World Wheatear's Capital

Hadoram Shirihai 10/04/2016 00:00

Eilat & the Negev - Wheatear Capital of the World!


There are several special families of birds that touch the hearts of many birders. For some there are Pittas or Antpittas, others have a strong passion towards Wheatears. Just like when birders planning a trip to the tropics have the formers on their minds, birders travelling to the Middle East envision the latter.  


I cannot think of anyone that does not love or respect Wheatears!



♂ Desert Wheatear O. deserti Eilat Mountains. Common resident of the extreme S Negev.


As a birder that spent most of his life in the Middle East I was naturally drawn to Wheatears and was eager to learn more about their identification, variation, ecology and migration patterns.

The genus Oenanthe (Wheatears; with the exception of the recently lumped members of the Cercomela chats, see below), and depending on which taxonomy one follows, includes between 22 and 27 species. Nearly half of these have been recorded in Eilat and the Negev Deserts, with most being common to regular.   


To me, the most interesting group are the desert dwelling black-and-white Wheatears that reside in the deserts of southern Israel. This group has the interesting combination of striking plumages and tail patterns and also fascinating ecological preferences.


It is not surprising that we chose the three Wheatears illustration by world famous bird artist Alan Harris, for the cover of the Birds of Israel:


In his review of the Birds of Israel Richard Porter noted that the cover of the book truly captures the essence of the Avifauna of the Middle East; naturally with the 3 black and white resident Wheatears.





The deserts of Southern Israel host 3 species of resident "black and white" Wheatears:


- White-crowned Wheatear (Oenanthe leucopyga) - A large Wheatear of mountainous desert habitats, canyons and cliffs. White-crowned Wheatears can be found even in extreme arid and barren landscapes with very scant vegetation, but regularly frequent oasis like sites. Generally found in the southern and eastern deserts of southern Israel.


- Hooded Wheatear (Oenanthe monacha) - also favours desert Wadis with boulders but can often be found in more open landscapes with some Acacia scrub. Hooded Wheatear is often found in the larger Wadis or desert plateaus and even in sandy dune habitats. They are often attracted to domestic livestock such as camels. It is generally found in extreme southern Israel, Eilat and the Southern Arava.




Hooded Wheatear Oenanthe monacha 1stS ♂, Eilat Mountains, Mar:

note the retained white fringing and tipping, including the juv remiges

and primary coverts.




- Eastern Mourning Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens) A Wheatear of the high desert, generally favouring less arid habitats than the previous two species.

Eastern Mourning Wheatear is the most common black and white Wheatear in the Negev highlands, occasionally penetrating semi desert habitats, with most occupying the Negev Mountain Massif.

Besides the resident birds there is also a migrant population and some wintering birds. The origin of these Wheatears is poorly understood, although few seem to match the eastern ssp. persica.



Migrant Wheatears


Spring migration of Wheatears in southern Israel is comprised mainly of three common species, with Isabelline Oenanthe isabellina, Black-eared O. hispanica and Northern Wheatears O. oenanthe;  while Cyprus O. cypriaca and Pied Wheatears Oenanthe pleschanka are present each spring but in fluctuating numbers. Both the latter species are normally rare but in some years influx events occur.



Common species migration trends:


1st wave Isabelline Wheatear peak mid Feb–mid Mar


2nd wave Black-eared Wheatear peak Mar


3rd wave Northern Wheatear peak mid Mar–end Apr (with two races)


It is worth noting that Isabelline Wheatear also breeds in southern Israel, Black-eared Wheatear breeds in the N & C of the country, while Northern Wheatear breeds only on Mt. Hermon.



Scarce species migration trends:


1st wave Cyprus Wheatear peak 2nd-half Mar


2nd wave Pied Wheatear peak end March–mid April



Adding to the mixture:

Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti In addition to local breeding pairs of the Negev plateaus Desert Wheatear is a scarce to uncommon migrant and winter visitor in flat or lowland desert areas. Some birds migrate along the Israel Med coast and are regularly recorded even in Northern Israel (JM)  


Finsch's Wheatear Oenanthe finschii a rather common winterer in the northern Negev desert, with birds presents on the winter grounds from mid Oct till end March (the species is very rare in Arava Valley or the southern Negev).




Vagrant Wheatears


The following species are recorded in Israel but are rare - very rare.


Kurdish Wheatear Oenanthe xanthoprymna normally a rare winterer in Israel but in some winters several individuals are present, offering the chance to learn about the poorly known fresh young plumages. Alternative names: Red-tailed Wheatear.


Persian Wheatear Oenanthe chrysopygia extremely rare and unrecorded in recent years in Israel. Alternative name: Red-tailed Wheatear.


Red-rumped Wheatear Oenanthe moesta Very rare vagrant, bred once in 1989; see Shirihai 1996, not recorded in Israel since.


Wheatears provide us with fascinating identification challenges and pitfalls. One of the most complicated and interesting topics is the Pied versus Cyprus Pied Wheatears complex.

I am happy to share the following comparison that can serve as a useful guide to visiting birders that come across one of these in March in Israel.




Comparisons between ♂♂ Cyprus (left) and Pied Wheatears (right)

during spring migration, Israel (Mar)


The two species possess a certain degree of overlap in their characteristics, partially due to the fact that they are of different age classes.

The Cyprus ♂ is already adult while the Pied is a 1stS (the former is an evenly feathered adult with the latter showing a mostly retained juvenile wing).

Due to being of younger age and since it breeds later, the ♂ Pied still shows a substantial buff wash to the under parts and the darkening of the crown; both plumage features that are usually kept for a longer period in Cyprus breeding season.

Both species could overlap in the amount of black on the breast (as shown above) while other features such as differences in primary projection length and spacing, size of the white rump-patch and length of the 1st primary can be difficult to judge (if at all visible).


When dealing with challenging individuals it is important to use a combination of as many features as possible.

There are several important supportive characteristics that can be used to determine the identification; some can be seen in the above images:

- Cyprus Wheatear often appears smaller or more compact

- Cyprus often shows a clearer and broader white forehead and supercilium, as well as already more solidly dark upper parts.

- Cyprus often has longer and broader black edges to the outer tail-feathers.


For further information on this fascinating complex including the poorly known autumn plumages of Cyprus Wheatear, I recommend you all to refer to the forthcoming Shirihai & Svensson/HWPB.


In the past few years I was also involved in the recognition of the Basalt Wheatear Oenanthe warriae. The story of the Basalt Wheatear is quite amazing.

It all started in 1985, while studying specimens at BMNH/Tring I came across a warriae specimen which was misidentified by Bigger (1926, NE Jordan) as a juvenile White-crowned Wheatear.

This incident made me realize that the Wheatears of Jordan's NE deserts which were till then considered to be ‘opistholeuca Variable Wheatear’ (or the so-called ‘Strickland’s Wheatear’) are in fact a black plumaged, un-described taxon related to the lugens complex.


In 2000-1 I was fortunate to spend time in NE Jordan in order to study this unique and intriguing population of Wheatears. Following the study I was able to confirm that this is a self-sustainable population of a completely isolated form of Wheatear, different from the surrounding allopatric black-and-white lugens Mourning Wheatears.


Full recognition however, had to wait almost a quarter of a century until my friend Guy Kirwan (UK) and I could study all the available museum specimens. Our research eventually led to the Basalt Wheatear's recognition as a new subspecies Oenanthe lugens warriae, based on obvious morphological differences. (Shirihai et al; click here).


The distinct morphology of Basalt Wheatear and its complete geographical isolation ultimately made us to recognise the Basalt Wheatear as a separate species, Oenanthe warriae, in forthcoming Shirihai & Svensson/HWPB.

Furthermore and in relation to the latter, I discovered more misidentified warriae specimens in the Berlin Museum (Shirihai 2012; click here). I also discovered that the N African race of ‘syenitica’ Black Wheatear is in fact another type of Basalt Wheatear, related to the lugens-complex in northern Sudan, leading to taxonomic correction in Black Wheatear, but leaving the taxon ‘syenitica’ unresolved, as a subspecies inquirenda of O. lugens. (Shirihai et al 2014; click here).


In Southern Israel, Oenanthe warriae is unfortunately still a rare vagrant. Sadly Israel is the only remaining place in recent years to see Basalt Wheatear. The NE Jordanian population is most likely extinct, and the remaining Syrian population is inaccessible.




Basalt Wheatear Oenanthe warriae, near Biquat Oveda, Mar: the recent (2012) record, of a long staying bird (probably the most twitchable ever Basalt Wheatear), I also had the privilege to trap and study it in the hand with Yoav Perlman).


This genus provides many fascinating and yet to be resolved genetic and evolutionary relationships in both the generic and the species level like in no other group of birds in the region. For example, the Cyprus, Pied and Black-eared Wheatears complex, and the taxa rich lugens-complex (for the latter see Schweizer & Shirihai 2012; click here)






Eastern Mourning Wheatear Oenanthe lugens, near ‘Nafcha’, C Negev,

Oct: representing the highly diverse lugens-complex,

so far revelling only a ‘shade’ of its intriguing evolutionary trails.


"Listing" birders will be happy to learn that the Blackstart (formerly Cercomela melanura) is now also considered a "classic" Wheatear as the genus Cercomela was recently merged under Oenanthe.




The recently added Oenanthe, the Blackstart O. melanura.


In conclusion, I personally regard the Wheatears as "environmental sentinels" that are always perched and on a lookout for changes and threats to our deserts regions. Because Wheatears occupy all desert habitats they can be used as valuable indicators to habitat deterioration.  Wheatears are conspicuous and easy to follow, making them easy to track and study trends. Even migrant Wheatears at stop over sites can provide valuable information.


Join me in Eilat and southern Israel during the spring migration season and discover the "Wheatear passion" for yourselves!









land marks