E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Oenanthe oenanthe (Linnaeus, 1758)
Northern Wheatear
Family: Muscicapidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman
Photo of species

© Ralph Hocken  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #8459)

Distribution of Oenanthe oenanthe in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Breeding male
This plumage is acquired in early spring (March-April) and is held into the late summer (August). The back and scapulars are pale grey, contrasting sharply with the bold white rump and uppertail coverts. The upperwings are uniformly blackish, although the secondaries and inner primaries may have narrow rufous-grey fringes and the lesser and median upperwing coverts may show some traces of pale grey. The tail has a distinctive pattern, with the black central feathers and tips of the outer feathers contrasting sharply with the white bases of the outer feathers to form an inverted “T” pattern. Underparts creamy-white (whitest on the central belly and vent) with a variable creamy-buff to yellow-buff wash on the breast. The crown and nape are pale grey and are separated from the black lores and ear coverts by a bold white supercilium that extends back from the extensively white forehead. The chin, throat, and malar area are creamy-white with a variable creamy-buff to yellow-buff wash. The iris is dark, the short, slender, pointed bill is blackish, and the legs and feet are blackish.

Breeding female
Similar to the breeding-plumaged male, but overall duller and browner, with richer and more extensively buffy chin, throat, and underparts (brightest, sometimes almost cinnamon-buff, on the sides of the neck). The lores and ear coverts are dusky-grey and do not form as bold of a dark “mask” as in the male. The wings are duller brownish-black, with more extensive pale fringes on the upperwing coverts.

Non-breeding adult
This plumage is acquired in late summer (August) and is held until early spring (March-April). The non-breeding plumage of both sexes resembles the breeding female, but the feathers of the upperparts are broadly tipped with olive or rusty-brown and the chin, throat, sides of the neck, and breast are richer cinnamon-buff, fading to paler buff on the belly and undertail coverts. The female averages duller and buffier than the male in non-breeding plumage.

This plumage is acquired in the late summer (August) of the first year and is held throughout the first winter. The upperparts are buffy-brown to buffy-grey, contrastring sharply with the white rump and uppertail coverts. The upperwings are brownish-black with extensive and broad buffy fringes on both the upperwing coverts as well as the flight feathers (primaries, secondaries, and tertials). The tail pattern is similar to that of the adults. The underparts are creamy-buff, palest and whitest on the belly and undertail coverts and richer cinnamon-buff on the breast. The crown and nape are buffy-brown to buffy-grey, the supercilium is buffy, the lores are dusky-brown, and the ear coverts are buffy-brown (slightly darher than the crown and nape); the chin, throat, and malar areas are buffy or cinnamon-buff. Bare part colouration is similar to that of the adults.

Total Length: 14-14.5 cm
Mass: 23-24 g

Source: Kren and Zoerb (1997); Sibley (2000)



This small thrush is very distinctive and is highly unlikely to be confused with any other species in British Columbia.

The male’s song, which is unlikely to be heard in British Columbia, is an unpatterned, level, rapid warble that combines husky, sliding whistles with dry, crackling, toneless phrases; the song sometimes incorporates the calls of other bird species. The calls include a dry, clicking tek or chack and a weak, high, whistled heet or wheet.

Source: Sibley (2000); Leukering (2006)

Breeding Ecology

The Northern Wheatear is a non-breeding vagrant to B.C.
Foraging Ecology

Feeds on a wide variety of small invertebrates (insects, small snails, spiders, etc.) throughout the year, but also consumes berries during the breeding season in the arctic. Most foraging occurs on the ground, often among vegetation, driftwood, or stones, although it sometimes ascends several feet into low brush in search of prey (rarely as high as 20 m). Large invertebrate prey is often hammered against a rock or other hard object to subdue it prior to consumption.

Source: Kren and Zoerb (1997)


This species breeds in rocky arctic tundra, but migrants (including most vagrants to B.C.) typically inhabit open areas such as beaches, estuaries, airfields, and agricultural fields.

Source: Kren and Zoerb (1997)


Global Range

Breeds widely across northern Eurasia, from Greenland, Iceland, and continental Europe east across Asia and Siberia to the Bering Sea, south as far as central Asia and northwest Africa. It also breeds in northwestern (Alaska, Yukon) and northeastern (Ellesmere Island, Baffin Island, northern Quebec, Labrador) North America. Most of the population, including birds breeding in North America, winters in Africa. It is a casual vagrant along both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of North America during fall migration, with records from as far south as the Caribbean and California.
BC Distribution

This species is a casual fall vagrant along the coast of B.C. (Vancouver Island, Queen Charlotte Islands), with three records spanning the period from early October to early November. It is also accidental in fall (late August) in the Haines Summit area of extreme northwestern B.C.

The four records for British Columbia are as follows:

1.(1) immature; October 10-16, 1970; Victoria International Airport, North Saanich
2.(1) immature; November 1, 1980; near Sandspit, Queen Charlotte Islands
3.(1) immature; August 29, 1993; Haines Summit, northwestern B.C.
4.(1) immature; October 7-20, 2005; French Creek, Parksville


Population and Conservation Status

This species is widespread and common throughout most of its distribution in the Old World, although there are some localized declines. This species is fairly common in Alaska, although no data on actual population sizes for the North American population exist.

Source: Kren and Zoerb (1997)


Four to six subspecies are recognized for this species, two of which breed in arctic regions of North America. The nominate subspecies (O.o.oenanthe) breeds across most of northern Europe and Siberia, as well as into northwestern North America, and is presumably (based on proximity) the subspecies that has been recorded as a vagrant in British Columbia. It differs only marginally from O.o.leucorhoa, which breeds in the eastern arctic of North America. That subspecies is slightly larger and breeding-plumaged birds tend to be richer rusty-buff on the underparts (vs. creamy-buff in O.o.oenanthe). Immature and non-breeding birds of O.o.leucorhoa also tends to be richer rufous-buff on the underparts, but this feature is variable in both subspecies they are unlikely to be separable under most field conditions.

Source: Kren and Zoerb (1997); Pyle (1997)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeSNAAccidentalNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-04-22 8:48:10 AM]
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