A Rare Vagrant in Ohio - 16 Jan 2021

A Northern Wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) was found at Upper Sandusky Reservoir by Karen Ritterspach on 10 Jan 2021. It was Ohio's 5th record of this species that is considered a rare vagrant for the Great Lakes Region. I couldn't resist the urge to see this bird, so I drove 2-hours south to Wyandot Co., OH and the reservoir to see if I could photograph this Old-World Flycatcher. 2000+ photos later I'd say I was successful!

I left the house at 6:45 am and was greeted w/ misty skies, fog, and temperatures right at freezing. By the time I reached my destination the dense fog had lifted, but the grounds were coated in a nice, thick bedding of hoarfrost and snow.

The reservoir was smaller than I expected, and the road circumnavigating the large pond was a mix of dirt, pot holes and ice. Canada Geese and Bald Eagles were roosting on the ice and a few Trumpeter Swans were on location. It took me no time to find the small parking lot where it was first located, including the small pile of rocks it has been using as its foraging grounds. A number of other birders were there when I arrived but the bird had not been relocated yet this morning. I decided to walk around the grounds to see if it might turn up.

The fields next to the parking lot were coated in thick frost and fresh snowflakes, so I spent a few minutes photographing the vegetation before spotting a small flock of American Tree Sparrows next to a woodlot.  

I wandered back toward the parking lot and decided to check the tree-line adjacent to it and the reservoir. I would put the bins on the parking lot 100 yds away and see a number of cameras all pointed in the same direction. Now it was a matter of hightailing it back to the parking lot before the bird would take off. Luckily, I manage to reach the parking lot just as it took off for the tree-line and perch high up against overcast skies. I managed to get some digiscoped images from the edge of the parking lot. The Northern Wheatear would then fly further into the woods before heading out along the trees to the east.

Within less than 20 minutes I was able to spot the bird in the trees at a distance, and waited for it to fly in. Eventually, the Northern Wheatear did fly directly for the parking lot, but pulled up short, and took off for the road next to the reservoir. As the crowd of birders headed in its direction, I decided to stay put and wait for it to return. I made the right decision (for once). The bird would fly back to the far side of the lot, then fly directly toward me where it would spend the next 20-30 minutes foraging in the icy road just 30' away. 

I managed to get a few pics of the bird picking grubs from the muddy trail in front of me.

According to Audubon, Northern Wheatears prefer the following types of habitat: In summer, rocky tundra, barren slopes. Breeds on dry northern tundra with many exposed rocks and boulders, especially where these are near mats of dwarf shrubs a few inches high. Migrants may be seen on any kind of open ground, including vacant lots, barren fields, coastal meadows. In Eurasia, very widespread in open country. Curiously, this place actually makes suitable habitat for such a bird...

These birds breed in Greenland and Alaska, and their migration routes are described as thus: Birds from eastern Canada migrate east via Greenland and Europe, to winter in Africa. Birds from Alaska and northwestern Canada cross Bering Strait and make long westward flight across Asia, also going to wintering grounds mostly in Africa. A few vagrant birds have been found in the Great Lakes Region with Ohio now reporting its 5th record.

I am thrilled that I got to see this wonderful male bird. I was going to continue south to Killdeer Plains to look for raptors, but I decided to head back home so as not to jinx such a wonderful experience!


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