Saturday 30 June 2012

More home birding

I have had a few urgent jobs to do during my relatively short break back in my adopted village in Bulgaria. The hard winters always mean repairs need over-seeing when I am back during my vacations. I also like to invest in home improvements and need to oversee these too. And there is seeing friends to do as well.

However, despite these pressures on my time, I have managed to sneak in some local birding watching in between things. Albeit all this birding has been done very close to my house. 

barn swallow - fledged from the nest but still being fed

While my last blog was mostly about walking up and down my local valley (see photo below) this one concentrates on birds seen even closer, within the village itself. All have been seen within 125 metres of my house and within 25 metres of someone's house.

A very fruitful place birdingwise is the woodland which straddles the stream which splits the village in two. I have a habit of walking off the road 10 metres into wood and simply waiting, watching and listening. I don't know what the locals think of this mad Englishman hiding in the trees but I think they know me well enough by now. 

It was near here that I saw my first turtle dove of the year. I failed to see one in Saudi Arabia or in England this year but my village is a stronghold of this bird. To be truthful I heard it along time before I saw it. It has a distinctive purring sound like a cat and the noise carried a long way!

Once I was well hidden in the woods, I noticed three very young barn swallow perched. I was surprised to see adult birds returning time and time again to feed them. I haven't seen this behaviour before, outside the nest.

my local valley goes right down to the sea 

There are plenty of finches in the trees. I can easily see greenfinch. When I visited the valley last week I also saw linnet


In fact when I first saw the bird below (within the village) my first reaction was that it was young linnet. It was only when I got back and noticed the yellow strip on the wing that I realised it must actually be a young goldfinch. You live and learn.

young goldfinch

While in my hiding place I saw lots of golden oriole flitting between the trees and also a greater spotted woodpecker. My village has both syrian woodpecker and greater spotted woodpecker. I have commented before that this shows how open the village is because while syrian woodpecker like being close to human habitation, greater spotted woodpecker are much less keen. 

black headed bunting

I decided to look harder for black headed bunting (mentioned in the last blog) which I had been hearing all week alongside the sound of corn bunting.  All I had to do was follow the sound. Indeed there was a male in a tree just round the corner from my house.


I don't normally photograph common starling but this one insisted I did by making several appearances on the wire right in front of my garden.


With nightingale I have the opposite problem. I really want to photograph them.  They are as common in my Bulgarian village as blackbird is in an English garden.  However they shun the camera. This poor photo was the best I could do this time round.  

Before I leave this blog I mustn't forget to mention the owls of the village. Once again little owl can be regularly seen especially next to chimneys. I just  haven't had my camera with me when I have seen them. And one or more scops owl  tries its best to keep me awake all night.

Next week I'm travelling a long, long way east. Hopefully I'll be able to report on what I see. It should be interesting.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Late June at home

The people in the villages north of Varna have been complaining that it has been much hotter than usual for late June. Typically it has been 35C in the shade.However compared with Riyadh this is nothing though the humidity is problematic.

Birding has been difficult for several reasons: the birds are keeping in the shade, the humidity gets to you and possibly the worst factor is the wild barley. The barley heads get into your boots and they really hurt. I'm not joking, they are a real pain. 

Nevertheless, over a couple of days and avoiding midday, I have re-acquainted myself with the local bird life. And by local I mean all the bird pictures in this blog were taken within 500 metres of my house - though I did venture, fruitlessly, a bit further.

house martin

In the village itself, house martin and barn swallow are everywhere. If you look carefully there are a few red-rumped swallow and common swift in the air too though I cant vouch that they breed in the village unlike the other two.

northern wheatear

All year round, house sparrow and tree sparrow are also obvious close to houses. I am happy that a pair of northern wheatear are to be found very near my house again this summer. They have been making it into my garden at times too. This year both birds have got two legs. A male bird that visited me last summer only had one!

corn bunting

Once you venture out of the village into the near-by fields then the birding has been tough. One guaranteed bird is corn bunting. It is extremely common and vocal here.

I have heard but not yet seen a black headed bunting. The reason is probably the route I have taken. They mostly stay near the arable fields west of the village. I have been straight out of the front door to the east.

golden oriole

Another noisy and numerous bird is golden oriole. It makes they countryside sound like Africa. However the bird is shy. It may be easy to hear and see in flight but in the open countryside seeing one perched is very tricky. It's a long distance occupation.

red backed shrike

Aside from the golden oriole and corn bunting, pickings have been a bit thin. The red-backed shrike was an exception. 

I really must get out at dawn one day. It is probably only then and towards dusk when many birds are out in the open. 


By way of example. two linnet were seen just as I was finishing my walk last night. It was 6.45pm.

long tailed tit

There is a mobile long tailed tit flock about which you can best see at these times too.

distant booted eagle

Let's not forget that the heat is actually a good omen for seeing a few select birds. The ones I am thinking about are birds of prey which like the thermals. I haven't seen the family of short toed eagle which was in a local valley last year though people tell me they are around again. However I have seen a dark phase booted eagle. Apparently the white shoulders (or landing lights) are diagnostic even from my poor picture.

I saw and photographed a light phase booted eagle over my house in late August last year. I had assumed it was on passage but research suggests they migrate in September. It's beginning to looks like booted eagle is a local bird.

Saturday 23 June 2012

A walk in an English park

I was in the UK last week to visit family, friends and to have a visa processed. it wasn't really a time for birding. 

Indeed there has never been a time for me to bird in the UK. I started this hobby late (though very intensively) and confess I have only birded with any knowledge twice in my life in my home country.  My element is a 120 degree arc pivoting on Varna, Bulgaria from south west round to directly east of there. It stretches  from Tripoli, Libya to Baku, Azerbaijan and many places in between such as Riyadh and Tirana. I also have a fair grounding in west Africa from Senegal to Namibia. 

But in the UK - virtually nothing.

On my first day in the UK, seeing tame goldfinch and greenfinch in my brother's sub urban London garden while staring out the kitchen was a joy. The next day, I made a mental note to put my sighting on ebird of canada geese seen through the window of my great western train journey to Worcester. Without this input its not on my formal life list.

After all the visits, on the last two mornings, before my onward journey to Bulgaria, I did manage to snatch a couple of walks round Cofton Park on the Worcestershire-Birmingham border.


I didn't really know what to do. Its difficult to explain but when you bird a new area it takes time to get the feel of the place, to get the feel of the birds' habits and where and how to look. 

As I entered the park, a robin was very obliging but my first thought was that bluethroat has got a redbreast!  I am so used to seeing bluethroat (in winter), I marvelled at the similarity.Some of the habits seem the same but robin appears in trees whereas I can't remember a bluethroat ever going up more than 30 cm into one. 

Of course I have seen many robin before, particularly wintering in coastal Libya, summering in Albanian hills etc  but the British ones seem so tame and allow prolonged viewing.

side on view of the same robin

Bulgarian villages hum with the sound of nightingale which has a reputation for its attractive song. However the more I listen to blackbird, the more I think its sound is at least a match. England (and I presume the rest of the UK) is very lucky to hear this wonderful melody. 

male blackbird

Bulgarian blackbird is a shy creature of woods. I rarely see it in gardens and it scares so easily. Don't believe the Collins guide that says this bird is tame. It is plain wrong.The British ones are, the ones in my arc certainly are not.  

juvenile blackbird

I had more photo opportunities on blackbird in two hours in an English park than two years elsewhere.

wood pigeon

I don't return to the UK often so I can see changes that have taken place over years accelerated. Though I don't have numbers to back me up, except a Daily Mail article I just found on the web and I don't believe that source for much! but wood pigeon appears far more numerous than in my youth or indeed over the past few years. I presume its because people don't shoot and eat it very much any more. Cheap chicken prices have many advantages.

more wood pigeon

Another obvious feature of the park was the abundance of corvids. They were varied and plentiful.


There were lots of common crow and magpie but it took me sometime to realise that some of the dark corvids were rook and especially jackdaw. Since when did jackdaw become so common?


My art of birding in the UK needs practice. I was not nearly as good tracking the small birds as I was with the large ones unless like the robin they offered themselves in front of me.

I did work out there were at least three kinds of tit in the park.


There were blue tit, great tit and long tailed tit. All of these are well known to me. Indeed I see them in my adopted village in Bulgaria regularly. Not sure which tit is in the picture above. I took the camera first before attempting an ID. 

My biggest failing on my short walk out was my inability to track down any warblers.  They must be there but my eye and particularly my ears weren't up to the job. Maybe next time.

Friday 22 June 2012

A Wadi south west of Riyadh

A couple of weeks ago just before I left Saudi Arabia for the summer, Lou and I made one last trip out in the searing heat.

We visited one of the several wadis south west of Riyadh which run east-west through the Tuwaiq escarpment which is essentially a north-south feature. The wadi we chose is directly west of Dillam and some 100 kilometres away from Riyadh.

It looked promising in advance partly because google earth shown some greenery.

young blackstart

The wadi was a surprisingly wide valley with occasional small farms and some natural bushes.It rose extremely gently and we probably only gained 50-100 metres altitude from start to finish. The 4x4 that we had at our disposal was still tested by the road quality though.

Despite the heat there was some bird life!  The skies were thronging with African crag martin

The lower part of the valley had a resident flock of brown-necked raven while the top end had a flock of fan-tailed raven. Both the African crag martin and the fan-tailed raven were firsts for Lou but not for me unfortunately. My hopes of seeing any vultures or falcons were dashed too.

parent blackstart

Near the wadi base, possibly the most common bird was blackstart and they appeared to be mostly in family groups as befits that stage in their breeding cycle with the young ones not fully fledged.

yellow vented (white spectacled) bulbul

One of the most interesting features of the wadi was the predominance of  yellow vented bulbul over white eared bulbul. This is exactly the opposite situation to that in Riyadh and Kharj. Indeed it was the first time in central Arabia that I have seen this phenomenon.

All credit to the Helms guide to Middle East birds which has this distribution spot on.

desert lark finding shade

Hoopoe was spotted at one of the farms. The helms guide doesn't pick up the wider distribution for this bird though.

We saw fleeting views of lark all the way along the valley but it wasn't until we were leaving that one stayed still long enough for us to confirm or belief that they had been desert lark.

By midday even desert lark keep firmly in the shade.

second view of desert lark

Once again I was surprised that namaqua dove seem to venture out in the heat more than most other birds. Perhaps that explains why I often see them drinking too.

namaqua dove

On the way back we drove over the escarpment where wee saw virtually nothing! Its simply too exposed and not high enough to be cool. Winter. of course may be a different story.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Kharj in summer

On Thursday despite the intense heat which reached 46C in the shade, Lou and I went birding. For the first time in a while we visited the Kharj farming district, 60 kilometres south of Riyadh. In particular we visited the area a little  south east of the city. Here is a waste water treatment plant which gives rise to a river and lagoons. Parallel to the river in the next wadi is a large seemingly natural lake.

The river, lagoons and lake were all visited.

purple heron at Kharj

Once again Lou and I searched hard for moustached warbler and turtle dove which the guide books say breed in central Arabia. Once again we failed to see or hear any. We have finally concluded that the data is out of date and they really don't breed here any more. We certainly couldn't have put in more effort over the weeks in trying to find them in appropriate habitat.

Nevertheless the river did have a wide diversity of bird species. Purple heron, black crowned night heron and squacco heron were seen.

black crowned night heron

In our search for moustached warbler, we kept coming across European reed warbler in the reeds and less frequently eastern olivaceous warbler in the bushes. Graceful prinia was in both places.

little green bee-eater

There was a high density of little green bee-eater with many young ones among them.

Indian silverbill

Indian silverbill were seen in numbers along with the ubiquitous house sparrow.  However we didn't see any spanish sparrow unlike in my "local patch" at al Hair.

Namaqua dove

Collared dove, laughing dove and namaqua dove were also present and obvious. I find that namaqua dove is more willing to come out of the shade than the others but equally you often see it drinking.

camel wallowing

At one point in our walk along the river we came across a very tame group of camels. This female gladly continued wallowing in the water right next to us without a care.

lagoon end of the waste water river

We drove to the far end of the river where it opens out into lagoons and where the reeds finally subside.

spur winged lapwing

Here the birding was quite different. Spur winged lapwing were present. This lapwing is unique to Khraj. I have never seen it at al Hayer or indeed anywhere close to Riyadh.

Kentish plover

Another difference with al Hair is the default breeding small plover is Kentish plover rather than little ringed plover. This probably tells us that the water bodies are more saline at Kharj. Kentish plover was present in the lagoons.

There were also a small number of black winged stilt there.

black winged stilt

After moving on from the lagoons and we temperatures till rising, our last stop was a lake near the middle section of the river in the parallel wadi. Here black winged stilt was very numerous and noisy.

black winged stilt in flight

Several of them kept flying over us as we walked round. I have seen this before in other countries and have always put it down to protecting young.

young black winged stilt

Sure enough a young stilt was seen but I believe others were around but hidden. 

The shores were heavy with Kentish plover. However it was the rarer birds which excited.

whiskered tern drinking

A single whiskered tern was present. It looks like it is over-summering a long way south of where most such tern in the Middle east spend their summer. It was in non-breeding plumage.  Kharj was the only place I saw one in central Arabia in winter too.

whiskered tern in flight

Lou spotted a single sandgrouse drinking. I had time to view it briefly just as it flew off. My best guess is that it was chestnut bellied sandgrouse. This is the same species that Clive, Abdullah and I had seen in Kharj during December.

Finally to add to the species list, one little grebe made a short appearance before hiding.

Overall the variety of birds made the extra journey and the effort in the heat very worthwhile.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Wadi Namar

Thanks to Lou for finding a new birding venue in the Riyadh area through his company contacts. The new place is Wadi Namar.

It is a wadi with natural water flow from the Tuwaig escarpment and runs west to east. It meets Wadi Hanifah (which runs north to south) where much of my birding in the Riyadh area has been done.

The eastern end of Wadi Namar has been dammed and forms a permanent reservoir. The area is heavily landscaped for picnicking locals to make use.

Yesterday, Lou and I birded the upper, western section of the wadi a couple of kilometres away from this.

oninge of several blackstart in the wadi

We started birding towards the top end of the wadi and headed down. At the top end water was scarce. Nevertheless the birds included blackstart though even here the ubiquitous house sparrow was the most common.  

a lake part way up the wadi 

On the floor of the wadi were several desert lark seen at different points. In my opinion there were at least two sub species and this caused me some confusion for a while.

young desert lark begging for food

The birds at the top end were very sandy (see the pictures above). These are probably the sub species azizi. The birds further down were much greyer, the back were plainer but the wing feathers more patterned. I now put these down to the sub species deserti. As the two sets of birds were so different, I investigated the possibility that the sandier birds might be Dunn's lark.  Although they have slight streaks on the head and a slight mottling on the back, these features are not vivid enough for Dunn's lark. I have concluded they must be desert lark.

desert lark mother has food

Other notable birds in the upper reaches were white crowned wheatear which is one of my personal favourites. These were seen at two different locations. Howeve,r despite the escarpments on both sides of the wadi and a major search by both of us, no hooded wheatear was seen. This bird has eluded me since my arrival in Saudi Arabia though it is said to be present in the central area.

white crowned wheatear

As you go down the wadi the size and frequency of water bodies generally increases. One such body which was fairly deep held 25 black winged stilt and a few little ringed plover. These are the two waders which have been documents to be perennial breeders in this part of the country. The tamarisk surrounding this water body contained a small number of eastern olivaceous warbler and an unidentified acrocephalus warbler was also heard.

Here and elsewhere near-by, white cheeked bulbul was quite numerous. We were very surprised to see a single yellow vented bulbul too. Little green bee-eater peppered our route down.

black winged stilt with little ringed plover

From half way down the wadi there is a continuous stream which sometimes broadens out. In a year of decent spring rains like this year, it is almost certainly permanent. 

We searched hard for moustached warbler which is said to be a local breeder by some sources. However like the hooded wheatear it eluded a serious search. If it is in the region, it must be lying low. During our search we picked up a few reed warbler instead. 

The third bird in our targetted search was turtle dove. And this too eluded us. There were plenty of collared dove and laughing dove. None of the birders in recent years have seen one in central Arabia. I seriously doubt it still breeds here.


Also further down the valley there were more and more variety of water birds. Moorhen is once again common but shy. There were a small number of grey heron and at least one but probably two little bittern.

In the reservoir itself at the eastern end of the wadi, a lone coot was swimming in the middle heavily outnumbered by domestic white ducks. 

I just wish I had known about this place during the winter and passage seasons.