Which half-ounce bird travels the 4100km (2650 miles) twice a year between Britain and the Sahal Region of Africa?
I’m a migrant whitethroat, also known as the nettle-creeper or hay chat in certain parts of Britain. I’m member of the warbler family, about the size of an English robin or great tit, and weigh approximately half an ounce (15 grams), so you can imagine what happens to me when it’s windy.
To know that I’m a male, you have to look at the feathers on my head. Mine are blue-grey whereas my mate has less conspicuous brown pigmentation. Otherwise, we each possess rich chestnut-colored wings, a brown back, and pinkish-buff underparts, and our identity signature is our white throats. We have quite long tails and you will often see us darting in and out of dense vegetation. We don’t migrate to North America so that you can’t confuse us with the native white-throated sparrow.
As a migrant whitethroat, we are a little shy; although I think I’m much more conspicuous and lively than my mate. I do love the warm, dry weather. When that happens, you may see me perched on top of a bramble bush, hedgerow, or grasses delivering my jaunty, short, sweet, scratchy song, and fluffing up my white throat. Occasionally, I sing in flight, flicking my tail, and rising and falling like a puppet on a string.
Right now, it’s September and time to migrate south to the Sahel Region in West Africa, just beyond the Sahara, before the cold weather arrives in Britain. The journey is 3500 miles (6,000km) and it will take several weeks to get there. I need to fatten up on berries before leaving, and keep stopping on the way to eat. The biggest challenge is to safely traverse the Sahara, and if I’m lucky, I will find tail winds at some altitude to help me cross over. The direction of the journey is south to south-west so I can avoid the nastier places in Europe where people still snare migrating birds to eat. The plan is to fly by night and rest during the daytime.
There are fewer of us traveling these years because of desertification of our winter habitat caused by drought and over-farming. This was particularly serious back in the late 1960s when our numbers traveling to Britain reduced by over 70 percent. These days, about a million make it to Britain to breed each year, and we are widespread visitors to other parts of Europe.
My mate and I this year reared four chicks in a cup-shaped nest that I built on my own in a bed of stinging nettles. She chose the nest after we mated which, as usual, was sort of a violent affair. The tradition is for me to aggressively dart towards my potential spouse, carrying a piece of grass, and she is supposed to spread her wings and lunge back at me if she likes me. I was proud of the nest. It was expertly built out of twigs, fine grasses and some hair. In the olden days, my ancestors used horse hair but now I rely on sheep and wild animals.
We share incubation rights, although she always covers the night shift and is more protective than me. Once the chicks are born, we share feeding, tending and nest sanitation, but after they leave the nest, we abandon them. Hopefully, they will realize that the worsening weather is a message for them to set off on their journey across Europe and the Sahara, and that they will successfully use their innate navigation skills to find the wintering area. After I arrive this winter, I need to practice my song because I will use it next year to attract a new mate.
Such is the life of a migrant whitethroat.