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Whinchat Saxicola rubetra (L.)

Many birds with insectivorous habits spend considerable part of their life on vantage points which are generally called perches. These points are suitable to watch for prey, to keep an eye on neighbours, or to notice the approaching danger in time. Whinchat, a quite common bird, is one of such species. Rigid stems of perennial herbs or bush tops elevated over the vegetation cover are the main elements of the living space for this inhabitant of meadows and steppe.

In Eastern Ukrainian chalk steppe Whinchat come second in abundance only to Skylark. You may see these birds everywhere sitting on tops of small bushes and meeting the approaching man with alarming chat calls which gave rise to its common name. Whinchats are insectivorous birds. They catch insects in air or on the ground watching for their prey from perches.

The plumage of Whinchat is rather modest: in male the delicate orange colour of throat and chest contrasts with brightly white eyebrow and dark patch on cheek. The plumage of female is even more muted. The colours of the featherings of these birds are in striking harmony with surrounding vegetation especially in late summer and autumn.

Whinchats winter in tropical Africa and therefore arrive comparatively late in spring, usually in late April. Males arrive to breeding grounds alone. They occupy territories which necessarily should contain several perches of different height and enough dry grass where a nest can be placed. Often Whinchats settle close to each other on suitable sites. After settling on the territory male spend much time singing quietly. The song is a repetition of several diverse phrases which not infrequently contain imitations of songs and calls of other species.

Females arrive a week later than males. Since this moment the life of Whinchat settlements rapidly transforms. Now you can hear extremely loud and rich in imitations singing of males in flight or notice how their appearance can surprisingly change in presence of a female due to apparent enlargement of white spots on wings and head. The strained period lasts for about two weeks till the onset of breeding when a silence fell on Whinchat territories. Female builds a nest from dry stems of sedges and grasses. The clutch of 6-7 bluish eggs is completed to late May. Only female incubates while male usually guard her sitting on a perch within a few meters of the nest. Both parents feed young. The nestlings leave the nest well before fledging after 11-12 days of staying in it. They hide in dense vegetation for about a week. But even later it’s hard to see them until the young develop good flying abilities and become well familiarised with the vicinities of the nest. Interestingly, the brood is usually split between parents. One brood part is guided by male, another one – by female. The young birds become independent when aged 25-26 days. The family units break up and shortly thereafter gatherings of Whinchats appear in suitable places. Adult birds which have lost their clutches start replaced ones usually abandoning the initial breeding territory. This second wave of breeding comes in late June to early July. In late summer Whinchats form gatherings again. Young birds improve their foraging skills and do their first attempts of singing in such gatherings. Gradually Whinchats leave the breeding grounds. The majority starts southward migration to mid September and only a few birds stay nearby breeding places to the end of this month.

Mikhail Banik