A Bird’s Tale

An African Migrant Bird in Our Midst – the Northern Wheatear

Tue, 10/13/2020 - 10:15am

Maybe it’s just the name: wheatear. Or maybe it came from looking at the illustration and reading about it in our old “Peterson Field Guide to the Birds” when we were first becoming birders. But whatever the reason, we have both always wanted to see the bird called the northern wheatear.

It’s a relatively small bird, related to the thrushes, looking a bit like a short-tailed bluebird but with the blue replaced with gray or brown and with dark wings. Its most distinctive feature is the bold white rump, and tail tipped with a black “T.” In fact, the origin of the name “wheatear” is said to have come from a derivation of “white arse” as it was known because of that feature.

Like many of the thrushes, it spends time on or near the ground. Here it hops and flits about foraging for insects, spiders, worms, and, in migration, berries of low-lying shrubs.

While the northern wheatear is a quite common bird across Eurasia, it is decidedly rare in most of the U.S. That’s despite the fact that it actually breeds in North America. One subspecies nests in Arctic and sub-Arctic of Canada south as far as northern Quebec and Labrador (at least once in Newfoundland). The other nests across Alaska and into western Yukon and northwestern British Columbia.

But from here these birds do something amazing.

Research published in 2012 confirmed that virtually all of these birds migrate from North America all the way to sub-Saharan Africa to winter alongside their Eurasian breeding brethren. Those breeding in Alaska fly westward all the way across Asia to get there. Those from eastern Canada travel eastward to Europe and then south to Africa. It is suspected that some of these birds may even make a direct flight across the North Atlantic to Africa from Canada.

This is one of the longest songbird migration pathways known!

What makes northern wheatears exciting for us birders in the northeastern U.S. is that a few sometimes go the wrong way and end up coming directly south. Here in Maine, the species has been seen more than 30 times since about 1950, almost all along the coast. Seen by other people, that is, not by us.

We are still waiting to see our first wheatear.

And today, as we write this, one has been photographed and enjoyed by many at one of our favorite old haunts from years ago, Parson’s Beach in Kennebunk. Amazingly, a wheatear was found in October, 2012, just across the mouth of the river from where this bird was found. Interestingly there have also been single wheatears photographed in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and New Jersey just in the past few weeks. Seems as though there may be a few more around this year for some reason.

We’ll probably miss this one, too, unless we get lucky and it hangs around long enough for us to find a time to make it down to Kennebunk. But if it is still hoping to make it to Africa, it shouldn’t wait around for us!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President of Boreal Conservation for National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists and author of the “Birder’s Conservation Handbook.” His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization working statewide to protect the nature of Maine. Both are widely published natural history writers and are the authors of the popular book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds” (Tilbury House) and “Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide,” (Cornell University Press).