By Stefanie Jackson – Eastern Shore birders were treated to a rare sight this week that drove enthusiasts more than 17 miles out of their way from Kiptopeke State Park to Quail Cove Farms in Machipongo.
They spotted a northern wheatear, a small, thrush-like bird with a distinctive, black-and-white pattern on its tail. It is very rare in the continental United States.
Kit Fechtig, a birder from Pungoteague, was the first to report the sighting to the Eastern Shore Post.
Bill Jardine, who owns Quail Cove Farms, said about 50 people tracked the northern wheatear from Kiptopeke and showed up at his business in Machipongo to catch a glimpse of the bird.
The bird was said to have perched itself on a large stack of Quail Cove crates and was flying around, looking for insects.
Roberta Kellam, of the local organization Eastern Shore of Virginia Birding and Wildlife Programs, was among the lucky birders who saw the northern wheatear, Jardine said.
Fechtig shared a photo and a species map from the eBird website, a resource recommended by Kellam’s organization, which has its own website, birdingeasternshore.org
The northern wheatear lives primarily in Eurasia and likes to breed among bare rocks and short grass during the winter in Africa.
The breeding male is pale with a black mask and buffy (dull yellow or yellow-brown) throat. It has a gray back and black wings.
The breeding female is duller and has no black mask.
Nonbreeding and immature birds also have no black mask and are bright and buffy colored with pale eyebrows.
The northern wheatear has long legs and an upright posture. It is normally seen on the ground or on low perches.