Sunday, 28 April 2013

Riyadh round up

I got a message from accomplished photographer Tholightz Quindara who is increasingly a good bird watcher too that he saw nine glossy ibis at the wetland near Riyadh cricket ground on Friday.

Unfortunately he wasn't carrying his photographic kit at the time but managed to record their presence with a canon powershot camera. I am pleased he did. They aren't very common in the Riyadh area and I have only seen them in the south west of the country.

glossy ibis near the cricket ground

Riyadh is currently experiencing its wettest week since at least the early 1980s and it could turn out to be the wettest spell since records began. Tholightz reports that the wetland there was filling up and likely to attract more water birds.

However the place has got competition. All lowlands in the area are filling up at the moment.

three of nine glossy ibis

Its a remarkable spell of weather across much of country and its been raining heavily even in the desert including that between Riyadh and Taif and also the empty quarter which could cause some strange bird movements. 

rain-filled sky

Meanwhile the farm on my walk to work had had poor migrant birding in the past week or so until the rain. So yesterday afternoon in a lull in the rain I lingered at the farm and saw more migrants again. I noticed some of them were more in the open than usual.

common whitethroat on the ground

A mini flock of three common whitethroat were feeding off the ground like sparrows. I presumed this was related in some way to the weather. Likewise a female blackcap was doing the same. 

female blackcap on the ground

One warbler I couldn't entice into the open was a barred warbler which kept strictly to cover.

barred warbler

Common redstart, European bee-eater (not blue cheeked-bee-eater despite the flurry the week before), willow warbler and red backed shrike were the only migrants I had been seeing in Riyadh in the past week before the rain. For example I saw no other warblers in the couple of days before the weekend.

young red backed shrike

Above is a wet looking young red backed shrike from yesterday afternoon and below is and adult one during the dry period.

red backed shrike

The only other two migrants of note before the rain were a single late tree pipit which stayed one day and a single whinchat which also seems to have left after one day.

tree pipit

I am fairly confident about counting the time stayed for the tree pipit because all the previous ones this spring have stayed close to the same small group of trees as that one. I have been able to do a head count of pipits by just standing still by these trees and waiting.  


Although I have been n the look out mostly for migrants, it hard not to notice all the newly fledged white-eared bulbul that have suddenly appeared.

newly fledged white eared bulbul

Next weekend I am going to Abha for the first time. It gets on average six times more rain than Riyadh but this week it is the other way round.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Fields at Mithnab, Buraidah

The second part of my exploratory visit to Buraidah was to farmland.  I chose the Mithnab (variant spelling of Muznib) simply because it is the closest farming district in the Buraidah area to Riyadh (albeit 325 kilometres away!)

The corridor from Buraidah to Hail has the highest concentration of farms in the country and must be good birding because of that. And yet it is rarely visited.

I chose a farm almost at random near Mithnab and started birding. It had several fodder and wheat fields.

collared pratincole

I had a very successful and enjoyable time near and in two wheat fields, one of which had recently been harvested. I could see at a glance that it had attracted lots of birds but I was shocked to find out that 55 pratincoles were either on the field or next to it.

several pratincoles

I didn't have too much time as this was day trip but I soon realised that this was a mixed flock of pratincoles with both collared pratincole and black winged pratincole. Indeed I had not seen collared pratincole on such dry terrain on passage before. Maybe the black winged pratincole had some influence on selection.

the field with the most pratincoles

At least 5 of the birds were black winged pratincole. They had no white trailing edge, smaller tails and fully black under-wings. Though it has to be said that the dark red in the under-wings of some collared pratincole weren't always discernible to my naked eye from a distance (the camera did better on this).

black winged pratincole

Black winged pratincole is the 281st bird on my Saudi list.

ortolan bunting

These wheat fields held more surprises. Though there were many tens of ortolan bunting gorging on the seed spillage, I had'nt expected to see another cinereous bunting again so soon.

cinereous bunting

It was alone as most reported cinerous bunting on passage have been. Only one report I know of this year in the Saudi Arabia has involved two birds. I only saw my first one two weeks ago at the small farm on the way to work. 

European bee-eater, ortolan bunting and red backed shrike

Near the cinereous bunting were many birds of different species resting on a pivot cross bar. Indeed another theme of this farm was the number of resting birds more usually seen on the wing.

resting blue-cheeked bee-eater

As well as resting European bee-eater the dirt areas around the fields were littered with resting blue-cheeked bee-eater and barn swallow.

resting barn swallow

Once again I saw a whinchat, now viewed as a common migrant in my opinion.


However, its nowhere near as common as both red throated pipit and yellow wagtail which are often found together and were present in numbers in the harvested wheat field.

red throated pipit

As I said in the last blog, woodchat shrike are still commonly seen in central Arabia despite being among an early migrants. Lingering in central and northern Saudi Arabia seems to be the only logically conclusion as to what is going on.

woodchat shrike

The most common shrike in Buraidah over the whole day was actually red backed shrike. I can't remember seeing a single Daurian shrike or Turkestan shrike. This is in stark contrast to the Riyadh area and to Jubail (on the east coast) last weekend.

red-backed shrike

On top of two types of pratincole and a near threatened bunting, the birds of prey were a little bit more interesting than average too. Along with a marsh harrier and pallid harrier, a group of three lesser kestrel were hawking over the fields.

My conclusion about birding Buraidah is very positive. Why haven't I been there before?

Friday, 26 April 2013

Waste water wetlands, Buraidah

I can't find any records of birding in Buraidah even though its part (with Hail) of the biggest concentration of farming in the kingdom.

I am sure I am not the first birder there but nevertheless I had to seek out potential birding places myself.

Using google earth I picked out one wetland and one farming area. The wetland turned out to be the result of the main waste water disposal for the city.

Boths sites I chose were good and the farming site gave me an unexpected addition to my Saudi list and very interesting birds. I'll write about that in my next blog.

Kentish plover at the wetland

Coming from Riyadh, you take the Cassim road (route 65) all the way until the outskirts of Buraidah.  Then take the eastern by-pass (route 425) but beware it is marked as route 418 (only in Arabic) at the exit from the main road because both route 425 and route 418 share the same road at the start of the by-pass. Continue round the by-pass until the inter-section with King Fahd road. The wetland is in the north west quandrant at the intersection.

Map shown the location of the wetland (adapted from google maps)

The main lake is almost totally obscured by tall reeds except at the inflow end. Nevertheless birding can take place round the sides and near the inlet.

Main lake

The three permanent looking marshy areas are some distance away from the lake and separated by a very large number of Tamarisk bushes.

One of three marshy areas

The first picture of a group of kentish plover was taken next to the largest marsh. By the way, the kentish plover group contained 12 individuals including young.

The marshes and the lake are all within a floodplain (sebkhet) which shows clear evidence that it fills after heavy rain. When this happens, I would estimate the water area must increase 5 to 10 fold.
Blue-cheeked bee-eater

Returning to the birds, there were plenty of migrants. The most apparent by their noise and size were the bee-eaters. They were a large number of both European bee-eater and blue-cheeked bee-eater.

European bee-eater

The resident little green bee-eater looked very small particularly in comparison with the blue-cheeked bee-eater.

little green bee-eater

Warblers were a mixture of migrants and residents too. The Tamarisk in particular held willow warbler and chiffchaff.


The reed beds contained European reed warbler and at least one, possibly two Great reed warbler were seen. Strangely enough, I didn't see a single sylvia warbler.

crested lark

As often in central Arabia outside the desert areas, the most common birds were crested lark and doves especially collared dove and laughing dove but in this case also Namaqua dove

Namaqua dove

Among the smaller migrants, even here, away from arable fields there were a small number of ortolan bunting.

ortolan bunting

Once again I saw more whinchat, this time two more. I really don't understand how the two main historical recorders with the best records describe it as a scarce or uncommon migrant.


Another migrant that has intrigued me is woodchat shrike. It is one of the earliest migrants yet I keep seeing them all spring. Rather than believe there are endless waves occurring, my new conclusion is that they linger in the area (perhaps for weeks)before they move on.

woodchat shrike

In contrast spotted flycatcher is a late migrant but I don't recall seeing many two days running in the same place. 

spotted flycatcher

Both bush robins were present at the wetland, both the resident black bush robin and the summer breeder/migrant rufous bush robin. Some of these stay while others move on north. The ones we are seeing now are increasingly likely to be the stayers.

black bush robin

Buraidah is towards the northern limit of the black bush robin as shown in the main regional guides map but it is expending its range all the time.

rufous bush robin

Like all Saudi wetlands outside summer, there are always birds of prey about. Here they were marsh harrier, pallid harrier and more exceptionally an osprey on passage. I'm not sure whether the main lake has fish.


Some birds were only seen in the marshy areas. The most vocal and obvious wader was green sandpiper. Most were in full summer plumage.

green sandpiper

Three members of the heron family were seen there too. A small flock of cattle egret grazed for ages and seem very tame to my close approach. 

cattle egret

A lone squacco heron was glimpsed a few times as well.

squacco heron

The third heron family member was actually little bittern. One was seen a couple of times in the marshy area and another one (presumably) next to the main lake.

yellow wagtail (feldegg) in the marshy area

All in all, this wetland was a useful find. I would visit it again but as an adjunct to a main visit to the farming areas. I'll explain why in the next blog when I write about my experiences at a farm.

List of birds (38 species) seen at the Buraidah waste water wetland 

Little bittern
Blue-cheeked bee-eater
Cattle egret
Red backed shrike
Squacco heron
Woodchat shrike
White-eared bulbul
Marsh harrier
Crested lark
Pallid harrier
Graceful prinia
Willow warbler
Kentish plover
European reed warbler
Common snipe
Great reed warbler
Green sandpiper
Rufous bush robin
Namaqua dove
Black bush robin
Collared dove
Common redstart
Laughing dove
Barn swallow
Spotted flycatcher
House martin
House sparrow
Little green bee-eater
Yellow wagtail
European bee-eater
Ortolan bunting

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Zulfi warblers, wheatears and more

This is the fourth installment detailing Mansur Al Fahad's trip to Zulfi which was almost a month ago now. I have already reported on some of his findings such as pharaoh  eagle owl, all four harriers and an Egyptian nightjar in previous blogs.

Today I am posting some more observations of small passerines he saw.

 sedge warbler (all photos by Mansur Al Fahad)

Among the warblers, I was most taken by his observation and photograph of a sedge warbler. They are a relatively common passage bird in Saudi Arabia in places where there is water. However they are often difficult to see directly.

We have been seeing them at Hayer for the past few weeks but I have failed to get a picture.

 desert warbler

Obviously at least one desert warbler was still wintering in Zulfi in late March though they mostly move back north around then or soon after that.

 lesser whitethroat

I saw lesser whitethroat in the Riyadh area until about 10 days ago but haven't seen a single one since. A month ago they were plentiful and so there were in Zulfi too.


Chiffchaff are both wintering birds (often near water) and passage (almost everywhere) in central Arabia such as Zulfi and Riyadh.

 black eared wheatear

Black eared wheatear is on average a later migrant than pied wheatear though there is overlap. Late March is part of that overlap period.

 pied wheatear

Northern wheatear has a very extended migration period though unlike Isabelline wheatear none stay mid winter in central Arabia.

 male northern wheatear

Generally male wheatears, on average, migrant a little earlier than female ones.

Isabelline wheatear

Mansur saw another common rock thrush in Zulfi. They are most easily seen in the drier parts but next to cultivation.

 common rock thrush

March is a month of major stonechat migration though many winter.

 male stonechat

 April is the main month of whinchat migration though once again there is some overlap. Whinchat never winter here.

 female stonechat

Yellow wagtail is a common migrant in central Arabia. For some reason they can be seen most in wet fields in autumn but are not so fussy about wetness in spring. Grey wagtail is much rarer but can be found near water.

 grey wagtail

 Tawny pipit is a common migrant.

tawny pipit

Tomorrow which is a weekend day here in KSA, I will be going north west and birding in Buraiyadh. it is about 60 kilometres west of Zulfi and is an even larger farming area. Strangely I can't find any records of birding there though it must have been done in order for the distribution maps to be compiled. Either way it is certainly relatively under-birded. I put this trip down as a fact finding mission but I might get lucky. Who knows?

Finally, once again, thanks are due to Mansur Al Fahad for sharing his information and photographs