Chris Packham welcomes spring

No.:  2010-03-11
March 2010

Right now, there are up to 16 million birds flying from Africa to Britain, and the first wave of birds is scheduled to arrive this weekend. To mark this natural feat of endurance, Chris Packham kicks off the BTO’s A2B (Africa to Britain) celebration of migration by welcoming back the Wheatear, the first of these intrepid travellers.

Wheatear by Jill Pakenham

Wheatears are epic travellers

This weekend, the first window of the A2B (Africa to Britain) calendar will open on the BTO website and the first clip will be available to watch. Media personalities and scientists will speak up for their favourite migrant birds over the course of the next six weeks, as the birds themselves arrive back into the country. These clips will focus on migration, as passionate people ask us to spare a thought for Swallows, Cuckoos, warblers, martins etc. – almost all of which are in decline. The A2B initiative is linked to the BTO’s Out of Africa appeal which is raising funds to continue research in Africa, on migration routes and in the UK. These studies are vital if we are to act quickly to target conservation action.

Speaking in favour of the Wheatear, Chris Packham said: “Wheatears are only one of a suite of our sub-Saharan migrants which are showing what I would describe as catastrophic declines. They’ve become very symbolic of the fact that we are exacting quite a profound influence on the environment.”

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Despite their size – about the same as a Robin – Wheatears are epic travellers. Having spent the winter south of the Sahara, the early birds will move into the hills and coasts of the UK in the next few couple of weeks. These are the lazy birds – travelling only 5,000 km (3,000 miles). There will be a later wave of migrant Wheatears, passing through the UK and heading for Iceland, Greenland or even western Canada – they travel up to twice as far.

According to the Breeding Bird Survey (a joint BTO/RSPB/JNCC project) we have lost nearly a quarter (24%) of the Wheatears in Wales since 1995, 14% of those in Scotland and 5% of the English birds. As with most of the declining migrants, it is hard to know how many of the species’ troubles are occurring in the UK, how many in Africa and how many on the incredible journeys they undertake each spring and autumn. The BTO’s Out of Africa appeal will help to look for answers – and solutions.

Notes for Editors

  1. Wheatears are about the same size as Robins. The smart males have grey caps and backs, black masks and an ochre-flushed chest. Females are a little more dull. Typically, a Wheatear will be seen standing upright in open ground, on the look out for insects. As a bird flies off, it shows its ‘white arses’, a feature that may well have led to the name Wheatear. Although they only weigh 24-grammes (less than an ounce) they travel huge distances – up to 10,000 each way on their journeys between the heat of Africa and the arctic lands of countries such as Greenland and Canada.
  2. Chris Packham was filmed visiting Stony Cross Airfield in the New Forest, a spot where he remembers seeing Wheatears as a kid but from which they disappeared fifteen years ago. He talks about their nesting sites and the wonderful blue colour of their eggs. With two or three clutches of five or six eggs each year, there should be plenty of opportunity to boost the population each summer but numbers are still in decline.
  3. The BTO is the UK’s leading bird research organisation. Over thirty thousand birdwatchers contribute to the BTO’s surveys. They collect information that forms the basis of conservation action in the UK. The BTO maintains a staff of 100 at its offices in Norfolk and Stirling, who analyse and publicise the results of project work. The BTO’s investigations are funded by government, industry and conservation organisations.

Contact information 

Paul Stancliffe (BTO Press Officer)
Office: 01842 750050 (9am to 5.30pm)
Mobile: 07845 900559 (anytime)
Email: press [at]

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