Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jubail on an April morning

Bernard Bracken and I made the very long day trip to Sebkhet Al Fasl near Jubail on Friday.

This place is one of the best birding sites in the kingdom. It is the result of the treated waste water from the north of city emptying out into a salt pan next to the coast. The are roughly divides into two: the saline filled salt pan and the fresh water wetland with huge reed beds and other vegetation. There is also an intermediate zone.

Bernard and I birded the salty lagoon with its mud flats in the morning.

little tern (with a little stint)

It was an abnormally hot day for April reaching 37C. Birding was tough. 

We started out by walking as far out into the mudflats as we could to observe the several hundred waders and other water birds.

Among the other birds were many tern: Caspian tern, little tern and in the intermediate salinity areas, white winged black tern.  I hadn't seen any little tern on any of my winter visits but they were the most numerous tern on Friday.

curlew sandpiper and little tern

There were hundreds of little stint and several tens of dunlin. Plumage varied from full winter to almost full breeding. There were a small number of curlew sandpiper which are much easier to separate from dunlin in their summer plumage.

mixed waders

The group above comprises two little stint, one dunlin, a ringed plover and a sleeping curlew sandpiper.

common redshank

Other waders included a few common redshank, wood sandpiper and common sandpiper.

wood sandpiper

In the deeper water were several surprisingly tame black winged stilt.

black winged stilt

In winter there are several thousand flamingo in the lagoon but none remain. In the distance we could see several reef heron who are here all year round. 


We moved on from the lagoon towards the fresh water wetland towards noon. On a wire was one of only two birds of prey seen all day. It was an osprey.

purple swamphen

The wetland is the domain of many purple swamphen. It didn't take us more than five minutes to see the first one.

slender billed gull

Both on the edge of the lagoon and in a couple of pools near the wetland, several slender billed gull were seen. Many immature slender billed gull over stay in the summer. They are the only gull usually seen seen  from mid April to mid August.

After noon we spent most of our time in the wetland where the birding was better than in the salty areas. 

I will blog about this next. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mahazat in the afternoon

On Friday afternoon, Brian James and I continued our roaming around the Mahazat as -Sayd Nature Reserve. We were looking in particular for ostrich.

The re-introduced sub species here is Struthio camelus camelus sometimes called red-necked ostrich.

Dr M. Zafar ul Islam who was our host told us it is extremely close genetically to the ostrich which used to frequent Mahazat as -Sayd as proven from the DNA inside ancient eggs.

I had expected to see the birds readily. I suppose this is because of my experience in East Africa where there are often habituated birds close to settlements. 

To the credit of the management, the birds in Mahazat as -Sayd are not habituated at all.

Lappet-face vulture

During our roaming in the early afternoon, we came across two more lappet faced vulture nests. In one of them an occupant stood up giving reasonable pictures.

desert whitethroat

A single desert whitethroat became the third warbler seen in the reserve. I suspect there are a lot more in winter. 

red backed shrike

A third shrike was also seen. This one was a red backed shrike

After 3 hours of looking in the afternoon, we still hadn't found any ostrich and had returned to camp. 

We recounted this to Zafar who kindly agree to show us himself where they are often found. However this area was 27 kilometres away "as the crow flies".  

Incidentally one member of the crow family was present in the reserve. We observed brown necked raven on a few occasions but mostly in the more barren areas.


Finally we arrived at the spot where Zafar sees them most frequently at this time of year. We were lucky and Zafar was able to point a few birds out to us in the distance. They never came close.

pregnant gazelle

On the way back we detoured to go to one of the few high points on the plain. We were interested to see if there were any owls there which was always going to be long shot. There weren't.

booted eagle

The highlight on the way back was a grounded booted eagle.

European bee-eater

Brian and I returned the next morning for a couple of hours but didn't really add much to our observations. The only addition to Friday's list was a smart male marsh harrier

We did get to photograph one of the European bee-eater which we had been seeing passing through.  

female type pied wheatear

Other good photo opportunities was a female pied wheatear which allowed quite close contact and a second European roller of the trip.

European roller

Birding on Saturday morning was very difficult because there had been a sandstorm over-night continuing only a little less intensely during the morning.

white spectacled bulbul

We had to leave early because of Brian's travel arrangements. The white spectacled bulbul was seen at Taif airport while I killed time before my flight back to Riyadh.  

I returned to Riyadh very satisfied. Thanks and gratitude are due to Dr M. Zafar ul Islam and his team who were excellent hosts and to Brian who did all the driving.

34 species seen on the Mahazat reserve

Lappet faced vulture
Asian grey shrike (aucheri)
Marsh harrier
Brown necked raven
Pallid harrier
White spectacled bulbul
Montagu’s harrier
Black crowned sparrow lark
Booted eagle
Hoopoe lark
Macqueen’s bustard (Asian houbara)
Bar tailed lark
Chestnut bellied sandgrouse
Barn swallow
Scrub warbler
Feral pigeon
Willow warbler
Eurasian collared dove
Lesser whitethroat
Laughing dove
Desert whitethroat
Namaqua dove
White throated robin
Common swift
Northern wheatear
European roller
Pied wheatear
European bee-eater
Spotted flycatcher
Woodchat shrike
House sparrow
Red backed shrike
Yellow wagtail

In the near-by town of Khurmah where stayed on Friday night, we saw 6 species when passing through:

Black bush robin, Siberian stonechat, Kestrel, barn swallow, house sparrow and yellow wagtail.  The first three species were additional to the Mahazat list.

Following this trip, there are now 325 species on my Saudi list.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mahazat in the morning

Brian James and I were privileged to visit Mahazat Nature Reserve last weekend. This was arranged by Dr M. Zafar ul Islam and we are very grateful for his good offices and indeed for his company during part of our bird watching.  

Mahazat is a fenced off reserve in central Saudi Arabia run by the Saudi Wildlife Commission and covering over 2250 square kilometres. There is strictly no possibility of hunting or of any grazing by camels and goats. It is currently closed off to all but scientific visitors.

It is the main location for the re-introduced ostrich and Asian houbara within Saudi Arabia. The former is now a completely self-sustaining population while the latter is captively bred with fledged birds re-introduced in stages.

Lappet faced vulture in flight

The reserve is also home to 20 to 30 breeding pairs of lappet faced vulture. The numbers vary slightly from year to year.

hidden lappet faced vulture on nest

Before we set out, Brian and I thought we were most likely to see ostrich first followed by lappet faced vulture then we felt we would be lucky to see any Asian houbara at all.

Asian houbara

Quite remarkably we came across two Asian houbara first, barely three kilometres from camp.

We were being guided by Waleed a park ranger to a lappet faced vulture nest when this happened. We never got as good views of Asian houbara again all weekend. 

When we arrived near the vulture nest, the female wouldn't oblige us with a view. All we saw was her back as she remained cramped down. However other vultures were seen in the sky overhead.

house sparrow

After seeing lappet faced vulture we returned Waleed to camp and we then travelled throughout the park unescorted for much of the day. 

The camp was the only place in the reserve we saw house sparrow and white spectacled bulbul.

pied wheatear

There was a pied wheatear near-by too. However this species was encountered throughout the reserve in low density. Two northern wheatear were also seen during the morning.

hoopoe lark

Three types of lark were observed but they were surprisingly sparse and highly localised. These were hoopoe lark, black crowned sparrow lark and bar-tailed lark.  

black crowned sparrow lark

In conversation with Zafar, we learnt that Dunn's lark are only seen in winter and a very small number of thick billed lark make it down too.  I forgot to ask about the two short toed larks.

bar tailed lark

Needless to say, the larks were difficult to spot.

Arabian oryx

Easier to see were Arabian oryx which breeds very healthily on the reserve.

Dhub or spiny-tailed lizard

We saw three types of lizard including spiny-tailed lizard.

As well as larks there were warblers too. In the morning we saw passage willow warbler and plenty of resident scrub warbler.

European roller

There were occasional fly pasts of European bee-eater and a European roller was spotted on top of one of the few tall trees.

Both Montagu's harrier and Pallid harrier were observed at regular intervals.   

Just after we had commented to each other that some of the terrain looked good for sandgrouse, two chestnut-bellied sandgrouse roared over head. We later learned that the rangers had found a nest with three eggs in the days before.

distant shot of a spotted flycatcher

A single spotted flycatcher was seen from distance.

distant shot of Asian grey shrike (Aucheri)

Another bird seen from distance was Asian desert shrike (aucheri). However unlike the spotted flycatcher, the bird was numerous. It was so numerous it may even have been the most frequent bird seen on the trip.

Two woodchat shrike were observed during the morning as well.

feldegg yellow wagtail at a petrol station

One other species before noon was yellow wagtail. However it had been much more common on the forecourts of petrol stations on our way over from Taif where we had spent Thursday night!

In the afternoon, we added several more species to our trip list. I'll blog about them and include the full list in the next blog. I'll also report on how we got on searching for ostrich which was unseen all morning.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The hinterland at Salbukh

While I visited east Salbukh wetland on Friday I occasionally ventured away from the wetland towards the surrounding countryside.

This blog reports on the birds seen more arbitrarily more than 30 metres from the waters edge.   

My first surprise was just how many birds there were. I am sure this was helped by the fact that it had rained a couple of days before and the land was still wet and the sparse vegetation was reinforced with new growth.

young desert lark

My first encounter away from the wetland was with three desert lark. I didnt immediately recognise the mas the bird I concentrated on had a small bill and was pinkish yellow. 

a second desert lark

However it's face was far too mean looking for bar-tailed lark and I assume it was a young bird but a desert lark nonetheless.

There were crested lark near-by too.

male pied wheatear

Last week I saw just one pied wheatear. This time there were five and they were a mix of males and females.

female pied wheatear

A male black-eared wheatear was the first one I have observed near Riyadh this spring though I saw one almost a month ago near al Birk on the Red Sea coast.

black eared wheatear

Northern wheatear was the third species of passage wheatear seen on Friday.

northern wheatear

There were many yellow wagtail about too. What I found strange was that the big majority were flava sub species with a few lutea also present. I only saw one fledegg out here.

flava yellow wagtail

This was in stark contrast to the ones at the water's edge which were predominately fledegg. I have no idea whether this observation is meaningful but I will be on the look out in future to see if fledegg really does prefer wetter terrain. 

lutea yellow wagtail

As often is the case on passage, red throated pipit were companions of the yellow wagtail

red throated pipit

The earth in this area was almost as red as the pipits' throats. They look well camouflaged on sand and were difficult to pick up.

two red throated pipit

Saturday was one of those rare weekend days when I had to go to work so Friday was my only birding day. However next weekend should make up for it as I am visiting the huge Mahazet reserve for the first time.