Monday, 25 November 2013

The western outskirts of Sakaka

Although birding was not my primary purpose for visiting Sakaka in northern Saudi Arabia, I managed to bird on Friday and for a short while on Saturday afternoon.

Most birding was within walking distance of my city centre hotel but some was on the western outskirts of the city. This blog is about the birding on the outskirts which was quite different from that in the urban setting.

white crowned wheatear

Once you move up out of the basin which forms the oasis at Sakaka you are in desert and there doesn't seem to be an transition though there are made-made green areas around. 

In the rocky desert areas, the only obviously common bird is white crowned wheatear. The one shown above was close to the conference centre while the two below were seen near the historic castle.

white crowned wheatear at the castle

The birds in the pictures above and below were calling repeatedly to each other though separated by 30 to 50 metres depending on movements. They may well be related though one bird is an adult and the other (below) is an immature bird moving towards adulthood as shown as the developing white crown.

second white crowned wheatear at the castle

Apart from laughing dove, white-eared bulbul and collared dove in the castle moat, the only other bird of note near the castle was black redstart.

Za'abal castle

There were actually three or four of them near-by. I also saw them in several other places on the edge of the city.

male black redstart

The male above  was in the grounds of the conference centre. The female below was close to the castle.

 female black redstart

The density of black redstart appears to be high in all the areas just outside the city.

male Spanish sparrow

On the edge of the city in any green areas especially the made made ones, Spanish sparrow replaces house sparrow as the predominant sparrow. I saw several flocks along one strip of grass and bushes in the median of a major road leading out of town.

 Siberian stonechat

This is another place in Saudi Arabia where wintering stonechats are common. There were at least three in the gardens of the conference centre.

I believe two of them were Siberian stonechat while one was probably European stonechat. I was restricted on time in the gardens to be absolutely sure. The top one here I am most certain about. It had a pale, almost white, unstreaked rump and very dark back of a female or winter plumage male.

male Siberian stonechat

The second bird is probably a (almost) summer plumage male Siberian stonechat

immature red-backed shrike

The same gardens produced the only hoopoe I saw all weekend and an immature red-backed shrike. The vermiculations on its head mean it can be no other shrike.

I was surprised enough to see a very similar red-backed shriek in Buraidah last weekend. To see another, one week later and much further north has made me completely rethink what I thought I knew about red-backed shrike migration in autumn. I now seems to be an amazingly long season. I have been seeing them travel through for over three months. This is in stark contrast to spring when they are nearly all seen on their way back in late April to the third week of May.

crested lark

I was disappointed that the only lark I saw was crested lark.

laughing dove

I failed to see a namaqua dove which may not even be here though as already said laughing dove and collared dove were common in the city and on the outskirts. 


No bird of prey was seen all weekend though there seems to be food enough.

This week I will try to do some birding on the way to work in Riyadh but at the weekend I will have my first full weekend's worth for four weeks. I am off to Wadi Dawasir for the first time.  I am really looking forward to that.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Birding inside Sakaka

I was away from Riyadh on business over the weekend. I had to visit Sakaka in the north of the country. This was the third weekend running that my birding has necessarily been restricted because of work.

Nevertheless Friday was a free day up there and so I managed to snatch some time to go birding. Transport was limited in Sakaka so I literally birded straight out of the hotel, walking several kilometres. This was nearly all urban birding.

It was a strange experience because although there were hundreds of birds seen they were mostly limited to six or so species. The diversity was ridiculously low.

However, there were a few nuggets.

two Eurasian crag martin

First and foremost, there were plenty of Eurasian crag martin in the city.

The distribution of Eurasian crag martin in Saudi Arabia is poorly known. Taking two examples from the internet, the map in the wikipedia entry doesn't show it in Saudi Arabia at all. The map in the IUCN red list web site shows it breeding down much of the west coast. 

Neither shows it residing in the north at Sakaka and its the first time I have seen birds where migration looks less likely than residency anywhere in Saudi Arabia.  I am pretty sure the IUCN map is imperfect too.

Actually the main breeding crag martin in much of Saudi Arabia is pale crag martin. 

Anyway returning to Sakaka, I spent a very pleasant 20 minutes watching a pair of Eurasian crag martin returning time and time again to a patch of wet sand. Sometimes they were hawking for insects above the sand and other times they landed. They appeared to be collecting building material for a nest though I couldn't see where they were taking it.  

Eurasian crag martin with mud

It was very easy to distinguish these birds from the pale crag martin that I am much more used to. The lores (and behind the eye too) are dark, the upper wings are darker and of course the dark patches on the lesser coverts on under-wing are obvious.

note the dark patches

I cant believe the species breeds as early it might appear by the nest building behaviour observed although many birds breed very early here. I suspect this was some sort of practice.

Eurasian crag martin resting

Much of the rest of the birding inside this oasis city was ordinary even though patches of palm and other greenery such as Tamarisk are scattered throughout the north west corner that I walked through.

old, deserted buildings

Indeed this part of the city was more interesting than the less featured more modern majority areas.

herd of goats

In one place, I actually saw a herd of goats.

white-eared bulbul with a catch

I said earlier that the urban bird life was dominated by a few species.

second white-eared bulbul

One of these was white-eared bulbul. It's range is expanding and Sakaka is on the north western edge. It's hard to imagine that a generation ago that even fewer species were resident here. White-eared bulbul probably arrived in the last 25 years. 

house sparrow

A very few  Spanish sparrow were seen in the middle of the city either though house sparrow were very numerous. 

Eurasian collared dove

Eurasian collared dove and laughing dove were extremely common.

pinkish looking collared dove

One or two of the collared doves looked pinker than the others though it is nearly impossible than African collared dove venture that far north.


As well as the two doves, the city was teeming with feral pigeons too.

white wagtail

Only two wintering species were seen. The abundant one was white wagtail

Otherwise a single chiffchaff was the only other ones seen at all.

rose ringed parakeet

Rose-ringed parakeet added some more variation. 

I also managed to spend a small amount of time birding on the outskirts of the city: near the conference centre I was working at and near the historic castle. The birding was quite different there. I'll write about this in my next blog.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Mithnab revisited

Last Friday, Bernard Brachen and I visited a farm in the Mithnab area after finishing at Wadi Rummah in Buraidah.

Mithnab is about 30 kilometres directly south.

I went there in late April when it was full of interesting passage birds including black winged pratincole.  

This time the fields weren't very exciting with crested lark and collared dove being the main occupants.

The scrub between fields was a little more interesting.

We both saw a stonechat.

I have a big problem with the "Birds of the Middle East" guide when it comes to stonechats. Arguably the distribution map is the most wrong for these species than any others.

Neither Siberian stonechat or European stonechat is shown in Saudi Arabia at all except down the east coast.

European stonechat from the front

Yet they are frequent in Riyadh in winter where the vast majority are Siberian stonechat.  Likewise in Tabuk in the north west they are a common sight in winter. There the vast majority are European stonechat

European stonechat from the rear

What was interesting about the Buraidah area was that I saw one at Al Ghat and one at Mithnab and there was one of each species. Buraidah is is in the overlap area where both are found.

The rump pattern on the bird above is typical of a European stonechat.

desert wheatear

Most of the other birds were as expected. All the wheatears were either wintering desert wheatear or wintering Eastern mourning wheatear.

tawny pipit

A mobile flock of little brown birds turned out to be tawny pipit. The one above needs a good feed.


A typical sight in central Arabia at all times of year is hoopoe.


And in any major cluster of Tamarisk bushes or trees you will find chiffchaff.

The last two weekends have seen my birding curtailed somewhat by having to work in Riyadh on Saturdays.

The coming weekend it will be shortened again. This time I am working Saturday in Al Jouf in the north of the country. However Friday should be free up there for birding. I am looking forward to it. 

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Wadi Al Rummah, Buraidah

Up to about 10,000 years ago apparently Wadi Rummah was a mighty river flowing from Medina in the west of Saudi Arabia all the way into the Persian Gulf by the Kuwait border. Once in a decade or so it flows as a river through much of its course. Most of the time most of it is dry.

It hadn't rained much in Buraidah by Friday but the wadi valley held a surprising amount of water as well as fish. I can only assume the water had found a way to travel from the west which had had plenty of rain.

 grey heron

The valley was lush with short reeds and grass. It was also quiet probably because it was Friday morning in a devout area.

Wadi Rummah

The large birds are often seen first. A flock of little egret were an obvious presence alongside a single grey heron. Their peace was only disturbed by us and once by a marsh harrier

little egret

Slightly unusually the only other member of the heron family we saw was a little bittern.

Wood sandpiper

There were plenty of waders. The most common was wood sandpiper.

wood sandpiper with yellow wagtail (lutea)

While watching three of them, Bernard bracken caught sight of a yellow wagtail. This was a strange sight. A very few yellow wagtail winter in Kharj 80 kilometres south east of Riyadh but I never expected to see one at Buraidah which is 350 kilometres north west.

It will surely move on when it realises how cold it gets at night in winter there. However there is no doubt this section of Wadi Rummah is an unusual micro habitat.

White wagtail were common not surprisingly.

wood sandpiper (front) with little stint

Little stint were the second most common wader. The picture above shows it in less usual terrain. Most were seen on the river/water's banks.

wood sandpipers with a curlew sandpiper and Temminck's stint

The third wader observed was common snipe. There were plenty  which unfortunately were always one step ahead of us.

The final waders were curlew sandpiper and Temminck's stintBoth are in the picture above. The curlew sandpiper is towards the right while the small wader at the back of the two wood sandpipers on the left is a Temminck's stint. Thanks to the people on BirdForum for help in identifying these two.

Moorhen was another water bird present.


The terrain looked good for bluethroat though only one was actually seen.

immature red-backed shrike

The yellow wagtail was not the only late migrant observed. A solitary barn swallow flew overhead and then we came across an immature red-backed shrike.

back view of immature red-backed shrike

It was a prime example of an immature bird. It had crescentic barring not only on the sides and mantle but also on its crown.


Since we were probably the first birders ever in this place, we made note of resident birds though hoopoe could be wintering or resident. 

Namaqua dove

All the same three resident doves as in Riyadh were easily seen: European collared dove, Laughing dove and Namaqua dove. We were well within the known range of black bush robin

white-eared bulbul

White-eared bulbul is expanding its range north and west and probably conquered this area a long time ago.

Wadi Rummah must be even more interesting now the rains have come to central Arabia. Since Saturday it hasn't stopped raining!

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Al Ghat

Riyadh is on a plateau at about 600 metres. If you travel north, north west or north east the plateau drops 200 metres down an escarpment. Along the bottom there is a farming area stretching over 100 kilometres. 

When Bernard Bracken and I visited Buraidah on Friday we went down the escarpment at al Ghat. However we briefly birded the area at the top on the way out and the bottom on the way back.

On the way out at the top we came across two eagles sitting about 30 metres apart near the main road.

steppe eagle

By habitat and time of year my first reaction was steppe eagle. However the gape was short on both eagles and the second bird was very light coloured.

second steppe eagle

Apparently the gape can be short especially with orientalis sub species sometimes called western steppe eagle

However the nostril is always peanut shaped and so the first bird is certainly a steppe eagle after all.

The second lighter bird was photographed further away so the nostril shape isn't clear but is probably a steppe eagle by shape and built.

Thanks are due to Tom Conzemi for his analysis.

Greater spotted eagle would be darker anyway though the rarer (in these parts) lesser spotted eagle was a possibility I considered.

white wagtail at al Ghat

A service station at the top of the escarpment provided the other venue near Al Ghat on the way out. Here a waste water pool and reed beds acted as magnet for some birds.  We saw collared dove, laughing dove, house sparrow, a common redstart, white wagtail and an Eastern mourning wheatear at this spot. The common redstart was not the only late passage bird seen on Friday as my next blog will tell.

On the way back from Buraidah we had about 25 minutes birding a farm with a cut fodder field, some palms and low scrub. 

male blue rock thrush

Being just under the shadow of the escarpment, the sighting of a blue rock thrush was no real surprise though it was next to a field rather than up a hill side.

Asian grey shrike (aucheri)

An aucheri Asian grey shrike was close by. In such a small patch there was quite diversity of species.

Indian silverbill

A flock of Indian silverbill were in nearby low reeds. House sparrow were in the bushes.

Siberian stonechat

Two Siberian stonechat were on raised stalks.

crested lark in front of Eastern mourning wheatear

No less than three Eastern mourning wheatear were crowded in some scrub land and seemingly tolerating each other though not a desert wheatear which was chased off. We think they were attracted and sustained by flies on four animal carcasses.  

Eastern mourning wheatear

The main field itself held crested lark, collared dove, laughing dove and a small number of bimaculated lark which made a short appearance at the edge helping my identification of it.This is only the second time I have seen it in Saudi Arabia where it winters in the northern third of the country. The other place I have seen the species was at Zulfi which is only about 35 kilometres away.

white cheeked bulbul

Other birds there were white-cheeked bulbul mostly in the palms, chiffchaff in the Tamarisk bushes and graceful prinia in all types of low bush.

The location and habitat as well as the variety of species observed in such a short time leads me to conclude this area is worth a more serious look rather than a short stop on a longer journey.

The next blog looks at what was seen at our main destination: Buraidah.