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ONE of the earliest of our feathered visitors to arrive is the Wheatear, which comes to us as a rule in the second week of March; and, although individuals have been seen and procured occasionally at a much earlier date, there is reason to believe that the spring migration does not set in before this, and that the birds met with previously are such as have wintered in this country; for it has been well ascertained that the Wheatear, like the
Stonechat, occasionally remains with us throughout the year. It is a noticeable fact that those which stay the winter are far less shy in their habits, and will suffer a much nearer approach.
The name Wheatear may have been derived either from the season of its arrival, or from its being taken in great numbers for the table at wheat harvest. Or, again, it may be a corruption of whitear, from the white ear which is very conspicuous in the spring plumage of this bird. Many instances are on record of Wheatears having come on board vessels several miles from land at the period of migration, and from the observations of naturalists in various parts of the country it would appear that these birds travel by night, or at early dawn. I do not remember any recorded instance in which they have been seen to land upon our shores in the daytime.
In Ireland, according to Mr. Thompson,1 the Wheatear arrives much later than in England, and does not stay the winter. With regard to Scotland, Macgillivray states1 that it is nowhere more plentiful than in the outer Hebrides, and in the Orkney and Shetland Islands; and from the fact of his having observed the species near Edinburgh on the 28th of February, we may infer that a few, as in England, occasionally remain throughout the year.
1 " Nat. Hist. Ireland j" Birds, i. pp. 176, 177.
The number of Wheatears which used to be taken years ago upon the South Downs in autumn was a matter of notoriety.
"Hereabouts," says an old chronicle of Eastbourne, "is the chief place for catching the delicious birds called Wheatears, which much resemble the French Ortolans;" and Wheatears play an important part in the history of this town. Squire William Wilson, of Hitching, Lord of the Manor of East-Bourne, was in Oliver Cromwell's time vehemently suspected
1 " Hist. Brit. Birds," ii. p. 292