Thursday 29 September 2011

A very hot (but very enjoyable) day at Wadi Hanifah, Riyadh

I have been in Saudi Arabia for over a week now. Work is settling down and today has been my first chance to go bird watching.

The birding website called has two recommended places to visit in the Riyadh area and for want of better knowledge I chose one of them to visit today.

I was very excited when I got into my taxi at 7am this morning. Riyadh is in the middle of a desert on the very edge of the bird zone known as the western palearctic and I was looking forward to finding out what this would mean.

a lake at wadi Hanifah

I chose to visit the so-called "Riyadh river" which runs through wadi Hanifah. Its actually treated water from the city's main water treatment works but it is well-processed and quite clean. The river apparently runs for over 50 kilometres and is getting longer as the city grows and more water is used by the citizens.

little green bee-eater at wadi Hanifah

The result is a narrow but verdant valley over 1000 kilometres from the next nearest permanent river. I had expected it to be a magnet for local, passage and wintering birds. It certainly looks like that this is the case.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. The only thing that stopped me was the intense heat which built up during the morning until it reached the high 30's C by midday. This was time to pack up but later in the year it will be easier.

the river downstream (south) of the lake area 

As soon as I arrived, some birds were immediately noticeable. There are tens of little green bee-eater. My assumption is that this is a local breeding bird

white cheeked bulbul

Another of the most obvious local birds is the white-cheeked bulbul which apparently is extending its range westward. This noisy bird was everywhere in small flocks where there was any type of cover from trees to reeds.
laughing dove

As in the city itself, laughing dove is common here and is another local breeder.

crested lark

Crested lark is the probably the bird I see most during my birding travels - I have seen it  into Libya, Bulgaria, Morocco and Senegal. It didn't take me long to see it in Sadui Arabia too! Actually I heard it's melancholic call first. One difference here is that it seems surprisingly less tame than in the other places.

African collared  dove

Another of the birds I think is a likely local breeder and seems quite common in the wadi is the African collared dove. It looks subtly different from the Eurasian collared dove I used to see in Libya. My immediate gut reaction was that this was not the same and looking in my Collins and on google has verified my reaction.

moorhen on one of the lakes

Once again moorhen has proved itself one of the most versatile birds. It was common in Libya whenever there was non-saline water and could tolerate heat there and some eutrophication. Likewise here in the hottest of places. It is obviously common here. I spotted it in five or six places on the river.

black bush robin

The final bird in my collection of birds which I saw and am quite confident are local breeders is the black bush robin. I have only even seen this in Senegal before. 

There is also at least one type of "reed warbler" which is likely to be local. However it evaded a close look this time. Riyadh's geography is fascinating on this issue. Are the warblers like those of southern Iraq or the Nile? 

Unlike the birds that I have already mentioned I cannot be certain the rest that follow are local breeders. Some may be and other definitely aren't. For those that may be I'll have to observe them during spring.

cattle egret

One of those birds which may be local is cattle egret. There were a few seen in the northern stretches of the river. Today they were often associating with some little egret who likewise may (or may not) be local breeders. 

little egret

The heron and egret family were very well represented and in significant numbers. Along with cattle egret and little egret, they were also several purple heron, grey heron and black crowned night heron. I also saw one squacco heron which I failed to photograph. All of these birds may be wintering, passage or local. Time will tell me.

purple heron

Purple heron seemed to be nearly as numerous as the grey heron.

grey heron

All the black crowned night heron I saw today were juveniles. there were more of them than the purple heron and grey heron combined together. Fascinating!

one of a large number of black crowned night heron

Another bird which may or may not be local is barn swallow and there were hundreds here along with a small number of red rumped swallow. There were all feasting on insects and in no apparent hurry to move on.

The next two birds are definitely not local. The first one a Turkestan shrike gave me much excitement. It is a lifer for me. I presume it was on passage but it was very showy. I have plenty of photos of it to enjoy at my leisure.

My first even Turkestan shrike

The other bird didn't so much excite me but it did make me think for a while. I knew it was a wheatear but it took me a long time to decide it was a northern  wheatear (on passage or wintering). It has a bigger black eared area than most northern wheatear but doesn't fit as a black-eared wheatear because the degree of buff -orange on the breast is too great. It is also too grey on the crown and back.

northern wheatear

Fatbirder's (at write-up on the wadi says that birds of prey are common here including eagles at times. However, the only bird of prey I saw was a single ringed tailed harrier. Furthermore, it was too far way for me to narrow its ID down.

distant shot of a ringed tailed harrier

There is no doubt I will visit wadi Hanifah many times more in the coming months. I know I have only just skimmed the surface of its bird life. The big question is: does Riyadh have any where else that can come close. We shall soon know.

Monday 19 September 2011

Five minute birding at the Topkapi, Istanbul

I visited Istanbul last week. This was to obtain a visa and I spent a lot of time in the mornings at or around the Saudi consulate to that end. 

By a great coincidence, some weeks ago, my sister and niece had booked a holiday in Istanbul. So we were able to meet up a few times.

On Wednesday, we visited the Topkapi together which I had last visited about 10 years ago.

Hagia Sohhia, Istanbul last week

Istanbul is in the middle of a heatwave very similar to Varna. The summer along the western Black sea coast is showing no sign of ending. Walking around old buildings is a hot affair but many hundreds were in the Topkapi alongside us.

the middle gate to the Topkapi

We toured the treasury (full of gifts and possessions of the sultans' family)  and other pavilions. 

At the end of the viewing, I could n't avoid the temptation to get my camera out for 5 minutes spontaneous birding. It really was only 5 minutes and I also didn't have any binoculars. I have named this "speed birding".

I have a hunch that the Topkapi would make a superb place for "proper" bird watching . The grounds are wooded and surrounded on two sides by water - the sea of Marmora and the Golden Horn. It's slap bang in the middle of the fly route which makes the shortest crossing of sea between Europe and Asia. Many thousands if not millions of birds funnel into this area and fly through during the passage. Some must stop over.

However there is one slight problem for bird watchers. Most of the grounds (and nearly all the wooded area) are out of bounds for tourists and birders. We can only glimpse and imagine what there is.

a bedraggled looking hooded crow in the Topkapi close to the ticket office

Almost all the tourists must notice the resident hooded crow. They are very tame and will walk close without flinching. 

probable young yellow legged gull

As I only snatched 5 minutes of birding time, I didn't manage to identify all the birds as I went along. at the time, I though the gull was a yellow legged gull. And on return to my computer and books I am sticking with this view although I think the legs are too green and light for an adult bird. I think it could be a 3 year old. I would have gone for common gull but the eyes aren't dark so I'm sticking with the opinion I had at the time.  

laughing dove in the Topkapi

There were no such identification problems with the other large bird present. Istanbul was the first place in Europe outside the Caucasus where the laughing dove has expanded into. The Topkapi grounds clearly have many of them these days. 

house sparrow

Of the smaller birds, of course house sparrow is present. The one above looks to be a first year male who is just beginning to develop his black bib.

red breasted fly catcher

However it the sighting of a red breasted flycatcher which pleased me most in the five minutes of birding. This is almost certainly a passage bird and is a marker for all the other passage birds which were probably present in the Topkapi at the same time. It gave quite a display as its chosen tree to return to after fly catching was leafless.

red backed shrike

The final bird featuring in my "speed" birding was a young red backed shrike. I had trouble identifying the shrike because it kept in the dark on more sheltered branches than a typical bird. Indeed it flew off into a bush rather than perch on the side of it. In fact this type of behaviour is more typical of a masked shrike. I would dearly have loved it to have been one too. However in the end I have concluded its lack of any white flash on the wing and the strong vermiculation classify it as red backed. My guess is it was just shy of the very larger number of people close-by. This would also mark it out as a passage bird. If it had been there all summer I'm sure it would have been tamer.

My next birding reports should be fromn Saudi Arabia.  How easy the birding is will be known soon!

Sunday 4 September 2011

A glimpse of the passage

I'm back in birding mode again following my enforced break for most of late August. Today I strolled around the Rogachevo area near the Black Sea regretting among other birding things  that I had missed part of the migration season.

However, even from my two hour stroll (a glimpse) of the action, I could tell there is plenty more migration left to do.

There is no doubt that the swallows and martins are here later this year in bigger numbers. Last year they had pretty much all disappeared from my locality by September 5th. Many have left this year too but a fair few still remain. These include a nest full of house martin at Elbarr, Rogachevo where I normally take my Sunday lunch.

house martin still in nest in Rogachevo

More than half the barn swallow and house martin on Elbarr had a second brood this year and the house martin family is the last one still nesting.

barn swallow and house martin which are still here

In Rogachevo I saw local house martin, barn swallow and red rumped swallow still here. The summer may have started late but it is lingering longer than last year.

two marsh harrier - left is male, right is female or juvenile

Although I didn't see any eagles, to my great satisfaction there was a steady stream of birds of prey moving south. To my considerable surprise there was a very loose flock of marsh harrier. The big majority were male. This delighted me because when I was in Libya I saw nearly totally females and juveniles. I have not heard about it or read about it but my own experience is the sexes do different things at different times outside the breeding season. 

The loose flock as I have described it flew over the village in ones, twos and threes over the whole period I was watching often with tenor fifteen minute gaps. Does this count as a flock?     I have seen this sort of behaviour before with Eleanora's falcon on spring return in north west Libya.

one of the male marsh harrier

Another picture of the same bird is shown below, It has lost a couple of tail feathers, possibly due to shooting.

second picture of the same marsh harrier

There were other birds of prey making their way south. One that caught my eye is the bird below which I believe is a steppe buzzard. These are only really seen in Bulgaria on the Black Sea coast which is the western extremity worldwide of their passages routes. I used to see this bird on passage when I was birding in Azerbaijan too.

probable steppe buzzard

As for other passage birds there are still huge numbers of bee-eater passing though although my favourite spot of a passage today was a single thrush nightingale in the bushes alongside my walk track. Unfortunately it beat the camera but was a pleasure nevertheless.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Late August at home

For once bird watching took a back seat most of the time in late August. I had many domestic jobs to do which I won't bore you with. I did manage one or two walks around my local area though.

Of course late August is the height of the autumn passage and its a shame i haven't really seen it in depth. Just like in Libya (but in September and early October there as it is further south) , spotted flycatcher are everywhere.

They breed locally but the local birds tend to be inside woods. However the passage birds seem to use almost any cover they can find. Much more exposed trees and bushes have had them over the last couple of weeks. 

spotted flycatcher in tree near Rogachevo

Another bird which has been here in extremely large numbers is red-backed shrike. Unlike with spotted flycatcher, I can't tell which are local birds and which are from further north on passage. Both sets inhabit every bit of shrub available.

red-backed shrike near Rogachevo

The main passage of eagles takes place along the Bulgarian Black sea coast between about 20 August and 25 August.  The booted eagle below was earlier than that. I saw this one a few days before from my garden.

booted eagle seen from my garden

Very large numbers of bee-eater have passing through since about August 23rd and are still passing through. The local bee-eaters tend to keep to the bottom part of the Klimentvo-Albena valley near General Kantardjievo so I am pretty confident all the ones I see in my village are passage.

passage bee-eater in Klimentovo

Similarly I think I can pick out passage golden oriole. There have been plenty passing through my village in recent days though the numbers are thinning out now. Like the spotted flycatcher they tend to rest more in the open than the local birds. The one below was on a small bush next to one of my village roads about 7 days ago. it was not alone either.

resting golden oriole in Klimentovo

The recently ploughed fields have been thick with yellow wagtail. Pretty much all have been passage birds. Although I have checked in the last few days the local fledegg sub subspecies have been in their usual haunts.

The one below seen in a field is from one of the more northerly sub species judging by its supercilium. Feldegg's don't have one at al! I think its probably flava found in central Europe and the most common sub species. 

passage yellow wagtail near Klimentovo

At a local water trough a family of  feldegg didn't look in any hurry to leave when I saw them last week. We have had a very hot end to the summer which will probably delay many local birds from leaving. 

local feldegg yellow wagtail

The local corn bunting have formed themselves a mobile flock just like the ones I used to see wintering in Libya. I'm not sure about their behaviour in winter. Certainly there are corn bunting in my area in winter but whether the local ones go south and are replaced by wintering northern birds I don't know.

part of a large flock of corn bunting near Klimentovo

What I can tell you is that the black headed bunting left for India by the third week of August. They really don't stay very long do they?

large mixed flock, mostly house martin 

As I write this today the village's house martin, barn swallow and red rumped swallow are still around. They are madly eating. Last year they left around Sept 5th so they won't be here much longer. Today's cooler weather (after a prolonged hot spell) might just trigger a move. I always find their movement south a bit depressing. To me a swallow really does make a summer.

Not all birds leave of course and plenty of Russian birds like fieldfare will come to stay here for the winter. Among the many species that will stay are the collared dove.

collared dove on the edge of my village

When I look out of the house just before dusk they has recently been more than a 50% chance that I will see a little owl on the roof of a deserted house further down my road. I have seen little owl in another part of the village but it wasn't until the beginning of August that this one popped up so close to me and it has stayed. I wont be surprised if he follows the same routine all through the year.
little owl in my street!

Now that my  domestic issues are sorted I look forward to more birding! 

bee-eater, red backed shrike and turtle dove sharing the same wire