Monday, 4 November 2013

100 steppe eagles and 6 griffon vultures

On Saturday morning, Lou Regenmorter and I travelled to Wadi Nisah which old birding records show was often birded before more man-made areas such as the Riyadh river came into existence.

Wadi Nisah is west south west of the city and is a long standing farming area reliant on natural aquifers.

Actually Wadi Nisah turned out to be superficially nothing special and I'll explain why and what we saw later in the blog. I'll also explain that there there may be some hidden potential there.

Nevertheless our birding trip was saved from mediocrity because of what we saw on the way back. 

Next to a chicken farm just south of where Wadi Awsat cuts though the Tuwaiq escarpment was a hill with over 70 steppe eagle sitting. There were a further 30 steppe eagle in the air near-by.

Griffon vultures and steppe eagles

As we scanned the hillside we noticed that among the steppe eagle were six griffon vulture.

hillside scattered with tens of steppe eagle and a few griffon vulture

I can't believe the countryside will provide food for so many steppe eagle. Surely some at least will continue their passage.

steppe eagles in the air near-by

Thanks to Omar (under the nom de plume of Iraq babbler) on BirdForum who has helped me identify the three griffon vulture below as immature birds. He says "dark beak, seeing dark eyes, long brown rough feathers, pale streaking on upperwing coverts  and two circular bare areas on the lower sides of the neck" point to immatures.

three griffon vulture

I had suspected  they were immature birds. Apparently Riyadh lost its resident population 20-30 years ago. My understanding is that only immature birds roam/migrate so any wintering birds should be immature. Adult birds would be a good indication that a resident population still exists or has re-introduced itself.

an enlargement of one griffon vulture

Last year we had 4 griffon vulture winter in the area which used to have residents. These 6 may well winter this year. I hope so.

eastern imperial eagle with steppe eagles

We spent some time scanning the eagles for any exceptions. This was made difficult by the bright sunlight sideways to the hillside. Nevertheless we did pick out a juvenile eastern imperial eagle (thanks to Tib on BirdForum for the identification).

eastern imperial eagle

These birds of prey were an unexpected end to a birding session. 

However as I wrote earlier, we had visited Wadi Nisah first. At the start of Wadi Nisah we had seen 20 steppe eagle roosting on a hillside. In retrospect, this was a forerunner of our larger sighting on the way back.

Otherwise, perhaps the most distinctive feature of birding in Wadi Nisah had been the numbers of wheatears seen but all were either: white-crowned wheatear, eastern mourning wheatearnorthern wheatear or desert wheatear

little green bee-eater

Little green bee-eater and white eared bulbul were very common too. I was surprised that no white spectacled bulbul were seen though. It can be found in other near-by wadis west and south west of the city. 

white eared bulbul

Other notable birds were hoopoe, kestrel and a Turkestan shrike.

Turkestan shrike

Crested lark, desert lark and trumpeter finch were the main "little brown birds". Thanks are due to Omar in Iraq for help with the finch identification.

Both passage barn swallow and resident pale crag martin were the main hawkers above the fields along with a small number of blue-cheeked bee-eater

winter female trumpeter finch

I mentioned earlier that despite this relatively ordinary haul that there may be some hidden potential at Wadi Nisah. This is because we found that the road to the western end of the wadi where it narrows is blocked off and for authorised personal only. We think it is a nature reserve. It would be good to find out how to get in! 


  1. Nice large raptor sightings and a useful ageing exercise.

    Laurie -

  2. A bit of research suggests that access etc at the above site might be to do with water resources/abstraction etc rather than wildlife issues?

    Laurie -

  3. Laurie, you might be right. There is a large aquifer under Wadi Nisah.

  4. After a review of my "desert finch" picture I am now changing its ID to winter female trumpeter finch