the combined efforts of the resident male and female in the defence of their territory and this defence was always successful in my experience.

Rivalry with conspecifics always becomes frenetic during the breeding season, surprising the observer after the apparent lack of interest by the territorial pair at all other times of the year. In the mountains near me, the main species to bear the brunt of this aggression is Blue Rock Thrush, Monticola solitarius, they are harried and chased from territories and sometimes well beyond, other species are also not tolerated during this period and these include Northern Wheatear, Oenanthe oenanthe; Black-eared Wheatear, O.hispanica; Rock Thrush, M.saxatilis; Black Redstart, Phoenicurus ochruros and and to a lesser extent, Stonechat, Saxicola torquatus.

I hope you might make the effort to try and discover this wonderful resident and enjoy observing them as much as I do.