Wednesday 30 November 2011

The changing cast back in September (and later)

Tonight's blog looks at some birds found at Al Hayer in September but excludes waders which were shown yesterday. The pictures have been released to me by Abdullah Amrou and once again I am very grateful for his generosity.

European reed warbler

Wadi Hanifah is one of the most southerly places in the world for breeding European reed warbler. I understand there a few breeding birds further south, on the Gulf coast of UAE. The local breeders in the wadi have been recorded as being of the sub species fuscus. This is the sub species normally found in the Middle East. However, Abdullah's bird looks like scirpaceus (nominate) to me.  

The local European reed warbler migrates to an uncertain destination but probably East Africa in late September. There are doubtless some passage birds heading through Wadi Hanifah at the same time. Maybe Abdullah's bird is a passage bird considering its look.

Indian silverbill

By contrast Indian silverbill are ever present there.

northern wheatear

During September, the first northern wheatear arrive on passage. I am not convinced any of them stay all winter but I will keep an eye out.

Isabelline wheatear

Isabelline wheatear arrive at the same time. Actually a few of these do stay all winter. The situation with these two birds is similar to what I found in Eastern Libya where a few Isabelline wheatear wintered north of the Sahara but I never saw a northern wheatear do the same. 

citrine wagtail

Citrine wagtail, white wagtail, and yellow wagtail all arrive in Wadi hanifah in September. White wagtail winters in large numbers here. However I have seen no evidence of any yellow wagtail wintering here (yet!). Citrine wagtail numbers are lower than the other two so any wintering birds might easily be missed. 

Turkestan shrike

The first Turkestan shrike arrive in September too.  I have seen that fair proportion stay at least until now (end of November)


Resident hoopoe are supplemented by wintering birds.


Mallard is also resident and is supplemented by wintering birds. However while wintering hoopoe start to arrive in September, extra wintering mallard don't seem to appear until mid November.

black crowned night heron in September

Both black crowned night heron and little bittern are local breeders and the former is supplemented by more birds in the autumn. The latter may also be supplemented.

little bittern

It is seriously below the seasonal average temperature in Riyadh at moment and is forecasted to remain so for the next week or so. I wonder whether these two birds will stay or make a late bid to go further south this year.

Marsh harrier

Finally I am self confessed to be poor at identifying some birds of prey without multiple pictures and views! Abdullah gave me this one picture from September and I presume it's a marsh harrier

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Flashback to September - the waders

Abdullah Amrou has once again released some of his photos for the blog. This time they were taken in September and early October in Al Hayer, central Saudi Arabia. This is, of course, the main autumn passage time. I will show a selection of these photos over the next two blogs.  

Please visit Abdullah's flickr account for more birds:

Today's blog covers the waders that Abdullah photographed. The first bird is a ruff.  Tom Tarrant who birded here in the early 1990s says he saw the bird in every month except January, February, June and July. This data is consistent with it being a passage bird which doesn't stay through mid winter. It is known to winter in south west Arabia and the Oman coast. Al Hayer, Wadi Hanifah is en route to both of these places.  

ruff at Al Hayer presumed on passage

Abdullah's next two birds are apparently common on passage but evidence suggests (including my own observations) that a minority of these birds stay all winter.  These are common sandpiper and common snipe.  You may remember that Abdullah and I have seen both birds over the last ten days or so.

common sandpiper

From my own experience common snipe is only found in an exposed position like in Abdullah's photograph when it is on passage or having just arrived at its wintering grounds.

common snipe

Apart from black winged stiltlittle ringed plover is the only "wader" which is absolutely proven to currently breed along Wadi Hanifah. They have been seen all year round too and it is assumed the local breeders are resident.  

little ringed plover

Monday 28 November 2011

Flashback to summer - part 2

This is the second batch of pictures of birds provided by Abdullah Amrou from Al Hayer and taken in June and July this year. I am indebted to Abdullah for allowing me to show them.

As I have said before, I am particularly interested in where his records for these months add to the collective understanding of breeding birds in the area.

The best start is to look at Michael Jennings article in Sandgrouse magazine in 2004 called "The breeding birds of central Arabia 1978-2003".

ferruginous duck

The Sandgrouse article says two ducks breed near Al Hayer and these are same two - ferruginous duck and mallard duck that Abdullah snapped this summer. 

mallard duck

The other most obvious water bird in all seasons is moorhen. This is a common breeder in the area as acknowledged in several sources.

young moorhen

I personally saw black winged stilt at Al Hayer for the first time last Thursday. The Sandgrouse article says it is a local breeder and resident.  All the evidence supports this too.

black winged stilt

White throated kingfisher is a local breeder which another bird photographer, Ahmed, has filmed in its nest (a hole in a sandbank) with young. This was not known in 2004 in the Sandgrouse article but was a correct future prediction in it. 

white throated kingfisher

An unlikely breeder in the area is green sandpiper and it is unmentioned even as a possibility in the Sandgrouse article. Tom Tarrant's observations from the early 1990s state that that he saw green sandpiper in every month except July. The best assumption is that this bird is a non-breeder but it could easily have stayed all summer.

green sandpiper

One bird which Michael Jennings was unduly pessimistic about as a local breeder is streaked weaver. He suggested it may have died out as breeder or at least gone into steep decline since the early 1990s. However I have seen many birds and tens of old nests. However the bird did have to survive a fire in one of its most densely populated areas at the end of this summer according to Abdullah. It is clearly still numerous though. 

male streaked weaver

graceful prinia

Another bird which has multiplied locally in recent years is graceful prinia. It is a recognised breeder from the late 1980s but is now very common. 

namaqua dove

Namaqua dove is also a recognised common local breeder.

barn swallow

One of the most interesting photographs for me is of a barn swallow. The Sandgrouse article doesn't look at the possibility of barn swallow breeding at Al Hayer though it acknowledges that a few red-rumped swallow do breed. I will probably have to wait until next summer to find out the truth.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Flashback to summer - the herons

A couple of days ago I asked Abdullah Amrou if he would send me some pictures of the birds of the Al Hayer area in June and July this year. I am very pleased to say that he obliged.

I was interested to see if he could shed any new light on breeding birds in the area. 

Tonight I want to share with you some of his pictures on the heron family. 

purple heron

Abdullah has pictures of purple heron, squacco heron and little bittern in breeding plumage.

squacco heron in breeding plumage

Squacco heron, black crowned night heron, and purple heron are reported in a Sandgrouse article by Michael Jennings in 2004 called "The breeding birds of Central Arabia 1978-2003" as sharing a breeding colony in the Al Hayer area.  Little bittern is also a known local breeder. The Helms guide "Birds of the Middle East" reports the same four heron family breeders in the area. 

Incidentally both sources have a question mark over whether cattle egret breed in the area.

little bittern

For me, the most intriguing set of pictures by Abdullah are of little egret at Al Hayer during these months. This is because neither the Helms guide or the Sandgrouse article suggests it breeds there.

little egret in summer at Al Hayer

Tom Tarrant made good records in the early 1990s.  He notes that little egret  are common throughout the year but he stopped short of claiming they breed there.  

Abdullah pictures of little egret at Al Hayer during the summer months add weight to Tom Tarrant's circumstantial evidence that it may breed there.

The numbers of cattle egret in the Al Hayer area have grown from small flocks in Tom's day to large ones today. Abdullah and I believe there may be up to 400 present at this moment in November.  There is still no concrete proof that they breed there. However, the reeds are so dense, wide and long that a cattle egret colony could easily go unnoticed.

Finally Abdullah Amrou hasn't sent me any pictures of grey heron in the summer months supporting the Helms guide and the Sandgrouse article's position on its non breeding status.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Winter has arrived in central Arabia

As I have said in the last couple of blogs, one of the main reasons for going out birding on Thursday was to see if the sudden onset of winter had affected the mix of birds in the area.

Temperatures have dipped to afternoon highs of "only" around 18-19C.

Has any new influx of birds from the north occurred or have any birds left for the south?

masked shrike

Some of the obvious candidates to check if they have left for warmer climes are the shrikes. Helms guide says masked shrike winters in small numbers in south west Arabia and by implication not elsewhere in the region. Yet I have being seeing significant numbers here in central Arabia. Have they moved on? Well the short answer is no. 

first winter Isabelline (Durian) shrike

Of course the second candidates to look for were the red tailed shrikes (both species) which have been abundant at Al Hayer until now. This bird is described as scarce in winter in Southern Iran, Iraq and Arabia in the Helms guide to "birds of the Middle East." It is shown as passage only in the map in the Collins guide to "birds of Britain and Europe". 

However, once again this bird is unmoved and still wintering here in numbers.

The bird above is probably an Isabelline shrike not Turkestan shrike. It's difficult to tell the two first winter birds apart but the mask in Isabelline shrike is much lighter than in Turkestan shrike at this age.

steppe grey shrike

The bird in great grey shrike complex which is most probably steppe grey shrike was also still noticeable.

So the group of birds I thought was most vulnerable to a cold snap has not moved on.

mallard at dawn

One bird which has probably been affected is mallard. Duck numbers have definitely increased in the past week. Even though mallard is a summer breeder in small numbers here, tens of mallard seem to have arrived from the north. They are distributed thinly in small groups along the Riyadh river.

The picture above was taken just after dawn by Abdullah Amrou on Thursday.

newly sown field seen last week as bare looking earth

The large flock of northern lapwing seen last week were still in the same area moving between the various fodder fields but homing in on those which are newly planted.  There is currently no incentive these birds to move back north!

part of the northern lapwing flock

The number of osprey in the wadi has increased to three this week. It's difficult to say whether this induced by the weather but it is consistent with it.

osprey in the wadi

Of the larger birds, I saw my first two black winged stilt in central Arabia but Abdullah assures me they are present all year round.

Meanwhile the passerine winterers continue to show.

white wagtail at Al Hayer

I seem to be seeing white wagtail almost everywhere there is a hint of green now.


I am able to pick out stonechat more readily too.They really seem to like being on the pivot water sprinklers in the fields.


The cooler temperatures are encouraging the warblers to be more active throughout the day. In particular chiffchaff can be seen in many more bushes than I have noticed before.

same chiffchaff from the back

I am now very confident that bluethroat is a common wintering bird. Each time I go out I see a number on reeds at the water margins.


The biggest disappointment with the change of weather is that I still haven't seen any grey hypocolius. This is one bird which is known to come south to central Arabia during cold spells. Maybe I have been looking in the wrong habitat?

 clouded butterfly

Finally, on Thursday, I noticed a lot of yellow butterflies which a quick look at google tells me are a type of clouded yellow butterfly. I have good intentions to take up butterfly identification as well as birding maybe this will spur me on.  

Friday 25 November 2011

Swifts and martins in the air

The temperature in Riyadh has dropped 10 C in the past week. The central Arabian "winter" is now official. I had hoped that this would bring an extra set of birds down from eastern Syria and central Iraq where it has even been around freezing at night in places.

I also wanted to see if any birds from here had moved on further south.

So with this in mind I went to Al Hayer yesterday.

Soon after I arrived I met up with Abdullah Amrou who is an excellent bird photographer.

Abdullah had been there since 4.30 in the morning whereas I arrived at 7.45. We overlapped our birding for an hour and a half until Abdullah retired home.

In that short time we saw a relatively large number of swifts and martins overhead.

pallid swift over Al Hayer

There are resident pallid swift in the Riyadh area. However many of the more northerly pallid swift in the Middle East are believed to move south for a short winter away if it gets cold. 

(By the way this reminds me of the winter habits of pallid swift in Tripoli, Libya - Collins guide has them as resident but actually they leave in November and come back in February).

We don't normally see Riyadh's own pallid swift flying as high in the air as the birds we saw yesterday. So I wonder if the birds we saw were new migrants brought down south by the weather change. 

I had to admire Abdullah's camera work. Swifts are aptly named and he struggled to capture one on film but he got one in the end!

Rock martin

In with the pallid swift were a few rock martin (alternative name African rock martin).

Incidentally in this case I could only tell they are not crag martin by the lack of contrast between the under-wing covert and the rest of the under-wing.

This bird is not known to migrate and they are a known resident in this area.

Tomorrow I'll look at some of our other observations yesterday particularly in the context of whether the weather change has affected the mix of birds locally.

Finally, please remember to visit Abdullah's flickr account to see more of his pictures at

Thursday 24 November 2011

Common snipe at Al Hayer

I have been enjoying a Thanksgiving celebration with American friends this evening which has limited my blogging time.  However, I have snatched a few minutes to show you one of the birds the wildlife photographer  Abdullah Amrou snapped at Al Hayer today.

Abdullah started birding at 4.30 this morning and got the rewards he deserved.  I'll blog about his findings and mine in more detail tomorrow. In the meantime, the bird in question was common snipe.

We had had a conversation about two weeks ago that it should be found in the wet ground adjacent to the main Riyadh river. And sure enough that is exactly where Abdullah found one which had become disturbed by a bird of prey overhead. Abdullah tells me if the bird hadn't moved he would never have noticed it.

straight on view of today's common snipe

Tom Tarrant's records for the early 1990s  describe the bird as common especially in winter and Helms guide says its a passage bird or winterer throughout the region. In some ways its surprising we haven't seen it before.

side on view of the common snipe

There is much more to say about today in following blogs!

Wednesday 23 November 2011

The status of red backed shrike in central Arabia

Since starting work in Riyadh in late September, I have seen four species of shrike in the Al Hayer area. They are Turkestan shrike, Isabelline (Durian) shrike, masked shrike and a member of the great grey shrike complex which is most probably steppe grey shrike.

Two other shrikes which are found here at certain times of the year are red backed shrike and lesser grey shrike.

Roy de Guzman Daantos has shown me more of his wildlife photographs and there are pictures of red backed shrike taken near Al Hayer.  He tells me that his photos were all taken in October this year. This species is almost certainly only found on passage here.

So even though I missed seeing any red backed shrike during the passage, one of the other sets of eyes in the area didn't.

red backed shrike taken by Roy

Some of the pictures in October were of juvenile shrikes.  I am used to seeing juvenile red backed shrike in Bulgaria. 

juvenile red backed shrike at Al Hayer in October

However I have to be very careful here because identification of juvenile shrikes is difficult and the options here are considerable for birds seen in the autumn. For example it not easy to separate some young Turkestan shrike from red backed shrike and both are possibilities here. The bird shown has a distinctly redder back than a young Turkestan shrike and its mask is not developed enough for it to be a vagrant brown shrike the so I am confident about its identification as red backed.

second view of a red backed shrike

One of the pictures of a juvenile shrike that Roy sent me doesn't look completely right for red backed shrike. It was taken at the same time as the others and is shown below.

The bird gives an overall impression of grey but doesn't have a red tail. It doesn't easily fit the standard for any of the shrikes. I have looked hard at the Collins and helms guides so I will just leave it as unidentified.

unidentifed juvenile shrike 

I have a tentative picture of the status of shrikes in the central Arabia area which is slowly becoming clearer. Below is my view of the status of the various species. I have taken into account Tom Tarrant's records from the early 1990s, the Helms guide to the Middle East, the local wildlife photographers' snaps and my own observations. 

In general it appears shrikes are more common at more times of the year in central Arabia than the Middle East guide gives credit. here is my latest view:

Red-backed Shrike, Lanius collurio
Relatively common passage bird in March and October often staying for 1 or 2 days before leaving. 

Isabelline Shrike and Turkestan shrike, Lanius isabellinus and Lanius phoenicuroides These two red tailed shrike are the most abundant shrikes here (at least for part of the year). Many are on passage but quite a few winter too.

Lesser Grey Shrike, Lanius minor
Rather less abundant than the previous species but there are fair numbers presumably breeding in the Riyadh area, between May and September.

Steppe Grey Shrike, Lanius pallidirostris present throughout year, some breeding with extra birds present in winter.

Woodchat Shrike, Lanius senator
Rather uncommon passage bird usually in March and September.

Masked Shrike, Lanius nubicus
Uncommon but more abundant than previous species. Birds pass through Riyadh area in April and October. A very few stay the winter.