Thursday 10 November 2011

Southern reaches of Wadi Hanifah

Yesterday was beautiful back in Riyadh , too beautiful. It was 20 C by mid morning and the sun was shining. I decided to go to my most regular spot on Wadi Hanifah south east of Al Hayer.  However, because the weather was so good, the area had attracted picnickers and fishermen.  After birding a while with thin pickings, I decided to move a little further south near the fodder fields. It was a good choice.

Great grey shrike or steppe grey shrike ?

My first exciting find was a member of the great grey shrike complex on a thinly vegetated rocky hillock next to the first fodder field I investigated. The only previous time I had seen one "from the east" was on passage in Azerbaijan four years ago. The one near Riyadh yesterday was a first winter bird.

When I was in Libya I found that the supposed sub species of the great grey shrike complex were not consistent with what I saw. See my blog posting a year ago on "the mysterious shrikes of Libya". 

Could it be happening again?  Tom Tarrant who birded in the early 1990s in Riyadh says in his records that he saw "great grey shrike" all year round and that they were probably steppe grey shrike (pallidirostris). Well this is the first one I have seen and it it may well be a steppe grey shrike!  Certainly its not the much darker aucheri  which is hypothesised to be here. 

You have to remember the Riyadh area is newly green and it is being populated from the east (eg Indian silverbill, white cheeked bulbul), the west (eg little green bee-eater) and so why not from the north too (eg steppe grey shrike). 

Turkestan shrike seen yesterday

For the record, In the folder field area there are also Turkestan shrike and Isabelline (durian) shrike at the moment. Masked shrike seems to prefer the more shaded areas a couple of kilometres north.

desert wheatear next to fodder field

Next to a fodder field I saw quite a bit of wheatear activity. In one place there were two different wheatear. I was particularly pleased to see a desert wheatear. It is a known  wintering bird but has been said to be not common in the Riyadh area. I wonder if the increased vegetation and cover will persuade some of them to stay over during the summer? Don't be fooled by the name. The white crowned wheatear is the true wheatear of the desert!

Isabelline wheatear next to fodder field

The second wheatear in the same spot was Isabelline wheatear


Inspecting the cross bars of the enormous (up to 200 metres long) industrial water sprinklers reaped benefits yesterday!  I saw my first stonechat in the Riyadh area. It looked like a variegatus (by the amount of white in the tail) if so its come from the Caspian sea area presumably for the winter.

blue-cheeked bee-eater

Plenty of blue-cheeked bee-eater around and almost certainly wintering. The female above was also resting on a sprinkler.

squacco heron

More surprisingly I saw a squacco heron on another sprinkler in another field. On the same sprinkler a few metres way was a resting kestrel too.


While walking from the fodder  fields towards the river I bumped into Abdullah who is one of the four bird photographers who often frequent the same area of the wadi as me. Together we saw a large flock of streaked weaver. They are clearly more abundant than I had thought. Abdullah told me that there are a much smaller number of Ruppell's weaver in the area too and contrary to what I had previously been told they don't migrate. I just have'n't seen one here yet. 

streaked weaver

The weavers were darting between  the fodder field and the protection of near-by reeds. Incidentally at the other end of the field near reeds I glimpsed two great white egret. A little bittern flew over the reeds too.

After this, we moved on and Abdullah showed me a lake which can only be accessed through a farm. Luckily Abdullah knows the farmer and has permission to enter.  

As we arrived, a white throated kingfisher was present on the far bank. It didn't stay long enough for me to photograph it. Both Abdullah and Ahmed told me that the bird is present all year. Indeed Ahmed has pictures of the kingfisher and young inside a nest in a sand bank!

hidden lake

Abdullah told me there are often ducks in the lakes. While we were there, I saw my first coot in Saudi Arabia.


Two little grebe were fishing in the lake. One caught a fish while we were there. There had been some doubt whether little grebe were still present in wadi Hanifah. Old records are based around the dam much further north. 

little grebe with part eaten fish

So in the end my enforced decision to move south down the river to avoid the picnickers seems to have proved fortuitous.

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