Monday 31 October 2011

Lesser kestrel in the air

Lesser kestrel is reported in the Riyadh area but as an uncommon migrant .

10 days ago on October 20th, Tony saw a bird which he thought was a lesser kestrel flying over wadi hanifah. One of the bird photographers in the area, who I have begun to get to know quite well, took some photos. He showed them to Tony and it is confirmed the bird was indeed a lesser kestrel.

Since then Roy De Guzman Daantos, the bird photographer has kindly agreed to let me show three of the pictures of the lesser kestrel on this blog. I am grateful to him.

first picture of the lesser kestrel

From underneath, the rufous belly of this male bird is pretty much diagnostic, particularly if you have got good optics to show it off!

second picture of the lesser kestrel

different view of the lesser kestrel

With four bird photographers regularly spending time in the area, there is already a body of evidence on the birds of the Riyadh area and I am sure there will be many more exciting pieces of birding evidence to come.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Fodder fields east of Al Hayer

The last stop on our birding trip on Thursday was at a recently cut fodder field further downstream of the lagoons in wadi hanifah.

There are a dozen or more fodder fields in this area. All are watered by giant (up to 500 metre long) rotating water sprinklers. I know theses types of field well. Several government farms in Libya use the same system to put farms in unpromising locations including in the middle of desert. I also know the birding in them can be very, very good. 

blue-cheeked bee-eater on a wire next to a fodder field

The field we chose had been cut since my visit last week. Above it were two brown-necked raven flying but it was the smaller birds that caught our attention.

Scattered throughout the field were several blue-cheeked bee-eater on the ground jumping up every now and again to catch an insect. 

There was a flock of Indian silverbill in the bushes next to the field and a northern wheatear sheltering from the heat under another bush. There were also a few yellow wagtail foraging in the field.

However the  most interesting sight was a mobile mixed flock of small birds - alternating between foraging in the cut fodder and returning to the safety of one particular bush. At first sight it looked like the flock was just a mix of house sparrow and Indian silverbill.

streaked weaver next to a fodder field

However on closer inspection, the flock was more mixed and more interesting than that. We think there were one or two Spanish sparrow in the mix and there were definitely several streaked weaver!

Streaked weaver had been reported several years ago in the Riyadh area but some (of the very few people who comment on this area) had surmised it may have died out. Well it hasn't!

The bird photographers in the area have told me Ruppell's weaver, indigenous to east Africa, is a summer breeder here in very large numbers. It disappears, so they say, in September (and presumable migrates towards east Africa). However streaked weaver is an Indo-Malay bird and perhaps it doesn't migrate from Riyadh.  

All the weavers we saw looked like the one in the photo. It is like the female looks all year round but I understand that males outside the breeding season take on a similar look.

The moral of this story is look closer at your flocks of sparrows. You never know what you might find.

Saturday 29 October 2011

Finding new birds in the lagoons of Al Hayer

On Thursday, after visiting the area around the dam at Al Hayer, Tony and I moved on a few kilometres south east to a regular haunt. This was near the bird ringing project sign in the wadi hanifah valley.This is the only area I have found yet in the southern part of the valley which doesn't have total coverage by reed beds next to the water channels. There are several lagoons around here.

great white egret

As we approached the first lagoon (where I had seen a dunlin last week) we saw a great white egret on the water bank. This is the first time I have seen one here and it has previously been recorded as quite rare here.  Time will tell whether this is still the case.

little egret

Near-by, offering a good comparison, was a single little egret.

common sandpiper

The ever present moorhen scurried into the undergrowth but the lagoon kept up its record of providing me with a wader every time I visit. This time we saw a common sandpiper.

cattle egret with camel

A few metres away the local flock of cattle egret had found a herd of camel to associate with. Since there are no cattle in this area then clearly camels will do nicely.

adult night heron

Two or three weeks ago I had seen twenty or so juvenile black crowned night heron on a northern stretch of the river near the city outskirts. Here some 20 or 30 kilometres south we stumbled upon a dozen or so adults with a couple of first winter birds accompanying them. I think we may have woken them up as we searched a gully.

masked shrike

Shrikes were among the most prominent of the land birds in the area. I saw my first and later my second ever masked shrike. This is a bird  I failed to see during trips from my house in north east Bulgaria to southern Bulgaria where it spends the summer. This was my fourth lifer of the day.

Isabelline (durian) shrike

Both Isabelline shrike and Turkestan shrike are looking more common  than masked shrike at this time of year . Isabelline shrike  is probably the most common.  I am still waiting to see any lesser grey shrike or steppe grey shrike which have been reported from here in winter.

marsh harrier

Finally I can't leave writing about the lagoon area without mentioning the birds of prey. There were a small number of greater spotted eagle and possibly one other type. I thought one marsh harrier was very brave to try to mob one of the spotted eagle all on his own.

Friday 28 October 2011

The dam at Al Hayer

Yesterday I went out birding early with Tony an accomplished birder from the UK.  It was an early start which allowed for birding in three different locations. Each location will the subject of a separate blog over the coming days.

Our first stop was a visit to the dam in wadi Hanifah just west of the town of Al Hayer. It was no mean achievement in finding it. Its not on a road and required good map reading skills (primarily by Tony!) and a trek with no guarantee that we would actually find the place.

Having walked past a small quarry and a palm plantation we found ourselves in a stretch  of wadi hanifah valley. As we walked upstream to the hoped-for location of the dam we passed through bushes thronging with white cheeked bulbul and graceful prinia (the smaller bushes in its case).

The sides of the valley got taller as we progressed and became escarpments.

Eventually we could see the dam ahead. 

Persian wheatear

Though we came for the dam, it turned out most of our best birding was done on the flat land just below the escarpments and on the escarpments themselves.  One of our early sightings was a wheatear on dry semi-barren land at the edge of the valley underneath an escarpment. It was well away from the lush vegetation in the middle of the valley.

After fully 15 minutes viewing of a well behaved bird and later by looking at reference books on return we now know for sure it is a Persian wheatear - a lifer for both of us (although I have seen the closely related Kurdish wheatear before).  Most likely it will stay the winter though it could be on passage towards south west Arabia.

view from on the top of the dam looking upstream (north)

As I said we didn't really explore the lush areas. The dense reedbeds in many places and the rising temperatures made it look too daunting. I can tell you there were several grey heron and a few purple heron in the area. Moorhen were plentiful.

The area south of the dam is slightly less dense and has more varied vegetation and would certainly be worth a look at in the future.

However, we made do with the escarpments and edges of the valley.  Blackstart were numerous here. Tony also saw a blue rock thrush which unfortunately I missed.

blackstart near the dam

A couple of desert lark were seen at the top of a ridge. This was my first sighting of this bird in Saudi Arabia. 

sand partridge

At one stage a flock of perhaps up to 20 sand partridge scrambled up the hillside.  This was another lifer for me. The second of five during the day.

The third was a glimpse of a white breasted kingfisher which Tony saw first. It was flying within the lush vegetation south of the dam. The other two lifers will be discussed in the next two blogs! 

resting greater spotted eagle

Near the dam we saw the first of a number of greater spotted eagle (which my photography doesn't do justice to) which we saw at other sites as well during the day.

greater spotted eagle in flight

We saw it again at the lagoons several kilometres south east of the dam which was our next stop and the subject of the next blog.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Lagoons near Al Hayer

Today, I visited the lagoons near Al Hayer. They are about 15 kilometres further downstream of Wadi Hanifah (and its artificial Riyadh river) from the area I have previously visited.

The lagoons are actually the part of the wadi which are normally recommended for (the few) birders (who come to Riyadh ) to visit. So in a sense I have been holding back. Although, I have no regrets over birding the more upstream areas first.

Apart from the birds today, what was most surprising is that I bumped into three bird photographers and furthermore they told me that they had just seen another British birder.

This must surely be a record occurrence! 

Of my new acquaintances, I must thank Ahmed, the Saudi bird photographer in particular for showing me some of the best sites in the area.

a thirsty and hungry dunlin

The landscape here is different from upstream. The fast flowing river is replaced by a number of lagoons with slow moving water and narrow waterways. All of them seemed to be occupied by large numbers of moorhen

I was not surprised to see waders in this habitat but I was surprised that the first one I saw was a dunlin.  He is very lucky indeed to find water in the middle of the desert and so far from the coast. I know some dunlin will venture inland but this is in extreme. He was very thirsty and continually eating and drinking. I was very happy to see him fly off to another area after staying a good hour in one place. The short flight makes me think he will survive.

one of the "lagoons"

In the same lagoon, a little later, I came across a flock of five little ringed plover which some sources say even breed here.

little ringed plover

The same array of herons and egrets were seen as further up stream though  I was captivated by seeing cattle egret perched in numbers on three adjacent leafless trees.

cattle egret

I won't repeat focussing on all the passage or wintering birds I had seen before up stream either. However there were some new ones!

One was spotted crake. I accidentally flushed one when I unknowingly walked past it today. 

Isabelline shrike

I was pleased to see a couple of isabelline shrike (having seen Turkestan shrike before).  I don't know yet whether any of either will stay all winter.

white wagtail

On the road out of Riyadh  (on a well-water traffic island) I saw my first yellow wagtail since arriving here.  This was followed by sightings of white wagtail at the lagoons.


Another non breeding (I presume) visitor  was a sparrowhawk. This adds to my growing list of birds of prey seen in the area. A female marsh harrier was the only other one today though I did also see a family group of fan tailed raven (which is a "lifer" for me).

barn swallow

The final (presumed) visitor on passage or wintering were barn swallow. Though I have seen them before, this time they were present in very large numbers. They were attracted to a near-by alfalfa field which had been cut this morning.  I have seen this attraction many times before while in Libya.


Among the residents (camels excluded) my most notable achievement today was to get better photographs of Indian silverbill which seemed to be more common here than upstream. 

Indian silverbill

For a small bird they seem to have a lot of character.

Friday 14 October 2011

Birding Al Waha compound in Riyadh

Yesterday, I did my first birding on a compound. I am grateful to my friend Damian, a fellow teacher formerly in Libya for the invitation to his compound.

Al Waha is probably one of the smallest compounds in Riyadh and is at its north eastern edge. There is no permanent water feature (the swimming pool doesn't count) but there are plenty of trees and bushes as well as frequent watering of gardens.

My birding was relaxed, uninterrupted and expectant. Compounds are known to  act as magnets for many birds and I was expecting to see them!

hoopoe with insect at Al Waha

It was nice to see a hoopoe virtually at the  start of my afternoon's birding. I had seen one the week before at Wadi Hanifah. This one was more amenable to photography even though I had to track it for a few minutes before it finally settled at the edge of the compound.

a view of the compound

Possibly the most notable noise during the afternoon (with the exception of at dusk) is the constant chattering of bulbuls. There is a high density of white-cheeked bulbul and they are easy to see in gardens and open spaces - everywhere!
one of the many white-cheeked bulbul

However, while the most numerous, there weren't the only bulbul present on the compound. I saw single red-vented bulbul in two places (though I can't be sure it wasn't the same bird). Both times it was associating with the white-cheeked bulbul.  My assumption is there is no independent flock of them.

red-vented bulbul

The generally held wisdom among the few birders who have reported on Riyadh is both species were originally escapees or introduced. Personally I can believe that the white-cheeked bulbul could be the result of natural range expansion. Either way, I am really happy to have seen red-vented bulbul so soon on arrival in Riyadh. I don't know how common it is since previous reports vary all the way from "common" to "rare". 

house sparrow

Along with white-cheeked bulbul the most numerous bird on the compound was the house sparrow. It was also the noisiest as dusk approached though quite quiet in the day.

With so many house sparrow around you could be forgiven for missing any other LBJs (Little Brown Jobs) on the compound. However, once the sparrows moved off one tree en mass one LBJ stayed behind.

booted warbler

This warbler is a booted warbler. It has the characteristic "boots" - pink legs with darker feet. Other features include the overall brown or grey-brown on top, buff flanks to the underside and a dark tip to the beak.  It's most western population breeds in southern European Russia south to Iran. Although most birds are said to winter in India its not surprising to see one directly south of (and closer to) its breeding grounds now that these islands of green (compounds and parks ) exist in a former desert.

black bush robin

I had to smile when I saw a black bush robin on the lawn of one of the houses in the compound behaving similar to its distant cousin the blackbird. 

common myna

A pair of common myna made their presence felt by making a loud  noises often mimicking including what sounded like a parakeet. I was disappointed to see them rather than the "real thing". I am told rose ringed parakeet is common on the larger compounds especially the largest one of all - the diplomatic quarter - in the west of the city.

collared dove

I can't finish my report on the compound without mentioning the Eurasian collared dove. They were plentiful and breeding (even in October). Both African collared dove and Eurasian collared dove are found in Riyadh but my close up encounters here gives me confidence these were Eurasian. The obviously sandy wings were one factor.

breeding collared dove

Al Waha has whetted my appetite and I will certainly bird more compounds . You won't have to wait long.

Thursday 6 October 2011

A second look at Wadi Hanifah

The original plan this weekend was to go to Damman on the east coast but it had to be abandoned at the last minute. So at short notice I chose to have a second look locally at Wadi Hanifah.

I knew this would be a safe option as I didn't have enough time to view it properly last time as the temperatures soared and made me leave early. 

This time I decided I should take a closer look at the passerines which are mostly smaller birds. 

Since last week I have researched more on the birds of the area and  as a result I need to correct what I said last time about Riyadh being at the edge of the Western Palearctic area. In fact, strictly speaking its just beyond the edge and is near the north eastern edge of the Afro-tropical region. Its also very close to the Indo-Malay region too. Its a sort of east meets west meets south for birds. This explains why many of my new finds are in the accidentals, vagrants and introductions sections at the very back of my trusted Collins Bird Guide which covers the Western Palearctic.

I have tracked down one copy of Helms "Birds of the Middle East"  to one store in Riyadh which is holding it for me. Lets see whether I can get my hands on it tonight.

Meanwhile, I am going to blog about today's sightings at Wadi Hanifah and for the most part I won't report on the same birds I saw last week .

The first of the new ones is Namaqua Dove. It is surprising I missed it last week because it was fairly common this week. I saw a nice group of three juveniles first and then several adults including the pair below. Collins guide describes them as shy but that wasn't my observation. I have only seen one once before and that was fleetingly in Senegal.

male and female Namaqua dove
It was 8 degrees cooler this Thursday compared with last which gave me more chance to see the smaller birds however it had still reached 31C when I left and the bird activity had dropped off.  The cooler temperatures allowed me to appreciate this remarkable setting.

part of wadi Hanifah south of Riyadh

All the egrets and herons were there again and were more active in the more amenable temperatures but I won't detail them as I didn't spend any time following them this week.

grey heron flying overhead

Getting back to the smaller birds, I was pleased to pick out a small number of blue cheeked-bee-eater among the bee-eaters. Last week I only identified little green bee-eater. The latter is definitely a known local breeding bird. It will take me a couple of seasons of watching to determine the status of the blue-cheeked bee-eater. Who knows some of them may breed locally too though passage and wintering may be more likely.

first year blue-cheeked bee-eater today at Wadi Hanifah

Incidentally its nearly three years since I last saw one (in Azerbaijan) where they are quite common in summer. 

little green bee-eater seen today

There is no mistaking it for the little green bee-eater.

common myna

Another passerine I didn't see last week is common myna. I came upon a large but loose flock quite early on.  This bird is spreading from eastward from its Indo-Malay base all through the Middle East. In many places its believed they are local populations are the result of escaped birds but Riyadh is close enough to their naturally expanded range for this to be debatable.

house sparrow

Talking of Indo-Maaly birds, I have read from authoritative sources that Indian silverbill is now found in some parts of Saudi Arabia. I made a specially effort to find it. I assumed it behaved similarly to the African silverbill I had seen in Senegal.  However for most of the morning I was rewarded in my search in likely spots with flocks of house sparrow

Indian silverbill

However, my patience paid off, I didn't see a flock but I did sight two in the reeds of one of the larger lakes. This turned out to be my only "Lifer" today.

Isabelline wheatear

More than half a dozen types of wheatear have seen in the area. however I raised my total to two following a couple of separate sightings of isabelline wheatear. Their sand coloured plumage makes them very difficult to pick out.

willow warbler

I felt more at home (and indeed more like birding in Libya) when I came across a willow warbler in some scrub. I wonder if they winter here or whether the bird was still on passage. In Libya willow warbler don't winter (though chiffchaff do in their thousands), but Riyadh is warmer and further south.

I tried hard to find other passerines. Each time I heard "reed warblers" they moved off before I could ID them and I chased what was probably a scrub warbler around in two separate places. I can't claim them however.  There has always got to be a challenge for next time.

Before I move on from the smaller birds, I must report I saw several green sandpiper near the water's edge and one hoopoe in the most southerly area I visited today.

booted eagle

Though I was looking out for smaller birds I didn't pass up the opportunity to inspect two booted eagle which passed over-head. Along with a kestrel also seen today, my list of birds of prey here is slowly getting longer.