Thursday, January 14, 2021

Northern Wheatear visits Ohio!


A parking lot at the Upper Sandusky Reservoir, Wyandot County, Ohio. Decidedly NOT a particularly interesting habitat - and we're talking about the gravel and stone piles, not the wooded backdrop. Yet the latest avian rarity du jour has been calling this rocky turf home for the past few days. I was there near first light this morning, and was able to spend time with this most interesting bird.

A Northern Wheatear! In this photo, the animal perches atop the larger of the rock piles in the previous photo. Karen Ritterspach first discovered the bird on January 10. When I arrived, there were already a handful of hopeful birders on site, but the bird had yet to make an appearance. After a brief period of wondering whether it had flown the coop, the wheatear suddenly materialized and flew to a branch on the edge of the nearby tree line. After sunning itself and preening for a bit, it flew to the rock pile which is when I made this photo. At all points in their life cycle, Northern Wheatears favor barren, often dry and rocky habitats. Note the proportionately long wings. More on that in a bit.

After surveying its domain, the wheatear dropped down to the seemingly barren ground and began to forage. The light was stunning - a most welcome solar flare after days of gloomy gray skies. When shooting birds, you know the light is fine when you can stop the camera down to f/9, shoot at 1/500, and require an ISO of only 250. Would only every bird-shooting expedition feature such sunny moments.

Before the bird hit the ground, I had my tripod legs tucked back in, and was kneeling on the ground to get my camera closer to the bird's level knowing it was soon coming to the ground. Before long, I splayed the tripod legs out so the camera was only a foot off the ground and I was laying on the gravel. That helps with two things: 1) getting on the same level as your subject often produces better images, compositionally. 2) The prone posture removes one's obvious bipedalism, as animals are often instinctively wary of upright humanoids. I have had birds of various species approach me extremely closely when I was shooting in this manner, seemingly utterly ignoring me. In this instance, there were a number of people standing normally nearby, so my posture didn't matter. I half-toyed with asking everyone if they would lie on the cold hard ground so we could better put the wheatear at ease and see what it might do, but figured that was an unreasonable request :-)

This Northern Wheatear is a male - females are more muted - and it is in basic (non-breeding) plumage. In alternate (breeding) plumage, the males are boldly marked in gray and black, the overall appearance suggesting the coloration and pattern of a shrike. A wheatear suggests a thrush, and it is closely related. But the world's nearly 30 species of wheatears in the genus Oenanthe are in the Old World Flycatcher family (Muscicapidae), with only the Northern Wheatear breeding in North America.

Wheatears favor foraging in very barren places, often seemingly lifeless rocky scree, gravelly deposits, rock piles, or in low sparse vegetation. Adjacent to the parking lot was an area dominated by "weedy" but native dropseed grasses in the genus Sporobolus (probably S. neglectus or S. vaginiflorus).

This is interesting, thought I - maybe it is eating the seeds of these plants. But the literature that I have seen states that Northern Wheatear feeds mostly on small insects and arachnids. And this bird was actively running and plucking at the ground, but I could never ascertain what it was grabbing. But the temperature was around 25 F, and that's pretty cold for any invertebrate creature to be out and exposed, or so I would think. Wheatears are known to take berry-type plant fruit, but it is apparently a small component of their diet. But from what I can tell, most diet data comes from breeding sites where insects would be much more readily available, and when rapidly growing chicks would require the protein that animal food would bring to the table.

I wonder if their diet might veer more to vegetarian at certain times outside of the breeding grounds. Whatever the case, it was fun to watch the wheatear bound around on the ground, running and pecking at unknown morsels. Several times I was struck by the juxtaposition of it and southern bird species that a Northern Wheatear would seldom if ever encounter, such as Carolina Wren and Red-bellied Woodpecker. Or when an aggressive Northern Mockingbird actually strafed and chased the wheatear for a bit.

A stunning bird, and arguably more striking in non-breeding colors. While the coloration is subtle, there is a lot of complexity in the details. The palette of muted earth tones really helps the wheatear blend with its surroundings, and when it hunkers down and freezes the bird would be very hard to spot if you didn't know it was there.

Northern Wheatear is a rare vagrant in the lower 48 states, and this bird represents about the 5th Ohio record. The species has an almost completely circumpolar breeding distribution, breeding at high latitudes around the world, excepting a gap in central Canada. There are four subspecies, two of which breed in Africa and Eurasia. The other two nest in North American arctic and subarctic regions. Birds breeding in Alaska and Siberia and points west are the nominate subspecies Oenanthe oenanthe subsp. oenanthe. Those breeding in the eastern Canadian Arctic, Greenland and points east are Oenanthe oenanthe subsp. leucorhoa. The former migrates southwest to sub-Saharan Africa wintering grounds. The latter also ends up in Africa for the winter, but gets there by migrating southeast, which includes a long trans-Atlantic flight of up to 2,000+ miles. This songbird is truly a marvel of migration, its annual journeys rivaling that of the world's greatest long distance avian migrants. Many Northern Wheatears travel 10,000 miles or more annually, and Alaska breeders can eclipse 18,000 mile annual migrations. Small wonder a few of them stray from the path on occasion.

Presumably this bird is of the leucorhoa subspecies, as were the other Ohio birds. Their flight path would seem to make them far more likely to turn up as strays in the Midwest and eastern states. Also, one might be tempted to think it would most likely be inexperienced first-year birds that would "blunder" and go astray. However, this bird appears to be a 2-3+ year old male, so it's (presumably) made the flight to Africa multiple times.

Kudos to Karen Ritterspach for making this outstanding discovery. The Wyandot County wheatear has been seen by scores of people, some of whom came from other states. And of the five Ohio wheatears to date, this one has probably been the most cooperative, often foraging in close proximity to observers.


Jerry Jourdan said...

Great post, Jim. I was able to get a few pics of the bird yesterday w/ grubs in its bill. So, it appears to be foraging for non-seedy, non-insecty foods. :) - Jerry

Jim McCormac said...

Nice, great observation, Jerry - and great photos, to capture that level of detail!

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