Whinchats are small heathland birds with a striking orange, brown and white plumage. They arrive in northern Europe to breed each spring, before breed in northern Europe returning to their wintering grounds in sub-Saharan Africa each autumn.
Whinchats are small, short-tailed birds, similar in size to robins, great tits and goldfinches. The plumage of male whinchats features a distinctive, bright orange throat and a bold white stripe above the eye (known as the supercilium).
Their back, wings, and crown are mottled dark and lighter shades of brown, and their tail is black. Their breast fades from orange to a buff-white colour. Their strong facial markings include black streaks along the eye and cheeks and a white patch under the bill.
Female whinchats have similar markings to males, but with less vibrant colouring. The facial markings are brown rather than black, and instead of the bright orange seen on males, females have a light honey-brown throat. Females don’t always have white wing patches, or if they are present, they are much smaller than those of males.
Close up of a Whinchat
Juvenile whinchats are heavily streaked and spotted, and are buff-brown all over, tinged with orange, and heavily speckled.
After breeding, whinchats undergo a full moult, before developing a new plumage ahead of migration. In winter plumage, males look similar to females, but their white wing patch is present all year round.
Whinchats are about the same size as robins, with little difference in size between males and females.
Close up of a female Whinchat, perched on a wild rose in September
Only male whinchats sing, making a warbling melody of fast rattling notes. This can sometimes be heard at night, particularly in spring. It’s less common to hear whinchats singing on their winter territories.
As well as the male’s chirping song, a harsh alarm call that sounds like ‘tec-tec-tec’ can be heard when intruders approach the nest site.
A whinchat’s diet consists mainly of insects, as well as spiders, worms, larvae and snails. Insects, mainly beetles, ants, bugs, grasshoppers, and flies, are foraged from the ground, or occasionally from vegetation or in flight. Seeds and berries are also eaten in autumn and winter.
Newly hatched whinchats are brought larvae, insects and other invertebrates, particularly grasshoppers and caterpillars, by both parents.
Whinchat with an insect in its beak
Moorland and heathland are among the landscapes preferred by breeding whinchats, with grasslands, meadows, marshlands and rocky scrublands also being chosen as their nesting spots.
The breeding range of whinchats extends from parts of Britain and Ireland in the west to eastern Russia, Turkey and Iran, and as far south as Spain, Italy, Greece.
In winter, large numbers of whinchats head to Sub-Saharan Africa, in particular Senegal, Nigeria and Uganda. Passage migrants are regularly spotted in eastern and southern England in spring and autumn, although breeding in these regions is virtually unheard of.
In the UK, whinchats sightings are increasingly limited to the Scottish uplands, northern England and central Wales, Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Isle of Man, where they breed in grasslands, heathlands and open meadows.
Further south, breeding whinchats are more uncommon, and the low-lying southern regions do not have established breeding grounds. One exception is Salisbury Plain in southwest England, where small breeding populations exist.
Heathland and open meadows are some of the places to spot Whinchats
Whinchats are increasingly rare in the UK, due to increases in intensive farming activity which has caused their habitat to shrink. Nests are frequently destroyed by mowing, which has led to a steep drop in whinchat populations.
Within its breeding range, during spring and summer, it is not terribly uncommon, with an estimated 49,500 pairs. Outside of the north of England, central Wales and upland regions of Scotland, your chances of spotting one are relatively slim.
Regions that offer the highest chance of spotting a whinchat are the north and west of England, central Wales, and rocky ground in the Scottish Highlands, as well as in Exmoor, Dartmoor and Salisbury Plain.
Male Whinchat perched in a yellow field
The lifespan of a whinchat is on average around 2 years, with breeding occurring for the first time at a year. A ringed whinchat discovered in 2019 was recorded as being 6 years and 1 month.
As ground-nesting birds, whinchats are open to predation by a number of animal and bird species, including weasels and stoats, as well as small birds of prey such as the merlin. Whinchat nests are frequently raided by magpies, crows and jays.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, protects whinchats against being intentionally killed, injured or taken into captivity. The legislation also safeguards the nest, eggs and young of breeding whinchats against being knowingly destroyed or damaged.
The UK breeding population of whinchats fell by 57 percent between 1995 and 2020, prompting the species to be moved to the UK red list as a bird of conservation concern.
European populations, particularly those in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Luxembourg, have also witnessed steep declines since 1980. Throughout their wider range in eastern Europe and parts of Asia, whinchats are considered a species of least concern.
Whinchat singing from the top of a tree
Whinchats nest at ground level, typically in grassy tussocks or low down in bushy undergrowth, making their nests particularly vulnerable to being destroyed by mowing.
Nests are cup-shaped structures, crafted from grass stems, leaves and moss, and lined with softer grass stems and animal fur.
Eggs measure 19 mm by 14 mm (0.7 in by 0.6 in) and weigh on average 2.1 g (0.1 oz). They are pale blue in colour and marked with brown speckling.
Whinchats lay between 2 and 8 eggs, most usually 5 to 6, which they incubate for 12 to 13 days. One brood is typical, laid in late May to early June, although two broods may sometimes be attempted.
Typically, whinchats will pair up at the start of the breeding season, forming a pair bond that lasts for the duration of their time in the UK. Once breeding is over, pairings dissolve and new mates are found the following year.
Adult male (right), and juvenile Whinchat - a few days after leaving the nest
Whinchats are generally solitary birds, but may tolerate forming small groups outside of the breeding season. While breeding, they are known to show high levels of territorial behavior around their nest site, eggs and young.
Whinchats arrive in Britain each spring to breed, and after raising their young, head to wintering grounds in central and southern Africa. From mid-September onwards, their long migration south is underway.
Lengthy migration flights are necessary to reach their African overwintering destinations, covering distances of between 8,000 km to 16,000 km (5,000 mi and 10,000 mi).
Whinchat in flight
Whinchats belong to the Old World flycatcher family of birds, or to give it its scientific name, the Muscicapidae. Other birds in the same family include the bluethroat, the northern wheatear and the stonechat.
he scientific name for the species, Saxicola rubetra, means ‘small rock dweller’, while the English name ‘whinchat’ comes from ‘whin’, another name for the common gorse plant, and ‘chat’ in reference to the chattering call it makes.
Once the breeding season ends, whinchats depart for their wintering grounds in central and southern Africa, and may frequently be seen in passage in eastern and southeastern coastal regions of England.
12cm to 14cm
22cm to 24cm
13g to 26g
Blue Rock Thrush
Widespread throughout Southern Europe, North Africa and Southern Asia, the blue rock thrush is a large sized chat which is predominantly sedentary, although a partial migrant within specific narrow geographical areas.
Sparrow-sized summer visitors to rocky uplands across Scotland, Wales and parts of England, wheatears are distinctive orange, black and grey songbirds that nest at ground level in burrows or crevices between rocks.
A familiar bird of open habitats in the UK countryside, Stonechats are conspicuous and easy to spot. They are often seen in pairs, although the sexes are easily confused for different species.
The common redstart is one of the more colourful summer migrants that arrives in Britain to breed each summer. For the best chance of spotting one, head to Wales and northern England, where they nest in hedgerows and oak woodlands from April onwards.
Also known as the Common Nightingale this member of the chat family is a relatively nondescript little bird that has charmed listeners with its powerful and varied song for generations.
The bluethroat is a member of the chat family and like the larger thrushes, falls under the scientific umbrella of Turdidae. Turdus in Latin means thrush. There are some 300 different species of chats and thrushes within the Turdidae family.
First recorded as a breeding bird in the UK in 1926, black redstarts have gradually become more established although they remain a rare British bird species. Numbers increase in winter with the arrival of migrants from north-eastern Europe, and passage sightings are regularly reported in spring and autumn across eastern England.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.