Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe Scientific name definitions

Erica H. Dunn, David J. T. Hussell, Josef Kren, and Amelia C. Zoerb
Version: 2.1 — Published October 25, 2022



Breeding Range

Old World

O. o. oenanthe breeds from Ireland across Europe as far north as Svalbard (50) and across Eurasia to far eastern Russia. Within Russia, absent from northern half of Novaya Zemlya, Taimyr Peninsula, and coastal regions of the Arctic Ocean, and from most of Kamchatka and the portions of Khabarovsk south of the city of that name (51). A nesting in Zeya, Amur Oblast, was cited as being outside the main range (1). Western portions of the range extend southward to the Pyrenees, Alps, Macedonia, Greece, central Romania, and Turkey. East of Turkey there is breeding in the northernmost areas of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, (including Pakistan-administered Kashmir; 52); but the species is absent from a gap of mostly desert habitat that covers much of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and the southern half of Kazakhstan. Breeding range within China is north of 40° N, extending from Kashgar and Tien Shan in western Xinjiang eastward across inner Mongolia as far as the Greater Khingan Mountains (53).

Within western Europe the range is more restricted than formerly (see Demography and Populations: Population Status). Probability of occurrence is generally continuous across western Russia and southward through the Balkans and Turkey (also in Iceland), but is more restricted to higher elevation areas in Spain, northern Italy, Scotland, and Norway; occurrence probability is particularly low and localized in France, the Low Countries, England, Germany and Denmark (54).

The most widespread subspecies, libanotica, occupies the southern portion of the Eurasian breeding range, from Iberia east through southern Europe (50), Turkey and the Levant, Transcaucasia, northern Iran, Turkmenistan, northern Afghanistan and east to southern Transbaikalia, Mongolia and northern China (35, 55).

Within Eurasia, the breeding range of leucorhoa is restricted largely to Iceland; also Jan Mayen and the Faroe Islands (35).

New World

Figure 3. Breeding range of oenanthe extends across the Bering Strait, through much of Alaska from the Seward Peninsula eastward into Yukon Territory, with a small adjacent range in Northwest Territories (56). Species is largely restricted to montane areas; absent from low elevation North Slope and southwestern Alaska.

In contrast to other subspecies, leucorhoa is primarily a New World breeder. Widespread in west and southeast Greenland (57); in eastern Canada, largely along the west sides of Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea south to Grady Island (58). Scattered records of breeding farther west, possibly only sporadic: Axel Heiburg and Cornwallis Island (59, 60), northern areas in Hudson Bay (61, 60, 62). Out of range breeding documented for Churchill, Manitoba, and northern Newfoundland (approved records in 62).

Nonbreeding Range

Figure 4. For distribution during migration see Movements and Migration.

Except for a small area in Iraq, sub-Saharan Africa is the overwintering area for the entire global population of Northern Wheatear, including those breeding in the Western Hemisphere. Despite the following descriptions showing that birds from different parts of the breeding range winter in different parts of Africa, connectivity between specific breeding and overwintering sites on a sub-regional scale is known to be low (63, 64).

Subspecies oenanthe and libanotica are rarely distinguished in the non-breeding season, and their overwintering areas overlap. Their combined range extends from Mauritania, Mali, Nigeria and probably Guinea (65), eastward through Chad and Sudan to southern Somalia (​2​). Common in east Africa south to Tanzania (44). Infrequent in southwest Uganda, north and east Kenya (2). Occasional in northeast Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, northeast Zambia, and Zimbabwe; and rare south to 18° S in Africa and in south Arabia (66, 2). Migrants are common in many areas where there is little or no overwintering, and there may be additional within-season movements as habitat conditions change (44).

Migrants from eastern portions of the breeding range are most likely to winter in eastern portions of the overwintering range (67, 68), and the west to east increase in size of oenanthe across the breeding range (see Appearance: Measurements) is reflected in a similar west to east trend in oenanthe/libanotica overwintering in Africa (44).

O. o. leucorhoa overwinter primarily in western sub-Sahara, in Mauritania and southern Mali (67, 69), Senegal to Sierra Leone, and occasionally to Gulf of Guinea coast in Togo (2).

Extralimital Records

Individual birds may rarely overwinter in Europe (2). Accidental on Bear Island in Svalbard (2), east China, Philippines, Borneo, and Nepal (70, 53, 71), and in Japan (72). Vagrant also on the islands of Madeira and Cape Verde (2) and the Seychelles (73). Rare records from Indian subcontinent (74, 52).

In the Americas, vagrants are now recorded somewhere on an annual basis, with records from at least 33 provinces and states of Canada and the United States, as well as Bermuda, Mexico, Panama, Netherlands Antilles, and numerous Caribbean islands from the Bahamas southeast to French Guiana (60, summary in 75, approved records in 62). The vast majority of vagrant records are from eastern Canada and northeastern United States, from Newfoundland south to New Jersey and west through Ontario. Given migratory routes of North American wheatears (see Movements and Migration), vagrants in eastern North America are presumed to be leucorhoa. There are very few records from west of the Great Plains, mostly along the West Coast from British Columbia south to California that are presumably oenanthe from Alaska or northwestern Canada. However, one bird specifically ascribed to this subspecies was in Boulder, Colorado and another, photographed at Churchill, Manitoba is thought also to have been oenanthe (60).

Vagrants in North America are recorded mainly during normal migration periods: April–June, and August–October, far more commonly in fall than in spring. Some birds reach the southern United States by September or October. A few vagrants do overwinter in North America (60, 62), with occurrences in Ohio, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas. Some individuals observed in early spring and late fall may also represent birds that overwintered undetected.

Historical Changes to the Distribution

Range of subspecies oenanthe in Alaska and northwestern Canada was quite stable during in latter half of 1900s (60; B. Kessel in 56). Evidence is lacking for nascent range expansion, despite the relatively recent breeding records for leucorhoa along the northern coasts of Hudson Bay, on Ungava Peninsula, and in northeastern Labrador (60). Most out-of-range breeding records likely represent sporadic events, such as the nesting on western Hudson Bay where an abandoned building provided a nest site in a region generally lacking natural cavities (61). There are no signs of progress towards fulfilling the prediction that ranges of oenanthe and leucorhoa would meet in the center of Canada by 2050 (76).

Distribution of the Northern Wheatear - Range Map
  • Year-round
  • Migration
  • Breeding
  • Non-Breeding
Distribution of the Northern Wheatear

Recommended Citation

Dunn, E. H., D. J. T. Hussell, J. Kren, and A. C. Zoerb (2022). Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe), version 2.1. In Birds of the World (P. G. Rodewald and B. K. Keeney, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.norwhe.02.1