Editor’s Note: This study guide focuses on birds seen in Israel, but may be useful for anyone visiting open habitats of the Old World. Most Wheatears are straight forward to identify, some are more difficult to separate. The tips in this study guide should help you narrow down the choices and help you correctly identify each species. Look for general structure, overall plumage tones and, most importantly, tail patterns. Our slideshow presents an image and caption for each Wheatear species covered in this guide. Click on any slide to find a species profile page with identification and location details. For best effect, this guide should be used with a companion field guide.
Wheatears are a fascinating group of Passerines of open landscapes, deserts and steppe-like terrain and happen to be my favorite group of desert birds.
The name Wheatear has interesting roots; it has nothing to do with Wheat, or with Ear, of course. The name originally comes from the Celtic terms for White and Arse, which refers to the birds’ main feature, the overall white rump and tail pattern.
North American birders may be familiar with the Northern Wheatear – Oenanthe oenanthe – which has established itself in the northeastern U.S. and Canada, but most members of the Wheatear family are Old World species.
Israel’s wide variety of arid landscapes and desert habitats make it a favorite place for Wheatears, and therefore a primary place to begin your understanding of them. Out of the 22 recognized species of Wheatears, an impressive 15 have been recorded in Israel, and eight regularly breed here.
Some Wheatears prefer remote areas, thus making research of these species more challenging. Although most of Israel’s resident Wheatears are fairly easy to find during the breeding season, the post-breeding movements in the fall and the wintering patterns of some Wheatears are still poorly known.
Being birds of open landscapes, most Wheatears have striking tail patterns and strong and melodic songs, both used to communicate over vast areas and in courtship and display. Most Wheatears are rather distinct and beautiful birds, but some species pose interesting identification challenges, especially in non-adult male plumages. Most Wheatears have distinct tail patterns and these are important for identification of tougher birds.
Wheatears in Israel are strongly affiliated with desert habitats and understanding of each species habitat preference is the most important tool in order to find them.
This study guide aims to give visiting birders the fundamental plumage features of each species and tips that will help you find most of Israel’s Wheatears. Use this as a study guide to familiarize yourself with their basic differences, then enhance your study with a field guide or better yet, come to Israel to conduct on-the-ground comparisons.
- White-crowned Black Wheatear – Oenanthe leucopyga
- Mourning Wheatear – Oenanthe lugens (with note on Basalt)
- Hooded Wheatear – Oenanthe monacha
- Desert Wheatear – Oenanthe deserti
- Northern Wheatear – Oenanthe oenanthe
- Isabelline Wheatear – Oenanthe isabellin
- Eastern Black-eared Wheatear – Oenanthe hispanica
- Finsch’s Wheatear – Oenanthe finschii
- Pied Wheatear – Oenanthe pleschanka
- Cyprus (Pied) Wheatear – Oenanthe cypriaca
- Kurdish Wheatear – Oenanthe xanthoprymna
- Red-rumped Wheatear – Oenanthe moesta
Several species of Wheatears have been recorded as vagrants in Israel with only a single record each: Variable (Eastern Pied) Wheatear, Black Wheatear, and Persian Wheatear. We do not cover these in our study guide.