Friday, May 18, 2012

Photo Quiz 5/14/12 Solution

Not many people responded to this quiz so I'm thinking I was asking too much of all of you to give age and plumage in addition to species.  Obviously there is not much to use here to ID this bird. Truthfully, though, the most obvious feature of this bird is the only thing you need to identify it.  That distinctive white patch on the uppertail coverts and tail base is not due to aberrant plumage, it is completely normal in all ages and plumages of this species, and this field mark is basically all you need to identify this bird.  It is a Northern Wheatear, a fairly rare bird in North America, so I'm assuming many, if not most, of you have never seen this bird before - perhaps another reason this quiz was tough.  The longish pointed wings and relatively short tail are also typical structural features for this species.

The harder part of this quiz was aging this bird and assigning a name to the plumage.  Now you could have killed two birds with one stone by calling this bird first winter, but the answer I was really looking for was hatching year bird in formative plumage. In other words it has undergone one molt (the preformatve molt) since juvenal plumage.  However, when I made this quiz, I neglected to consider that this bird could be a after hatching year basic plumage female.

Adult birds should have uniformly black, relatively fresh, remiges (flight feathers of the wing; see our old post, "Find the Molt Limit", for bird topography), and a gray back.  This bird appears to have uniformly juvenal remiges, as unlike adult feathers, they are brownish and washed cinnamon.  Assuming that I'm right that this bird is a HY, the remiges are retained from its juvenal plumage, and it has replaced all of its body feathers and so is in formative plumage.  The feathers of the back are are also mostly brownish.  Given the time of year, you can rule out that this is a second year, and you don't even have to worry about alternate plumages (which still look nothing like this).  Ruling out an after hatching year (adult) female is a little more difficult.  This is the only wheatear I've seen, but from a little research it seems like the broad cinnamon edging on the secondaries, brownness of the remiges, and overall buff-brown coloration would be atypical of AHY females.  It also seems that HY birds are far more likely to show up in the continental US than adults.

Still, I don't think I can rule out a female.  After looking more closely at other photos of this bird, I see no indication of any molt limits (which a HY bird should have), and in some photos the wings look very dark brown, which is to be expected from adult females.  Females can also be washed cinnamon, although I believe that this would be on the extreme end.  There is also a decent amount of gray in the back and a lot in the scapulars.  So, since I messed up on this one, I accepted anyone answering Northern Wheatear, regardless of plumage. Comment or email me at with any further opinions on this bird.

Here is another photo of the same bird:
Northern Wheatear, September 2011, Croton, NY [Photo by Lukas Musher]
Ryan Ford
Ryan DiGaudio

~Luke Musher


  1. Was this photo quiz chosen simply so you can tell us how you got to see a Northern Wheatear? That's what I would've done...had I seen one.

    1. Yeah pretty much. Take that world! I saw a Northern Wheatear. Read it and weep yall.

    2. Luke --

      Yes, Oenanthe oenanthe is correct.

      Here at PLE: Long-eared Owl. Report of Buff-breasted Sandpiper -- no luck for me.

      I hate chasing other people's birds. I'll find my own.

      Keep up the good work.