Saturday 26 May 2012

The local patch in summer

Birding in central Arabia at this time of year is like birding inside an oven. So when Lou and I went birding on Friday in the al Hair area, starting early, we expected the worse.

The good news is that it was less hot than usual for this time of year. The bad news is it still reached 37C by mid afternoon.

Most birding in the centre winds down for June to mid August. Furthermore, the main reason while people brave mid August is because the autumn passage begins. 

red-backed shrike

The spring passage is virtually over now. However, we saw three very late passage birds. One was the female red-backed shrike (above) which was perched on a water pivot arm. 

little stint

The second was a lone little stint gingerly walking and eating on a mud crust over the Riyadh river.

The third was a willow warbler deep in a group of tamarisk bushes.

male streaked weaver

One of the most obvious activities of the birds which are staying was nest building. The streaked weaver are in the process of building their nests. I hope they have more success than last year when a fire destroyed many of them.

one of two nesting sites we saw for streaked weaver

We saw two nesting sites both in reeds next to water.

female streaked weaver

Although I saw a huge flock of spanish sparrow in late April which looked like they were preparing to migrate north, its obvious a very large number stay in the area to breed.

spanish sparrow with food

In one area, also close to the water, there are tens if not hundreds of spanish sparrow nests being built. 

spanish sparrow nests

The spanish sparrow are sharing some of the bushes with white cheeked bulbul. A small minority of the nests have a top cover with a hole in the side.I can't find any reference to either spanish sparrow or white cheeked bulbul making nests like this.

spanish sparrow 

This must be one of the furthest south locations for spanish sparrow breeding in the world and frequent trips are made to the water to cool off.

Other local breeders include purple heron, squacco heron, black crowned night heron, little bittern and probably cattle egret and grey heron. All these species were seen yesterday.

eastern olivaceous wabler

Among the breeding warblers eastern olivaceous warbler, European reed warbler and graceful prinia were clearly heard and seen in numbers.

graceful prinia

We searched long and hard for sedge warbler and moustached warbler but saw neither. Both look good prospects for breeding locally. One difficulty for them and us is the amount of disturbance to the short reeds and sedge created by Friday fishermen.

two of the many moorhen

Other definite breeders are the hundreds of moorhen which line the river along its whole course. Of the other water birds, one mallard was also seen flying over.

little ringed plover

The only wader which definitely breeds at al Hair is little ringed plover. We saw nothing on Friday to change  that understanding.

white throated kingfisher

It was good to see a white throated kingfisher again. They are here all round and were photographed with young last summer by local photographers. The place I thought there would breed from this summer has turned out not to be. I haven't found this year's spot (s). However there numbers are still small and successful breeding again this year would help consolidate their position.

brown necked raven

We didn't notice a single bird of prey on Friday not even the normally ubiquitous kestrel. However a flock of brown necked raven came onto a pivot field seemingly to take their place.

rufous bush robin

Of the other birds there were rufous bush robin, black bush robin, laughing dove and collared dove in several places. We were on the look out for turtle dove but once again failed to see any. It is clearly in serious decline here as in many other places through the world. My old, first edition of "Birds of the Middle East" has it breeding here. I doubt it does now. 

Saturday 19 May 2012

It was worth the heat at al Hair

When I left for al Hair at 6.45am yesterday morning it was already 33C. Furthermore I had low expectations because nearly all the passage season is over. A gruelling time in the heat without many birds was my expectation. 

I was wrong.

I decided to keep close to the Riyadh river at all times assuming correctly that birds would gravitate there. By the time I quit at 11.30 because the temperature had reached 43C, I had seen 25 species including one a new one for me in Saudi Arabia.

Let me explain further: in one of the pivot fields which border the Riyadh river,  I observed a pratincole. It was my first sight of one in Saudi Arabia but virtually my last sighting on Friday before the heat forced me to end birding. 


Given that all the pratincoles recorded by the two main historic observers in central Arabia were collared pratincole and my bird gave this overall impression then my instant reaction was also collared pratincole.

second view of pratincole

On reflection, I concluded it didn't look like a typical collared pratincole. I posted pictures on BirdForum.  Experts concluded, using measurements,  the legs are much longer than the average and are the length expected for the black winged pratincole. Also the wings are longer than the tail which is feature of black winged pratincole. However critically this is also possible in worn-tailed collared pratincole.

The balance of opinion after much debate is that my bird is indeed a collared pratincole but some of the features are close to black winged pratincole. I can only speculate why this is the case.

It is surprising that more black winged pratincole are not seen in the Middle east on passage. First, black winged pratincole breeds in south east Russia and adjacent areas. It winters south of the sahara. The birds must fly through the Middle East! Surely it must be that the observations are scarce not the birds. 

Indeed, one of the two historic recorders saw several birds which he convinced himself were collared pratincole even though they had features of black winged pratincole. Was he swayed by the scarcity argument? I will need to be extra vigilant before I automatically assign any more pratincoles I see.

squacco heron in full breeding plumage

Before all the excitement of the pratincole observation in a pivot field, nearly all the birding action on Friday was on or at the edge of the water. Squacco heron in full breeding plumage were seen in three different places. Other heron family members seen were little bittern and purple heron. I also saw two black crowned night heron - my first since late October. and in stark contrast I didn't see any grey heron for the first time since then.

second squacco heron

Wader activity has dropped off (pratincole excluded).  Apart from numerous little ringed plover which is a known breeder, the only other wader seen was a single wood sandpiper.

little ringed plover

Several of the little ringed plover were clearly juveniles.

wood sandpiper

Three of the few warblers which breed in central Arabia were in evidence along the river bank. Graceful prinia was the most obvious. Reed warbler made the most noise though a small number were also seen. The less common eastern olivaceous warbler came to the water's edge right next to me and I snapped it before it flew off.

eastern olivaceous warbler

It really does look like a washed out and greyer version of reed warbler. Very close by a flock of five desert finch kept coming back to drink.

namaqua dove

The water's edge was also the best place to see namaqua dove.

laughing dove taking off

Even closeness to water doesn't stop laughing dove and collared dove from being ultra alert. They fly off as soon a person is seen. 

rose ringed parakeet

My final comment on today's blog concerns the sighting of a rose ringed parakeet. This bird is very common in the larger residential compounds in the city but I hadn't seen it outside the city before. I wonder if the damaged tail feathers are connected to the reason why its moved way from its normal habitat.

full list of birds seen on Friday
squacco heron
purple heron
little bittern
black crowned night heron
namaqua dove
rock pigeon
laughing dove
collared dove
wood sandpiper
little ringed plover
collared or black winged pratincole 
little green bee-eater
rose ringed parakeet
rufous bush robin
black bush robin
crested lark
brown necked raven
graceful prinia
reed warbler
eastern olivaceous warbler
streaked weaver
white cheeked bulbul
house sparrow
spanish sparrow

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Al Jouf

The towns of Sakakah and Zalum are in the al Jouf farming district in north west Saudi Arabia. I visited them on Friday from my base for the weekend in Arar, northern borders.

I am very grateful to Abdullah from Arar for driving and guiding me there at short notice after my original driver let me down. I wouldn't have been able to bird there without him.

The al Jouf area is low land compared with the surrounding area and has water just below the surface. So it has been used for farming for generations.

European nightjar

I'll start with the very last bird I saw over the weekend first because it was so important to me!  

Just as we were leaving Zalum I spotted a dark bird on the ground in the semi-desert on the edge of the town near where the car was parked. As I approached it, it flew off but not very far to land very still a few metres away. it was when it was in flight I realised it was a European nightjar.

I have only seen a nightjar once before and that was in the headlights of a car at night near Tripoli airport, Libya. I couldn't tell whether that one was a European nightjar or Egyptian nightjar so the one I saw at Zalum counts as a definite "lifer".

This was brilliant end to a good days birding in al Jouf some 150 kilometres south west of Arar.

white cheeked bulbul

The main farming in al Jouf is palm and olives but there are also orange groves and some small scale market gardening. And yet the overall impression is not that green as the farms are interspersed with semi desert.

Unlike Arar, al Jouf has a large number of white cheeked bulbul. Surely this is among the westernmost populations of this species in the world? 

masked shrike

Four types of shrike were present especially near the watered fields but also elsewhere. These were masked shrike, red-backed shrike, woodchat shrike and lesser grey shrike.

woodchat shrike

Unlike in Arar the day before, I didn't see either red tailed shrike. It may be too far west of their main passage routes.

lesser grey shrike

The really wet fields attracted yellow wagtail, tawny pipit, squacco heron and a single little egret.  Barn swallow and European crag martin were hawking for insects overhead.

yellow wagtail

Ironically two of my best birds came from the semi-desert near the farms rather than the farms themselves. not only did I see a European nightjar but I also saw two Upcher's warbler in low lying tamarisk in a wadi bed outside Sakakah.

Upcher's warbler

Two other warblers were seen. These were common whitethroat and willow warbler. Both were quite common in the farming areas. 

crested lark

My old friend, crested lark was present there too although no other lark species was seen.  A couple of hoopoe were spotted too. Neither bird was observed in Arar although Abdullah told me they are both there. 

laughing dove

The triumvirate of laughing dove, collared dove and namaqua dove were common. As you might expect the laughing dove (or palm dove) was attracted more to the palm plantations.

namaqua dove

To complete the picture, house sparrow was almost everywhere and whinchat was seen near the market gardening areas. Northern wheatear was on the edges of the farms and once again I saw a trumpeter finch but failed to get a photo. This one was drinking from a leaky pipe near a vegetable patch.

All in all a great weekends birding at Arar and Al Jouf. Special thanks to Abdullah again for organising things.

Monday 14 May 2012

The warblers of wadi Arar

One of the best birding features of the new lakes in wadi Arar were the warblers. They were numerous and deserve more study than my time there allowed.

Willow warbler was particularly abundant. I counted at least 22 on my walk round.

willow warbler

 However there were also acrocephalus warblers present even though the reeds are only just starting to grow.

view of one of the lakes

I saw sedge warbler in three different places. I would not be surprised if they were to breed there this summer. This species was a welcome addition to my Saudi list.

sedge warbler

I heard European reed warbler, a long time before I saw one. I suspect they will probably start breeding there this summer too.  It looks ideal habitat and they are known to breed a lot further south. 

reed warbler

The only sylvia warbler I met was common whitethroat. There aren't many bushes there yet to make it very attractive for the sylvia family of birds.

Upcher's warbler

There were two different grey hippolais present. There were both eastern olivaceous warbler and Upchers warbler. Eastern olivaceous warbler breeds all over the eastern Mediterranean and the middle East. However Upcher's warbler has a more restricted summer area. It just happens to be directly north of Arar particularly in southern and eastern Turkey and Iraq. Seeing it in Arar was no real shock. 

The photo quality above is not good but it has enough features for me and the correspondents on BirdForum to say it is an Upcher's warbler. For me the long legs and pale panel on the secondary feathers are important factors. The last and only time I had previously seen Upchers warbler was in Azerbaijan four years ago. It another first for my Saudi list. 

In the next blog, I will report on my visit on the second day in the north to the Al Jouf farming area.  I had a "lifer" there.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Wadi Arar

There are probably two main reasons very little birding has ever taken place in Arar, northern borders, KSA.

The first is perceived lack of accessibility. Its in the proverbial middle of nowhere. And yet its easy and cheap to fly in from Riyadh or Jeddah.

The second is the lack of rain and the presumption that there is very little water on the ground and associated vegetation.

Arar averages only 14mm of rain a year which even compares unfavourably with 95mm in Riyadh.  This seems to support the case.

However, the presumption of no water and lack of vegetation is wrong. The city is well watered and so trees and greenery grows in the urban areas. More importantly and perhaps the most exciting development is the new city waste water treatment plant.

purple heron

The cleaned up waste water is diverted into wadi Arar north of the city. Here it goes into the first of four lakes which are connected by streams. The lakes cascade down the wadi.  Reeds and bushes are springing up all around the new lakes. And because its in the middle of a very dry area for a hundred or more kilometres, it acts as a magnet for birds.

wadi Arar

I was only there for four and a half hours on Thursday but I identified 29 species.  Three were new to me in Saudi Arabia. Two of them were warblers and I am going to write about warblers separately in the next blog.

water inlet pipe from the treatment plant

The biggest birds were mostly from the heron family. There were purple heron, several squacco heron, little bittern and one little egret on the day. My guess is their population will grow with the reed beds. Until then they are vulnerable to hunters.

squacco heron

There are shallow sides and wetland at several points along the lakes. These were supporting some waders.

common sandpiper

I observed three types of sandpiper: common sandpiper, wood sandpiper and green sandpiper.

wood sandpiper and common snipe

Next to one of the wood sandpiper I was extremely surprised to see a common snipe. It has been at least a month since the last one left the Riyadh area but of course Arar is a long way further north.  

ringed plover

Two other waders there were ringed plover and black winged stilt.

yellow wagtail

Yellow wagtail were attracted to the wetlands. I failed to see a feldegg among them even though this is the breeding sub species in most of the middle East. This is in accord with historical recorders in Saudi Arabia who also noticed that feldegg is an earlier returner than most other yellow wagtail sub species.

tawny pipit

Tawny pipit was also present. Once again they have already left the Riyadh area.

woodchat shrike  

Three types of shrike were in the area. One was woodchat shrike which is an early passage bird . Another was red-backed shrike which is a late passage bird. I can only assume the woodchat shrike seen are lingering because they are close to their target breeding area a few hundred kilometres to the north.

red-backed shrike

The third one was Turkestan shrike. I have no idea whether it winters in Arar or whether these are all passage birds. 

spotted flycatcher

Like red backed shrike, spotted flycatcher is a late spring passage bird.

black-eared wheatear

There were several northern wheatear in the area but no Isabelline wheatear were seen all weekend. The only other wheatear was a single bird above. I had trouble deciding between Finsch's wheatear and black-eared wheatear. However the tail pattern fits black-eared wheatear


As in the city itself, a few whinchat were seen.  

namaqua dove

Apart from the warblers which I will report on in the next blog, the other species in the wadi were barn swallow, rufous bush robin, namaqua dove, house sparrow, a beautiful if flighty European roller and a pair of trumpeter finch.

house sparrow

The trumpeter finch were exceptional because they weren't seen at the waters edge but in the hinterland among some building rubble. This was the first time I had seen this bird in Saudi Arabia and was a welcome addition to my Saudi list.