Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), Smith's Point County Park, Suffolk County, New York, 18 September 2001

On Sunday, 16 September 2001, a Northern Wheatear was found at Smith's Point County Park, Suffolk County, Long Island, New York by Paul Maldonado, Michelle Wolf and others. It remained for the next two or three days and was seen by many local birders. Descriptions should be sent to the New York State Avian Records Committee (NYSARC). This species is almost annual in New York State (2/3 of records coming from coastal areas) but tend not to linger at any one location.

Subspecies? I have always assumed that Wheatears seen on the East Coast were of the subspecies leucorhoa which breed in northern Quebec, Labrador, Greenland and Iceland but winter in West Africa. This may be simplistic and we should consider birds originating in Alaska or even Siberia. To my eye, the rich orange/brick-red color of the Smith's Point birds seems to rule out nominate oenanthe as seen in Britain and Continental Europe.

Sex? As expected for the time of year, this individual is in fresh basic-plumage. My initial thoughts were that this is a female, based largely on the realtively weak auricular patch (triangle of feathering behind the eye). Compare the NY birds with this example from Florida photographed in October 1994. Bill Smith informs me that in life this bird was much peachier, less grayish than in the photo and was aged as a 1st year male. I'd appreciate comments from those with experience of the basic plumages of birds from Alaskan/Siberia which I have not seen in the field. Interestingly, all three NY specimens are females.  It is also worth bearing in mind that plates and photographs in the European literature likely illustrate the western European examples of the nominate subspecies (oenanthe) rather than the 'Greenland' subspecies.  I don't know how asiatic forms of the nominate subspecies compare to their European counterparts but suspect there are differences. Both Leo Boon and Alain Fossé have posted some useful shots of European birds in different plumages. An example of an Alaskan/Siberian bird photographed by Dan Nelson in California in late September is shown on Joe Morlan's site.

Age?Aging of females (adult versus first-winter) in the field is relatively difficult and will need more research on my part.

Photography: All shots were taken through a Kowa TSN-4 scope (at 20X) using hand-held a Nikon Coolpix 880 digital camera. Images were cropped and sharpened slightly using Adobe Photoshop 5.0.

Fig. 1. Front view as it perches on a wire fence marking the western edge of the main parking field. The bird had a rich orange tone ('peachy'), particularly on the breast and upperflanks. Interestingly, I found my perception of the color was very sensitive to angle of the sunlight and the color of the surrounding background.  During my stay the wheatear fed constantly; dropping down onto prey items it had spotted in the short cut grass or by extracting insects (moths?) from the base of the fence.  In flight, the wheatear showed its characteristic white 'rump' and dark-tipped tail (inverted 'T' shape). Overhead it appeared larger and heavier bodied than a  Horned Lark and gave a thin 'wheet' note rather than the harsh 'chack', I'm more familiar with.

Fig. 2. Front-profile. Provides a nice view of the large, strong feet of this ground dwelling chat. The complete off-white eye ring is particularly evident in this view. The off-white supercillia seem to meet over the bill. The cap is a uniform pale brown.

Fig. 3. Dorsal view showing details of the primaries, tertials and scapulars. The ends of the secondaries are just visible under the tertials. One of the scapulars is twisted out of place. The broad buffy fringes of the tertials obscure the dark centers and at a distance, give the wings a pale look. There is only a faint hint of bluish color to the mantle, suggesting a female rather than male.  Six black primaries are visible beyond the tertials, each with a narrow buff edging. In this shot, you can just make out the tiny hook at the tip of the bill.

Fig. 4. Side-profile (close-up) showing broad buff edges to the wing coverts and tertials. The snowy white upper and under tail-coverts are also clearly evident. The off-white supercillium is strong and contrasts with the dark eye-stripe.  In this view, the supercilium appears to buldge down onto the lores but this is less obvious in other images, notably Figure 2 which shows the same side of the head. The legs are quite long with strong feet.

The wheatear worked its way up and down the various fence lines surrounding the parking lots, returning frequently to one or two favoured stretches of fence. Occasionally it would hop around on the ground before returning to a more elevated position. A couple of times it perched on a small bush next to the fence.  It was attentive to humans, flushing when joggers went past or when it was approached too closely by birders. It bobbed infrequently, typically when made nervous by approaching human or at the sound of a slamming car door.

Discussion Points raised on ID-Frontiers:

Peter Wilkinson (Wheathampstead, England) felt it was a bit ambitious trying to age and sex an autumn
bird that is not an adult male and supplied some appropriate quotes from Svensson (1992) and Jenni and Winkler (1994):

Svensson in his Identification Guide to European Passerines (4th ed, 1992, British Trust for Ornithology, the Nunnery, Norfolk.) - the European Pyle - says re separation of leucorhoa from oenanthe "Identification of single birds in autumn is rarely possible except by size as some northern birds of the nominate subspecies have rather distinctly rufous-buff plumage." (There is an overlap in wing length, so this is only useful for the biggest birds in the hand.)

Re: ageing in autumn he says " Ad.: Inside of upper mandible grey-black or black. 1Y.: Inside of upper mandible partly yellow." You would have to be pretty lucky to see that without catching it!
Re: sexing in autumn: "Ad male: Lores black, ear-C blackish tipped brown, supercilium (and forehead in many) white. 1Y male/all females: Lores brown-balck (or paler brown with indistinct dark stripe), ear-C (dark) brown, supercilium creamy-white or buffish."

The account in Jenni and Winkler, Moult and ageing of European Passerines (1994) is rather lengthier but essentially the same. Sometimes one can make out a moult limit in the greater coverts which clinches a 1Y bird (but only in about 29 per cent of birds apparently and then usually in the innermost coverts). They do add that "ad males
can always be recognised by the dark black colour of the whole wing and the greyish, not yellowish-brown outer fringes of the GC."

These sentiments were echoed by Shai Mitra (Babylon, New York) who was able to study the Smith's Point bird in the field. He comments: "Svensson also implies that, in basic plumage, distingushing adult females from HY [hatching year] males and females requires in-hand criteria like skull, inner mouth color, and molt limits.  HY males and females can't be distinguished, even in the hand.  I studied the bird in perfect light with my scope from a distance that would reveal molt limits in some species, and I DID NOT discern any. This would imply adult female.  Still I would NOT conclude from this type of observation--in an unfamiliar species--that molt limits really were absent, and I would state only that it was not an adult male."

Richard Millington (Norfolk, England) comments: "I do try to take an interest in the passage wheatear that I see in
Norfolk. Unfortunately, I have met with limited success with ageing and sexing autumn wheatears, and you doubtless already know that Svensson offers colour of the inside of the bill as the only sexing clue... When it comes to racial ID, not knowing whether particular birds suspected to be Greenlands are actually so is one problem, of course. All that said, your bird looks typical of what I would call a female-type Greenland here at this time of year: the rather long-looking body, the apparently very broad tail band, the wholly peachy-ochre underparts and the nature of the wing-markings (inc. the broad pale fringes on the w-coverts and primary coverts) and the upperpart colour (v. brown). Actually, it is birds like yours that sometimes cause Isabelline scares (eg on Scilly), because of the overall uniformity and the wing markings, size, and especially the broad tail band. Obviously they soon get sorted though. Isn't it so that the spring male Greenlands are often rather female-like at first glance (grey-brown upperparts and ochreous underparts, ill-defined cheek patch? If so, the corresponding autumn plumages might reflect this? (making sexing even trickier)."

Bram Aarts (Nijmegen, The Netherlands) comments: "Based on what I have read, I think your wheatear is indeed a leucorhoa, on
the basis of the very orange under- and upperparts, and earcoverts.  It is interesting that Svensson warns for large,  reddish-colored  nominate wheatears from the far north. I have never read  anything about any clinal variation in wheatears in Asia. On Iceland and the Faroer Islands wheatears are intermediate between leucorhoa and oenanthe, they were formerly considered to be a separate race 'kleinschmidti', but this is now invalid and taxonomists seem to have drawn the line quite subjectively." Bram provides some additional Wheatear links:

My thanks to Peter, Shai, Richard and Bram and those who commented on the photos themselves. Additional thoughts, comparative photos and information would be very welcome.

All images and text copyright of Angus Wilson/Ocean Wanderers© 2001.

Return to Ocean Wanderers index page.