Monday 30 April 2012

The shrikes of Hofuf

There were four different types of shrike at Hofuf marshes. The most pleasing for me were two lesser grey shrike

lesser grey shrike

It is known as a scarce but regular passage migrant in Saudi Arabia. It is also a late migrant in spring. The good news for me is that these two were the first ones I had seen in Saudi Arabia.

second view of lesser grey shrike

All the shrikes were occupying the zone between the reeds and the steppe-like area (see below). There were scattered bushes especially Tamarisk which are ideal for shrike. The insect population was high too as the bites on my arms will testify.

view inland from the lake

A second shrike was red-backed shrike. This was only my second in Saudi Arabia. It is much more common than lesser grey shrike apparently but like that shrike it is a late migrant so the bulk of the birds are expected to pass through in the next two weeks or so.

red-backed shrike

Once again the most common shrike, as they have been since late September, was the two red-tailed shrike, Turkestan shrike and Daurian shrike.

Turkestan shrike at Hofuf marshes

I didn't see any woodchat shrike (the earliest passage shrike) or masked shrike (the second earliest, though a very small number actually winter in central Arabia). I had thought they had left the region but I read Jem's blog yesterday from the east coast ( He saw one of each at a place only 150 kilometres east of where I was birding.

Tomorrow I will blog about the birds with affinity to water found at Hofuf marshes. 

Sunday 29 April 2012

Land birds at Hassa marshes

The marshes near Hofuf in the Hassa area were as rich in birds as I had hoped. This blog looks at some of the land birds seen. I'll blog on the water birds later. 

I have already mentioned the large numbers of clamorous reed warbler and graceful prinia present. However the majority, but by no means all, of land bird species seen were passage birds whereas those two are resident.

spotted flycatcher

One of the passage birds which gave me greatest pleasure was spotted flycatcher. There were several at the marshes in the bushes. I hadn't seen this species all passage until last week. Even then the one I saw was skulking in set of bushes. At Hofuf, it was different. They were out on open perches, catching and returning to the same spot as usual. Clearly their passage is a late one in this region.


Though spotted flycatcher is a known regular passage bird in Saudi Arabia, whinchat is quite rare. I was lucky enough to see one at the marshes. This is another addition to my Saudi list. It is another late passage species.

common redstart

One bird of the most regular birds this passage has been common redstart. I have been surprised that the main historical reporters didn't seem to see it as commonly as I am.

northern wheatear

Perhaps surprisingly there were a small number of late wheatears. And there were only two species: northern wheatear and Isabelline wheatear

Isabelline wheatear

I counted only two or three trees over two metres tall in the area though there were plenty of bushes. This probably restricted the type and numbers of warblers.  On the other hand the nature of the cover made it quite easy to see them if they were present.

lesser whitethroat

This lesser whitethroat doesn't look in great condition but it has reached a good place from which to recover with lots of food and water. 

common whitethroat

The only other warbler type seen was common whitethroat. The one above gave me very good views.

ortolan bunting

Near-by was a loose flock of ortolan bunting. I have seen a lot of this bird in the last two weeks.

marsh harrier

The only bird of prey was a solitary marsh harrier though I did also see my first cuckoo in Saudi Arabia. I have a picture of the cuckoo which is a record shot but I pulled it from the blog because of its poor quality. This is another addition to my Saudi list.

Other passage birds which didn't get photographed were barn swallow and European bee-eater. The former was very numerous.

rufous bush robin

Of course, there were summer and resident birds too. Although rufous bush robin was obvious, I didn't find a single black bush robin. I understand they become scarcer the further east one goes in Saudi Arabia.

Finally crested lark is once again present. More surprisingly I also observed a single lesser short toed lark.  Was it a strangle from a wintering population or does it breed here?

The bushes I mentioned earlier in the blog were ideal look-out points for shrikes. Shrikes were plentiful. I'll blog about them tomorrow. They included one I hadn't seen in Saudi Arabia before.

Saturday 28 April 2012

The noise was clamorous

Hofuf marches are east of the city of Hofuf and are probably better referred to as Hassa marches since they are in the region but not really close to the city. They are actually closer to the "eastern villages".

Either way it is an Interesting Bird Area (IBA) which I visited on Thursday and Friday.

As I said in yesterday's blog, one of the most immediate features of birding there is the noise and its really down to one bird - clamorous reed warbler.  

clamorous reed warbler at Hassa marshes

There are two good pieces of news associated with this. the first is that the bird is a "lifer" for me and the second is that it has a habit of singing from an exposed perch.

some of the reeds at Hassa marshes

This habit of being on exposed reeds from time to time is much closer to the behaviour of great reed warbler than European reed warbler and I can't rule out the possibility that the latter was also present though the noise of clamorous reed warbler made identification by sound impossible (for me anyway). 

clamorous reed warbler singing loudly

Taking photos was relatively straight forward although all the shots were from a distance.

same bird but not singing

The picture above is the same bird as it the previous picture but now it has stopped singing.

another clamorous reed warbler

From most angles the bill looks straight but it can show some curvature especially among younger birds. I had to check the identity of a couple of birds with this feature. I had considered basra reed warbler but it would appear it's bill is longer and stronger.

graceful prinia

One other bird shared some of the same habits as the clamorous reed warbler but couldn't really be confused on size alone. This was graceful prinia which is also common at the marshes.

I saw over 40 species at the marshes. Tomorrow I hope to show many of the other land birds at the marshes including other warblers and some chats. 

Friday 27 April 2012

Message from Hofuf

I am writing this from Hofuf. It's a farming community 300 kilometres east of  Riyadh and accessible by train from there.

It's also near an IBA (Important Bird Area) though I wonder how many birders have actually been to the IBA since it was designated many years ago. For example neither of the two main historical recorders visited it. One tried to find it but failed! 

Being a teacher of English has some advantages. I often got around Libya thanks to my students and it's happening in Saudi Arabia too. Thanks to Ahmed from Hofuf, I visited the IBA today. It's based on a very large lake and can only be reached off-road using local knowledge. 

number one little bittern

The lake is the centrepiece of the IBA but it is surrounded by marsh land and bushland.

a view of part of the lake

When I arrived the first thing I noticed was just how many little bittern there were and how noisy it was near the reeds. I will write about the noise more in the next blog.

a second little bittern

Meanwhile I can report that I have seen 5 new additions to my Saudi list so far and managed to photograph them all. I will share them on the blog.

I have also added one lifer which also happens to be the bird responsible for the noise. 

a third little bittern

I'm going to visit the IBA again tomorrow for a half day. I will look at a different part of the lake. I wonder what it will bring?

Thursday 26 April 2012

Honey buzzard at al Hayer

There are a small number of very accomplished wildlife photographers who can often be seen in the al Hayer area south of Riyadh over the weekends.

I met up with one, Ahmed Al Kassim last Thursday. We compared notes and he showed me some pictures he had taken earlier in the day.

honey buzzard at al Hayer

One bird he photographed that morning before we met up intrigued me. It was of a honey buzzard taken at some distance and yet his photography brings out its features very well.I have taken the liberty of cropping it and showing it above (with permission).

I sent the picture to BirdForum for identification. The general consensus is that it is most probably a honey buzzard rather than an oriental honey buzzard.

This is very interesting because although both types are seen on the Saudi coasts mainly in passage times, the two main historical recorders never saw either inland near Riyadh.

This record should be seen in conjunction with my sighting of a probable oriental honey buzzard when I visited Najran in the south west of Saudi Arabia at the beginning of February.

oriental honey buzzard at Najran

I was lucky enough to get very close to that bird and even my camera work (with a camera since superseded) got good photos!

Clearly the story of the status of honey buzzard and oriental honey buzzard in Saudi Arabia is still not totally clear. Ahmed has shed a light more light on the situation.

Incidentally I strongly recommend visiting Ahmed Al Kassim's flickr site. There are currently 73 bird pictures mostly taken in the Riyadh area with some superb shots.

The URL is   My favourites are of bluethroat and white throated kingfisher but you may have your own. Take a look!

Wednesday 25 April 2012

The miserable and the good at al Hayer

As I said in yesterday's blog, the weather last Friday was truly awful. There was a dust storm all day and I had to wear a surgical mask to go birding.

However there were some very interesting side effects of the bad weather.  The most important one was that those passage birds which fly during the day started to land at al Hayer.

blue-cheeked bee-eater

As the day went on, more and more bee-eaters seemed to be making an emergency landing.  One or two of the fodder fields started to fill with blue-cheeked bee-eater hawking for insects or just resting on the ground.

Eurasian bee-eater

The European bee-eater seemed to prefer resting on the wires. Their numbers also increased progressively as the afternoon wore on.

barn swallow

There was an inundation of barn swallow. Most rested in trees though some were flying over the water and fields for insects. None seemed to be on a move north.

Spanish sparrow

I hadn't realised how many Spanish sparrow still haven't headed north. Those still here seemed to be grouping though there are far fewer than the very large flock seen three weeks ago. 

bushes with warblers and flycatcher

I was on the look out for spotted flycatcher which is apparently a common passage bird but which has evaded me all spring. I did see one. It was in the bushes above and wouldn't come out.  I don't know whether it was the weather or if spotted flycatcher stay inside bushes more on passage than their characteristic open perch, catch, return routine.

The same set of bushes also gave me glimpses of two male blackcap and some graceful prinia. Anyway I decided to watch these bushes for about 20 minutes to see what would come out.

lesser whitethroat

In the end it wasn't blackcap,  graceful prinia or spotted flycatcher which gave me the best views from the these bushes but a very tired looking lesser whitethroat.  

red-throated pipit

After finishing with the bushes I saw several yellow wagtail which like the bee-eaters is normally a day time flyer and also it distinct cousin red-throated pipit.  

male rock thrush

Finally as the light began to fade, even though it wasn't that late, I made one last stop at a pivot field where the water had come on. This situation often brings rewards. This time I saw only a couple of squacco heron and a few house sparrow attracted to water.

However on  a sand bank next to the field I spied an unusual bird out of the corner of my eye.  It was a second rock thrush of the day and this time it was male. It was also the last bird of the day too. A great ending.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Miserable weather, good birding at Mansouriyah

Friday was the first time in my life that I birded wearing a surgical mask. There was a day-long dust storm and I followed local advice about what to do when outside.

Visibility was poor and most people would probably have postponed their birding. I am glad I didn't as I will explain over the next two blogs.

female common redstart

I spent the first hour of my birding day (which started very late) in the Mansouriyah area just south of the city.  

I soon came upon an extremely tame common redstart. I found it was unwilling to fly away. Indeed it even approached me, allowing good photos on a day with miserable visibility.

same common redstart in a tree

This unwillingness to move or fly away was not reserved to the common redstart. It was a common feature of many of the birds on Friday. So the poor visibility was compensated for by the ease of approach to the birds. I suppose the birds don't like dust in the air just as much as people.

third view of common redstart

A warbler favoured the same tree as the common redstart except when the local white cheeked bulbul bullied them it and the redstart out from time to time.

However it kept returning to the same tree and so allowed me prolonged views.

female blackcap

It turned out to be a female blackcap. This was the first one I had seen in Saudi Arabia although I saw two more later in the day.

second view of female blackcap

I got another addition to my Saudi list a few minutes later when I was checking the birds on the wires. As well as the laughing dove and collared dove there was a solitary female rock thrush. This was a lifer as well as a local list addition.

female rock thrush

You may recall that Mansouriyah is the place where I had glimpsed a Ruppells weaver about three weeks ago. This is special because the main weaver in the Riyadh area is streaked weaver and there has been doubt Ruppells weaver is here at all.

male Ruppells weaver

Well, I finally photographed a male Ruppells weaver directly above the nest that Lou and I found three weeks ago. What is more I found too more nests a little further away and heard another male weaver in that area.

Other notable occurrences were the incessant noises of the local common myna which were suddenly punctuated by the beautiful sound of European bee-eater starting from far above and then louder and closer. Happily, these bee-eater came down to ground level and started hawking for insects over the adjacent fields. 

There is more about bee-eaters in the next blog.

Monday 23 April 2012

Kestrels and lesser kestrels

Since I arrived in Riyadh last September, I have been seeing and photographing kestrel on the pivot bars of the fields near al Hayer. A recent example is the female bird captured last Thursday.

The weekend before I had taken another photograph of another kestrel, this time male, at virtually the same place.  

female kestrel photographed last Thursday

Because I have shown so many kestrel shots on a pivot bar, I decided in the blog of Monday 16th April (but photographed on Thursday 13th) to show the supposed male kestrel hovering instead. 

hovering bird

However, a sharp eyed reader told me that my hovering bird was possibly a lesser kestrel and that I had assigned it wrongly.

lesser kestrel on a pivot bar

So I scrambled to find my photos of the bird when perched. Sure enough it is definitely a lesser kestrel.  My suspicion is that lesser kestrel is under-reported here. 

Sunday 22 April 2012

Some developments at al Hayer

This blog is a round-up of the birds seen near al Hayer on Thursday north of the sandy reaches discussed in yesterday's blog.

Rufous bush robin

It now looks like some of the rufous bush robin that fly through the Riyadh area are staying for the summer and presumably to breed. There has been conflicting historical data as to weather this takes place. They are not as common as black bush robin but its difficult to believe they will all move on. 

barn swallow

One bird which is already into the breeding process are the local barn swallow which returned in early March.  They look like fledging the first brood before my local birds in Bulgaria start theirs!

unfledged barn swallow

Another good sign concerning breeding is the number of streaked weaver around.  Last week I saw a small flock of  seven birds. This week I saw at least fifteen in a mixed flock with house sparrow. It looks like the species locally will survive last year's bush fire.

I don't really understand why I am now seeing increased numbers of this weaver compared with in winter as it is not known to be migratory. 

two male streaked weaver

The only conclusions I can come up with is that they disperse in winter or that they keep to the reed beds away from the banks during that time.

graceful prinia

Once again I spotted several graceful prinia in exposed positions. They were much more difficult to see in winter too.


Hoopoe numbers are down on a couple of week's ago but it is apparently a locally common bird in summer after the passage and wintering birds have left. 

little bittern

Thursday was the first time I have ever managed to get a photograph of a little bittern. It was very close to me on the side of the river when  I accidentally flushed it. Luckily it only flew to the other side and tried to look camouflaged  on top of the reeds for a few seconds before realising it wouldn't work. This is another known local breeding bird.

ortolan bunting

There was of course some passage activity in this area on Thursday. Like the weekend before there were some ortolan bunting. However they were more dispersed and in lower numbers.

common redstart

Common redstart still keep appearing. I would describe them as a common passage bird. I seem to be seeing more than the main historical recorders lead me to believe would be seen.

common sandpiper

Finally although I blogged about the southern sandy reaches of the Riyadh river yesterday with its abundance of passage waders, the more northern area had a small number too. You don't often see common sandpiper on a tree branch. Incidentally I didn't find the identification of these birds very easy. They don't show the usual common sandpiper white gap on their shoulders. I put this down to perching position.

However their tails are long, their colour is relatively pale and their patterns seems to fits common sandpiper. You live and learn.