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Migration and ecology of the Northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe)

Studying the migration and the ecology of a high-Alpine long-distance migratory bird

Northern Wheatears have a broad distribution in the northern hemisphere, with all birds migrating to sub-Saharan Africa during boreal winter, including those breeding in North America. In the Alps, they breed in high mountain habitats that are under threat of climate and land-use changes. As long-distance migratory birds, they must adjust to local conditions at the breeding, non-breeding and stop-over sites. To understand the adaption of migration to the local environment we studied their ecology and behavior throughout the annual cycle and tracked since 2011 their movements with geolocators.

Domain Research
Unit Bird Migration
Topic Ecology, Migratory Birds
Habitat alpine habitats, meadows and pastures, rocky terrain
Project start 2013
Project completion 2024
Project status ongoing
Project management Christoph M. Meier
Project region Ticino, Africa, Europe


Project objectives

Wheatears breeding in Switzerland have short migration distances compared to conspecifics breeding further north and face unpredictable conditions (e.g., snow melt) at their Alpine habitat in spring. We aim at describing in this population A) the movement throughout the annual cycle and B) measure how plastic birds can respond in their breeding and foraging behavior to the variation in the environment by switching micro-habitats. Our data inform on both local and global scale movements, providing new insights into migratory behavior and will allow a comparison with other wheatear populations.


We monitored a population of about 60 breeding pairs, each individually marked with color rings, throughout the reproductive seasons since 2014 in Val Piora, Ticino. We mapped territories, reported breeding progress and success weekly, and documented the preference for different foraging habitats. We tracked subsamples of individuals using “geolocators and pressure sensitive tags” between breeding seasons. Tags recovered the following year provided data for estimating the position, flight schedule, flight height, and altitudinal movement of the birds throughout the entire non-breeding season.


Our knowledge on the ecological needs in birds migrating long-distances is often limited to the breeding range. However, migrants are exposed to different environments during the annual cycle and their needs might differ between sites and along their migratory routes. The Northern Wheatear commutes between high mountain habitat and the Sahel zone, whereboth habitats are particularly vulnerable to environmental change. This is a good example for identifying how the birds interact with these environments, and how they balance their needs throughout the annual cycle.


Our data inform on the broad-scale movement patterns of Alpine Northern Wheatears, with migration routes across the Mediterranean Sea, migratory flights up to 5000 m asl, and non-breeding sites in the western Sahel. Futhermore, pressure data reveal new insight on regular diel altitudinal movements between breeding territories and roosting sites and at regional scale in response to local meteorological conditions during the pre-breeding period. Observation on the foraging behavior also highlighted the importance of micro-habitat heterogeneity as a crucial factor to prey accessibility.

Project partner(s)

Financial support

  • The Swiss Federal Office for the Environment contributed financial support for the development of the data loggers (UTF-grant no. 254, 332, 363, 400).



Betroffene Vogelarten

Bird species
Northern Wheatear
As a long-distance migrant, the Northern Wheatear has long wings and is able to achieve tremendous flight performances. Thus the breeding birds of Greenland partly fly in a direct 3000 km long flight over the open Atlantic to the Iberian Peninsula, partly over Iceland and Great Britain to arrive ...
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Other resources
Media release
Weitgereiste Wandervögel (in German)
Media release
Kleiner Steinschmätzer in grossen Höhen unterwegs (in German)
Bird Migration link

Bird Migration

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