For the Birds Radio Program: Northern Wheatear
Today Laura Erickson talks about the “Wrong Way Corrigan” of the bird world. 3:36
Birders from around the Midwest are still rubbing their binoculars in disbelief at the little bird that turned up in Duluth a couple of weeks ago. The Northern Wheatear, related to the bluebird and looking like a small, brownish version of it, belongs in a land far, far away.
Wheatears have a delicate, fragile appearance, tipping the scale at barely one ounce, but are hardy enough to breed in the Arctic. The New World race is found in Alaska and northwestern Canada the Old World race breeds in Greenland, Iceland, northern Scandinavia and northern Russia. Normal wheatears from Alaska migrate across the Bering Strait and down to east Asia; those from Greenland and northern Eurasia wend their way down to Africa, Arabia, India, Mongolia, or China. Once in a while one takes a wrong turn somewhere and ends up in the lower 48. It’s considered a Code 3 bird by the American Birding Association, meaning that the species occurs annually in North America but is extremely local, is very difficult to see, or has a very short season when it can be observed readily.
There are several records of it throughout the lower states. This is the second Minnesota record -the first was seen in September, 1982, in the Twin Cities. Wisconsin’s only record, from October 26, 1952, is considered hypothetical. It’s also on the official Michigan checklist as an accidental vagrant. This year’s lost little guy ended up at Erie Pier–a system of dikes where the dredge spoils from Twin Ports shipping lanes have been deposited over the years. The soil and water there are probably pretty contaminated, but birds can’t lug around little water purification kits so they do the best they can, trusting that humans aren’t stupid enough to foul our own world.
Our wheatear put on quite a show for birders. For five days, beginning September 27, it spent most of its time sitting conspicuously on dirt mounds along the edge of one of the ponds, flitting up to catch flies and fan its spectacular tail. On the tundra where it lives, it doesn’t see many trees, and here, true to its nature, it stayed on the ground or in the air.
The most notable field mark of this bird is the white tail and rump, forming an inverted T, which it displays to greatest effect when it flies up. This field mark is actually what gave it the name “wheatear.” The name has nothing to do with the wheat-colored ear mark, and please don’t call it a wheat-eater.
The actual derivation of the name is much more colorful–or, should I say, off color? It comes from Anglo-Saxon, and, according to several sources including the American Heritage Dictionary–
WAIT JUST A MINUTE! IF YOU’RE A LITTLE KID WHOSE PARENTS DON’T’ APPROVE OF YOU HEARING NAUGHTY LANGUAGE, OR, LIKE BOB DOLE SEEK CLEAN, UPLIFTING ENTERTAINMENT, YOU BETTER TURN YOUR RADIO OFF FOR THE NEXT TEN SECONDS. ARE YOU GONE, YET? OKAY.
The name “wheatear” comes from the Anglo-Saxon for, and I am not making this up, “white-arse.”
OKAY, YOU CAN TURN BACK YOUR RADIOS BACK ON IN TIME TO HEAR ME SAY,
I’m Laura Erickson, speaking for the birds.