AppearanceThe northern wheatear is larger than the European Robin at 14½–16 cm length. Both sexes have a white rump and tail, with a black inverted T-pattern at the end of the tail.
The plumage of the summer male has grey upperparts, buff throat and black wings and face mask. In autumn it resembles the female apart from the black wings. The female is pale brown above and buff below with darker brown wings. The male has a whistling, crackly song. Its call is a typical chat ''chack'' noise.
StatusThe northern wheatear has an extensive range, estimated at 2.3 million square kilometres , and a large population estimated at 2.9 million individuals in the Old World and the Americas combined. The species is not believed to approach the thresholds for the population decline criterion of the IUCN Red List , and is therefore evaluated as Least Concern.
MigrationThe northern wheatear makes one of the longest journeys of any small bird, crossing ocean, ice, and desert. It migrates from Sub-Saharan Africa in Spring over a vast area of the northern hemisphere that includes northern and central Asia, Europe, Greenland, Alaska, and parts of Canada. In Autumn all return to Africa, where their ancestors had wintered. Arguably, some of the birds that breed in north Asia could take a shorter route and winter in south Asia; however, their inherited inclination to migrate takes them back to Africa.
Birds of the large, bright Greenland race, ''leucorhoa'', makes one of the longest transoceanic crossings of any passerine. In spring most migrate along a route from Africa via continental Europe, the British Isles, and Iceland to Greenland. However, autumn sightings from ships suggest that some birds cross the North Atlantic directly from Canada and Greenland to southwest Europe . Birds breeding in eastern Canada are thought to fly from Baffin Island and Newfoundland via Greenland, Ireland, and Portugal to the Azores before flying onwards to Africa. Other populations from western Canada and Alaska migrate by flying over much of Eurasia to Africa.
Miniature tracking devices have recently shown that the northern wheatear has one of the longest migratory flights known - 30,000 km , from sub-Saharan Africa to their Arctic breeding grounds.
"The Alaskan birds travelled almost 15,000km each way - crossing Siberia and the Arabian Desert, and travelling, on average, 290km per day. "This is the longest recorded migration for a songbird as far as we know," said Dr Schmaljohann.
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