Friday, 30 December 2011

Trip report to dairy farm near Kharj, Central Saudi Arabia

On Thursday I went birding with Abdullah Amrou and Clive Temple at a dairy farm east of Kharj.

The number of species seen was the highest in anyone day since I arrived in Saudi Arabia. There were also three lifers among them. In short it was my best day's birding for a long while.

Since the birding was so extensive, I'm writing this blog as a trip report. 


The farm is called Al Mansour. It's in the middle of the farming district of Sahba about 20 kilometres east of the city of Kharj. The grid reference for the district is 24 degrees 9.5 minutes north, 47 degrees 25 minutes east. Kharj itself is about 90 kilometres south of central Riyadh. 

In Sahba there are a number of farms. The most important are dairy farms. The Al Safi-Danone dairy farm within the district has been extensively birded in the past but not in recent years. Al Mansour is slightly smaller than Al Safi but is  close to it. Al Mansour has all most certainly never been birded before.

The Sahba district is the last green area going south before the wide Arabian desert known as the empty quarter. 

Al Mansour is a privately-run dairy farm. I estimate it is roughly 5 kilometres long and 1.5 kilometres wide. It is flat apart from a small hillock in the middle.  There are more small (but barren) hills just outside the farm's boundary.

The hundreds of heads of cattle are kept in sheds surrounded by small paddocks where the cattle can roam.

Area-wise, most of the farm is taken up by large fodder fields for the cattle including hay as well as alfalfa. The cattle are an important source of natural fertiliser so the fields are richer than those at Al Hayer (for example). The fodder fields at Al Mansour are crop rotated. Some are fallow while others are growing or have recently been cropped.

There are several permanent pools. Each field has a small pool to hold water. Most have some reed cover. The biggest pool is next to the cattle enclosures and seems to be fed by the washings from the enclosures. 

The house at the top of the hill in the middle of the farm has a garden which provides another habitat. There are also a few avenues of trees including tamarisk in various places throughout the farm.

Al Mansour is not open to the public. We were granted special access through Abdullah's good offices. Clive and I are extremely grateful for this.  I understand that near-by Al Safi farm is usually open to public birding on request.


It takes about an hour and a half to drive from central Riyadh to Sahba outside of the rush hour. There is no public transport. We stayed over-night at the farm so we could start birding at dawn.


Like all farms in central Arabia at this time of year, there were hundreds of white wagtail in the fields and in other areas where there was any moisture such as the paddocks.

citrine wagtail

What was more exciting was the presence of a small number of wintering citrine wagtail. Although I have posted photographs from Abdullah of this bird, I confess this was the first lifer of the day for me. I found a small number next to one of the holding pools at the side of a field. They were surprisingly confiding.

view of the cattle enclosures

In another field I saw my first yellow wagtail since arriving in Saudi Arabia in late September. It had been said a few winter in central Arabia and this was proof. They were particularly attracted to the sprays of water from an active pivot. I saw three at one time on a pivot bar.

yellow wagtail with white wagtail

The ones I saw seem to be the sub species fledegg which breeds in Turkey, the Balkans and the southern parts of central Asia

yellow wagtail

The only pipit I saw on Thursday was tawny pipit. They were present in great numbers though not as many as white wagtail.

tawny pipit

There were two types of wheatear present. These were desert wheatear and Isabelline wheatear. I hadn't realised before how confiding desert wheatear are compared with other wheatears. If you stay still, they will often move really close.

desert wheatear

One of the small birds was another lifer for me. In a turfed area there was a mobile flock of desert finch. Different sources say different things about this bird's status in central Arabia. One says it is a recent arrival while another says it is a common breeder.

desert finch

In the very short bushes that grow on the edges of some of the fields there are desert warbler.  I finally got a half decent photograph of one.

Asian desert warbler

The final small birds I'm mentioning are sparrows. There are very many house sparrow associated with most of the buildings on the farm. In one case we saw a sparrowhawk go inside an open-sided barn while chasing some of them. 

spanish sparrow

Near-by and keeping to bushes was a flock of at least seventy Spanish sparrow.

mixed group of waders

All the pools scattered throughout the farm had waders. Common sandpiper, green sandpiper, wood sandpiper and little stint seem the most frequent depending on the pool.  One redshank was seen by Clive and Abdullah. They aren't at all common in central Arabia.

flock of spur winged lapwing

The Al Kharj area is known for its resident spur winged lapwing and this farm didn't disappoint.  At least 20 were counted. They were most frequently seen close to the cow sheds, its run off water pool and the nearest fields to them.

Kentish plover

Kentish plover was also seen at the cow shed pool. The one above is in breeding plumage.

little ringed plover

Both ringed plover and little ringed plover were observed at pools but also away from them too. The little ringed plover above was seen in a flat, dry rocky area.

ringed plover

The ringed plover was in a cattle paddock.

wood sandpiper

Cattle egret was unsurprisingly found. Perhaps more surprisingly the flocks spent their time in the fodder fields not next to the cattle.  Cattle egret was the only member of the heron family there.

cattle egret

The only hoopoe were in the fodder fields which were being heavily watered.


The density of shrikes was low in part because they aren't too many shrike high bushes. Both steppe grey shrike and Turkestan shrike were there.

Turkestan shrike

I have deliberately kept some of the best observations of the day to the end of this blog.

field grazed by sandgrouse

During the day at various times, Clive, Abdullah and I split up to bird independently.  On meeting up at one time, Clive had told me where he had found desert finch. He moved off in one direction and I started walking towards the place which had the finch.

flying chestnut-bellied sandgrouse

I walked through a closely cropped grass field when I saw a flock of unknown but well-camouflaged birds grazing about 60 metres in front of me. As I walked towards them they flew but only to another part of the same field. It soon became apparent I had walked into a field with three flocks of chestnut- bellied sandgrouse totally about 60 birds.  I watched them for over half an hour as they gently and unconcernedly grazed. 

This was my third lifer of the day and the one that gave me most pleasure. 

chestnut bellied sandgrouse

The final story I want to tell you about is the arrival of  five raptors at about two in the afternoon. They arrived together but were four different species. 

juvenile imperial eagle

Thanks to research by Clive who also has a much better camera than me, I can confirm there were one golden eagle, two imperial eagle, one steppe eagle and an unidentified smaller raptor.

second view of juvenile imperial eagle

Later in the day as we travelled from Sahba towards Kharj on our way home, we saw several eagles in the space of half an hour and 10 kilometres. These included more imperial eagle and another golden eagle!

steppe eagle

Subject to permission, all three of us are keen to come back in March when the passage is in full swing. I would expect a quite different and even larger list then!

Being the first water stop north of the Arabian desert, it could be very interesting.

List of species seen

Cattle egret
Steppe eagle
Golden eagle
Imperial eagle
Black winged stilt
Cream coloured courser
Little ringed plover
Ringed plover
Kentish plover
Spur winged lapwing
Little stint
Temminck's stint
Common snipe
Green sandpiper
Wood sandpiper
Common sandpiper
Chestnut bellied sandgrouse
Rock dove (feral pigeon)
Collared dove
Laughing dove
Namaqua dove
Little green bee-eater
Crested lark
Pale crag martin
Tawny pipit
Yellow wagtail
Citrine wagtail
White wagtail
White cheeked bulbul
Black bush robin
Isabelline wheatear
Desert wheatear
Graceful prinia
Desert warbler
Turkestan shrike
Steppe grey shrike
Brown necked raven
Spanish sparrow
House sparrow
Desert finch


  1. Desert Finch!!
    A few chosen words from Clive when this was seen I'm sure ;-)

  2. Might the Yellow Wag be of the thunbergi persuasion, rather than feldegg? Looking at the nape colour.!i=1662472247&k=mbWv8gN

  3. Tommy, Actually Clive was very restrained about the desert finch - like he had seen them all his life!

    Agree with your view on the yellow wagtail. I think they may be thunbergi too. Tricky though.