White-crowned Black Wheatear

If you are wandering through wadis in South Sinai, it is almost guaranteed that you will see, or at least hear, a White-crowned Black Wheatear (Oenanthe leucopyga). They are resident in the rocky deserts and common around settlements and oases. The Bedouin call these birds baqa’a’ بَجَعاء

Adult birds’ approximate length, from the tip of the bill to the end of the tail, is 17 cm. They are mostly black, with a white crown, rump, and tail. Juveniles, and sometimes females, have a black crown, as seen below.

Wheatears are passerine birds. Birds in this order are sometimes called songbirds or perching birds. Their toes are arranged in such a way, three pointing forward and one backward, that facilitates perching. Wheateats eat mainly insects and have a loud, varied song. One book, Birds of Eastern Africa, describes the song as “high, loud, happy, short, fast whistles”. I think they definitely have a beautiful song. Have a listen. How would you describe it?

Tero Linjama, XC341760. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/341760

According to the authors of Gardens of a Sacred Landscape: Bedouin Heritage and Natural History in the High Mountains of Sinai,

White-crowned Black Wheatears build their nest in three stages. Small smooth rocks are placed in front of the nest to prevent snakes from entering (or, according to one informant, to warn of a snake’s presence by the noise of their disturbance). The nest is then covered with small stones, and finally the nest is layered with twigs. The birds are present all year long in wadis and around houses, feeding on insects (including ants and spiders); one Bedouin told us that in summer they also feed on black grapes. They often become very tame, and are welcomed by Bedouin as one of the ‘birds of happiness.’

Zalat and Gilbert (2008)

Seeing and hearing them in the wadis definitely adds some happiness to my wanders!


It’s been awhile since I’ve featured a bird on the blog, so today let’s meet the Blackstart (Oenanthe melanura), called bal’ala by the Jebeliya Bedouin.

Blackstarts are common resident birds in South Sinai and are relatively unafraid of humans so there’s a good chance you’ll come across one in your wanders and maybe even get a chance to spend some time in their company. You might be serenaded by their song:

David Marques, XC82635. Accessible at http://www.xeno-canto.org/82635

These birds have bluish-grey to grey-brown plumage with darker colored wings. They are named (Oenanthe melanura) for their black tails, which they tend to have fanned out. In classical Greek, mela means black and oura, tail. Their bodies can be up to 14 cm long.

Blackstarts live in rocky wadis, deserts, and mountain slopes, where they can often be seen hopping around on the ground, feeding on insects.

Blackstarts are monogamous and pairs remain together in their breeding territory throughout the year. The female builds the nest, a shallow cup made of grass and leaves, in rock crevices and lines it with hair and fine plant material. She will lay 3 – 4 eggs, which are blue with reddish brown speckles. The eggs, if they aren’t preyed upon by a Golden Spiny Mouse, hatch after about 13 days. Both parents feed the chicks, which fledge, or grow flight feathers and are ready to learn to fly, after 14 days.

Sinai Rosefinch

Although the national bird of Jordan, this finch is named after Egypt’s Sinai and lives in our dry, rocky desert areas. The male Sinai Rosefinch (Carpodacus synoicus) is easily identified by its crimson-pink plumage. Females and juveniles are a greyish brown color.


Sinai Rosefinch
Sinai Rosefinch by Alastair Rae, CC via Flickr

Sinai Rosefinches eat seeds and are often seen in groups. I spotted this group on top of Jebel Musa.

These finches grow to about 14 – 16 cm and breed in a small area of Sinai, southern Israel, and southern Jordan.

As I’ve mentioned before, photographing birds is not one of my talents, so check out this page with some beautiful images of Sinai Rosefinches and the video below.


Southern Grey Shrike_Lanius meridionalis (1)

Southern Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) near Ras Sudr

Great Grey Shrike

Black patch over beady eye,

Fearsome pirate perched up high,

Marauder at your lookout post,

Smaller birds fear you the most.

You squeak and chatter, call and trill

And imitate with cunning skill.

You wait, your victim to impale,

Just like the Vlad of fairy tale,

Then stab each one on thorny spike,

Cruel and vicious, Great Grey Shrike.

(Poem by Julia Johnson)

Six species of shrikes occur in Egypt, including the Great Grey Shrike, and I’ve spotted three of them in South Sinai. Like all shrikes (Lanius sp.), they feed on insects, lizards, small rodents and even birds. Using their sharp claws, they catch their prey and then impale the corpse on thorns, spikes, barbed wire fencing, or anything sharp that’s around. This has earned them a reputation of being “cruel and vicious”, as well as nicknames such as butcherbirds and jacky hangmen.

Red-backed Shrike_female (1)
Female Red-Backed Shrike (L. collurio) in Ras Mohamed National Park

Impaling their prey helps the shrikes to hold it in place as they tear apart the flesh with their strong bills. It also serves as a way to save the food until a later time, acting like a larder.

Lesser Grey Shrike_Lanius minor (1)
Lesser Grey Shrike (L. minor) in Ras Mohamed National Park

Shrikes can often be spotted sitting on top of signs, bushes, fence posts – anywhere that gives them a good vantage point to look for prey.

Of the six species of shrikes in Egypt, only one – the Southern Grey Shrike – is a breeding bird here. The other five species – Great Grey Shrike (L. excubitor), Lesser Grey Shrike (L. minor), Red-backed Shrike (L. collurio), Woodchat Shrike (L. senator), and Masked Shrike (L. nubicus) – are migrants, passing through Egypt in spring and autumn.

It was late August, the start of the autumn migration season, that I spotted my first shrike. We were in Ras Mohamed National Park and there were dozens of shrikes perched on the bushes right next to the road, which made for easy bird-watching from the car. And I do love to watch birds! But I am not all that skilled at photographing them. (I prefer to have the macro lens on my camera.) When I can, I’ll try to snap a shot to help me identify the bird later for documentation purposes. My point is that, unfortunately, I won’t be sharing too many posts about birds and, even when I do, the photos won’t be my best. Lucky for us, many other photographers do take amazing shots of birds! Check out the links below for more information and images of birds in Egypt:

Birding Egypt FB Group

Birding in Egypt – Ornithological Exploration Project and related FB Group


Johnson, Julia. (2007). A Bird’s Eye View. Dubai: Jerboa Books.

Porter, R. & Cottridge, D. (2001). A Photographic Guide to Birds of Egypt and the Middle East. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.