Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Flooded area south of Pivots, Al Hayer

Having finished at the main block of pivot fields, Bernard Bracken and I ventured south along the "Riyadh River" on Friday.

There is one final and extremely large pivot field next to the river in this direction.  

With the sprinklers on, this had attracted a large flock of cattle egret.

a flock of cattle egret

A white throated kingfisher was also seen there on one of the pivot bars and again on our return on a wire.

white throated kingfisher

At the edge of the field were several tawny pipit and namaqua dove.

Tawny pipit

In the near-by palm plantation were plenty of laughing dove and white eared bulbul. Some of the bulbuls had almost certainly been displaced from the uprooted bushes in the pivot fields lost in the recent flood.

The swollen Riyadh River

As we walked further downstream, the shear scale of the increase in water flow became apparent. Not only had there been a tidal wave but the current water flow is still huge.We couldn't reach the far side of the river to the vegetated areas. 

In summer the area in the photo often has virtually no water at all.


The river now flows through areas with poor cover in many places and birds were scarce there. The only wader we saw was a solitary green sandpiper.

purple heron

In places where the water was still following its normal course, birding was a lot better.  There were moorhen darting out of the reeds and at least three purple heron resting. They made a lot of noise when displaced.

grey heron

On the other hand, two grey heron flew silently over-head.

common kingfisher

A wintering common kingfisher was seen in a lake which had survived the increased flow of water. It was in the same place as one seen in November and may well be the same bird.

great cormorant

Overhead a large flock of pallid swift were moving slowly north. This species is always one of the very first spring migrates. A few barn swallow were also seen. Among them were two local breeders who had started nest building in a shed.

Also overhead were four great cormorant and a greater spotted eagle.

greater spotted eagle

Cormorants can be seen here in small numbers every winter. 

The huge increase in water meant the river must now go much further south than before. It can only be followed easily on foot because the roads to it are all private. Unfortunately we ran out of time to walk further. However the new end should be very interesting.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Flooded fields at Al Hayer

As I was warned by a birding colleague in the week, the Al Hayer area south of Riyadh has taken a battering. The stretch of the river north of pivot fields is being developed presumably as a large scale park and picnic area.

However the construction has created problems. All the reeds have been removed there and so the water flow has increased downstream. The recent rain has lead to an enormous flood despite the upstream dam. This looks like it came as tidal wave uprooting trees and removing huge earthworks in its path. 

Only 40% of the trees and bushes remain near the fields and the bridge barely survived.

However the still flooded fields have interesting birding and the river appears to be several kilometres longer than before. There will more about the river downstream in the next blog. This one looks at the birding in the flooded fields.

common snipe

The  field Bernard Bracken and I started birding in was waterlogged down one side. The most commonly seen bird there was common snipe which gives you an indication how wet it was.  

five common snipe cropped from a photo by Bernard Bracken

We counted twelve of them in all. For once they were easy to see because of the mostly flat terrain. However it was very difficult to get close to them because of a lack of cover.

Squacco heron and little egret

On different edges of the field we saw one each of a cattle egret, grey heron, squacco heron and little egret.

white throated kingfisher

On another edge was a white throated kingfisher.

black crowned night heron in flight

While we were slowly making our way round the field, suddenly 80 black crowned night heron appeared in the air over the near-by main reed bed before settling for a few minutes and re-taking off several times. They didn't seem to be able to rest cosily.

resting black crowned night heron

I last saw a flock of this number of black crowned night heron at Al Hayer almost exactly eleven months ago and in almost the same spot.  I don't think they stay in such large numbers all winter. Al Hayer may be a staging post on their return.

little green bee-eater

So many bushes have been uprooted that cover and perches for many passerines are limited now. Indeed we didn't see many passerines near the fields at all.  There were two bluethroat and a single black bush robin and white eared bulbul

Little green bee-eater found the few remaining small trees.

Daurian shrike

Other birds were making do with man-made perches. A Daurian shrike was seen on a post.


A kestrel perched on a sign. 

northern lapwing in a field

This is the third winter running that a large flock of northern lapwing have stayed at Al Hayer. These sodden fields  are well-liked by them. On the day, they had a strong preference for one particular field which had been recently cut and is next to the river.

northern lapwing flock

It was so wet in one area that a lake had formed in the field. The lake held four common teal

common teal

Needless to say the fields were full of white wagtail which I have photographed so many times this winter. However I took another photo simply because one of them allowed me much closer than usual and so the photo is very sharp.

white wagtail

As the morning wore on, the larger birds of prey came out. Two marsh harrier were first. 

Greater spotted eagle

Then came two Greater spotted eagle and a young Eastern Imperial Eagle.

Eastern imperial eagle

As a general rule in central Arabia, greater spotted eagle are seen over farmland and steppe eagle over more natural surroundings although there is some overlap.

Under an Eastern Imperial eagle

After finishing with the pivot fields, Bernard Bracken and I decided to walk downstream, south of the fields to see what the floods had done to the terrain and the birds there. I'll blog about that next.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Wadi Jufayr

On Saturday Lou Regenmorter and I explored a new area for us. It was Wadi Jufayr which is east of the Wadi Nisah. Both wadis are south west of the city below the man Tuwaiq escarpment.

We have found both steppe eagle and griffon vulture in winter at other places near the escarpment west and south west of the city before. 

It was no real surprise though still rewarding to find them again in this new spot.

Griffon vulture

We passed a set of chicken factories on the way to Wadi Jafayr. It was there in November when we met over 100 steppe eagle, an eastern imperial eagle and six griffon vulture clustered around one hillside. They have clearly dispersed since then.

second view of Griffon vulture

We only saw two griffon vulture all session and eight steppe eagle in ones and twos.

Steppe eagle and brown necked raven

The situation above may look peaceful but seconds later three more brown necked raven arrived. The four ravens then proceeded to mob the steppe eagle forcing it to move on.

field at Wadi Jufayr

Wadi Jafayr is an essentially east-west off shoot of the more north-south Wadi Nisah. WE started birding in earnest where the two meet. Here there are a couple of fodder fields seemingly turned over to camel grazing.

Tawny pipit

Here we saw some tawny pipit and of course plenty of white wagtail.

white wagtail

Again fairly typically for cultivated fields in the Riyadh area the two wheatears were Isabelline wheatear and desert wheatear with the latter often showing a marginal preference for the edges or just off field.

Isabelline wheatear

When we moved on down the wadi the terrain was quite different. It follows the escarpment and is clearly in a water table. All the way along are trees and bushes but unfortunately camel grazing has once again denuded the undergrowth and grasses. 

Eastern mourning wheatear

On the way we saw our only Eastern mourning wheatear of the day.

Red tailed wheatear

The trees and bushes held three types of warbler: scrub warbler, Asian desert warbler and desert whitethroat. There were also little green bee-eater, hoopoe, brown necked raven, black bush robin and more unusually for central Arabia, a black redstart.

A less unusual bird but still interesting was a very flighty wintering red-tailed wheatear. It wouldn't allow close contact so the photos were from distance. Nevertheless the rusty fringes at the tip of the tail are enough to show it is a red tailed wheatear and not a Kurdistan wheatear which does winter in Saudi Arabia but mostly in the west.

I am birding locally in the Riyadh area this weekend after so many trips away.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Jubail on a January afternoon

Bernard Bracken and I continued at Sebkhet Al Fasl in the early afternoon on Friday.

One of our first sights after midday was a white throated kingfisher. Unlike in the Riyadh area where this species is resident, it is a winter visitor here.

white throated kingfisher

The next half an hour was spent gull watching but not before we had accidentally flushed three common snipe in the area. 

First we noticed a few medium sized gulls swimming in one of the smaller fresh water pools.

black headed gull

There were about six of both black headed gull and slender billed gull.

slender billed gull

Then we moved on to look in the shallow water lagoon to the east of the main Sebkhet.

At first there looked to be very little there. In one far corner was a group of western reef heron and on a sandbank a group of Caspian tern.

Pallas's gull with Caspian tern and Slender billed gull 

We inspected the Caspian tern to see if any different species were among them. To my surprise and delight there were not only two slender billed gull but a first winter Pallas's gull.

It was really useful to have size comparison against the Caspian tern to show just how big this gull is.

First winter Pallas's gull

It's black mask, bicoloured bill, sloping forehead, white crescents above and below the eye and brown freckled nape as well as size all added up to Pallas's gull.

Pallas's gull in flight

In flight it has a predominantly bleached-looking under-wing and body.

Second flight picture of Pallas's gull

This was the second addition to my Saudi list in one day making 320 species using the conservative Clements count.

Ironically it was the first and only large gull seen at Sebkhet Al Fasl. No Caspian gull, steppe gull or Hueglin's gull were seen there.

Soon after this event we finished with Sebkhet Al Fasl and had some time to bird elsewhere in Jubail.

Rather than go to Deffi Park as usual we decided to try out the central corniche for the first time.

Central corniche at Jubail

We didn't know what to expect but it was like a narrow strip of parkland next to the sea. 

crested lark

It seemed odd to see crested lark and desert wheatear in an urban green environment as two of the first birds observed.

desert wheatear

More expectedly, house sparrow and white eared bulbul were common. Unfortunately no rare wintering finch or thrush was among them.

white eared bulbul

Needless to say, the lawns were crawling with white wagtail.

white wagtail

House crow were present here as elsewhere in urban areas on the east coast.

house crow

We didn't spent much time looking out to sea. There wasn't time left in the day and gaining good views was restricted by private property breaking up the sea front.  Nevertheless in one stretch we could see out to an off-shore island with Caspian gull, steppe gull, Heuglin's gullgrey heron and western reef heron all close to the water's edge.

Socotra cormorant

There was also a solitary Socotra cormorant. This species disperses somewhat in the winter and is a lot less common on the Jubail-Dammam-Khobar coast than in summer.

A trip to Jubail and back is 1000 kilometres long but this time at least it was well worth the effort. 

On Saturday I teamed up with Lou Regenmorter to bird west of Riyadh in a new area for both of us. The next blog will report on what we saw.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Jubail on a January morning

I took another long day trip to Jubail on Friday. This was my third visit in three months and my second with Bernard Bracken to Sebkhet Al Fasl.

Each time one of my main aims had been to see common shelduck in Saudi Arabia as well as observe birds more generally.

flamingo as usual

This time common shelduck was easily identified and within a few minutes of our arrival. There were 45 of them swimming next to the flamingo mostly in slightly shallower water than that species. Although, they were  over 300 metres from the shore, they were still easily recognisable and well behaved. This made me wonder why it has taken me two and a half years to see even one in the country before.

Incidentally there were over 500 flamingo.

common shelduck with the flamingo

Common shelduck was the 319th bird on my country list using the conservative Clements count as recorded on e-bird.  Other authorities would give me more. For example my OSME count is 325.

They were not the only birds in the lagoon area which had to be viewed from great distance. Many tens of waders were so far out I couldn't identify them even with Bernard's scope.

However a small group were on a sand bar which could be approached on foot. These included six common redshank

four different waders

There were single birds of three other species with the common redshank.

In the picture above the one on the far left is a curlew sandpiper. The one in the far right is a marsh sandpiper. The other bird is probably a broad billed sandpiper. Other photos of it I have suggest this species rather than dunlin.

grey plover

Alone and further along the sand bar was a grey plover.

moulting water pipit

At the very far end of the sand bar was pipit. It took me some time to assure myself that it was a water pipit. I finally worked out that it was a moulting bird which was changing into breeding plumage. Such plumage doesn't have the breast streaks of winter birds.

rear view of water pipit

Having finished with the northern lagoon Bernard and I walked into the fresh water area. Walking was necessary as the road was cut off by flood water over a short stretch.

little egret and western reef heron

There were plenty of both western reef heron as well as little egret around. In many cases they were mixed together. 

western reef heron

Some western reef heron and little egret are very difficult to tell apart especially if views are from a poor angle. I believe the bird above is a western reef heronIt's legs appear all yellow and although it's bill colour isn't clear, the bill shape looks too strong for a little egret.

great cormorant

One feature quite different from my last visit to Sebkhet Al Fasl three weeks before was the big increase in great cormorant numbers. There were at least 70 in the fresh and salt water areas.

purple swamphen

Once again it was easy to spot purple swamphen, moorhen, little grebe and coot. However, there was no sign this time of any black-necked grebe.

There was quite a bit of change with the warbler population at least in terms of the noise level. Both clamorous reed warbler and graceful prinia were much noisier. Two clamorous reed warbler were also seen out in the open. This is a sure sign the breeding season for both species is not far away.

graceful prinia

A single chiffchaff was the only other warbler seen.

white wagtail

Both water pipit and white wagtail were numerous and a single citrine wagtail was also observed. I wonder if it was the same bird as seen three weeks before. 

Likewise a single common starling may also have been the same one as last time.

marsh harrier

The cast of birds of prey consisted of four marsh harrier including one adult male and two greater spotted eagle. One was adult and the other immature.

young greater spotted eagle

This blog was recorded what was seen in Jubail up to noon on Friday. The next one looks at the afternoon.

Before we left the Sebkhet that afternoon, as well as seeing some other good birds, I had unexpectedly made a second addition to my Saudi list. I'll blog about this next.