Bird identification / Common Stonechat vs Whinchat

Both members of the Muscicapidae family, the Common Stonechat and the Whinchat can be tricky to distinguish. Their distribution range overlaps a lot, so when you go birding in Switzerland or in France for example, you can see both. Also, both species have similar size and similar behavior. They are restless little birds, often seen perched in the open, dropping down to prey on insects or fleeting from a perch to another.

So how do you do to properly identify a Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) or a Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) visually?

Let's start with the easier part of the problem : the breeding male plumage.
The whole body looks quite different but focusing your attention on the head would be enough to make sure you know which species you are looking at.

  • The male Common Stonechat has a striking black face with white patches on the sides of the neck.
  • The male Whinchat has a head pattern of browns and black, and a bold white stripe above the eye.

If the light is good and you see a head completely black, it is a Common Stonechat. If not, it is a Whinchat. The male Common Stonechat also has darker wings and vivid orange under parts, whereas the male Whinchat has black and brown wings and buff under parts.

In non breeding plumage, the head of the Common Stonechat looks less black.

 Male Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) in France. Completely black head, with white patches on the sides of the neck.

Male Common Stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) in France. Completely black head, with white patches on the sides of the neck.

Then, when it comes to juvenile or females, it gets much more complicated. They look like drab versions of the males. Nevertheless, there is one easy tip to remember:

The Whinchat's white stripe above the eye is present in all 3 plumages.

If you see a white supercilium, you can be sure that if you see it you are looking at a Whinchat, whether it is a male, a female, or a juvenile.

 Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) in Switzerland. Even in that kind of poor conditions of light and distance, the white supercilium often remains visible.

Whinchat (Saxicola rubetra) in Switzerland. Even in that kind of poor conditions of light and distance, the white supercilium often remains visible.

I hope this will help you. If you have any comment or edit suggestion, please feel free.

Love Nature.
Jonathan