Wednesday, 29 August 2012

August at al Hair

Having returned a couple of days before from a field trip to the south west, I met up with fellow birder, Lou Regenmorter last Friday to bird on my local patch at al Hair, central Arabia.

Birding in August in central Arabia is a hot business so it was an early start finished by 11am.

I didn't know what to expect because I arrived in Saudi Arabia in late September last year and missed the main passage.

I am glad we made the effort. We saw 40 species which is close to the highest number achieved in the area for half a days birding. Of course the numbers were enhanced by the autumn passage birds.

blue-cheeked bee-eater

There were three types of bee-eater in the air and on the bushes. The passage Blue-cheeked bee-eater and European bee-eater were as numerous as the resident little green bee-eater.

Little green bee-eater

Four types of heron were seen.

Purple heron

Purple heron, grey heron, squacco heron and black crowned night heron made up the quartet.

The status of these birds is complicated. Purple heron, grey heron and squacco heron are present all year round. However passage and wintering birds of these species are also seen.

part of a group of 7 squacco heron

Indeed the tightly knit group of squacco heron certainly behave like passage birds rather than the local residents which are generally less in the open and more loosely distributed.

Great reed warbler

Close to the group of squacco heron was a lone great reed warbler. This is the first time I have seen one in central Arabia and only the second in Saudi Arabia as a whole.  Its difficult to see why the helms guide second edition says its a local breeder but just maybe it is?  Again though, this openness looked like passage behaviour.

Streaked weaver

Graceful prinia was the only other warbler seen in stark contrast to my trip to south west Saudi Arabia where warblers were numerous.  Other obvious common residents were streaked weaver, house sparrow and Spanish sparrow. The latter was forming up into big flocks.

part of a flock of 35 collared pratincole

Things didnt get very exciting until we investigated the pivot fields. One had short growth and was being heavily sprayed. There was a pool in it where the water collected.   This was a fortunate magnet for water birds.

With slow approach and using Lou's scope, we worked out that the small pool and its environs were crowded with birds. Not only were they 35 collared pratincole there but also three ruff.  Last spring I saw only one single collared pratincole here.


They were joined with a small number of little stint, wood sandpiper and common sandpiper too.

mixed group of collared pratincole, ruff and common sandpiper

And the same watered field also contained more yellow wagtail in one place than I saw all spring migration at al Hair.

collared pratincole with yellow wagtail

After 5 or ten minutes watching the waders a spur winged lapwing appeared and raised the alarm (about us?) and the adult collared pratincole moved off leaving the waders and first year collared pratincole behind.

spur winged lapwing

Eventually the adult collared pratincole returned. The surprise for me though is that I have never seen a spur winged lapwing at al Hair but only the farming district of Kharj 60 kilometres way.

My local patch can still spring surprises.

List by Lou Regenmorter of the 40 species seen

Bee-eater, Blue-Cheeked
Bee-eater, European
Bee-eater, Little Green
Bulbul, White-eared
Dove, Collared
Dove, Laughing
Dove, Namaqua
Heron, Black-crowned Night
Heron, Grey
Heron, Purple
Heron, Squacco
Kingfisher, White Throated
Lapwing, Spur-winged
Lark, Crested
Martin, European Crag
Myna, Common
Pigeon, Rock
Plover, Little Ringed
Pratincole, Collared
Shrike, Isabelline (Daurian)
Shrike, Isabelline (Turkestan)
Shrike, Southern Gray
Silverbill, Indian
Sparrow, House
Sparrow, Spanish
Swallow, Barn
Thrush, Black Bush Robin
Thrush, Rufous Bush Robin
Wader, Common Sandpiper
Wader, Little Stint
Wader, Ruff
Wader, Wood Sandpiper
Wagtail, Yellow
Warbler, Graceful Prinia
Warbler, Great Reed
Weaver, Streaked
Wheatear, Isabelline

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

SW Saudi Arabia trip report- part 5 Ash Shafa, Taif

The city of Taif itself and its immediate surrounds are not great birding territory. The only obvious birds in the city are laughing dove, rock dove, white spectacled bulbul, house sparrow and common myna. It's only the last bird that added to our trip list.

Taif is at an altitude of about 1850 metres. However near-by is the mountain of Ash Shafa which reaches 700 metres higher. 

Brian had visited it before but I soon discovered that the birding became much more interesting as soon as we had risen 200 metres or more although we found the very top surprisingly barren of birds.

The area is considerably greener than the city itself. There are several wadis - both narrow and wide, steep and shallow crossing the main upward road.

This was the only place we saw more than one type of pipit. Wintering tawny pipit were very scarce on the trip because it was so early in the season. We saw just one at As Shafa. 

long billed pipit

However As Shafa was also the only place we positively identified the resident long-billed pipit. Identification was briefly hampered by the fact that the pipit was olive backed here but the guide book picture shown it grey backed. The text did however confirm the olive variant and pictures of east African birds are a perfect match.

Tree pipit

The third pipit and the most common at the time was actually migrant tree pipit.

In the same area as the tree pipit we saw an olive tree warbler, a lifer for me and further south than the marked distribution in our guide book. However the identification was clear even based on size alone. 

young gambaga flycatcher

This was a good place to compare the resident gambaga flycatcher with the passage spotted flycatcher.

spotted flycatcher

Some of the Arabian endemics and Afro-tropical species were present despite the fact we were relatively far north.

Abyssinian white-eye

Two Abyssinian white-eye gave me a good show.

female Arabian wheatear

A female Arabian wheatear lingered a long while next to a water trough. I was surprised how rufous its head looked.

Striolated warbler

At the same water trough we got prolonged views of striolated bunting and I got my best pictures of them for the trip.


No resident African stonechat or migrant eastern stonechat were seen. However the second whinchat of the trip made a long appearance.

steppe buzzard

Finally, once again the area was a little disappointing for birds of prey. Only kestrel and one passage steppe buzzard were seen. 

It's one of the most significant thinking points I have been left with now this very interesting and absorbing trip has ended.


Below is a list of all 92 species seen on the four day trip in chronological order. L means it was a lifer while S means it was an addition to my Saudi list.

Taif to Baha – 18th August
Baha and south – 19th August
Laughing dove
Red-backed shrike
Striolated bunting       L, S
Scrub warbler
Pale rock sparrow
Common redstart
Rock dove
Steppe buzzard
Little green bee-eater
Arabian waxbill     L, S
House sparrow
Yemen thrush
White spectacled bulbul
Common nightingale
Namaqua dove
Violet-backed starling  L, S
Little egret
Tristram’s starling
Common sandpiper
Bruce’s green pigeon   L, S
Green sandpiper
Dusky turtle dove
Wood sandpiper
Black bush robin
Marsh warbler    S
Little stint
Common whitethroat
Glossy ibis    S
Baha to Taif – 20th August
Whiskered tern
Little rock thrush
Little swift    L, S
Red rumped swallow
Barn swallow
Tawny pipit
Collared pratincole
Daurian shrike
Arabian babbler
Shining sunbird     L, S
Eastern olivaceous warbler
Arabian partridge
African silverbill
House martin
Palestine sunbird
Turkestan shrike
Arabian wheatear
Fan-tailed raven
Semi collared flycatcher   S
Taif area – 21st August
Southern grey shrike
Common myna
Steppe grey shrike
European crag martin
Long billed pipit
Rufous bush robin
Tree pipit
Thrush nightingale    S
Olive tree warbler   L, S
Gambaga flycatcher   L,S
Squacco heron
Crested lark
Little ringed plover
Desert lark
Ruddy turnstone
African crag martin
Blue cheeked bee-eater
Pallid swift
Woodchat shrike
White crowned wheatear

Alpine swift



White throated robin

Arabian woodpecker

Yemen linnet

Lesser whitethroat

Short toed lark

Yemen serin   L,S

Long legged buzzard

Brown necked raven

Masked shrike

Ruepells weaver

European bee-eater

African collared dove

Grey wagtail

Abyssinian white-eye

Cinnamon-breasted bunting   S

Monday, 27 August 2012

SW Saudi Arabia trip report part 4 - south of Baha

On the afternoon of August 19th, Brian James and I advanced to the furthest point south on our birding trip in south west Saudi Arabia.

We travelled through Buljurashi down to the mountain village of al Farah approximately 90 kilometres south of Baha, off route 15.

There were short stops at the side of the road on the way down and a stop on the edge of Bujurashi on the way back up to Baha.

cinnamon breasted bunting

On the way down there were plenty more signs of cinnamon-breasted bunting in the open rocky areas and white throated robin in the cover.

white spectacled bulbul

One bird I haven't mentioned in the whole trip so far is white-spectacled bulbul (a.k.a yellow-vented bulbul). This is a very common bird all down the west side of Saudi Arabia and the area south of Baha is no exception.

The isolated farming village of al Farah was particularly interesting. We lingered on the edge of the village watching unidentified pipits, the first pipits of the tour. Just as the scope came out, locals fired off some fireworks left over from recent Eid celebrations which unfortunately scared the pipits off. Were they the ill-identified African pipit known in these remote areas? We will never know. More pipits were seen near Taif at the end of our trip and there is more on them in the last blog of the series.

violet backed starling

The village held much more interest too. Yemen linnet abounded.  However, in a cluster of trees in a garden we came across the first violet-backed starling I have ever seen. This lifer was sure evidence of the Afro-tropical influence of this southern area. (I later saw a second violet-backed starling near Bujurashi on the way back north that day).

Ten minutes after seeing the first violet-backed starling, while walking past another cluster of trees - this time fruit trees, a Bruce's green pigeon flew out. This was a second lifer in one village and another Afro-tropical bird. 

Elsewhere in the village there was a dusky turtle dove, a lifer for Brian.

Palestine sunbird

On the way back towards Baha, we came across an area with lots of a yellow flowing plants (see above). This was a magnet for Palestine sunbird and there was briefing sighting of another black bush robin in the near-by prickly pear.

common whitethroat

There was a little less sign of western palearctic migrants than in other areas apart from the seemingly ubiquitous white throated robin but when we looked carefully in the road side bushes common whitethroat was evident.

Arabian warbler

Indeed the main warblers appeared to be not the western palearctic migrants but the both endemic Arabian warbler and the less common endemic yemen warbler. The former is much lighter than the latter and relatively easily separated.

After this trip the only Arabian endemic I haven't seen is yemen accentor which is said not to be present in Saudi Arabia anywhere. It would be nice to prove this point wrong and I suspect some of the mountains south east of Jizan on the border are the places to go.  

This will have to wait for another trip. in the meantime the next blog looks at the birds seen at the highland Ash Shafa near Taif at the end of this trip. 

There is lots to review including pipits as trailed earlier.