Northern and Greenland Wheatears

There has always been some debate as to whether Northern Wheatears of the nominate race oenanthe and the Greenland race leucorhoa are separable in the field. As there is some overlap in identification criteria of both, ‘showing characteristics of’ has always been the safest caveat to apply to birds which display a suite of characters associated with either race, i.e. larger size, longer legs, longer primary projection, broader black tail band and rufous underparts are normally associated with Greenland Wheatear.

This evening (4th October 2011) near Bozenham Mill I had short, though good, views of a very striking individual which appeared to be a Greenland Wheatear, based upon my perception of size – a ‘bulky’ individual – and colour of underparts, which were uniformly deep rufous-orange from throat to under tail coverts. So intense was the underpart colouring that when I first saw this bird head-on I thought, for a split second, I was looking at a Robin!

Based on these characters alone this identification to race is not fully conclusive but nominate Northern Wheatears rarely approach the intensity of colour of this individual (whereas Greenland Wheatears frequently do). However, the date further supports the identification as Greenland Wheatear as recent ringing activities in neighbouring Leicestershire suggest that the majority of Northern Wheatears occurring there after mid-September are of this race (Tim Collins and Neil Hagley in The Leicestershire & Rutland Annual Bird Report 2009).

Below are two photographs I took of Northern Wheatears in Northants this autumn. The one on the left is an apparently typical nominate Northern Wheatear at Clifford Hill GP on 17th September and the other is today’s bird at Bozenham. There is a huge difference in underpart colouration. Both were taken using a Zeiss PhotoScope but today’s photo was taken hurriedly from the car, trying to balance the scope on the open window with one hand while attempting to operate the IR remote control with the other – this is why it is horribly blurred!

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