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In This Place

A Little Bird With a Big Story to Tell

Mark Faherty
Northern Wheatear

Here in our little archipelago, we have opportunity to see birds from all corners of the globe, especially now, in late summer and fall. These birds passing through, unbeknownst to most, often have astounding migration stories to tell. Species like Arctic Tern, Red Knot, the tiny Blackpoll Warbler, or the various shearwaters that come from all over the seven seas to summer here, are true globetrotters. But yesterday a young birder named Alex Burdo made a rare discovery, right in his own yard, of one of the handful of species in the world that can claim the title of “longest migration”, in this case of any songbird. The non-descript little bird with these bragging rights is the Northern Wheatear, and boy do they have a migration story to tell.

Wheatears are little songbirds who perch upright on rocks in wide-open country, somewhere between a thrush and a flycatcher taxonomically. They’re a bit like a smaller version of our Eastern Bluebirds, with longer wings, as is typical of highly migratory species. The ones we see are young and subtly plumaged — it would be charitable to describe them as anything other than beige - but with a flashy, contrasty black and white tail most obvious in flight.

The last Northern Wheatear here was back in 2016, a one-day-wonder, as we birders say, at Springhill Beach in Sandwich. Yesterday’s Yarmouth bird fits the rough pattern in recent decades where we see one about every five years here on the Cape and Islands. But like several species we see either in migration or during winter, like American Tree Sparrow and Snowy Owl, these birds breed right up in Eastern Canada — so why are they such a stranger in these parts? It’s because Northern Wheatears do migration real weird-like.

A tracking study by German researchers showed that Eastern Canadian wheatears fly east to Greenland, then pop over to Northern Europe before hanging a hard right down to Sub-Saharan Africa. But wait, there’s more — the even weirder wheatears who breed in Alaska fly west across the Bering Sea, then lengthwise across the massiveness of Asia before dropping down to East Africa, where you might see one standing on a rock amongst the zebras on your next Kenya safari. That’s over 9,000 miles one way for a bird weighing only as much as four quarters. My arms are tired just saying that.

Wheatears aren’t the only birds breeding in Alaska that undertake seemingly impossible, downright foolish migrations — lanky sandpipers called Bar-tailed Godwits fly nearly 7000 one-way, nonstop miles over the trackless Pacific between Alaska and New Zealand. But that’s a big, strong, and streamlined bird compared to the tiny wheatear, who weighs less than an ounce. When you factor in body size, the wheatear flies further, further even than even the famously peripatetic Arctic Tern and its 25,000-mile annual round trip.

At the other end of the heft-spectrum, we’ve got an American White Pelican or two hanging out in the area, with recent sightings of probably the same bird in Westport, Orleans, Chatham, Nantucket, and the Vineyard. For the record, you could fit about 300 Northern Wheatears in one of these lumbering bird-beasts. Migration-wise, the pelican is an abject underachiever in comparison — their migration between the interior west and the Gulf Coast barely registers as a blip on a wheatear’s annual route map.

But you’d be lucky to see either bird — both are examples of the incredible avian magnetism of Cape Cod, and of why you should always keep that old pair of binoculars handy. You never know when a little beige bird might stop by, looking to tell one of the planet’s great migration stories.