Monday 31 December 2012

The heron family near Jizan

During the trip to the Jizan area, much of the heron family activity was at Lake Maliki. This is the largest fresh water mass in the kingdom by a big margin.

Glossy ibis, squacco heron and marsh sandpiper. Photo by Mansur Al Fahad

The two commonest heron family members were glossy ibis and squacco heron. I looked carefully through the glossy ibis for juvenile northern bald ibis. This is a known area for the wintering of the Syrian population which is in danger of extinction.

A view across the back waters of Lake Maliki

At one stage a cluster of glossy ibis with other birds included great egret, little egret, redshank, ruff, black winged stilt, northern shoveller and garganey (partially captured in the picture below).

glossy ibis, great egret and several other species

Cattle egret were also present in numbers and were most often seen in the adjacent fields.

Cattle egret with some sheep. Photo by Mansur Al Fahad

I think there were probably more purple heron than grey heron around. This is indicative of the southern latitude.

Purple heron

Arguably the best sighting in the heron family was a great bittern. This was my first sighting in Saudi Arabia despite the latitude. Surely not many great bittern are found this far south.

Rear view of a great bittern taking off. Photo by Mansur Al Fahad

It evaded good pictures. Mansur got a rear view and I got a slightly blurred picture in flight.

Great bittern on the move

Early in the first morning before we reached Lake Maliki, we birded a small wadi. Here a flock of spoonbill was seen overhead on the move towards the coast from the direction of Lake Maliki.

Spoonbill. Photo by Mansur Al Fahad 

We finally caught up with Eurasian spoonbill again at two or three places along the coast south of Jizan.

Spoonbill with dark morph Western reef heron

Sadly goliath heron was not seen but it leaves something to look forward to on the next visit.

Sunday 30 December 2012

The doves of Jizan

Its difficult to know where to start with the trip to Jizan last weekend but I am going with a nice self-contained group - the doves. 

African collared dove

 You don't go to the south west corner of Saudi Arabia without the hope of seeing African collared dove.  Actually they aren't that common but we picked a couple up quite easily at the back waters of Lake Maliki.

Laughing dove at dawn

Laughing dove is the most abundant dove there and elsewhere in the south west. Rock dove (feral pigeon) is also obviously common too.

European collared dove

A much more pleasing find was a group of European turtle dove. This is described in my Helms guide to the Middle East as "rare wintering in south Arabia". These birds were the arenicola sub species of the Middle East. I wouldn't rule out residency. 

Namaqua dove

Namaqua dove is quite easy to see around the lake and in drier areas. 

Red eyed dove

A speculative drive up into the hills towards the end of Thursday yielded a dividend. We met the hill loving red eyed dove. This was one of the four lifers for me on the trip and a great way to end the first day.

red eyed dove on the ground

Having seen Bruce's green pigeon and dusky turtle dove on previous visits to the south west, my target list of south western doves is now down to one - African olive pigeon though African vagrants can't be ruled out.

Saturday 29 December 2012

A short first note on Jizan in December

Mansur Al Fahad and I have returned from an exhausting and intense two days birding in the Jizan area. We took in two of the main wadis (and smaller wadis off them) including a lake and some coast including mangroves. 

It was every bit as exciting and rewarding as I had hoped. We saw 105 species. 10 were new additions to my Saudi list and 4 were lifers. Although we saw virtually the same birds, Mansur added 15 to his Saudi list because this was his first birding around Jizan. The full list will be given later.

I will blog in detail over the next few days and I am sure you will be surprised by some of the species we saw. I also have some excellent pictures mostly taken by Mansur.

zitting cisticola taken by me near lake Maliki

As a taster, I can tell you we both saw zitting cisticola. This is supposedly only found right on the border with Yemen but we observed it once next to a lake and secondly in a grass field well north of Jizan. Both locations were north of the helms guide distribution map. And this was a major part of the story - birds were where you might not expect them.

second view of zitting cisticola

I have previously seen this bird in sub Saharan Africa and Ain Kaam in Libya. It was good to met an old friend.

third view of zitting cisticola

The bird at the side of a grass field near Sabya was a shock whereas the initial sighting near Lake Maliki was almost expected.

Lake Maliki is a real gem as I hope to prove over the next few days but the whole Jizan area is the most magical birding in the Kingdom. I am not the first one to use those words nor do I expect to be the last.

Tuesday 25 December 2012

A very lucky grasshopper warbler

Over the weekend, Mansur Al Fahad told me the story about how he met up with a grasshopper warbler in Saudi Arabia.

He was visiting his family home in Zulfi on April 19th when he saw a bird unable to fly in the garden. It was exhausted.

Grasshopper warbler in the hand

He picked it up and was able to easily identify it as a grasshopper warbler.

It was also one very lucky grasshopper warbler who chose the garden of one of the very few people in the kingdom who knew what it was and could do something about its condition. After giving it water, rest and shelter, the bird eventually flew off north.

My Helms guide to  "Birds of the Middle East" doesn't show grasshopper warbler this far inland on passage (Zulfi is a farming area 200 kilometres NW of Riyadh). This is too little data to challenge the book's view that they migrate by taking coastal routes north but I will be on the look out for more in central Arabia in the passage seasons. 

The problem is that their skulking behaviour makes finding them so difficult any and everywhere.

Monday 24 December 2012

Both ends of Wadi Thulaymah

There is a waste water river at Kharj. It runs through wadi Thulaymah. It's a sort of mini version of Riyadh river that runs through Al HayerIt's still 15 kilometres long though.

Both rivers consist of relatively clean processed water. The end of the river at Kharj produces the lagoons outside Al Safi dairy which were visited last week and where the chestnut bellied sandgrouse were seen.

On Friday morning, Mansur Al Fahad and I returned to the lagoons near AL Safi and then made the journey to the other end of the river near the processing works and where there is a big lake at the head of the river.

citrine wagtail

Even though we visited at the same time there were no sandgrouse.The birds had changed a little in other respects too. Among the white wagtail was another citrine wagtail - not seen here the week before. This was the second sighting in two different places in two days.

Temminck's stint

There were no little stint but in their place were four (three pictured) Temminck's stint.

Wood sandpiper

There were still plenty of black winged stilt and green sandpiper but a wood sandpiper was spotted this week as well.

Squacco heron

I haven't seen any squacco heron all winter at Al Hayer which is very different from last year. However there were three at the lagoons outside Al Safi. One little egret was initially keeping them company.

Grey heron

Grey heron were seen at both ends of the wadi.

Isabelline wheatear

The most common wheatear, once again, was desert wheatear but an Isabelline wheatear was also seen.

Great cormorant

After leaving the lagoons near Al Safi we travelled to the other end of the wadi without really birding the part in between for any length of time.

Here at the start of the river is a very large but hidden holding lake. Last year it was only place in KSA where I had seen tufted duck and pochard.

This time there were no ducks perhaps because the last visit had been at dusk.  However there were four great cormorant and a lot of noise from unseen moorhen.

Little green bee-eater

The little green bee-eater in the near-by Acacia were remarkably tame and allowed very close approach. So I managed better than average pictures of them.

List of birds seen on Friday at Wadi Thulaymah, Kharj and at the blue lagoons, Al Hayer

Rock pigeon
Laughing dove
Collared dove
Cattle egret
Namaqua dove
Grey heron
Squacco heron
Little green bee-eater
Little egret
White eared bulbul
Great cormorant
Crested lark
Pale crag martin
Marsh harrier
Graceful prinia
Long legged buzzard
Common myna
Greater spotted eagle
Black bush robin
Steppe eagle
Isabelline wheatear
Desert wheatear
Black winged stilt
Mourning wheatear
Common snipe
House sparrow
Great snipe
Spanish sparrow
Wood sandpiper
White wagtail
Green sandpiper
Citrine wagtail
Temminck’s stint

Sunday 23 December 2012

Four birds with one shot

Hunting is not as common in the Riyadh area as further north such as Hail. However on Friday a hunter was seen in the area of the blue lagoons, Al Hayer.

I went there with Mansur Al Fahad to show him this new venue.It was the place that on Thursday I added great snipe and short toed eagle to my Saudi list.

The hunter actually did us a great favour. We only heard two shots. The first one threw eight ducks and four snipe into the air.

Pintail(1), Gadwell (4) and Garganey (3)

With these few birds, Mansur added four lifers(including all the ducks)! and I added two more birds to my Saudi list. The great snipe from the day before was among the snipe that took to the air.

However we followed the ducks rather than the snipe to photograph. It turns out that it was a mixed flock of pintail (in the lead), gadwell (larger) and garganey (smaller). I sent the picture to BirdForum to confirm and there was agreement.

two common snipe

The second shot a few minutes later sent five snipe up. Unfortunately all were common snipe this time.

female Marsh harrier

The wagtails from the day before had moved on from the area. The green sandpiper were still plentiful. There was no short toed eagle to be seen. However the variety of birds of prey was a little larger. There were Marsh harrier, greater spotted eagle and steppe eagle.

An osprey also gave good views.

Following the sighting of pintail and gadwell, my Saudi list total is now up to 249. However the big test will be this weekend when Mansur and I visit Jizan.

Saturday 22 December 2012

The new "blue lagoons"

In the late 1990s Tom Tarrant was birding the Riyadh area and he kept good records which I often compare against today's findings.

He has written about "the blue lagoons".  This was part of the Riyadh river where the habitat is more open than the area around the pivot fields where I normally bird. He also said the location was suppressed for a couple of reasons.

Anyway, I decided from his writing it must be much further south than pivot fields. I didn't know how to get there by car or even if it is still possible so I foolishly (?) decided to walk along the west bank.

Downstream "Riyadh river"

To cut a long story short, the river valley does indeed change further south. The reed banks recede and the habitat changes. There is some interesting low lying wetland and the bird life is more than a little different too.

The northern lapwing flock is getting bigger (part is shown)

However I couldn't resist the temptation to bird around the pivot fields for an hour before I set out on my marathon walk. A few minor points of interest were seen here. The northern lapwing flock is now as large as last winter. There must be around 100 birds in total. An avadavat flock was seen again. I seem to be able to spot them more easily in winter. There were noticeably more marsh harrier around.

marsh harrier

After these few observations, I began the walk. For the first hour and a quarter the habitat looks the same as near the pivot fields. Then gradually the caster plant beds recede and sedge and other reeds start to dominate.


Moorhen are an ever present whatever the vegetation. Otherwise the cross section of birds seen was quite a bit different to a normal weekend in winter around the pivot fields area.

Great white egret

The first sign that things might be a bit unusual was a sighting of a great white egret as well as the more usual purple heron, grey heron and a single little egret.

Purple heron

As I ventured further south, I could see why there are called the blue lagoons. In the places where there is no vegetation next to the river, some sort of refraction effect from the orange sand makes the water look blue. This area took over two hours to reach on foot but of course I was birding on the way so the distance is probably no more than 5 kilometres.
The new blue lagoons

As I walked I was continually flushing green sandpiper and common snipe until I became more careful.

four green sandpiper

Here is where it became really interesting. At one point I accidentally flushed about 8 common snipe almost simultaneously. The last one to rise and a bit behind the others was larger and had a patterned belly. I am sure it was a great snipe. I am ruling out staining as the pattern was right and the flight was also straighter and lower than the other snipe.

This is a rare find in Saudi Arabia though Jem in Dammam saw one in late October last year.

The "Birds of Middle East" doesn't show it in KSA but does for southern Oman. My argument is that they can't get there from the north in winter by teleportation!

Incidentally, Mansur al Fahad and I returned to the same place on Friday. A hunters gun disturbed groups of snipe on two occasions. On the first occasion, a group of four contained a great snipe which Mansur also saw and confirmed. We were too slow with the cameras.

citrine wagtail

To add to the feeling of difference, in among a very large number of white wagtail were a small number of citrine wagtail.

second view of citrine wagtail

This is another bird which isn't supposed to winter here but which I saw in January in Kharj last year at a farm and again on Thursday.

white wagtail

It got better still. There was a water pipit!

water pipit

I had seen one last year at the pivot fields on December 15th but this is the first time I had a good view and a chance of a photo.

back view of water pipit

I had to check that it wasn't similar buff bellied pipit but the strong supercilium and grey head and back are conclusive.

There aren't too many water pipit in the middle of the Arabian desert!

steppe eagle

That wasn't the end of the unusual findings either. The big birds of prey were mostly steppe eagle but I also observed my first short toed eagle in KSA. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo but I know this bird very well not least because it breeds next to my Bulgarian village and i see it virtually every time I go home in summer.

The "Birds of the Middle East" says that the Arabian birds may be resident.I checked and Pers Bertilsson has a record of one in January near Riyadh. Its always more comforting to have another record confirmed in the same area if you don't get a photo.

This was the second addition to my Saudi list on the same day. I have now seen 247 species here. I think I have a chance to over take Pers' record of 336 species although a couple of other people could also overtake it.

It will require lots of visits to the Jizan area and also a prolonged stay in KSA. It's this last factor which limits many birders' lists. In the long run it will probably be a local like Mansur al Fahad who posts the highest score and good luck to him!

streaked weaver

One of the last birds I saw on the way back to the parked car was a streaked weaver. I nearly missed it because in mid winter they look much more sparrow like. It made me think that is probably the reason why their numbers appear so low at this time of the year. They don't get a second look because "its just another sparrow".

List of birds seen on Thursday:

Grey heron
Collared dove
Purple heron
White throated kingfisher
Little egret
Turkestan shrike
Great egret
White eared bulbul
Marsh harrier
Crested lark
Steppe eagle
Pale crag martin
Common kestrel
Common myna
Short toed eagle
Graceful prinia
Desert wheatear
Northern lapwing
House sparrow
Common snipe
Spanish sparrow
Great snipe
Streaked weaver
Green sandpiper
Marsh sandpiper
White wagtail
Rock pigeon
Citrine wagtail
Laughing dove
Water pipit