Sunday, October 14, 2018

Northern Wheatear in Timmins

On Saturday, October 13, Gary and I were out on a rural road west of Timmins when we spotted a bird that looked different. The bird was really far away, but its overall colouring and its methodical behaviour raised a flag inside my head and I said "park the car".  We got out and even with binoculars, the bird was still too far for any decent views so I thought of taking the scope out of the car but didn't want to risk getting my eyes off the bird. It was landing on a fence post for a couple of seconds, then flying back down, disappearing from view in the long grass for a while only to reappear on a different fence post.  

Here is a photo of the field where we found the bird. It kept appearing on random posts for only 1 to 3 seconds at a time and every time we relocated it and put the bins on it, it had flown in the grass again. It was a challenge to keep our eyes on it.

Habitat where we spotted the Northern Wheatear
Timmins (13 October 2018)

I was really happy when I noticed that it was slowly working its way towards us, one post at a time.  We kept our bins on it, stood still and watched until we got a clear view.  The bird finally moved closer and thankfully perched for about 6 long seconds allowing me to have a very good look.  That's when I knew it was special, I couldn't believe I was probably looking at my first Northern Wheatear.

It eventually made its way to the line of fence posts right next to the road and we had excellent views of it for a while.   I wish I would have been able to see if it was successful at catching insects and what it caught but it was moving too fast and we couldn't see it at all when it was down in the long grass.

Northern Wheatear
Timmins (13 October 2018)
Northern Wheatear
Timmins (13 October 2018)

Northern Wheatear's unique distribution and migration:

The Northern Wheatear is a fascinating insect eating bird.  Its wide breeding distribution includes Asia, Northern Europe, Greenland, and Iceland but also the northeast of the Canadian Arctic and the coast of Labrador, as well as in the northwest of North America (Alaska and Yukon).  They spend the winter in sub-Saharan Africa.  The birds that breed in North America have 2 migration routes: in the west, they migrate through the Bering Strait and fly across Asia and Europe to reach Africa. In the east, they reach Africa by Greenland and Europe, flying over the Atlantic. This is just a quick, incomplete summary; the Northern Wheatear is just fascinating.

Historical Records of Northern Wheatear in Ontario:  
I scanned the OBRC annual reports to learn more about the previous records in Ontario.  There are, to the best of my knowledge, 37 accepted previous records that I could see (and of course, I suspect that there are a lot of undetected birds due to the vast unexplored remote areas in the north of the province where they could be found)

It's interesting to note that 81% of all the recorded Northern Wheatear sightings in Ontario happened in the fall (mostly September and October).

Here are the previous records listed as: Date (plumage details when specified) Location (County/District) Finder/Observer (Source: OBRC annual reports where the record was found)

1949, 24 September (?) Ridgeway (Niagara) Albert J. Wright, also found by Bernard Nathan. (OBRC Annual Report 2001, p.71)

*1951 **Not an OBRC record:  I received an email from a knowledgeable source about a Northern Wheatear that was seen in Kirkland Lake in September 1951.

1972, October 6, (imm) Fraserdale (Cochrane) A. Wormington, M. Jennings  (OBRC Annual Report 1983, pp. 59-60)

1972, 10-11 October (?) Tobermory (Bruce) Joseph W. Johnson (OBRC Annual Report 1985, p. 12)

1976, 1 October, (imm) Moosonee (Cochrane) A. Wormington (OBRC Annual Report 1983, pp. 59-60)

1978, 14-15 October (adult) Deep River (Renfrew) A. Wormington (OBRC Annual Report 1983, pp. 59-60)

1980, 26 September (imm) Moosonee (Cochrane) A. Wormington (OBRC Annual Report 1983, pp. 59-60)

1980, 11-12 October (imm) Jack-fish (Thunder Bay) A. Wormington (OBRC Annual Report 1983, pp. 59-60)

1980, 8-14 September (?) Arnprior (Renfrew) Michael W.P. Runtz (OBRC Annual Report 1984, p.11)

1981, 2 June (adult female) Winisk (Kenora) A. Wormington (OBRC Annual Report 1983, pp. 59-60)

1981 (Late September) - immature - (Northumberland) (specimen in collection) (OBRC Annual Report 1982, p. 12)

1982, 4 June (adult female) North Point (Cochrane) C. Rimmer (OBRC Annual Report 1983, pp. 59-60)

1985, 2 July (male) Cape Henrietta Maria (Kenora) David J.T. Hussell (OBRC Annual Report 1986, p.53)

1986, 12 May (male) Nepean, (Ottawa-Carleton) Roy D. John, Bruce M. Di Labio (OBRC Annual Report 1986, p.53)

1989, 23 September (imm.) Abitibi Canyon (Cochrane) Alan Wormington (OBRC Annual Report 1989, p.22)

1990, 1 September (imm.) Moose Factory (Cochrane) Alan Wormington, R. Douglas McRae, G. Tom Hince, (OBRC Annual Report 1990, p.34)

1990, 12 September (adult male) Ekwan Point (Kenora) Y. Robert Tymstra, Alan Wormington, Peter W. Jones ((OBRC Annual Report 1990, p.34)

1990, 20 September (imm.) St. Thomas (Elgin) Marshall H. Field (OBRC Annual Report 1990, p.34)

1990, 29 September (imm.) North Bay (Nipissing) Richard D. Tafel (OBRC Annual Report 1990, p.34)

1993, 20-27 September (imm.) Barrie Island Causeway (Manitoulin) John Lemon, Terry Osborne found by Monty Brigham) (OBRC Annual Report 1993, p. 52)

1994, 4 September (?) Oshawa (Durham) Mike McEvoy (OBRC Annual Report 1994, p.59)

1994, 7 September (?) Algonquin Provincial Park -West Rose Lake (Nipissing) Julie West, Gary Neuman (OBRC Annual Report 1994, p. 59)

1995, 21-22 September (first basic) Sydenham (Frontenac) Kit Chubb *Skin specimen at ROM (OBRC Annual Report 1999, p.66)
Interesting note on this record: "This record came to light in a letter written to Ontario Insects (Chubb 1996) about a bird feeding on insects on a residential lawn in Sydenham. One of the insects the bird ate, an earwig (Dermaptera), buried its claspers at the back of the bird's tongue, one on each side of the glottis, suffocating the bird instantly." (OBRC Annual Report 1999, p.66)

1995, 11-12 October, (first basic) Britannia Bay (Ottawa-Carleton) Michael Tate, Tony F.M. Beck, found by F. Reid) (OBRC Annual Report 1996, p.59)

1995, 15 October (first basic) Oshawa (Durham) James P. Coey, Glenn Coady, found by E. Dunhill (OBRC Annual Report 1997, p.68)

1997, 31 August to 1 September (first basic) Ottawa (Ottawa-Carleton) Eve D. Ticknor, Richard Ticknor, William J. Crins (OBRC Annual Report 1997, p.68)

2001, 7 June (basic, female) Long Point -Hastings Drive (Norfolk) Ian S. Cook, Alex M. Mills also found by Robert Copeland, Donald Scanlan (OBRC Annual Report 2001, p.71)

2002, 17 August (?) Sault Ste. Marie (Algoma) Les Piccolo (OBRC Annual Report 2006, p.62)

2003, 23 June (male) Point Petre (Prince Edward) Robert E. Maurer Jr. (OBRC Annual Report 2003, p.69)

2003, 10 October (first basic) Moose Factory (Cochrane) Alan Wormington, Mark W. Jennings (OBRC Annual Report 2003, p.69)

2006, 6-9 September (juv. or first basic) Thunder Bay (Thunder Bay) Nicholas G. Escott, found by Keith D. Wade (OBRC Annual Report 2007, p.97)

2006, 19 October (juv. or first basic) Nepean (Ottawa) Christina Lewis, Robert A. Bracken, Tony F.M. Beck (OBRC Annual Report 2007, p.97)

2007, 13-15 September (Juv. or first basic) Wolfe Island (Frontenac) Jerry Smith, Paul O'Toole (OBRC Annual Report 2007, p.97)

2007, 14-15 October (Juv. or first basic) Shrewsbury (Chatham-Kent) Robert Epstein, David J. Milsom, Mark K. Peck, Paul D. Pratt, found by James T. Burk (OBRC Annual Report 2007, p.97)

2007, 18-26 October (first basic) Long Point - tip (Norfolk) Stuart A. Mackenzie, Zachary Kaiser (OBRC Annual Report 2009, p.72)

2009, 4 June (alternate, male) Redbridge (Nipising) Craig T. Hurst, Elaine M. Hurst (OBRC Annual Report 2009, p.72)

2010, 16 October (?) Petrie Island (Ottawa) Gary Fairhead (OBRC Annual Report 2010, p.126)

2014, 20-22 September (first basic male) Navan (Ottawa) Mike V. A. Burrell, Clifford F. Rostek, Chris T. Heffernan, Tom Devecseri, Gary Milks, Ken D. Ball, Bruce M. Di Labio, found by Richard Killeen, Ken Kittley (OBRC Annual Report 2014, p.69)

There are probably other records that I missed or that I am unaware of.

Even if the next photo is blurry, I love it because you can see the black band at the tip of the white tail. The white on the tail was very visible every time the bird flew.


  1. Congrats on finding this unique bird!
    And, the summary is much appreciated!