Sunday, 23 September 2012

A harrier disturbs the peace

On September 21st, I celebrated one year in Saudi Arabia. The plan this year is to bird a little less frequently but to visit a higher number of new places. It will obviously mean more travel. 

Nevertheless, this didn't stop me visiting my local patch at al Hayer yesterday.

I went with first time birders, Dr Manssour Habbash and his brother Mohammed.  They have assured me they enjoyed it! and I must say it was an interesting day for me too.

adult black crowned night heron

We spend most of our time in the pivot fields. There was no time to investigate the wooded areas or much of the water course. However, we still managed 24 species and I got another addition to my Saudi list. More about this later.

Before we got to the pivot fields, I spotted some cattle egret en route in a tree. We stopped off and found not only 4 cattle egret in one tree but 4 black crowned night heron in two neighbouring trees. 

juvenile black crowned night heron

One of the black crowned night heron was a juvenile. The night heron were a lucky find. They are much shyer than cattle egret and often well hidden. I have also usually found them difficult to approach.

cattle egret

We made a second stop on the way to the pivot fields. This time on the banks of the water course.  This yielded a dispersed group of about ten moorhen, and also three little ringed plover, little green bee-eater, a black bush robin and assorted doves. The most interesting sightings were a flying flock over the reed beds of about 30 little egret and a separate flock of ten grey heron. 

barn swallow, sand martin and pale crag martin

When we finally arrived at the fields, the most immediate and obvious birding feature was the presence of many hirundines hawking for insects the over the fields. A big majority were barn swallow. However on close inspection there were sand martin and the odd pale crag martin among them too.

This was the first time I had positively identified sand martin since my arrival in Saudi Arabia. It becomes number 227 on my Saudi list and shows I can still add to the list through birding my local patch though this is getting harder and harder. 

yellow wagtail

In among the crops were large numbers of yellow wagtail. This once again showed that many more yellow wagtail head south in autumn through central Arabia than head north that way in spring.

more yellow wagtail

Suddenly a large number of yellow wagtail went into the air flying in all direction. And it wasn't us or a near-by kestrel which caused the panic. 

pallid harrier - top side view

Out of nowhere a harrier swooped down on the loose flock. I don't know how it failed to take a wagtail but it did. I suppose it was still to young to hunt properly but it really should have scored. 

pallid harrier - underside view

Thanks to the members of bird forum who helped me identify the bird as a pallid harrier. I couldn't separate it from Montagu's harrier in the field.

pallid harrier side on view

The broad pale collar and brown neck of a juvenile pallid harrier is apparently the easiest way to distinguish between them.

greater short toed lark

Once the calm had been restored, I took a closer look at the wagtails and noticed that there was a second species in amongst them.

There were at least three greater short toed lark. This was the first time had seen them at al Hayer even though my guide book has them as summer breeders.

blue-cheeked bee-eater

Adding to the diversity, on the pivot bars two blue cheeked bee-eater were seen. In another moment two collared pratincole flew up before rapidly landing in another part of the field and out of sight.  

house sparrow

As well as flocks of yellow wagtail, flocks of house sparrow were roving the fields.

streaked weaver

With care you could notice that the odd streaked weaver was associating with them.

Turkestan shrike

For the sake of completeness the other birds seen yesterday were Turkestan shrike, laughing dove, pigeon and collared dove. Not a single warbler was seen but that was probably because we chose the fields to watch.

Finally, a special thanks to Manssour for driving me out to al Hayer.


  1. Yes. about ten days ago(so far) the sand martin is common , often accompanies barn swallow .
    of course, be difficult to differentiate between pallid and montagus harrier on the field . two weeks ago.I watched female flying over the fodder field .i expected that the be (pallid )fortunately I recorded by a video camera.after review turned out to be montagus .but the male is I saw pallid harrier male and i knew easily.

  2. Mansur, well done for seeing a Montagu's harrier. I still haven't seen one in KSA!

    I can tell male Pallid and Montagu's apart easily but females and juveniles are much trickier.


    PS They will soon be gone. They only visit our area on passage.