Northern Wheatear in Cleveland

Last Tuesday, a Northern wheatear was reported at Headlands Beach State Park in Cleveland. While I have seen wheatears in Britain, this would be a ABA Area life bird for me. However, I had school during the week and so I would only be able to chase it if it stayed for the weekend.

Because of this, I was very excited when on Friday I received word that the wheatear was still present in the same location and was reliably being found. I had soccer practice on Saturday morning but I was able to leave Pittsburgh Saturday night with my dad to head up to Cleveland. We needed to be back in Pittsburgh by early afternoon on Sunday so we were operating on a tight schedule but the general idea was that we would stay in a hotel Saturday night before going for the wheatear early morning on Sunday.

This plan quickly came into operation as I woke up Sunday morning in a hotel in Mentor, Ohio (only a ten minute drive from the park). As we drove into the park, we were quickly able to find the trail leading out to the sand dunes where the bird had been hanging out.

Headlands Beach is also a really good place for fall warblers and it was impossible to ignore the chips emanating from the bushes and trees surrounding the trail. While I was a bit rushed to get to the wheatear, I was able to spot blackburnian, chestnut-sided, and bay-breasted warblers, and an American redstart. The vegetation cover soon ended however and we walked out onto the Lake Erie shore.

It took a little bit for me to walk along the trail on the opposite side of the dunes from the lake but it didn’t take much time for me to be on the beach itself. It took even less time from that point for me to spot the wheatear, which was teed up on a piece of driftwood about fifty feet from me. It didn’t sit for long however and quickly dropped off the driftwood and out of sight (the ease with which I was able to find this bird stands in stark contrast to other twitches. For example, this spring it took me a few other birders over two hours to locate a black-crowned night-heron).

Walking around to where I could see the other side of the driftwood, I was unable to see the bird. I then decided to walk down the beach for a bit in the direction in which I figured that it had flown. In not much time at all I spotted it perched on a stump that was washed up on the beach. This time it didn’t immediately fly and stayed perched for a few minutes letting me and one other who was present watch and photograph it.

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Northern Wheatear, a Really Fantastic and Beautiful Bird that I was Really Glad to See


A Great Black-backed Gull in the Lake

It didn’t seem to want to stay put however and was soon in flight again, flying up the beach.

I decided to wait for some of the other birders present to refind it, so I settled down to photograph some of the sanderlings that were foraging along the shore.

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By this point, a large number of other birders were arriving to try to get a look at the wheatear. So, I decided to join in the search to try to refind it again. It took a while but we eventually relocated it sitting atop a break wall.


Northern Wheatear with Nuclear Towers in the Background

After watching it for some time, I decided to head back to the car to keep with the morning’s tight schedule. However, I hadn’t gone far before a small falcon flew over my head. Sadly, the entire time it was in view it was backlit and flying away from me which resulted in me being forced to leave it unidentified.

Before I stepped back into the wooded trail leading back to the car, I decided to check the shore one last time. This turned out to be a good decision as I found my First of Fall black-bellied plover and a Bonaparte’s gull that was very cooperative for photos.


Bonaparte’s Gull

Walking back towards the car, I was entertained by sorting through a few flocks of neotropical migrants. Two Wilson’s warblers and a Swainson’s thrush were the highlights but I also got my first blackpoll warbler of the day (I was very surprised by the lack of blackpolls as this time of year there are usually tons of them around).

Getting back to the car, we headed across Cleveland towards Lorain Harbor. An impoundment here has been turning up a ton of rarities recently and I was very excited to see what was there (I was especially interested in the whimbrel and red-necked phalarope which were both present the day before).

A few American coots and a pied-billed grebe were swimming in the marsh at the impoundment when we arrived. A black-crowned night-heron was present as well.


Immature Black-crowned Night-heron

I spotted a few ducks on the far side of the marsh and was excited to find when I put the scope on them that one was common goldeneye. While not a terribly uncommon bird in the area at the right time of year, this bird was quite early. With the goldeneye were some blue-winged teal and a wood duck.

However, I had a whimbrel and a phalarope to find so I continued down the trail which rings the impoundment.

The first one of these targets proved extremely easy to locate. I hadn’t gone very far when I noticed a group of birders stopped in the middle of the trail. Walking up to them, I was pointed to the whimbrel which was standing in the trail only about 30 feet in front of them.



The phalarope however, would prove more difficult. It had been seen in the pool/marsh in the impoundment. However, it was impossible to get a view of the water without walking through a large and thick clump of phragmites. This was made more difficult by the fact that people didn’t seem to know exactly which pool on the impoundment the phalarope was being seen from or from where was the best place to see it. Due to these complications, nobody was able to find it in the time that I had before we had to leave to go back to Pittsburgh. However, apparently it was located after we left.

The walk back to the car was made slightly more interesting by someone telling me that they had an American bittern in the open not far down the trail. As this would be a lifer, I rushed down the trail. However, upon my arrival, I realized that they had in fact misidentified a great blue heron as the bittern… My heart sank…

However, I was able to get some nice looks at a caspian tern fishing.

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Caspian Tern

The drive back to Pittsburgh was mainly uneventful with the only interesting thing was us wasting thirty minutes looking for a Tim Hortons which ended up being inside a stadium and closed on the day we were there.

All together, it was a great (if fast) trip up to Lake Erie and Cleveland where we saw some great birds including an ABA area lifer for me.

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1 Response to Northern Wheatear in Cleveland

  1. Kathie Fiveash says:

    Great post, Aidan. And I like the new name.

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