Northern Wheatear: May 9th 2000, Gageo Island
Nial Moores

Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe

Photo © Nial Moores

One, first year male, Gageo Island, Jeollanam Province, May 9 2000.

In strengthening southwesterly winds (which tend to be associated with arrivals of migrants on Gageo Island in spring), small numbers of raptors and passerines appeared to be on the move. Descending the slope at Hang Ri, NM had prolonged and excellent views of a first summer male Northern Wheatear (a species seen many times by NM in Europe and the UK) feeding on a rocky outcrop and associated grazed turf. A series of slides were taken with a hand-held Nikon camera through the telescope.

Identification was straightforward and was based on: (1) its overall wheatear-like structure and size; (2) its blue-grey upperparts and orange-tinged buff underparts, warmest on the throat; (3) its black eye-line and ear coverts (further identifying it as a male), and contrasting white supercilium (buffier towards the supraloral); and (4) its white rump and tail, showing a broad black terminal band with central T-shape. Ageing was based on (1) the presence of a pale greater covert bar; (2) relatively poor definition of theeye-patch (though stronger than shown by any female) with a diffuse lower border; and most obviously (3) the brown cast to the flight feathers at rest. Overall the bird was significantly paler than typical Northern Wheatears seen in Europe, especially northern-breeding Greenland Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe leucorhoa.

First found at 10:00 am, the bird was overflown by a Saker Falcon Falco cherrug at 12:00, and several Grey-faced Buzzards Butastur indicus at 12:30. Becoming increasingly shy, it disappeared (or possibly migrated) between 12:40 and 12:50.

Although this was the first record of Northern Wheatear in South Korea, a second (a pale-plumaged female) was photographed in exactly the same area by PARK Jin-Young on April 21, 2001. Known to be one of the world’s strongest migrant passerines (apparently regularly migrating across the Atlantic from Greenland non-stop into northern Africa), the Northern Wheatear also breeds in northeast Asia and western Alaska. From here it migrates regularly to African wintering grounds, on a great circle migration route that should take the species far to the west of Japan and Korea: hence there were only six records in Japan before 1990 (Brazil, 1991). Its tendency to undertake enormously long migrations make it prone to drifting off course in adverse weather conditions and the presence of a breeding population far to the northeast of Korea suggests that the species will be recorded more often in future years, especially perhaps on remote islands, as birdwatching becomes increasingly popular.