Wednesday 29 February 2012

Shrikes and others at al Hayer

I have already blogged about the wheatears, bluethroat, stonechats and menetries warbler seen at Al Hayer last weekend.  Thursday was actually a bumper day when I saw the most species I have seen there in one session since I arrived in Saudi Arabia.

In part,  I have to thank Lou Regenmorter for this. The newly arrived American birder provided a second set of eyes through out the day.

Today's blog highlights many of the other birds seen.  First, let me tell you the passage has definitely started. Common swift was the latest addition to the small but growing list of passage birds seen in the past two weeks. The list contains barn swallow, alpine swift, pied wheatear and woodchat shrike. The menetries warbler could be passage too or it might have been around all winter. Isabelline wheatear and desert wheatear numbers have also swollen. Nevertheless the main passage is still to be looked forward to.

Daurian (Isabelline)shrike

Meanwhile, every time I have visited Al Hayer since I arrived in late September I have seen Isabelline shrike or Turkestan shrike or both. I am much better at separating them though some first winters are still tricky. The bird above, seen on Thursday, is an Isabelline shrike. Overall they are dull and less contrasting that Turkestan shrike. In detail, this one has a very weak supercilium and a weak mask. It has no sign of any white patch on its primaries. Generally it is not a cold enough grey on its back for a Turkestan shrike either. The rufous patch on its crown is also very subdued. So I am quite confident about this one!

probable aucheri shrike

The great grey shrike complex here is arguably more complicated than the red-tailed shrike situation. Partly this is because I can't keep up with which sub species are grouped with others to form so called species. As far as sub species go, I have seen both pallidirostris (sometimes called steppe grey shrike) and aucheri all winter (which I believe is classed as a southern grey shrike).  The one above (seen on Thursday) seems to be aucheri.

One of the two top historical observers in the area says some of both stay all year round.   

wood sandpiper

We didn't visit the best local place for waders last Thursday for lack of time having been very thorough in a small are around the pivot fields. Nevertheless this green sandpiper was out in the open.

tawny pipit

The pivot fields contained three types of wheatear as described in a previous blog. Of course white wagtail was the most numerous passerine in them and a few tawny pipit were still present too.

Of the larger birds in the fields, the large flock of cattle egret was still around. The similar sized flock of northern lapwing which has often been seen in the same field or near-by seems mostly to have finally gone. Though we did see six lingerers. Other people have observed in the past that northern lapwing here seem to leave very early in the passage season.

cattle egret

The week before's sighting of swollen numbers of hoopoe was repeated last Thursday.

My only duck sighting on Thursday was a single ferruginous duck which is a known breeder here. The small number of ducks seen was more a function of where I birded (not much time spent looking at the river) rather than a definitive case for lesser numbers being around.

ferruginous duck

Of course moorhen were abundant but I did snatch a picture of the a much less common coot.


Talking of rarer birds, I hadn't seen a desert finch in the pivot fields at Al Hayer until two weeks ago. I returned to the spot I had seen a single last Thursday. This time there were two.

two desert finch

On the bushes near the same field were a mobile flock of Indian silverbill. I don't see them every week but I have eventually worked out where it is most likely.

Indian silverbill

The usual selection of birds of prey were present. Again the most obvious is kestrel. You are guaranteed to see at least a couple on or over the fields. Fellow birder, Clive Temple managed to see the same day a group of eight lesser kestrel but Lou and I weren't so lucky. I guess his sighting is another element of the early passage.


Just as we were leaving Al Hayer, a beautiful male marsh harrier landed in front of us. Unfortunately it evaded my camera.

sitting greater spotted eagle

That wasn't the end of the sightings of birds of prey though. There was greater spotted eagle sitting near the road back to the town of Al Hayer. Actually I have seen probably the same bird in the same spot three other times during the winter. Sometimes its been the first bird I have seen on my way out. On Thursday it proved to be the last bird on the way back.

flying greater spotted eagle

Apart from the start of the passage there are other tangible signs of spring, many plants are flowering. Unfortunately, I couldn't identify the beautiful one below. 

unknown flower

Monday 27 February 2012

The wheatears

Ten days ago I saw my first pied wheatear of the spring passage at Al Hayer. By last Thursday several more had arrived.

Apparently pied wheatear begins its passage early but is well-known to stop off for days and even weeks en route at suitable locations. It seems Al Hayer is one of those suitable locations.

pied wheatear

None of this week's pied wheatear were anything like as "burnt coloured" underneath as the single one last week. Indeed last week's was so yellow on the belly that I asked people on BirdForum if it could be a cyprus pied wheatear. The verdict was that it was within the natural variation of "normal" pied wheatear.

second view of pied wheatear

All the pied wheatear were in the same field which was a fairly recently sown and wet one.

It was popular with two other wheatears too.  Isabelline wheatear winters at Al Hayer in significant numbers but the numbers are swollen at the moment presumably with passage birds arriving from further south.

Isabelline wheatear

It's a similar situation with desert wheatear. They too were plentiful with additional numbers especially in the same field.

desert wheatear

There were only definitively three types of wheatear in the fields. Northern wheatear is well recorded as a passage bird but comes later. This is consistent with what I saw when birding in the past in Azerbaijan (directly north of here). The Isabelline wheatear always arrived in spring before northern wheatear.

unknown wheatear

There was one wheatear in the field which could conceivably have been a northern wheatear. It's picture is shown above. It's moult makes it difficult for me to hazard any sort of identification.

As for other wheatears, I have seen two different persian wheatear near-by,in more rocky areas, during the winter. There have been mourning wheatear close by but in drier places too. White crowned wheatear is a resident bird of drier areas such as Dirab which is only a few kilometres away. 

Three more wheatears I haven't seen which are recorded for central Arabia are black-eared wheatear, hooded wheatear and Finsch's wheatear. The first will almost certainly be seen on passage in the Al Hayer area in the next few weeks. Hooded wheatear is apparently a rare resident but I haven't found suitable habitat yet. Finsch's wheatear is a very rare wintering bird so I have probably missed my chance this winter.

Furthermore, Kurdish wheatear is feasible on passage though not recorded.

As you can see central Arabia has more than its fair share of wheatears. Its a great place to learn about them.

Sunday 26 February 2012

The chats

I have taken a more in-depth look at the wintering stonechats along Wadi Hanifah over the past few days. This has included a very tricky identification issue! More on this later.

My first conclusion is the big majority of wintering birds are Siberian stonechat (or eastern stonechat as some people call it). My observations supports the Helms guide's view on this. 

The two top historically recorders in the area were aware of the variation in stonechat in the area but didn't analyse them between common stonechat and Siberian stonechat

To choose between the two options, I find that Siberian stonechat are distinctly more white overall - usually with a larger white collar, more white on the wings and more white on the lower breast and always having a white rump. At first, I looked at collar size alone but found this is a poor indicator (for me at least though others swear by it).

probable nominate Siberian stonechat (maurus)

All three pictures of stonechats in this blog were taken on the same day, last Thursday.  The top picture is almost certainly of the nominate Siberian stonechat (maurus) found east of the Caspian and north of there. It's in breeding plumage.

probable eastern stonechat (variegatus)

The second bird above is even whiter and is may well be of the sub species variegatus. This sub species is found west of the Caspian.

unknown stonechat in winter plumage just starting the transition to breeding plumage

However it was the third bird which caused me the most heart ache. It looks intermediate between an whinchat and a stonechat

There is some contradictory evidence over the whinchat's status here. Collins guide says whinchat winters in the area whereas the Helms guide says it uncommon even on passage. Of the two historical recorders I turn to, Tom Tarrant saw them in spring and autumn passage but Pers Bertilsson only saw them on spring passage. 

On these occasions I tend to post on BirdForum and ask the world for their views on a tricky identification. Having heard back from several people, the slight balance of opinion was that it is a stonechat though views were nowhere near unanimous.

In the end I found an excellent article on wikipedia which clinched it for me that it is a stonechat

I quote from the article " males in plumage are intermediate between summer males and females with a supercilium resembling a whinchat." and the picture of a wintering male in India (from the article) is very similar to my bird above. The only difference is the wings of my bird look more like summer plumage. So I assume it is a bird transitioning.

Eitherway,the mystery of its identity is getting closer to conclusion.  It's a wintering stonechat possibly a male Siberian stonechat.

Saturday 25 February 2012

The bluethroats

Bluethroat is a common wintering bird along the "Riyadh river". From October to January they are best seen in the early morning or towards dusk. They are usually near the water's edge.

However, in February, I have noticed they are active all day long provided it isn't too hot.  I have also seen them further away from the water in the very low shrubbery at times.

male bluethroat at Al Hayer on Thursday

It's been very easy to see them in past two or three weeks because of this activity. I wonder if they are fattening themselves up for the long migration to their breeding grounds which will take place soon.

same male bluethroat

And it is a relatively long migration because many of the bluethroat here seem to be orange spot. This makes them the sub species called svecica which is the most northerly sub species from northern Europe.  

female bluethroat on Thursday

I spent five or ten minutes looking at these birds with newly arrived American birder, Lou Regenmorter. He told me he once went on a nature holiday to Alaska and it was one of the possible birds there. He didn't see it. He has now.

Friday 24 February 2012

The list

Many birders keep lists. Some birders could even be called "listers". They watch birds to see their lists grow.

Some birders twitch. That is, they visit rare birds which are in the wrong place. Many of them do it for their lists.

At the other extreme some birders are behaviouralists. They love to study bird behaviour and they gain a list by chance. It's not a goal. They don't twitch because a bird under stress (or worse) in the wrong place doesn't tell you much about natural behaviour and to them it isn't fun. 

Other birders take photographs. For some, the photograph collection becomes the thing or even a photograph list becomes all important! For a few, watching birds no longer happens but photographing them continues. 

Most birders have a balance which may include elements of all four traits (listing, twitching, behaviour watching and photography) in their hobby. Or they may have do less common things such as ringing or they specialise in certain birds.

I have described myself as behaviouralist with a photographic hobby. But recently I have become a lister by accident. By the way, I don't twitch at all but you might have guessed that by my writing!

Menetries warbler at Al Hayer yesterday

When I started putting information into the ebird database, it started producing me a list or more precisely lists. And I have started taking notice of them. If used wisely I confess lists can be helpful.  My Saudi list stood at 137 before yesterday. That was without any conscious attempt to tailor my birding to inflate the list. However it has helped me have a truer understanding of my expertise or lack of it.

The largest list for Saudi Arabia I have seen is 336 by Per Anders Bertilsson who left the Kingdom about 10 years ago.  There are an estimated 525 birds possible to see apparently.

I have only been here since late September and  I have only seen just over a quarter of the possibilities. 

For what its worth, my Libyan position is much healthier. My list scores are higher!

Anyway, yesterday I added 4 new ones to the Saudi list. I want to write about two of them in particular. These were Menetries warbler and common starling. You'll have to wait for the other two in later blogs. 

I first and last saw Menetries warbler in Azerbaijan in summertimes when I used to teach there. Both Collin's European guide and Helm's Middle East guide suggest it winters in Arabia in a few select places (in small numbers).  Though Pers Bertilsson only saw it during the passage months.  Of course, I cant tell whether the one yesterday was a late wintering bird or an early passage one.

common starling at Al Hayer

For all the fuss over Menetries warbler, the better find yesterday was almost certainly a flock of 12 common starling.  Of the two historical birders in the area with the best records, Tom Tarraat never saw it in central Arabia and Pers Bertilsson saw 3 at Kharj once (on 2 March).  My friend Abullah Amrou photographed a single near Al Hayer once too.

I had expected to see passage birds yesterday (and the other two additions to my list probably are) and yet I also saw a bird which seems to have come in the opposite direction following the very cold weather further north.

Thanks for this one are due to Lou Regenmorter. Lou is an American birder who is here on business for a while. He accompanied me yesterday and saw the birds first! 

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Caspian gull and cousins

A few days ago a fellow birder in Sudan identified a gull as yellow legged. This is apparently the first record of the species there.

At the time I wondered what the fuss was about. After all, my first edition of "Birds of the Middle East" says its common on all Arabian coasts in winter. And I found it difficult to believe that some wouldn't make the short trip over the Red Sea to the Sudanese coast. Indeed when I was in Jeddah in early November I saw a couple of medium-large gulls and identified them as yellow legged gull at the time.

However in the back of my mind I thought something wasn't adding up.

So to build on the dialogue about the Sudanese bird, I posted a picture, on BirdForum, of my gull from Jeddah.  Shock and horror, it turns out in all probability my gull is actually a Caspian gull.

Caspian gull seen in Jeddah, November 3rd

So what's going on? 

I now know what I should have known all along. There are three similar gulls - herring gull, yellow legged gull and Caspian gull.  Each gull dominates a geography. Herring gull dominates the north Atlantic, yellow legged gull the Mediterranean and Caspian gull  dominates the Caspian Sea and most of the Black Sea. 

Only in the south West Black Sea and northern tip of the Red Sea do Caspian gull and yellow legged gull vie for dominance. In winter there is dispersal and Caspian gull can be seen along all the Arabian coasts. Hence the reason my Caspian gull was in Jeddah.  (Just to add to the complexity - there is fourth similar bird called Steppe Gull found in winter on eastern Arabian coasts alongside Caspian gull).

So what went wrong for me?  

First, my Middle East bird guide is out of date. In the first edition of it, Caspian gull was still seen as a sub species of "yellow legged gull". Hence the comment in the guide book that yellow legged is found all along Arabian coasts. Furthermore the illustrations of the "yellow legged gull" in the book look like a compromise between the two birds.

Second, I was aware of the existence of Caspian gull from my second guide, the Collins guide to the birds of Britain and Europe. However I didn't investigate the Caspian option because the first guide said yellow legged gull was the one for Arabian coasts and the second guide says 75% of Caspian gulls don't have light eyes. Mine did - just like a yellow legged gull!

Now it all makes sense. The Jeddah bird is a lighter grey than a yellow legged gull and its legs aren't yellow enough. Its posture and bill are a perfect fit for a Caspian gull. It's in the right geographical location too. It just doesn't have dark eyes.  

In all probability, it's a light eyed Caspian gull and it's where it should be.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

The other birds on Friday at Al Hayer

It wasn't just the wintering birds that caught my eye on Friday.  The others were very interesting too.  One of which turned out to be a lifer but more about that later.

One of the main features of Friday's birding was the presence of large numbers of hirundines hawking for insects over the pivot fields.  Last week I noticed the first barn swallow of the year. This Friday there were many more of them. There were also at least two red-rumped swallow and although its not strictly a hirundine there was also an alpine swift

local barn swallow

Not all of these birds were on passage either. Red-rumped swallow have been recorded to breed in the area and I have first hand evidence that barn swallow breed here.  I saw a barn swallow fly into a farm workers building.  Inside were several barn swallow nests being built. The four barn swallow in the picture above were barn swallow waiting patiently to re-enter the building once I left!  

barn swallow nest in making

Hirundines are often early passage birds. Another one in this region which can start early is lesser whitethroat.

lesser whitethroat

I saw my first lesser whitethroat in the area on Friday. According to previous records this could be the first of many.

common myna

Near-by on a pivot was a small flock of common myna. Although I have got several photos of common myna in the area before, I felt the need to take more shots. I am pleased I did.

bank myna

It was only when I got back home and started sorting out the photos for this blog that I realised at least one of the mynas in the flock was a bank myna. What an unexpected lifer. In the back of my mind, I knew it was meant to be in the area. Indeed Per Anders Bertilsson reported seeing it several times during his stay in Riyadh around the year 2000. Bank myna becomes the 136th species I have seen in Saudi Arabia since arriving in late September last year. This is well behind Pers who has set the benchmark with 336. I wonder how many I will add during the passage season which has just begun?

Indian silverbill

Given that Riyadh is officially in the Afrotopical zone, its amazing how its been colonised with so many birds from the Indo-Malay region. Both mynas comes from there as does, for example, the Indian silverbill which is common in the area and apparently in the city.

black bush robin

Of course Afro-tropical birds are here too! The black bush robin in the picture above was standing on the top of a bush rather than under it. You don't see that very often and yet it takes me back to my first ever sighting of one in Senegal, Africa where one was doing exactly the same thing.

crested lark

Finally lets not forget crested lark which I have seen in all the countries I have lived in during the past 5 years - Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Libya and Saudi Arabia. In fact I can't escape it! It was there again on Friday.

Monday 20 February 2012

A late look at the wintering birds

In contrast to Thursday's windy and sandy weather, Friday was a gloriously sunny day. I returned to my local patch which is Wadi Hanifah near Al Hayer. Here I met up with Clive Temple, the other main expat birder in the region.

Also unlike Thursday, the birds were very active and I probably saw a record number of species for one session in this area.

I want to dedicate this blog to all the wintering birds I saw on the day and throughout the winter. Many will be leaving in the next month.

Turkestan shrike

One of the first wintering birds I saw on Friday was a Turkestan shrike. Both Turkestan shrike and Daurian shrike winter at Al Hayer. Steppe grey shrike and small numbers of masked shrike winter here too though I didn't see either on Friday.

black stork

The skies were active with birds of prey from the large wintering greater spotted eagle to the much smaller resident kestrel. It was while I was looking up at what I initially thought was a bird of prey that I finally got my best sighting of a black stork this winter. A small but loyal group of black stork have been reported to come to the area every winter in the past 20 years.

marsh harrier

Marsh harrier is known to breed in central Arabia so I would expect the birds that have been here all winter to depart sooner or later. The one above allowed closer contact than usual as Clive and I approached it under cover of reeds. The strange moulting pattern made it look a bit like an osprey which I have also seen here in the past few months.


Turning to the smaller birds, one of the most common wintering birds is bluethroat. It's clicking sound has been an ever present in any cover near the water for months. 

female eastern stonechat

Another common one has been stonechat. This bird is often seen a little away from the water on any vantage point whether it is a bush or a pivot arm or simple a mound. 

My observations and those before me have been that eastern stonechat provides more than half the total winter population though European stonechat are not uncommon. I have learned to differentiate them by the greater amount of white/light colour on the lower front, on the upper tail and on the collar. In some cases the females even have an strong, light eyebrow like the one above.  I am still not completely confident in my identifications but this winter has given me lots of practice.

In the past I only looked at the collar size and made many mistakes.

another eastern stonechat

Above I believe is another eastern stonechat. The upper tail has no pattern and its front is very light.

desert wheatear

Two types of wheatears have been around the fields all winter in this area. They are desert wheatear and isabelline wheatear. There numbers seem to be swollen at moment probably with migrants from further south. Its hard to believe they will leave. Don't forget there are also a few mourning wheatear in the drier areas near-by who apparently will also go.

Isabelline wheatear

Very large numbers of white wagtail stay the winter at Al Hayer. A smaller number of tawny pipit are often seen in similar places though they tolerate drier conditions better. 

tawny pipit

It has been a treat to see a small number of citrine wagtail (though none seen on friday)in my local patch too. Strangely I haven't seen a single yellow wagtail in the area all winter even though a few winter in the farms at Kharj some 40 kilometres further south.

white wagtail

It's not long before the cast will change and these birds will be gone for another year.

Sunday 19 February 2012

The sandstorm ends

On Thursday afternoon, after a difficult morning,  the sandstorm reported in my last blog slowly started to subside.

Some of  the first birds to re-appear from shelter were the shrikes.

Turkestan shrike

I have been seeing Turkestan shrike and Daurian shrike all winter. On Thursday one Turkestan shrike was again seen, boldly perching atop pivot wire.

one of the lagoons near Al Hayer

On a bush not far away was a member of the great grey shrike complex.  I didn't analyse which sub species this time.  

great grey shrike

A woodchat shrike was also in the vicinity. It may have been the same bird I saw last week in another field 350 metres away.

woodchat shrike

However, one of the most noticeable features of Thursday afternoon's birding was not the shrikes. It was the density of hoopoe. I counted seven. Whereas all winter I have been lucky to see one or two in a session. The situation for this bird is complicated. There appear to be a small number of residents, a slightly swollen number in winter and apparently larger numbers still on passage. Thursday must have been a passage day.


One category of bird which was well down on similar days this year was birds of prey. I didn't notice any of the larger ones. I had to make do with two marsh harrier, one sparrowhawk and of course the more numerous kestrel


Whatever the weather or time of year, you are guaranteed to see the resident little green bee-eater at Al Hayer. In addition, it won't be long until the regular passage of blue cheeked bee-eater and European bee-eater heads through. The earliest records from previous observers are March 8th and March 18th respectively.

little green bee-eater

Unusually, herons and egrets weren't very much in evidence. I only saw one grey heron. Apparently there is no evidence of them breeding at Al Hayer unlike purple heron, little bittern, squacco heron, and black crowned night heron for example. I'll need to keep an eye out to see when the grey heron leave. 

grey heron

Many of the doves were still keeping low after the sandstorm including the namaqua dove below. I have started to look for turtle dove on passage but I researched last night and found they have been surprisingly uncommon and late. Mid April has been reported as the best time to see any.

namaqua dove

Of the small birds, both house sparrow and graceful prinia were very easy to see.

house sparrow

As I have mentioned before, graceful prinia are very bold at the moment. I put this down to the fact that the central Arabian spring is in the air.

graceful prinia

There is still some time to study the stonechats before they leave. The one below is European but many and probably majority are eastern stonechat according to most observers.

The next blog will be a tribute to the winter visitors as they get ready to leave in the coming days and weeks.