Northern Wheatear
Laguna de Santa Rosa, Sebastopol
Sonoma County, California
September 25, 1996
Joe Morlan & Jennifer Matkin

On Wednesday, September 25, we made arrangements to see a Northern Wheatear in Sonoma County, which had been found by an acquaintance of Dan Nelson and confirmed by Dan Nelson on Sunday, September 22nd.

Dan's acquaintance was working for the county when he discovered the bird and was concerned that the county might object if hordes of birders appeared in the neighborhood to look for the wheatear. He requested that Dan not publicize the sighting. The bird was seen on private property, but was visible from an unpaved county road. The area is a quiet residential neighborhood with limited parking, and at least one neighbor loudly objected to Dan's being there while Dan was viewing the bird. In any event, Dan left a message about the wheatear on the Northern California Bird Box, but said that it was on private property and was not chaseable.We contacted Dan and found out that he had taken a few Sonoma County birders to see the bird, and he offered to take us out the next morning.

We met Dan at 7 am and followed him a short distance out to the site. It was a quiet neighborhood off of Cooper St. just south of Sebastopol. We walked a short distance down the dirt road and scanned the area in which the bird had been seen, which included several open fields, some wood piles, and a dilapidated barn.

Many birds were out flycatching already, including multiple Black Phoebes, Say's Phoebe's and Western Bluebirds, but we did not see the wheatear. The bird had been seen at 7 a.m. the day before, but we did not see it until 8:15 a.m., when Jennifer spotted it on top of a post in the next field, past the bend in the road. Over the next hour we watched the bird as it foraged in the area, seldom losing sight of it for more than a couple of minutes at a time. Several times it flew very close to us (approximately 30 to 35 feet according to a distance meter on Dan's scope), affording excellent views in good light. This description was prepared by Jennifer Matkin and Joe Morlan based on notes taken immediately after viewing the bird.

The bird was roughly the size of the Western Bluebirds, but was much plumper appearing relatively short-necked and short-tailed. The colors of the bird changed significantly in different light, so the description below is based on the average appearance.

The crown, nape and back were brown, suffused with gray (appearing browner at some angles and grayer at others). The eye was dark, with a very narrow pale eye ring. Joe thought that the eye ring was visible only behind and underneath the eye, whereas Jennifer felt that at least at some angles the eye ring appeared to be complete, giving the face a "thrush-like" appearance. The bird had a narrow pale supercilium that extended over and behind the eye to a point, and extended forward over the bill. Thus when the bird was facing us it appeared to have a distinct white area above the bill. There was a smudgy dark area in the lores visible at certain angles, and a dark auricular patch bordered on the top by a hypothetical "line" running straight back from the eye, then forming an inverted pyramid behind and just below the eye. There was also a small buffy supraloral patch.

The dark auricular patch contrasted sharply with the rich peachy buff throat, with the buff color extending to a point almost halfway up the sides of the neck and connecting to the peach-buff color that suffused the upper breast. The chin and throat were separated from the ear coverts by a very narrow white mustachial stripe, which appeared broken in certain areas depending on feather placement.

In certain light the bird looked very richly suffused with rufous on the breast down all the way to the belly, but at other angles the bird looked paler and this warm color was difficult to see and more confined to the upper breast. Most of the time the underparts appeared as follows: In the middle, the feathers were off-white, becoming blotched with gray and some peach-buff on the sides and flanks. At times, the bird showed fluffy white flank patches. On the right side of the belly, just forward of the right leg, the bird exhibited evidence of an injury. There was a dark smudgy patch with an area of missing feathers exposing either dark feather bases or black skin. However, the bird held the surrounding feathers "fluffed up", making it difficult to ascertain the source of the black marks. The undertail coverts were light buff and quite long, reaching almost to the tail tip. What was visible of the undertail in flight matched the pattern of the uppertail (below).

The scapulars matched the color of the back, i.e. gray-brown. The lesser and median coverts were rounded and short, and had dark centers with narrow pale fringes giving a scaly effect. The greater coverts were elongated and fringed rufous laterally, paler at the tips. The tertials were very short with blunt rounded tips and were also fringed rusty. The bird showed long primary extension beyond the short tertials almost to the tip of the tail, leaving the snowy white uppertail coverts exposed. At least six and probably more primaries were visible beyond the tertials. The primaries were black, with very narrow rufous fringes on the mid-section of the outer web. This fringing was visible only at very close range. The tips of the inner webs were fringed whitish in a crescent shape. The folded wing showed snowy white marginal coverts. Joe was able to see approximately four primary coverts at times, which were dark with rusty fringes.

The tail was black with white tips to the tail feathers. The central portion and bases of the outer tail feathers were white, and the bases of the inner tail feathers were white, connecting to white uppertail coverts. This gave the tail the appearance of an inverted black "T" on a white background. Joe saw a gray-brown rump above the white uppertail coverts.

The bird's bill was all black, thin and pointed, with a very fine hook that was visible only when silhouetted against the sky. The nostrils were arrowhead-shaped, pointing forward, and not concealed by nasal tufts. The legs were black. The rear claw was not exceptionally long but appeared to be relatively straight.

The bird's stance was peculiar, as it seemed to stand with its legs "akimbo", or splayed. When foraging on the ground, the bird tended to hop on both feet, as opposed to walking.

At times it foraged from a perch, swooping down to the ground from a fencepost and then returning to another post, and at other times seemed to forage directly beneath its feet on the ground.

During most of the observation, the bird foraged on the ground with a bobbing motion of the tail, displaying the inverted "T" pattern to the tail. It liked to sit on fence posts and drop down to barren portions of the nearby pastures. Occasionally it perched on top of the barn or high in the trees where it would disappear. It called several times, a distinct "chak" or "chuck" reminiscent of Brewer's Blackbird.


Two subspecies of Northern Wheatear are currently recognized as occurring in North America. O.o. oenanthe is widespread and breeds in Alaska. A specimen from the Farallons belongs to this race. O.o. leucorhoa of Greenland and Iceland is larger and more rusty, but these differences are not evident in the field in the fall. I judge our bird to have been an immature and the subspecies best left undetermined.

This is the third Northern Wheatear I have seen in California, the first was near Orland, October 1988 and the second was in San Francisco in September 1995.