Thursday, 22 January 2015

A twitch at Al Beed farm

I drove a 325 Km round trip on Tuesday to Al Beed desert farm. I didn't go for larks though I saw black crowned sparrow lark, greater crested lark and hoopoe lark.

Instead I went to twitch a juvenile lanner falcon that had been reported there twice in the last month.

black-crowned sparrow lark

As luck would have it I saw it almost on arrival over the first field but from great distance.

I headed in the general direction of where I thought it had gone and found it up a tree in the the cluster of about 8 trees on the driveway to the main entrance.

This small cluster of trees has generated some wonderful birds over time.

first winter lanner falcon

Although I got good views of the bird in flight, it was so close and fast I failed to get good photos. When it landed trees three times, each time it was totally obscured.

The plumage fooled me at first because I was looking for the reported juvenile bird yet this bird had adult body markings but juvenile upper parts. In the Middle East and North Africa that means cinnamon brown upper parts. Furthermore its yellow leg and cere colour are the adult colours. Juveniles start out with bluish-grey legs and cere.

All is explained in "Field identification in large falcons in the Western Palearctic" by Hadoram Shirihai, Dick Forsman and David. A Christie for British Birds 1998.

 "Juveniles (meaning  of the large falcons) undergo a partial body moult during their first winter and a complete moult in the first spring/summer, although a few juvenile feathers, especially wing-coverts, are sometimes still retained".

As for the legs and eyes: "Juveniles are, in general, longer-tailed and narrower winged than adults, and in most cases have bluish to greyish (not clear yellow)
feet, cere and orbital ring; on some species, this colour may be retained through
to their first winter".

So a combination of adult body, leg and eye features but juvenile wing features is expected at this time of year.

Others before me have identified this particular bird as a lanner falcon and I totally concur.

The very long and narrow wings with blunt ends favours lanner falcon over saker which is the only alternative with the cinnamon-brown upper-parts.

blunt wing edge with juvenile markings

The head pattern (not easily seen on the top photo) and the cross-barring on parts of the body (just visible on the photo) are also consistent with the lanner falcon identification.

a pile of collared dove feathers

Lanner falcon favour eating birds while saker favours rodents. Three of the tall trees had plenty of piles of collared dove feathers under them.

collared dove at the farm

I can see why it has chosen this spot to winter with at least 40 collared dove and a small number of laughing dove sharing the small small space.

The same trees are housing three or more common chiffchaff at the moment too.

common kestrel

There are many locusts in the fodder fields which had the attention of at least three common kestrel

desert wheatear

Back by the cluster of trees a desert wheatear and an Asian desert warbler had paired up. Wherever the wheatear went the warbler followed.

Asian desert warbler

This pairing is known to take place with both African desert warbler and Asian desert warbler with desert wheatear.

Asian desert warbler takes off

Elsewhere there was a Asian grey shrike (aucheri) on top of a tractor.

Asian grey shrike (aucheri)

House sparrow are on the farm. Most of them were seen near the cow sheds but one was on one of the tall trees that the lanner falcon likes.

house sparrow

There is another cluster of trees and bushes in another part of the farm. I headed towards it before leaving. Unfortunately it was being tended by a gardener and was too disturbed at that moment for good birding. Nevertheless I passed a large field on the way there and as I did so the two white stork and one grey heron I had seen at the farm on previous visits flew over me.

white stork

Very close to the car, I passed a small group of tawny pipit. The first bird had a crown feathers raised which I have never seen in a pipit before. It gives it an almost lark-like feel.

tawny pipit with raised crown feathers

A more normal looking tawny pipit in the same group is shown below.

tawny pipit

In summary this was a twitch that paid off. It was a long way to go if there had been no dividend.

I am satisfied with the result. I had good views of the bird but it is a shame I couldn't get more pictures. In birding you can rarely have it all.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015


On Saturday I decided to explore rather than visit the usual birding hotspots. I took the old road into the mountains parallel but west of the modern road to Thumrait. 

I don't really know why all the mountain hotspots are east of the main road.

I headed for a random village called Shiboob. 

I have to confess I saw nothing new but on the other hand it appeared as good as many of the more easterly places.

Tristram's starling

In Shiboob, I carried out the leaking tap method of birding. This is where you sit in the car and wait and do nothing but watch a water leak. Its very effective on hot days but seemed to work well even in mid-winter at Shiboob.

Tristram's starling spent a lot of time on top of the water tank.

Ruppell's weaver

Ruppell's weaver drank from the tap itself.

white wagtail

White wagtail and laughing dove drank from the run-away.

laughing dove

Cinnamon bunting did both. They drank from the tap and the run-way.

cinnamon-breasted bunting

House sparrow visited a near-by tree.

house sparrow

Arabian wheatear and desert wheatear were seen on near-by wires.

young Arabian wheatear

Elsewhere near the village were Abyssinian white-eye and white spectacled bulbul. I have little doubt they and the house sparrow would have visited the leaking tap if I had stayed longer. A visit to the same place in the migration seasons could get very interesting.

common kestrel

There were several birds of prey in the skies in the area. Most were steppe eagle. Common kestrel was also seen.

fan tailed raven and steppe eagle

After visiting Shiboob I took a side road east back onto the main Thumrait highway. I had a little time to visit Wadi Rabkout.

It is one of the places recommended to go to look for for African collared dove. Once again I failed to see any.

collared dove in the village

However I did discover for the first time that the village has ten or twenty times more collared dove than the rest of the wadi put together. My tip is to look in the village if you want more chances. I know African collared dove well from birding in south west Saudi Arabia. They are just as much a town as a country bird.

another collared dove in the village

I went north out of Salalah to the Thumrait area again during the week and added another bird to my Oman list. I will blog about that next.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Shikra at Ayn Hamran

Having thought it was going to be very difficult to add to my Oman list before the spring passage, I added a new bird today.

It was a juvenile shikra at Ayn Hamran.

shikra in a bush

It was one of the first birds seen there today. I noticed a bird on the ground in one of the few deep thickets. I got too close but instead of flushing, the bird moved round the bush. It was then I realised it was an accipiter. It was clearly stalking for food. The only other birds in the thicket were two Arabian warbler, a laughing dove and the wintering masked shrike. One of them might well have become a victim without my appearance.

shikra moves to a tree

Luckily for me when the accipiter did move, it only flew up into a near-by tree. Here I had better looks. The streaked breast ruled out European sparrowhawk whose juvenile birds have barred breasts.

shikra in a tree

Consulting birdforum, I was reminded that the pale iris rules out levant sparrowhawk. It is nowhere near bulky enough for a goshawk so that leaves shikra.  I had seen one in Saudi Arabia from a distance but this was my first ever close encounter with this species.

Ayn Hamran is quite small and when you go there the first time you wonder why it has such a wonderful reputation for good birds. After half an hours walk you know why.

Bruce's green pigeon

This time I had really good views of Bruce's green pigeon which is usual present but often not seen. The fruiting trees will have them.

African paradise flycatcher

The African paradise flycatcher are in full breeding plumage at the moment.

Arabian partridge

Most visits allow you to see Arabian partridge if the spring is not heavily disturbed by people.

common greenshank

There is permanent water there and this has attracted one common greenshank all winter. I also counted three common sandpiper, two common snipe, a grey wagtail and a citrine wagtail who all need water-based habitat.

Abyssinian white eye

In the shaded middle area there were plenty of Ruepell's weaver and Abyssinian white-eye as usual.

song thrush

The single song thrush has also decided to stay all winter.

white spectacled bulbul

In the same area were about a dozen white-spectacled bulbul attracted not only by the fruiting trees but spillage from a picnic.


Two other notable birds in the bottom end of the spring were hoopoe and black-crowned tchagra.

Ayn Hamran still has the ability to enthral even after four months of at least weekly visits.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Terns on the beaches

Having now seen 246 species in Oman with all but 4 in the Dhofar area, I have not been expecting many new additions before the spring migration.

Indeed this has been the first full week with no additions and there will probably be plenty more.

I have decided to take a more relaxed approach to local birding for a month or so though some reported twitches might tempt me.

In the last week, I have spent a significant proportion of my birding time on beaches.

Caspian tern with one lesser crested tern

This blog looks at some of the terns I have seen on the beaches among the literally thousands of gulls.

On the beach at Khawr Soly were several Caspian tern (also seen at Taqah and East Khawr during the week).

lesser crested tern with one sandwich tern

Very close by was a group of lesser crested tern. Within that group was one sandwich tern. These two birds are very closely related and sandwich tern often associate with lesser crested tern if their own type are not around.

whiskered tern

There was a single small tern next to them but not associating with any of the other terns.

sideways look at whiskered tern

I couldn't identify this small tern immediately. The bill was too short and strong for a Saunders's tern or a little tern.

preening whiskered tern

I am not used to seeing whiskered tern or any other marsh tern on a beach but that is what it is.

Actually the beach at Khawr Soly is straight in front of the sand bar separating the freshwater lagoons and so the bird wasn't out of place.

sleeping whiskered tern

Caspian tern were also seen at East Khawr (Khawr Dahariz) as were gull-billed tern.

gull-billed tern

What surprised me was that one of the gull-billed tern was in breeding plumage already.

gull-billed tern in breeding plumage

Although this blog is primarily about terns, I got distracted for a short time by a bathing grey plover at East Khawr. 

bathing grey plover

I accidentally caught the moment when it raised its wings and showed its underwing black patch.

underwing of a grey plover

This is very useful to differentiate between juvenile golden plovers and grey plover in autumn when some of the former birds have very little golden sheen.

Saunders's tern

On Friday morning I visited Taqah beach and saw more terns. However my main motive to be there was to twitch the skimmers that have been seen twice along the front. Sadly, although I scanned over 2000 water birds, no skimmer was among them. I did see 12 Pallas's gull and other scarcer birds among about 1100 Hueglin's gull and 600 sooty gull.

During this scan I added Saunders's tern to the list of terns seen over the past few days.

The bill is thinner and longer than in a whiskered tern. The winter head pattern usually includes a small amount of black in front of eye too. The legs are often lighter as well.

three Saunders's tern

My regional guide says Saunders's tern can doubtfully be separated from little tern in winter. I am not sure that is true. In summer the white on the crown of a little tern reaches the back of the eye. If it doesn't manage that in winter when there is less black and even more white its not going to do it in summer. So I believe many winter Saunders's tern can be identified by the white not reaching the back of the eye. The problem is identifying little tern. Some winter Saunders's tern have white reaching the back of eye and all little tern.

If I have gauged this correctly all my birds are Saunders's tern with the possible exception of the one towards the bottom right in the first picture.

white winged lapwing

Once again I got distracted from my main tasks while birding. I found a single white-winged lapwing at Taqah. I suspect it may be the same bird I saw for a month or so at near-by Khawr Soly but whose chosen area has since dried up during the winter.