Thursday, 29 September 2011

A very hot (but very enjoyable) day at Wadi Hanifah, Riyadh

I have been in Saudi Arabia for over a week now. Work is settling down and today has been my first chance to go bird watching.

The birding website called has two recommended places to visit in the Riyadh area and for want of better knowledge I chose one of them to visit today.

I was very excited when I got into my taxi at 7am this morning. Riyadh is in the middle of a desert on the very edge of the bird zone known as the western palearctic and I was looking forward to finding out what this would mean.

a lake at wadi Hanifah

I chose to visit the so-called "Riyadh river" which runs through wadi Hanifah. Its actually treated water from the city's main water treatment works but it is well-processed and quite clean. The river apparently runs for over 50 kilometres and is getting longer as the city grows and more water is used by the citizens.

little green bee-eater at wadi Hanifah

The result is a narrow but verdant valley over 1000 kilometres from the next nearest permanent river. I had expected it to be a magnet for local, passage and wintering birds. It certainly looks like that this is the case.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. The only thing that stopped me was the intense heat which built up during the morning until it reached the high 30's C by midday. This was time to pack up but later in the year it will be easier.

the river downstream (south) of the lake area 

As soon as I arrived, some birds were immediately noticeable. There are tens of little green bee-eater. My assumption is that this is a local breeding bird

white cheeked bulbul

Another of the most obvious local birds is the white-cheeked bulbul which apparently is extending its range westward. This noisy bird was everywhere in small flocks where there was any type of cover from trees to reeds.
laughing dove

As in the city itself, laughing dove is common here and is another local breeder.

crested lark

Crested lark is the probably the bird I see most during my birding travels - I have seen it  into Libya, Bulgaria, Morocco and Senegal. It didn't take me long to see it in Sadui Arabia too! Actually I heard it's melancholic call first. One difference here is that it seems surprisingly less tame than in the other places.

African collared  dove

Another of the birds I think is a likely local breeder and seems quite common in the wadi is the African collared dove. It looks subtly different from the Eurasian collared dove I used to see in Libya. My immediate gut reaction was that this was not the same and looking in my Collins and on google has verified my reaction.

moorhen on one of the lakes

Once again moorhen has proved itself one of the most versatile birds. It was common in Libya whenever there was non-saline water and could tolerate heat there and some eutrophication. Likewise here in the hottest of places. It is obviously common here. I spotted it in five or six places on the river.

black bush robin

The final bird in my collection of birds which I saw and am quite confident are local breeders is the black bush robin. I have only even seen this in Senegal before. 

There is also at least one type of "reed warbler" which is likely to be local. However it evaded a close look this time. Riyadh's geography is fascinating on this issue. Are the warblers like those of southern Iraq or the Nile? 

Unlike the birds that I have already mentioned I cannot be certain the rest that follow are local breeders. Some may be and other definitely aren't. For those that may be I'll have to observe them during spring.

cattle egret

One of those birds which may be local is cattle egret. There were a few seen in the northern stretches of the river. Today they were often associating with some little egret who likewise may (or may not) be local breeders. 

little egret

The heron and egret family were very well represented and in significant numbers. Along with cattle egret and little egret, they were also several purple heron, grey heron and black crowned night heron. I also saw one squacco heron which I failed to photograph. All of these birds may be wintering, passage or local. Time will tell me.

purple heron

Purple heron seemed to be nearly as numerous as the grey heron.

grey heron

All the black crowned night heron I saw today were juveniles. there were more of them than the purple heron and grey heron combined together. Fascinating!

one of a large number of black crowned night heron

Another bird which may or may not be local is barn swallow and there were hundreds here along with a small number of red rumped swallow. There were all feasting on insects and in no apparent hurry to move on.

The next two birds are definitely not local. The first one a Turkestan shrike gave me much excitement. It is a lifer for me. I presume it was on passage but it was very showy. I have plenty of photos of it to enjoy at my leisure.

My first even Turkestan shrike

The other bird didn't so much excite me but it did make me think for a while. I knew it was a wheatear but it took me a long time to decide it was a northern  wheatear (on passage or wintering). It has a bigger black eared area than most northern wheatear but doesn't fit as a black-eared wheatear because the degree of buff -orange on the breast is too great. It is also too grey on the crown and back.

northern wheatear

Fatbirder's (at write-up on the wadi says that birds of prey are common here including eagles at times. However, the only bird of prey I saw was a single ringed tailed harrier. Furthermore, it was too far way for me to narrow its ID down.

distant shot of a ringed tailed harrier

There is no doubt I will visit wadi Hanifah many times more in the coming months. I know I have only just skimmed the surface of its bird life. The big question is: does Riyadh have any where else that can come close. We shall soon know.

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