Monday, May 26, 2014

Northern Wheatear

With spring bird migrations in full swing, once again we are enjoying the return of the great diversity of neotropical species that either nest here in northern New England or are passing through on their way to more northern nesting grounds. So what a special surprise when a handsome adult male Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenantha) appeared on the grounds of the Veterans Administration Hospital in White River Junction, Vermont this past Friday (June 23).  Discovered by George Clarke and Scott Johnson earlier in the day, by late afternoon the news was out and birders began arriving to see this rarity.  It was still present the next day and was relatively easy to locate in the visitor's parking lot.  As no sightings were posted for Sunday, it appears that the bird has moved on.

Northern Wheatear, a bird measuring about 5.5 to 6 inches in length and weighing a mere 23-25 grams, has an extensive breeding range spanning the northern hemisphere through Europe, Asia, Alaska, extreme northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.  Of the six recognized subspecies two occur in North America: the nominate oenanthe distributed in Alaska and  northwestern Canada, and the Greenland race leucorhoa breeding in northeastern Canada and Greenland. All six subspecies winter in sub-Saharan Africa.   

North American wheatears are reported to undergo some of the longest migration distances between breeding and wintering ranges of any songbird of similar size.  Birds breeding in Alaska and northwestern Canada migrate to eastern Africa via Asia and the Middle East, a one-way distance exceeding 9,000 miles.  The leucorhoa subspecies migrates to western Europe and then to western Africa, although studies also indicate transatlantic nonstop migrations exceeding 2,000 miles also occur.

The taxonomic classification of Northern Wheatear is unsettled.  Some authorities place wheatears among Old World Flycatchers of the Family Muscicapidae; others classify them with Thrushes (Family Turdidae).

Sightings of Northern Wheatears in Vermont, or in the Lower 48 for that matter, are rare with most reports occurring in the fall of year.  Most Vermont sightings have been in the Champlain Valley.  This most recent record is a bird of the Greenland subspecies recognized by the pronounced buff color on the throat, much paler in nominate race birds.

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