Northern Wheatear in Ohio

It was obviously a feathered stray, a bird far from its normal range, in summer, in winter or even during migration.  During fall migration the wheatears of Alaska fly west to Siberia, then south to southern Asia.  Those that nest in Canada and Greenland fly east to Europe, then south to Africa.

If the wheatear in Ohio had been seen by one birder, or even two or three, the identification would be suspect, doubted by many.  If it had been a warbler in fall plumage when many warblers look alike, a warbler that is rare to Ohio, or a little sandpiper or flycatcher, other birds that are particularly difficult to identify, it would have been doubted.  But, first, this bird was reported on the Internet and many birders hurried to the area and saw it.

Second, a northern wheatear is distinctively marked. It looks, from pictures, as if it would be easy to identify.  In summer, breeding plumage, a male is gray on the top of the head and back, has a black ear patch, black wings and tail, is white on the throat, breast and belly and has a white rump, like a flicker.  A female, and males in nonbreeding plumage, are brown instead of gray and buffy on the throat, breast and belly but still has the white rump.

Northern wheatears live in the open where, it seems, they would be easy to see.  The bird in Ohio was certainly not in its usual habitat, described as “bare hillsides, stony barrens, sand dunes, and other wastelands.”  But it was in open fields, winter wastelands to us.  How many bluebird-size birds are seen in such areas in winter or in summer?

Also, wheatears have distinctive habits.  They fly low, close to the ground, except, presumably, when migrating. They often perch on stones or clods. Where else would they perch except on the ground, since they stay in open areas where there are no trees or brush?  When perched they stand upright, as tall as such a bird can, and bob and wave their tail up and down.  When feeding they scratch at the ground, sweeping back with both feet at the same time.

I didn’t see the wheatear in Ohio.  I have never seen a wheatear, except in pictures.  My wife and I have been to Denali National Park in Alaska and we have driven the Dalton Highway to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska. We had read that northern wheatears are fairly common in summer in Denali and along the Dalton Highway north of the Brooks Mountain Range.  They weren’t when we were there.

I’ve never seen a wheatear but I have wondered about the name.  It has nothing to do with wheat or with an ear, I read.  That it has nothing to do with wheat isn’t surprising considering its range.  But it does have dark feathers on each side of its head, black ear patches in summer, and brown ear patches the rest of the year. However, in “The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds” it states the name “is a euphemism for the Anglo-Saxon ‘white arse’ in reference to its distinctive white rump.”  In “Words for Birds,” Edward S. Gruson wrote “wheat is derived from white and ear from a vulgar name for rump.”  But Gruson also suggested wheat might be because these birds get “very fat during the time of wheat harvest.”

Whatever the origin of the name, I still have never seen a northern wheatear.  Not in Denali National Park in Alaska or along the Dalton Highway.  Nor in Ohio.

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