Monday, 18 March 2013

The coast near Yanbu

On Friday morning Brian James, Dan, Alice and I birded more places in the Yanbu area. We started at Sharma Yanbu which is a two pronged sea inlet. The northern prong was most productive with more varied landscape including a small plot of mangrove.

It was near the water line here that we had two tricky identification issues. First we came across two larks which we eventually identified as skylark. They took so long to identify mostly because they were 300 kilometres south of their mapped range in the main regional guide. This made us very cautious and precise.

Actually there were at least half a dozen birds we saw on the trip which were beyond their mapped range. It would appear that the maps are least accurate in the Yanbu area than even anywhere else in Saudi Arabia. I suspect the birding has been most limited there.

 steppe gull

A case in point was with the second tricky identification issue very close to the skylark.

We came across three large white headed gulls. One of them had bright yellow legs and a light coloured eye. With these and other features including seeing it in flight we presumed it might be a yellow legged gull.

 back of steppe gull

The only problem with that is that the map doesn't show it any closer than 700 kilometres north at the top end of the Red Sea.

 steppe gull in flight

I presented the pictures to BirdForum for the experts to look at. There was discussion around whether it was yellow legged gull, Hueglins gull or steppe gull. There are more problems here because the map shows steppe gull no closer than Yemen over 1000 kilometres way and Hueglins gull also in Yemen  and in the top end of the Red Sea 700 kilometres away (next to the yellow legged gull).

 Heuglins gull
The conclusion was that, among other features, the mantle was too dark for yellow legged gull (especially when compared with the adjacent gull which is definitively a third calendar year Heuglins gull. So the mystery adult gull was suggested to be a steppe gull with a light eye (very common among Arabian peninsula wintering steppe gull apparently).

The maps show only Caspian gull and Baltic gull in Yanbu and indeed all the Red Sea coast (and certainly they are the most commonly seen). However to say they are the only large white headed gulls there is surely very wrong. We need some real gull experts to do some survey work here. The maps are a mess.

 mixed gulls and oystercatcher

The picture above shows a more common selection of local gulls with oystercatcher. I can see a Baltic gull, Caspian gull, black headed gull and slender billed gull.

Another notable bird seen in the small amount of mangroves here was common kingfisher.

 black-eared wheatear

The land near Sharma Yanbu held birds other than water birds. In particular we picked up several wheatears including a couple of black eared wheatear.

 purple heron

After finishing with Sharma Yanbu we headed down the coast along Yanbu's corniche towards the mangroves which have been designated IBA (Important Bird Area).

The corniche probably deserved more time but we had to pass through quickly en route towards the mangroves. On passing we stopped for a heron since goliath heron has been reported at Yanbu in the past. It turned out to be a purple heron.

 crab plover and a curlew

Plenty of crab plover were seen in the area as well.

Eurasian spoonbill

The IBA was a bit of a disappointment. According to BirdLife International, it consists of three separate plots of mangroves.  We found the most northerly plot was surrounded by new development though separated by a wall and a canal. From our quick scan we didn't see any thing of interest though it was high tide. The second conservation area was more accessible though it was close to a refinery where photography was banned. We were careful to photograph away from the refinery. We saw Eurasian spoonbill and western reef heron.

 western reef heron

We never did find the third and largest set of mangroves. We believe they were between a refinery and a desalination plant and completely out of bounds for the general public. So if goliath heron is still around then it is not going to be seen by bird watchers.

 Marsh harrier

From noon onwards we started travelling back south towards Thuwal. We tried hard to hug the coast using whatever minor roads and tracks were available. We were on the look out for any mangroves.

The most eventful part of this journey was the number of marsh harrier (and to a lesser extent pallid harrier) we saw. We presumed all were on passage. Unfortunately, there was no sign of a Montagu's harrier which I still haven't seen in Saudi Arabia but which I am told is not uncommon on the west coast at this time of year.

One plot of mangrove was found at a wadi entrance but was the wrong side of extensive mud flats and therefore inaccessible.

 common kestrel

Two other birds of prey seen were common kestrel and osprey.


As we went south we passed through another area full of larks (as we did on the way up) with the same species.

 yellow wagtail
This time we also spotted tens of yellow wagtail and a few tawny pipit as well.

 black crowned sparrow lark

There were very few trees and bushes. Those that there were often held chiffchaff or willow warbler.  

willow warbler

We stopped hugging the coast near Rabigh and the sightings there have been reported in a previous blog.

It was an eventful weekend overall with two additions to my Saudi list. 118 species were seen in all. This is even more than during my visits to Jizan in the south west and a record for me over a weekend.

List of birds seen in the Rabigh and Yanbu area

Common quail
Black stork
Common kingfisher
Eurasian spoonbill
Little green bee-eater
Little bittern
Woodchat shrike
Cattle egret
Masked shrike
Little egret
Daurian shrike
Squacco heron
Turkestan shrike
Grey heron
Asian grey shrike (aucheri)
Purple heron
Arabian babbler
Western reef heron
House crow
Brown necked raven
Black kite
Fan tailed raven
Marsh harrier
Yellow vented bulbul
Pallid harrier
Black crowned sparrow lark
Long legged buzzard
Hoopoe lark
Steppe buzzard
Crested lark
Steppe eagle
Greater short toed lark
Lesser short toed lark
Cream coloured courser
Desert lark
Eurasian oystercatcher
Eurasian crag martin
Black winged stilt
Pale crag martin
Crab plover
Sand martin
Spur winged lapwing
Barn swallow
White tailed lapwing
Graceful prinia
Grey plover
Clamorous reed warbler
Common ringed plover
Eurasian reed warbler
Little ringed plover
Marsh warbler
Kentish plover
Willow warbler
Common snipe
Black tailed godwit
Bar tailed godwit
Arabian warbler
Lesser whitethroat
Eurasian curlew
Spotted redshank
Common myna
Black bush robin
Common redstart
Green sandpiper
Terek sandpiper
Isabelline wheatear
Common sandpipier
Northern wheatear
Little stint
Black eared wheatear
Ruddy turnstone
Desert wheatear
Sooty gull
Pied wheatear
Black headed gull
White crowned wheatear
Slender billed gull
Cyprus wheatear
Caspian gull
House sparrow
Lesser black backed gull (Steppe, Baltic and Heuglins)
Spanish sparrow
Caspian tern
Pale rock sparrow
Whiskered tern
African silverbill
Gull billed tern
Indian silverbill
Chestnut bellied sandgrouse
White wagtail
Rock dove
Yellow wagtail
Collared dove
Grey wagtail
Namaqua dove
Tawny pipit
Laughing dove
Water pipit
Greater spotted cuckoo
Red throated pipit
Common swift
Cretzschmar’s bunting
Pallid swift
Ortolan bunting

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