Friday, December 30, 2011

Trip report to dairy farm near Kharj, Central Saudi Arabia

On Thursday I went birding with Abdullah Amrou and Clive Temple at a dairy farm east of Kharj.

The number of species seen was the highest in anyone day since I arrived in Saudi Arabia. There were also three lifers among them. In short it was my best day's birding for a long while.

Since the birding was so extensive, I'm writing this blog as a trip report. 

Location


The farm is called Al Mansour. It's in the middle of the farming district of Sahba about 20 kilometres east of the city of Kharj. The grid reference for the district is 24 degrees 9.5 minutes north, 47 degrees 25 minutes east. Kharj itself is about 90 kilometres south of central Riyadh. 


In Sahba there are a number of farms. The most important are dairy farms. The Al Safi-Danone dairy farm within the district has been extensively birded in the past but not in recent years. Al Mansour is slightly smaller than Al Safi but is  close to it. Al Mansour has all most certainly never been birded before.


The Sahba district is the last green area going south before the wide Arabian desert known as the empty quarter. 


Al Mansour is a privately-run dairy farm. I estimate it is roughly 5 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide. It is flat apart from a small hillock in the middle.  There are more small (but barren) hills just outside the farm's boundary.


The hundreds of heads of cattle are kept in sheds surrounded by small paddocks where the cattle can roam.


Area-wise, most of the farm is taken up by large fodder fields for the cattle including hay as well as alfalfa. The cattle are an important source of natural fertiliser so the fields are richer than those at Al Hayer (for example). The fodder fields at Al Mansour are crop rotated. Some are fallow while others are growing or have recently been cropped.


There are several permanent pools. Each field has a small pool to hold water. Most have some reed cover. The biggest pool is next to the cattle enclosures and seems to be fed by the washings from the enclosures. 


The house at the top of the hill in the middle of the farm has a garden which provides another habitat. There are also a few avenues of trees including tamarisk in various places throughout the farm.
       
Access


Al Mansour is not open to the public. We were granted special access through Abdullah's good offices. Clive and I are extremely grateful for this.  I understand that near-by Al Safi farm is usually open to public birding on request.


Travel


It takes about an hour and a half to drive from central Riyadh to Sahba outside of the rush hour. There is no public transport. We stayed over-night at the farm so we could start birding at dawn.


Observations


Like all farms in central Arabia at this time of year, there were hundreds of white wagtail in the fields and in other areas where there was any moisture such as the paddocks.




citrine wagtail

What was more exciting was the presence of a small number of wintering citrine wagtail. Although I have posted photographs from Abdullah of this bird, I confess this was the first lifer of the day for me. I found a small number next to one of the holding pools at the side of a field. They were surprisingly confiding.

view of the cattle enclosures

In another field I saw my first yellow wagtail since arriving in Saudi Arabia in late September. It had been said a few winter in central Arabia and this was proof. They were particularly attracted to the sprays of water from an active pivot. I saw three at one time on a pivot bar.

yellow wagtail with white wagtail


The ones I saw seem to be the sub species fledegg which breeds in Turkey, the Balkans and the southern parts of central Asia

yellow wagtail

The only pipit I saw on Thursday was tawny pipit. They were present in great numbers though not as many as white wagtail.

tawny pipit

There were two types of wheatear present. These were desert wheatear and Isabelline wheatear. I hadn't realised before how confiding desert wheatear are compared with other wheatears. If you stay still, they will often move really close.

desert wheatear

One of the small birds was another lifer for me. In a turfed area there was a mobile flock of desert finch. Different sources say different things about this bird's status in central Arabia. One says it is a recent arrival while another says it is a common breeder.

desert finch

In the very short bushes that grow on the edges of some of the fields there are desert warbler.  I finally got a half decent photograph of one.

Asian desert warbler

The final small birds I'm mentioning are sparrows. There are very many house sparrow associated with most of the buildings on the farm. In one case we saw a sparrowhawk go inside an open-sided barn while chasing some of them. 

spanish sparrow

Near-by and keeping to bushes was a flock of at least seventy Spanish sparrow.

mixed group of waders

All the pools scattered throughout the farm had waders. Common sandpiper, green sandpiper, wood sandpiper and little stint seem the most frequent depending on the pool.  One redshank was seen by Clive and Abdullah. They aren't at all common in central Arabia.

flock of spur winged lapwing

The Al Kharj area is known for its resident spur winged lapwing and this farm didn't disappoint.  At least 20 were counted. They were most frequently seen close to the cow sheds, its run off water pool and the nearest fields to them.

Kentish plover

Kentish plover was also seen at the cow shed pool. The one above is in breeding plumage.

little ringed plover

Both ringed plover and little ringed plover were observed at pools but also away from them too. The little ringed plover above was seen in a flat, dry rocky area.

ringed plover

The ringed plover was in a cattle paddock.

wood sandpiper

Cattle egret was unsurprisingly found. Perhaps more surprisingly the flocks spent their time in the fodder fields not next to the cattle.  Cattle egret was the only member of the heron family there.

cattle egret

The only hoopoe were in the fodder fields which were being heavily watered.

hoopoe

The density of shrikes was low in part because they aren't too many shrike high bushes. Both steppe grey shrike and Turkestan shrike were there.

Turkestan shrike

I have deliberately kept some of the best observations of the day to the end of this blog.

field grazed by sandgrouse

During the day at various times, Clive, Abdullah and I split up to bird independently.  On meeting up at one time, Clive had told me where he had found desert finch. He moved off in one direction and I started walking towards the place which had the finch.

flying chestnut-bellied sandgrouse

I walked through a closely cropped grass field when I saw a flock of unknown but well-camouflaged birds grazing about 60 metres in front of me. As I walked towards them they flew but only to another part of the same field. It soon became apparent I had walked into a field with three flocks of chestnut- bellied sandgrouse totally about 60 birds.  I watched them for over half an hour as they gently and unconcernedly grazed. 

This was my third lifer of the day and the one that gave me most pleasure. 

chestnut bellied sandgrouse

The final story I want to tell you about is the arrival of  five raptors at about two in the afternoon. They arrived together but were four different species. 

juvenile imperial eagle

Thanks to research by Clive who also has a much better camera than me, I can confirm there were one golden eagle, two imperial eagle, one steppe eagle and an unidentified smaller raptor.

second view of juvenile imperial eagle

Later in the day as we travelled from Sahba towards Kharj on our way home, we saw several eagles in the space of half an hour and 10 kilometres. These included more imperial eagle and another golden eagle!



steppe eagle

Subject to permission, all three of us are keen to come back in March when the passage is in full swing. I would expect a quite different and even larger list then!

Being the first water stop north of the Arabian desert, it could be very interesting.

List of species seen

Cattle egret
Sparrowhawk
Steppe eagle
Golden eagle
Imperial eagle
Kestrel
Black winged stilt
Cream coloured courser
Little ringed plover
Ringed plover
Kentish plover
Spur winged lapwing
Little stint
Temminck's stint
Common snipe
Redshank
Green sandpiper
Wood sandpiper
Common sandpiper
Chestnut bellied sandgrouse
Rock dove (feral pigeon)
Collared dove
Laughing dove
Namaqua dove
Little green bee-eater
Wryneck
Hoopoe
Crested lark
Skylark
Pale crag martin
Tawny pipit
Yellow wagtail
Citrine wagtail
White wagtail
White cheeked bulbul
Black bush robin
Bluethroat
Stonechat
Isabelline wheatear
Desert wheatear
Graceful prinia
Desert warbler
Turkestan shrike
Steppe grey shrike
Brown necked raven
Spanish sparrow
House sparrow
Desert finch

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Looking forward to the south west

All being well I'll be making a short weekend trip to the south west of Saudi Arabia sometime in January.  The trip will probably be to Najran with prospects of going towards Abha.


Hopefully this will be the first of many trips to this area.

brown woodland warbler

This part of Saudi Arabia has more in common with East African birding than with Western Paleartic (Eurasian). There are tens of Afro-tropical species such as the brown woodland warbler. This one was photographed by Abdullah Amrou in August near Abha.

a second brown woodland warbler

There are also eleven endemics to South West Arabia and Yemen.

Ruppells weaver nests near Abha

Most be not all of the endemics are only found at high altitude. Najran is at 1200 metres but the city of Abha is at 2200 metres. The endemics are most usually looked for in the Abha region where peaks reach 3000 metres. However there are highlands close to Najran.

Yemen linnet

One of the endemics, the Yemen linnet was also photographed by Abdullah Amrou in August. I have seen it (and photographed it near Taif, a long way north of both Abha and Najran).

I am not sure if anyone has birded the Najran area before! Foreign birders always seem to make a bee-line to Abha. I am excited to find out what we will see.

fan tailed raven near Abha

I am again grateful to Abdullah Amrou for letting me show some of his pictures.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Spring water birds at Al Hayer

Once again its mid week and I'm continuing to show some of bird photographer, Abdullah Amrou's snaps of birds earlier in the year. This time I'm presenting some of his photos of water birds at Al Hayer in March and April.
mallard ducklings

At least two species of duck breed at Al Hayer. One is ferruginous duck and the other is mallard. Some mallard chicks are shown above.

moorhen

Moorhen is an abundant breeder all along the Riyadh river. 
purple heron

Purple heron is one of several members of the heron family that breeds there too.

two white throated kingfisher

White throated kingfisher has breed there in recent years though one of the books or scientific papers have caught up with this development. However one or two authors had predicted this.

little ringed plover in spring

The only wader know for sure to breed at Al Hayer is little ringed plover.  other plovers such as spur winged lapwing breed elsewhere in Central Arabia but not Al Hayer.

common sandpiper

The status of common sandpiper is ambiguous as it appears it is present all year round. It is more common in spring and autumn than the rest of the year. The birds present in summer are almost certainly non-breeding.

little stint

Finally the most common wader at Al Hayer except in summer is acknowledged to be little stint. Yet I saw only my second group at Al Hayer last week!

Thanks are again due to Abdullah Amrou for allowing me to blog his pictures.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Lagoons at Wadi Thulaymah

On Friday, Abdullah Amrou took Clive Temple and me to Wadi Thulymah outside Al Kharj. This was one of three venues we visited in an action-packed day.


In recent years, two new waste water treatment works have been in operation in central Arabia. They have produced new "rivers" similar in many ways to the "Riyadh river" which flows through Wadi Hanifah. One of these new water courses flows through Wadi Thulaymah. 

Though Wadi Hanifah near Al Hayer has been extensively birded by the few birders who make it to central Arabia, Wadi Thulaymah is pretty much virgin birding territory. 

We started our birding at the far downstream end of the new Kharj river. Here the water has collected into about five crystal clear lagoons.  Indeed all the water in this wadi looks clear. I suspect the treatment works are ultra modern. 

Anyway,the lagoon habitat doesn't exist at Wadi Hanifah (though old records show something similar used to be present before the wadi evolved further). 
The good news is that the lagoons at Wadi Thulaymah were teaming with waders.


However even before we saw any waders, a long legged buzzard flew over head and "welcomed" us to the area. 

wood sandpiper

There are a few waders at Al Hayer. However Wadi Thulaymah's lagoons are ideal for them and the density of waders is much higher.  The lagoons held common sandpiper, green sandpiper, wood sandpiper and marsh sandpiper.

marsh sandpiper

This was the first time I have seen marsh sandpiper in Saudi Arabia.

ruff

There was more than just sandpipers. There were also a small number of ruff. Again this was the first time I have seen this bird in Saudi Arabia too. However it has been recorded in huge numbers at Al Safi dairy farm in the past. The front entrance to Al Safi farm is very close to these new lagoons so ruff is not a surprise. 

black winged stilt

Black winged stilt are resident birds in central Arabia and its must be highly probable that they will be at the lagoons all year even after the waders have gone.

little stint

The most abundant bird on the day was little stint. We counted at least 80 of them. When we looked carefully there were at least three temminck's stint among them and one dunlin. At least one ringed plover and two kentish plover were also present.


Temminck's stint

Later on in the day (very nearly dusk) we visited an area a few kilometres upstream of the lagoons. It was too late to bird properly but there is obviously a large clear lake. Although, we couldn't find a good vantage point because of extensive reed beds and a lack of time, we could see a high concentration of ducks. 

The majority were shoveler but there were also tufted duck and at least two pochard. These were the first tufted duck and pochard I have seen in Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, Wadi Thulaymah is worth more visits. 

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Still finding new birds at Al Hayer

The list of species seen by me at Al Hayer, south of Riyadh is still increasing. On Friday I saw five more, though only one was first for me in Saudi Arabia. That one gave me great pleasure. More about that later.


Al Hayer was the first stop on Friday on a full day's birding with Abdullah Amrou and Clive Temple. This time we stayed close to the river banks throughout.

common snipe snapped at Al Hayer where it is common in winter

The first new bird on my Al Hayer list was a black redstart. Thanks are due to Clive for spotting it. Historical observers in the area have said its a scarce winterer here.

black redstart

The second new bird for me in the area is cormorant. Three flew over and one had a Tilapia fish in its month. Like the black redstart, previous observers say it is rare there.

cormorant

Reportedly, the most common winter wader in the central region is little stint. However the four I saw at Al Hayer on Friday was the first time I had seen them next to the "river". 

little stint

There were, of course, many of the usual cast present. I have made a few more observations about them though. For example, of the two red tailed shrike, I am now reasonably confident there are proportionately more Turkestan shrike than Durian shrike there in winter.

Turkestan shrike

Another observation is that great white egret may not be as scarce in winter as previously thought. 

It is quite possible on a good viewing day to see all the European heron family except bittern.

Purple heron

Greater spotted eagle seems to be the most common large bird of prey in winter outside of the passage seasons.

spotted eagle

As Abdullah drives a four-wheeled drive car we had a chance to move downstream and explore part of the wadi that Clive and I hadn't visited before. Before we left my more usual haunt, we had good views of another white throated kingfisher.

white throated kingfisher

The river downstream has recently been re-channelled but so far the fauna seems relatively unaffected. This might indicate that some water is still feeding the old channels.

new course of the Riyadh river

Near the new channel we saw two mourning wheatear. This was the fourth new bird of the day for me in the Al Hayer area though I have seen it previously at the near-by farming district of Dirab.

mourning wheatear

A little further downstream still and in a new place I hadn't been to before, was arguably the best sighting of the day. There were three black stork in the air! So black stork became the five new addition to my Al Hayer list. It was also the first time I had seen the bird in Saudi Arabia.

Black stork had been reported as wintering in Wadi Hannifah by Tom Tarrant in the early 1990s and by Per Anders Bertilsson ten year's later. It now looks very likely they still winter there. It seems I just hadn't been looking in the right place.