Tuesday 31 January 2012

Garganey and other water birds at Al Hayer

I birded the lagoons south of the pivot fields near Al Hayer on Friday. You may recall this is my new favourite birding area in the Wadi Hanifah valley. When I first found it three weeks ago I thought it had potential because it is away from picnickers and the habitat of slow moving water in lagoons was attractive to water birds.


Well I am now even more sure of its potential! 

I was meandering along the banks in an over-tired and correspondingly slow manner because I had very little sleep following my over-night flight back from Istanbul. Then, I heard a quacking noise and realised I was very close to a small flock on ducks on the water. Furthermore they hadn't seen me because of some serendipitous reed cover.

And one of the ducks was a garganey! This species tends to winter further south than all the other anas ducks.  Indeed there is not one record of it in winter in central Arabia by the two main observers (Tom Tarrant and Per Anders Bertilsson) from the past 20 years. 

garganey with shoveler

All the other members of the flock were northern shoveler. You can see how much smaller it is than its fellow anas cousin.

male northern shoveler

Three of the northern shoveler were female and one was male. I failed to get a shot of all the ducks together for fear of breaking cover. Each shot was snatched through a small gap in the reeds when the ducks swam into it.

distant purple heron

Otherwise life goes on for the other water birds, plenty of moorhen were around as usual. Both grey heron and purple heron are more densely found here than other parts of the "Riyadh river".  I did manage to glimpse one of the resident ferriginuous duck which have proved difficult to find. 


Plenty of bluethroat and graceful prinia were seen in the reeds or elsewhere near the water's edge.

common snipe

Just before sunset a very tired me caught sight of a common snipe out in the open on the water. 

I didn't only visit the water's edge on Friday. The next blog recounts the land birds in near-by fields. In my view these were equally as interesting.

Monday 30 January 2012

Exotic birds in the tea gardens

My last hour and a half birding Istanbul on Thursday was spent in the Topkapi tea gardens. This attractive area has plenty of very tall trees and well manicured grass.  

Superficially it looks peaceful but this was soon punctuated by a screeching I immediately recognised.

rose ringed parakeet

It was not long before I saw the first rose ringed parakeet. The tall sheltered trees are ideal habitat for these birds.

alexandrine parakeet

Moving on through the gardens I realised that some of the parakeets were larger. In fact more than half of them were Alexandrine parakeet. This was a lifer for me and a very pleasant surprise. My first edition of Helms guide "Birds of the Middle East" doesn't show it present in the region outside the Persian Gulf area.

mating alexandrine parakeet

They certainly looked like they are breeding there. The two birds above were actually mating.   

grey heron

Just as surprisingly as the sight of a Alexandrine parakeet was the sight of a heronry high in the trees. Furthermore, it was a semi-occupied heronry. Some of the grey heron were re-enforcing nests ready for breeding.  

grey heron on a nest

I don't know whether the grey heron have been there all winter however a couple of them at least were mobbed by the hooded crow in the gardens. I think this action is more likely for returning herons. The crows are certainly fighting a losing battle judging by the size of the herony.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Sea front walk in Istanbul

Last Thursday was a bonus free day for me in Istanbul. This came about because my business with the Saudi consulate was concluded positively and early.

As well as looking seaward (as previously blogged) the walk along the sea shore had several interesting land birds in the thin strip of parkland along the walk way.

two hooded crow

There were so many and so noisy hooded crow that non-birders must have noticed them even if they didn't notice another bird. The ones above got within one metre of me showing no fear.

lighthouse on the European side

The crow family was very much in evidence. Magpie were also foraging around albeit from a safer distance to me. 


 These two resident corvid are joined in winter by significant numbers of rook from further north.


I find rook is an ugly bird but it makes up for it with great character.


Jackdaw always look mischievous and even criminal. The last time I saw any was in Almaty, Kazakhstan over three years ago (at a rubbish dump). This time there were two. I got quite a bit of pleasure seeing them as I have seen many less in my birding time than the other corvids present.  The species is apparently resident in this part of Turkey.


It wasn't all crows. Plenty of starling were around. Some are turning into their spring plumage.  However I found it difficult to get excited about them when I have seen a rosy starling fairly recently (in the Riyadh area, Saudi Arabia).


The dominant finch in the parkside was chaffinch. Once again I found urban  birds less shy than their rural counter parts.

part of a flock of chaffinch

One adage I swear by is to look at a large flock closely to find out exceptions. In this case it worked again. Among the chaffinch was a single tree sparrow. It was the only one I saw all day.

tree sparrow

In this parkland strip chaffinch actually heavily outnumbered house sparrow. Many of the house sparrow looked bedraggled.

two cold house sparrow

The mixed woodland chimed to the sound of great tit. And once again the urban ones were easy to see and photograph.

great tit

Finally there were one or two wintering white wagtail in the park. At least that was one similarity with Saudi Arabia.

white wagtail

Saturday 28 January 2012

Some sea birds at Istanbul

I said in my last blog that my next one would be on Saudi Arabia. However my business in Istanbul en route to Saudi Arabia took a day less than expected. As a result I had a free day to bird in Istanbul.

I started my birding on the coast of the Bosporus just south of the tourist attraction of the Topkapi.  The birding was so varied I am making three blogs out of it. The first is about the sea birds I saw.

black headed gull (adult - left and immature - right)

It began as a miserable, wet if quite warm day. However I wasn't miserable. It's good to have unexpected, carefree free time. 

View across the Bosporus from Europe to Asia

Walking passed a ferry terminal I immediately saw dozens of black headed gull in a small car park. One or two had started to gain their spring plumage. The chocolate brown head was beginning to appear.

 plenty of black headed gulls

Out and about were a smaller number of yellow legged gull.

yellow legged gull

Much of the action though was over the narrow sea which separates Europe from Asia. There were many more black headed gull and yellow legged gull in and over the water, often following the ships and ferries.


However the most striking feature was the fly past  and fishing of dozens of cormorant. Or at least I thought they were cormorant until closer inspection.


Looking at a bird fishing near the shore I realised I had been too hasty. It was a shag not a cormorant. Scanning the flying birds I discovered about a quarter of the birds were actually shag.


The other water bird I saw were coot. They were tamely gathering in small artificial inlet of the Bosphorus. 

plenty of coot in a bay

The only thing preventing them from coming even closer was the large number of feral cats which seem to live inside the collection of granite rocks piled up for miles along the shore as sea protection. 

Thursday 26 January 2012

January at Rogachevo

The second place I birded while back in Bulgaria was Rogachevo. This is a hilly, wooded area with vines and fields just below the main tree line.

It took me a while but eventually I homed in on a big flock of small birds in one of the fields below the main wooded area.

part of a flock of goldfinch

The flock consisted of about one hundred goldfinch. This is the largest number of goldfinch  I have ever seen. But I suppose the conditions were right:  mid winter, a field or two with plenty of seeds, higher levels had snow covered trees etc


They weren't difficult to track either. It took me a couple of minutes to realise that a smaller number of other birds were loosely associating with them including half a dozen or so yellowhammer. I had seen more of them earlier in the week in my village but they were even easier to approach at Rogachevo.


More closely associated with the goldfinch were their closer relatives the linnet, siskin and chaffinch. There were a few of each of these close by.  I normally only see chaffinch deep in the wood at Rogachevo but I suppose their winter habits are different.

One finch I did see in the upper woods was hawfinch. This is the best time of year to see them!

blue tit

In the same couple of fields as the goldfinch I had been hearing both great tit and blue tit. I finally saw one on the ground whereas I had been looking in the trees! Later I did see them there too.

hidden wren

The wren gave me the same run around they had given me in my own village - leaping from one small bush to another but each time giving themselves away with a sort of rattling, zitting sound. The one hidden above is the best shot I got.

lesser spotted woodpecker

Up in one of the trees, I saw a lesser spotted woodpecker, quite exposed and again unconcerned about my presence.


On the other hand, one bird which was very flighty was jay. Two minutes after taking this photo four camouflaged hunters came into the area. I beat a retreat but I found out later that its legal to shot magpie and jay all year round in Bulgaria. I now wonder if this jay survived five minutes after the photo was taken? There were shots.

hidden blackbird

Another bird that is also flighty in Bulgaria (but not for example in the UK) is the blackbird. They are really difficult to photograph.

I'm back in Saudi Arabia for the next blog and the next time I show you a black bird in a bush it will a black bush robin.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

January at home

Earlier this week I was at home in Bulgaria. Among dealing with domestic issues and seeing friends, I managed to reserve some time to get in a little bit of birding on my local patch. This consisted of two short walks on two separate and quite different days.

I like birding in winter in Bulgaria (providing its not too cold). The birds are mostly in large flocks and have got no where to hide. They also seem more approachable with honourable exceptions which I will mention later.

male greater spotted woodpecker

We have two types of woodpecker within the village confines. These are the more urban Syrian woodpecker and the more rural greater spotted woodpecker

I saw two greater spotted woodpecker close up for over twenty minutes and in the end I left them. They were totally disinterested in me just feet below them. How unlike summer.

There was one male and one female which made me look up whether this species is monogamous. Indeed, it does pair for life.

female greater spotted woodpecker

They were two of very few birds who weren't in a flock. Near-by them were  flocks of corn bunting and yellowhammer which sometimes, but not always associated with each other. After all they are close relatives.

corn bunting

You'll have to wait for the next blog to see the more photogenic yellowhammer. In the meantime I have shown a picture of a corn bunting. In summer corn bunting is by far the more common of the two species. However its clear in January that yellowhammer outnumber corn bunting. Northern yellowhammer have clearly flown south to strengthen the local numbers.

common buzzard

Winter in Bulgaria also brings large numbers of common buzzard south to increase local numbers. They are a truly common sight.

local magpie

All the local magpie I saw were flocking. I think they may have got over the trauma of a goshawk stealing a full grown magpie under my nose back in the summer. Completely unsurprisingly the starling were flocking too.

the view down my road

On the second day it had snowed, it was much colder and birds were even easier to see. Goldfinch were seen both days but stand out like sore thumb against a white or sky blue background. Such was the second day.

a very cold house sparrow

There were roaming flocks of both house sparrow and tree sparrow all over the village. Both birds were extremely approachable but a bit stupid. I put out bird seed on my bird table which they lap up in summer. However they didn't seem to have touched it during my winter stay. I don't think they flew into the garden at all. 

part of flock of house sparrow

I mentioned at the top of the blog that some exceptional birds weren't flocking.  Two more were blackbird and wren. they weren't ultra-approachable either.

You can tell when you have spent too long birding in hot climes. My first instinctive reaction when seeing a wren was that it was a graceful prinia - they act and even sound a bit like them. I then foolishly realised I was 800 kilometres and 20 degrees centigrade from the nearest graceful prinia.

I spent a fruitless 20 minutes darting around trying to get a photo of one of the several wren around. Still it was only 10 days ago I finally got a decent one of a graceful prinia in Riyadh. Everything comes to he who waits.

Sunday 22 January 2012

A fodder field at dusk

Last Friday, I finished my birding day at one of the pivot fields near Al Hayer. There are about 12 of these. The one I chose was the one most recently ploughed up and presumably re-planted.

cattle egret grazing

I have noticed a pattern. Thee most recently ploughed field is the one most likely to have the largest numbers of cattle egret in the area.

the ploughed field

They also have more than their fair share of wintering white wagtail and tawny pipit.

cattle egret on the move

However the most pleasing moment was when I spotted that the area's wintering flock of northern lapwing. I hadn't seen them for two weeks and had wondered if they had moved on. But it looks like my earlier prediction that they would visit the newest ploughed fields all season may turn out true. With 12 fields, it seems at least one is satisfaction for them at any one time.

most of the northern lapwing

I have counted 86 birds in the picture and I estimate the total flock is about 110. This is about the same number as in earlier encounters. So it looks like the flock has been intact all season.

The filed held one more surprise. As I walked round I flushed a bird which was not a common snipe which I have seen and regularly flushed in greener and wetter fields. It was a quail. This is my first in Saudi Arabia. However early observers have reported it all year round in this area. 

wintering Turkestan shrike

Meanwhile round the edges of the field, there was another Turkestan shrike. I have had a lot of practice this` winter separating Durian and Turkestan shrike all winter. It's hard to believe I had never seen one before October.  

desert wheatear

Finally a desert wheatear once again proved very tame. This wheatear seems to be by far the most approachable.

The next two blogs feature birding in Bulgaria where I am writing this blog from. The snow replaces the desert!