Return of the Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti)

Return of the Desert Wheatear (Oenanthe deserti)

As daffodils and crocuses start poking through the snow across the Northern Hemisphere, flocks of birds return from their southern wintering grounds. Goldfinches are among the first to announce the coming of spring, orioles ignite the landscape in warm reds and yellows, and backyard feeders are set abuzz with hovering hummingbirds.

Among the lesser-known migratory birds are the wheatears. Their genus name, Oenanthe is derived from the Greek words oenos and anthos meaning “wine” and “flower” respectively. The Oenanthe birds were named for their spring appearance in Greece, coinciding with the blossoming grapevines. 

Once believed to be members of the thrush family, wheatears are now classified as Old World Flycatchers. Humorously, the common name has nothing to do with neither wheat nor ears but was rather a corruption of the words “white” and “arse,” referring to the characteristic white rump found in many species. 

There are 33 species of wheatears, spanning Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. In this article, we look at the desert wheatear, Oenanthe deserti.

An Unimposing Songbird

This small passerine is less than six inches in size. The sandy brown male has a black face, wings, and tail. Females are less striking, with a gray crown and duller tones overall. Both sexes have white supercilium and slender, pointy black bills that are slightly larger in males. The desert wheatear’s plumage colouration allows it to blend against its sandy desert habitats.

Desert Wheatear

Of the four recognised subspecies, the nominate race Oenanthe deserti deserti is found across the Levant. The western race O.d.homochroa occurs in the Sahara and Arabian Peninsula, and the remaining two subspecies O.d.oreophila and O.d.atrogularis span across Asia from Transcaucasia to the Far East, spending winters in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. The defining lines between the races are fairly blurred as their differences are slight.

This species can be mistaken for the more commonly encountered northern wheatear. The females are especially alike, with the latter only distinguishable by its warmer tones and the extensive white of its tail.

The desert wheatear’s contact call is a soft, single-note tweet that can be easily missed amid the spring symphony. It also has a quick, agitated alarm call. The male’s song is composed of descending, mournful whistles followed by a strident chirrup.

Desert Wheatear on a Ground

Habitat and Ecology

The desert wheatear is named for its arid habitat. It inhabits wadis, gravel flatlands, dry steppes, and the sparsely vegetated edges of deserts. In its breeding range, nesting sites can be found in a wide range of dry habitats across desert and semi-desert landscapes, from arid plains, silt dunes, dry wadis, and tamarisk groves to dry marshes, salt flats, high valleys, mountains, and dry riverbeds. 

Desert wheatears are found at elevations of up to 11,500 feet. They can also be spotted around human settlements in cultivated lands and along railways and roadsides perched on telephone wires and other infrastructure. 

Seasonal Movements

Migration patterns of desert wheatears vary across the races. Some populations, such as those in North Africa and the Levant are partially migratory, moving short distances away from their breeding areas for the winter. 

Eastern populations migrate further south and west, spending winters in North Africa, South Asia, and parts of the Arabian Peninsula, with passage migrants frequently spotted in the regions between. Vagrants are often encountered in Western Europe. 

While most populations are migratory to some extent, several resident populations occur in pockets across North Africa and the northernmost regions of the Arabian Peninsula. 

Desert Wheatear on a Branch

Behaviour and Ecology

The desert wheatear is insectivorous but is also known to eat seeds. Its diet comprises mostly ants, beetles, flies, and the larvae of various species. This species primarily hunts on the ground or from a low perch among the scrubs and tussocks from which it swoops at invertebrates below or trails after flying insects. Under low wind conditions, desert wheaters may also hover above the ground to scan for prey.

Did you know? When up against prey too large to take down, the desert wheatear often resorts to displaying instead (Smith, 1971).

Ornithologist K.D. Smith recorded the behaviour of a male desert wheatear, encountered in an Eritrean wadi campsite.  He noted that it frequently displayed before large insects such as grasshoppers, fanning its wings and even singing a harsh, warbling song.

Smith also recorded some territorial behaviour against other desert wheatears daring to venture into the campsite, which the watchful bird included within its territory. Intraspecific territoriality aside, the desert wheatear may still have to give way to overlapping wheatear species that are larger and more aggressive, such as the red-rumped wheatear.

Breeding season for desert wheaters occurs during April and May. They construct their bulky nests out of grasses and root fibres and line them with softer materials such as wool, feathers, and fur. The nests are typically found in hollows, crevices, and burrows.

Desert Wheatear Close Up

They can also be strategically placed between exposed roots or in the crooks of stony mounds and rock piles. Clutch sizes vary from three to six pale blue eggs, speckled with rusty red or purple spots. While the female does most of the incubation, which lasts roughly two weeks, both sexes play a role in caring for the young.

Fledging starts at around fifteen days, but the fledglings remain dependent on parental care for another three weeks.

Predators, Status and Conservation

Wheatears are preyed on by various raptor and reptile species. The desert wheatear has a vast and expanding range, and populations are currently stable. 

Final Thoughts

In a drastically changing world, many species are up against a multitude of threats, the most disastrous among which include habitat destruction and climate change. 

Desert species are generally among the most resilient, having adapted to the harsh conditions of their arid habitats. They too, however, may face challenges as temperatures rise. Migratory birds are particularly vulnerable against the climate crisis, as they are heavily dependent on seasonal cycles and food availability at both their breeding and wintering grounds.

Hopefully, this sandy songbird will continue to grace the deserts and arid regions of Eurasia and Africa well into the future.

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