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

Photos from this Account

Breeding male (Eurasian)
Breeding male (Greenland)
Breeding female (Eurasian)
Immature (Greenland)
Juvenile (Eurasian)
Breeding male (Eurasian)
Nonbreeding male (Eurasian)
Female/immature (Eurasian)
Breeding male (Eurasian)
Male in Alternate Plumage.
Female in Alternate Plumage.

First and Definitive Alternate Plumage are often indistinguishable.

Dark down of nestlings.

Nestlings ranging from 1-3 days old (Blue marks added by researcher for individual identification).

Bare undersides 

1-3 d old nestlings, showing yellow gape flange.

Juvenile Northern Wheatear

This younger individual has just completed the Prejuvenile Molt and shows spotted Juvenile Plumage.

Juvenile Northern Wheatear

The extent of spotting in juveniles can vary

Juvenile Northern Wheatear 

Back feathers and upperwing lesser coverts are gray and spotted; greater coverts and tertials with broad rusty edging. Juvenile body feathers and wing coverts are filamentous due to lower barb density than in later plumages.

Juvenile Northern Wheatear, commencing Preformative Molt

Juvenile Plumage lost to the Preformative Molt at about 5-8 weeks.

Formative Northern Wheatear

Remaining evidence of Preformative Molt is hidden under the new feathers. Note the broad rusty tips to feathers, which wear away to display grayer plumage by spring. Sexes are alike.

Formative Northern Wheatear

Formative Plumage like definitive basic female but averages duller and buffier. Outer primaries and rectrices are relatively narrow, worn, and brown.

Formative Northern Wheatear

Note the replaced formative median coverts, contrasting with the juvenile greater coverts. Primary coverts, primaries, and rectrices are brownish. The black coloration to the formative median coverts suggest that this may be a male.

First Alternate female Northern Wheatear

First alternate females show retained juvenile wing and tail feathers that are browner and more worn than those in Definitive Alternate Plumage. Note the molt limit between the replaced formative median coverts and retained juvenile greater coverts. Body plumage is variable but often lacks a gray wash to the upeprparts present in most or all definitive alternate females.

First Alternate female Northern Wheatear

Body plumage is relatively dull and brown. Black lore and eyeline can be faint or absent; pale supercilium averages less distinct. Retained juvenile primaries are rectrices are narrow, tapered or rounded at the tips, relatively worn, and brownish.

First Alternate female Northern Wheatear

Some first alternate females can be quite dull. Note the brownish wing and tail feathers and the molt limit between replaced formative median coverts and retained juvenile greater coverts.

First Alternate male Northern Wheatear

Body plumage in first alternate males is variable; this individual is relatively bright, resembling definitive alternate males. It can be aged by the retained, worn and brown wing feathers and rectrices, and note the limit between replaced formative median coverts and retained juvenile greater coverts.

Some individuals may replace inner greater coverts and tertials during the preformative molt, as indicated in this first alternate male. Note the brown and worn primary coverts, primaries, and secondaries, contrasting with the replaced formative secondary coverts and tertials. The molt limit blackish coloration to the formative feathers indicate a first alternate male, which can resemble a definitive alternate female in body plumage.

Definitive Basic female Northern Wheatear

Note the uniformly fresh and basic wing and tail feathers, identifying fresh Definitive Basic Plumage and therefore a female.

Definitive Basic female Northern Wheatear

Brown coloration is relatively saturated in fresh definitive basic females. Note also the uniformly fresh wing coverts and blackish-brown primaries, primary coverts, and centers to the secondaries.

Definitive Basic male Northern Wheatear

Definitive basic males is the only age/sex group showing gray plumage in October-February. Note also the uniformly fresh and black wing and tail feathers. Primaries and rectrices are also relatively broad and squared at the tips.

Definitive Alternate female Northern Wheatear

Definitive alternate females can be largely gray above but lack the bold head pattern of males. Wing and tail feathers are uniform in wear, relatively fresh and broad (although they can become quite worn by May due to solar exposure)

Definitive Alternate female Northern Wheatear

Note narrow dusky lores, mask largely absent.This definitive alternate female appears to have replaced an inner greater covert and perhaps 1-2 tertials during the Definitive Prealternate Molt.

Definitive Alternate female Northern Wheatear

By July wing and tail feathers can become quite worn but are not as abraded and pale brown as retained juvenile feathers are in first alternate females.

Definitive Alternate male Northern Wheatear

Note the fully gray back, bold head pattern, and black wings which separates definitive alternate males from other age/sex groups.

Definitive Alternate male Northern Wheatear, subspecies libanotica

Wing and tail feathers are uniformly black and relatively broad, fresh, and squared at the tips.

Definitive Alternate male Northern Wheatear

Outer primaries and rectrices are broad, squared, and black. This individual has replaced two tertials on the right wing adventitiously, showing broad cinnamon edges.

Northern Wheatear commencing Preformative Molt

Preformative and prebasic molts of body feathers can commence with flank feathers.

Male Northern Wheatear commencing Prebasic Molt

New feathers are broadly tipped in rusty colors that define Definitive Basic Plumage in males.

Male Northern Wheatear undergoing Definitive Prealternate Molt

Note new gray alternate feathers replacing brown basic feathers. Blackish wing and tail feathers indicate that this is the definitive rather than the first prealternate molt.

Female Northern Wheatear commencing Definitive Prebasic Molt

Complete prebasic molts commence with inner primaries; here p1 is growing and p2-p3 are missing. The broad unmolted basic secondaries indicate that this is a definitive rather than a second prebasic molt.

Male Northern Wheatear undergoing Definitive Prebasic Molt

Primaries molt distally, from innermost p1 to outermost p10. Molt of secondaries begins with the tertials (usually in order s8-s9-s7) and then proceed procimally from outermost s1 inward. Here molt of primaries has reached p6, tertials are new or growing, and outer secondaries have yet to be replaced but should commence soon. The broad blackish unmolted basic secondaries indicate that this is a Definitive rather than the Second Prebasic Molt.

Male Northern Wheatear undergoing Second Prebasic Molt

Note the fresh, brown second basic upperpart feathers replacing worn, grayish first alternate feathers. Tertials are new or growing and molt of primaries has reached p6 or so. The brown and pointed outer primaries indicates juvenile feathers and that this is the Second rather than he Definitive Prebasic Molt.

Male O. o. leucorhoa.

Definitive Alternate Plumage of bird two or more years old.

Female O. o. leucorhoa.

First and Definitive Alternate Plumage are often indistinguishable.

Male  O. o. oenanthe.

Definitive Alternate Plumage of bird two or more years old.

Female  O. o. oenanthe.

First and Definitive Alternate Plumages are often indistinguishable, but this well-marked female is likely an older bird.

Tundra breeding habitat.
Arctic breeding is often associated with human settlements.

Nests at this site (Iqaluit, Baffin Island) were found in habitat patches among clusters of buildings, as well as in less disturbed surrounding areas.

Slope at center of photo used for nesting (Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada).

Nests were found in several years on the lower section of the rocky slope, close to the busy foot-path.

Northern Wheatear with grasshopper.
Male with polaris fritillary (Boloria polaris).
Mixed load of adult lepidoptera, larvae and spiders.
Female bringing berries to nest.

In the Arctic, berries are not uncommonly fed to nestlings.

Male delivering spiders to a nest.

Sometimes spiders are carrying large egg cases.

Male with large bee (Bombus).
Typically-sized food items.

Samples of food being delivered to a nest. Top: Common Sawfly larva (Tenthredinidae); bottom: cutworm, or dart moth larva (Noctuinae).

Unusually large prey item.
Nest site among boulders.

Entrance circled in red. Like many sites, this one offered several escape routes.

Entrance to underground nest.

Opening is the shadow at the tip of the pen. Most nest sites are similarly inaccessible for observation.

Nest site in a deep crevice.
Nest site in active gravel quarry.

Entrance is in the diagonal shadow under the large boulder at left of photo.

Abandoned pipe used as nest site.

Artificial sites are readily accepted where natural cavities are lacking.

Nest site in foundation of residential driveway.

Entrance is under top left block of driveway support.

Nest site in eaves of abandoned building.

Birds entered over bar across top of insulation.

Nest and eggs of O. o. leucorhoa.
Large clutch and blue-green eggs of O. o. leucorhoa.

8-egg clutch; indicative of larger clutches in Arctic. Eggs of other subspecies may be much paler.

Begging displays color of gape.

The down of the other two young is still damp.

Long, dark down on 5-day old.

Pin feathers are just starting to break through the skin.

Feather tracts and yellow gape flange at 5 days.
Nestling at about 7 days.
Feather growth on underside.
Young can thermoregulate at about 10-11 days.
Primary growth at about 12 days.
Older nestlings venture to cavity entrance.

Some juveniles may still have a few tufts of down on the head when they leave the nest for good.

Male with multiple food items.

The lepidoptera may be arctics (genus Oeneis).

Adult tilts head when feeding large young.
Female removing fecal sac.
Nestlings exploring cavity entrance usually hurry inside to be fed.
Young do not roam during their first week out of the nest.

Macaulay Library Photos for Northern Wheatear

Top-rated photos submitted to the Macaulay Library via eBird. Note: Our content editors have not confirmed the species identification for these photos.

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