The largest of the Oenanthe species, the isabelline wheatear is a migratory, insectivorous bird. Its similarity to the northern wheatear (Oenanthe oenanthe) can make it difficult to identify but it does have some unique characteristics. It has a long, strong and slightly hooked bill, a relatively short tail, and a long body usually held noticeably upright (2). Its long legs and claws and a wide footspan enable the isabelline wheatear to run along the ground at notable speed (4). The English name of this species refers to the colouration, isabelline, which can be described as pale grey-yellow or pale fawn. It is the palest of the Oenanthe species, with little contrast between its upper and under parts. Female isabelline wheatears are generally smaller and slightly duller than males (2).
The diet of this species consists primarily of small invertebrates, such as ants and beetles, which it digs for in the soil. Its large, strong bill allows the isabelline wheatear to hammer prey using its bill and then to swallow it whole. It either hovers to locate its prey or forages on the ground, making quick dashes after prey; it has even been recorded leaping for prey such as grasshoppers. The diet of young isabelline wheatears is less varied than that of the adult birds, and consists of a greater proportion of caterpillars (2).
Normally solitary and territorial in winter, the isabelline wheatear forms pairs towards the end of winter and during migration, when it may also associate with other Oenanthe species. The breeding season typically begins at the end of March (2), though can be earlier in the southern parts of its range (5), when the isabelline wheatear nests in the burrow of a rodent or in a natural hole. It is primarily a monogamous species, with both the male and female sharing responsibility for feeding the young. The young are fed for 12 to 14 days after leaving the nest and are then forced to the edge of their parents’ territory. A second brood is usually started before the first is completely independent (2).
The isabelline wheatear has a large global range, breeding in the western Palearctic, from southern Russia to west and central Asia. It has a discontinuous wintering range across Africa, principally north of the equator, and in central India and Pakistan (3)(5).
Generally a ground-dwelling bird, the isabelline wheatear prefers the warm, arid climates of open plains and plateaus up to 3,500 metres above sea level. It also occurs in forest steppe (a habitat of grassland interspersed with forest or woodland) in Russia, although it avoids the forests. It favours level or gently sloping terrain that is open with a few isolated shrubs or rocks. Due to its habit of nesting in burrows, clay is the ideal ground surface, and it tends to dislike loose sand or surface gravel (2).
Being of Least Concern, there are no specific conservation projects targeted at this species. However, some efforts are in place to ensure the maintenance of habitats which may, in turn, help to conserve it. An example is ‘The Important Bird Area (IBA) Programme’ of Birdlife International. This programme, which began in 1985, aims to identify and protect a network of critical sites of the world’s birds (6).
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