Monday 29 October 2012

Autumn in north east Bulgaria

It was a very long summer in Bulgaria this year. September and October have also been exceptionally warm and dry.

I noticed some effect of this during my birding around my home area this last week.

For a start, the influx of common buzzard and rook from the north hasn't yet happened though it must be imminent. I didnt spot any fieldfare either.

 winter wren at near-by Rogachevo

Indeed walking around the village itself I kept coming across black redstart. This is a passage bird here but it has clearly liked the hills and the weather up till now this autumn. It will move on soon I'm sure. In the meantime the  phenomenon of every village street and lane having them is being enjoyed.

black redstart in the village

There are a few breeding yellowhammer in the summer but in winter they are re-inforced. This seems to be one bird that has arrived.


The winter flocks of tree sparrow and of house sparrow which roam the village are only now being formed up.

the house sparrow are beginning to flock

One new observation for me is that the village collared dove have taken to roosting near my house. Indeed every morning, very early I can get up and see them on a wire right outside my house.  They have taken the spots occupied by barn swallow in the summer.

early morning collared dove outside my house

My trip to near-by Rogachevo yesterday for Sunday lunch provided me a chance to do some birding there. Here too, the winter pattern of birding is not yet established. In winter there are mobile groups of goldfinch and linnet with a few siskin thrown in. 

Yesterday I didn't see any mobile flocks but I did see small numbers but not flocking goldfinch and of siskin

siskin hiding its face at Rogachevo

There were other finches around too.

the same siskin buried in the tree

A hawfinch was happily exposed on the top of one of the tallest trees.

hawfinch looking out at the top of a tall tree

I haven't often seen chaffinch venture out of the near-by forest into the lighter woodland and scrub on the forest edge but a couple did it yesterday.

chaffinch also at the top of a tree

Nearer the ground,  winter wren seemed in less of a hurry to move on and find food than usual.

one of many magpie at Rogachevo

One of the most obvious sightings in the area was the very large number of magpie and a smaller number of jay.

sparrowhawk at Rogachevo

I had seen a female goshawk in myown village three days ago. Possibly the same one I had seen the summer before carrying off a full grown magpie to its death. With all these magpie around I was a little surprised that the bird of prey seen a couple of times above was "only" a sparrowhawk. Mind you those finches and sparrow must look attractive.

Friday 26 October 2012

Cedars National Park, Lebanon

Last Friday, my friend Steve and I had a hire car and drove out of Beirut eastward to the Cedars National Park. Ironically, we were actually in the tranquility of the park at the same time as a car bomb went off in the district where Steve lives and where I was staying. We knew nothing about it until we got back to Beirut.

In stark contrast, the birding in the park was a little too quiet. This wasn't a birding holiday but Steve was very patient with me wandering off looking for birds. I used much of my "credit" with him in the national park and yet the area around the cedars was disappointing.


The most obvious bird is chiffchaff and unlike so many birds in Lebanon they were not shy. They are numerous and present in the woods and in the valleys. My belief is that they are the known resident birds.

Cedar forest

After that I struggled. There was the odd stonechat. I was also pleased to see a blackbird and a European robin. The latter is only found in Lebanon in winter.

stonechat in the national park

Overhead, I saw three birds of prey. Two were together and were in the goshawk - sparrowhawk - levant sparrowhawk family. I didn't get a good enough or long enough view to be sure which member they were.

lesser spotted eagle

I had more success with the other bird of prey. Although it was high and a long way away, it is identified as a lesser spotted eagle which must have been on passage. 

Otherwise the area of the national park around the cedar forest was not productive.

On my evidence I question why the park is an IBA (Important Bird Area). It's possible that other parts of the park are better but just as likely it seems to have been designated because it is a national park and free from hunters rather than intrinsically having a wide diversity of birds.

Bekaa valley

Having finished with the national park in mid afternoon, we drove further east over the top and into the Bekaa valley.  This immediately looked like a better birding area!  The drier, east side slopes of the mountain were covered in low lying scrub very suitable for sylvia warblers. Unfortunately time was short by then and I had to take into account my hosts wishes too. The rattling sounds of sylvia warblers were obvious and all around but there was no time.

Turtle dove

In the Bekaa valley towards the end of the afternoon, there were two birding sights which we happened upon. Hunters with guns had gathered in an area where I had wanted to visit. Suddenly over 100 turtle dove rose into the air. The hunters must know a way of gathering them or at least where they gather. This was the largest flock of turtle dove I have seen in my life. For some reason, the hunters seemed to have killed very few, at least from what I saw.

They are both resident and passage birds in Lebanon. 


Having been forced away from a birding spot I had chosen and taking regard of my host's patience I scrambled around in near-by undergrowth for something, anything! 

I finally got a bit lucky. In the scrub were two bluethoat, almost certainly still on passage along with yet more stonechat and graceful prinia.

yellow vented bulbul (white spectacled bulbul) at Byblos

On Saturday we went out touring again. This time we went north towards Tripoli, Lebanon and then inland up to the ski resorts.  However, for a variety of reasons this was not really a birding day. What I can say however is that the birding in the gardens around the ancient ruins at Byblos would have been a much better use of 4 hours than the IBA at Cedars. The gardens held various wheatears and sylvia warblers and probably much more.  Futhermore the "little Switzerland" area around the winter resorts looked very good for birds though I didn't get to bird there. From the car as we pass through, glimpses of black redstart, hooded crow and pied wheatear (IDed by tail pattern, must be on passage) were tantalising.

If there is a next time, I now know where I need to go.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Beirut's corniche

Last Thursday I took a gentle birding walk down the corniche in Beirut while a friend I was visiting was working.

The birding wasn't fantastic but I felt privileged to bird in a place which many people consider off-limits currently.

first winter stonechat

I only counted 12 species but this started my Lebanese list.  Apart from the expected house sparrow and rock dove (pigeon), the most common bird in the more natural places was stonechat

There was a mix of European and Siberian stonechat. I had to take extra care not to misidentify some female and especially Siberian stonechat which have a strong supercilium and weak collar like a whinchat. The throat on the stonechat is always grey black whereas in a whinchat it is brown or red brown. Hence the bird above is a stonechat and probably a Siberian stonechat. I did however see a couple of genuine whinchat there too.

"Pigeon rocks"

"Pigeon rocks" is the aptly named rocks which divide the corniche in half.  I started out by walking north from there. 


Unfortunately near here, on a natural piece of the sea front,  I saw two hunters kill a passerine right in front of me. This was a stark reminder as why Lebanon is such a difficult place for birds and why I struggled to see many along the corniche. They were so scared of people. 

Indeed I didn't see a single gull or wader anywhere along the sea front.

Nevertheless, in this area, I did see a northern wheatear and surprisingly a pair of common kingfisher. Yellow vented bulbul made quick appearances and graceful prinia were everywhere among the natural scrub. They were heard a lot more than they were seen.

laughing dove

On the corniche walkway itself there were house sparrow, laughing dove and common myna.

common myna

Beirut along with Istanbul are the only places on the Mediterranean where you can see common myna. This was a fact I dint know until I saw them and looked the information up.

the beach at Beirut

There are very few sandy beaches in northern and central Lebanon. I have no idea about the south as it wasn't visited. The biggest beach we met was in Beirut itself and next to it is some natural scrub. This is all south of "pigeon rocks" and was visited after a late lunch in the second part of my walk on the corniche. 

willow warbler

Very similar birds were there as were on the northern walk though there were also three willow warbler seen.

first year willow warbler

One of the three (which kept together by the way) was one of those confusing yellow first year birds but with darkish legs. Apart from the leg colour it was in every way a willow warbler and that's what I have ended up identifying it as. 

white wagtail

The final addition to my species list was white wagtail. A single was seen near where a treated effluent stream meets the sea. I thought it strange that this type of stream should be so close to the beach! Nevertheless I'm sure it helps diversify the bird life.

My final list was:

Rock dove
Laughing dove
Common kingfisher
Yellow vented bulbul
Graceful prinia
Willow warbler
Common myna
Northern wheatear
White wagtail
House sparrow

Monday 15 October 2012

Uncommon warblers at Heet

Manssur Al Fahad regularly bird watches at three sets of acacia groves near the small town of Heet. They seem to be excellent migrant traps for warblers.  On the two times I have been with him recently we saw a large number of blackcap and a smaller number of barred warbler.

However Manssur has video records of several other warblers seen there (and mostly since the beginning of September).  These include Menetries warbler for example.

The bird below has caused the most identification problems.

probable cyprus warbler. A still taken from video by Manssur Al Fahad

It is clearly a sylvia warbler. The spotted under-tail coverts,the pale legs and the grey head  led Manssur to believe it was a young cyprus warbler.

 probable cyprus warbler - second view

I posted it on BirdForum for identification without leading people with his opinion. The resulting discussion supported the idea but like me and Manssur their only concern was the geography. 

 probable cyprus warbler -third view

Cyrpus warbler is a short distance migrant. It can be seen in north west Saudi Arabia in the Tabuk area in winter. Assuming it is a cyprus warbler which I now believe, it might be assumed to be a vagrant to the Riyadh area. However no-one really bird watches in the intermediate wadis south east of  Tabuk and north west of Riyadh (in the Hail area for example). Could it be there too?

 Eastern orphean warbler

I am finishing with another of Manssur's finds at Heet. Here is an Eastern orphean warbler seen in September.  Both this and cyprus warbler have still evaded me so true congratulations to Manssur!

Sunday 14 October 2012

The potential of Wadi Dawasir

My regular birding partner, Lou Regensmorter visited the oasis of Wadi Dawasir on business last weekend.

Wadi Dawasir is a farming district in the middle of desert. Its 450 kilometres south west of Riyadh and 450 kilometres north east of Nejran. In between is virtually nothing but sand and rock.

distant view of white stork in a field

What he saw was very interesting. In one field were 20 white stork grazing. He only had a point and shoot camera with him but managed to take the photo you see above.

cropped look at white stork in a field

I have cropped and enlarged part of the photo to show you the white stork better.

When Lou told me what he saw it immediately reminded me of the pioneering work of Jens Hering when I was in Libya. Jens had found that all the  government desert farms in the south of Libya had wintering white stork in very large numbers while the farms in the north did not.

However this was the tip of the iceberg. I saw four common crane at one southern Libyan desert farm and Jens has seen much larger numbers and a great diversity of species. Several of the species seen normally winter south of the Sahara. 

If Wadi Dawasir follows the same pattern it could have a unique birding life in KSA.

satellite view of part of Wadi Dawasir by Eovision 

The reason is simple. Its a huge green area by the standards of anywhere in KSA never mind the dry south.  

Lou managed to snatch a few more minutes for birding and came across three black birds of prey with distinctive white marking which we believe were probably Verreaux's eagle but it isn't claimable for sure. 

Wadi Dawasir has just joined my very short list of places to visit in KSA.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Roller and redstart at Al Hayer

After visiting Wadi Awsat and Dirab on Thursday, Mansur al Fahad and I headed to Al Hayer. Although we visited the water's edge (seeing common snipe and moorhen) and a couple of pivot fields (mostly yellew wagtail), a third pivot field proved a goldmine for larger passage birds.

All we needed to do was walk along the line of the pivot bars for a few minutes for our sightings.

blue cheeked bee-eater

There were a few blue-cheeked bee-eater in the field resting. On the pivot bar was a European bee-eater (though the picture is of one on a wire next to the road).

European bee-eater

As we moved down the field, there was a resting European roller. It was the first one I had seen this autumn and the first time I have managed a photo of one since arriving in Saudi Arabia.

European roller

European roller has more subdued colours in autumn than in spring. Furthermore the sub-species which breeds in Iraq and Iran is more subdued anyway so this bird was not brightly coloured.


On the same pivot bar was a hoopoe which allowed close approach. This made me think it was a recently arrived and tired migrant.

squacco heron

Cooling itself under the spray of the same pivot was a squacco heron.

resting barn swallow

Finally there was a group of resting barn swallow on the pivot.  A small number of yellow wagtail were also in the field.

greater spotted eagle

Elsewhere at al Hayer a greater spotted eagle flew over.

second view of greater spotted eagle

They are common in migration and a few over-winter too.  However equally as interesting was the sighting of four lesser kestrel over a pivot field and minutes later two common kestrel.

third view of greater spotted eagle

The final evidence of a continuing passage was a common redstart in an acacia tree.

common redstart

This was not the end of our marathon birding day. We went on to the outskirts of the small town of Heet where we saw sand partridge run up the escarpment, two fan-tailed raven overhead and more blackcap and a barred warbler in the acacia.

Heet is turning out to be the place to see passage warblers.  It also houses pharoah eagle owl. It is also the only place in central Arabia with a baboon colony. Apparently it was started when an expat released his pet baboons into the wild on leaving the country. They have now thrived into a troop of 30.

I am sure I will be visiting Heet again and I'll try for pictures next time.

Friday 12 October 2012

Wadi Awsat

Yesterday I went birding with Mansur al Fahad. We started off before dawn and headed out south westward to some places he knew but which I hadn't visited before. 

The main early stop was Wadi Awsat (which can be translated as middle valley).

There are several areas with acacia groves which is where we spent most of our time.

On our first stop we came across streaked scrub warbler, the first time I have seen this bird in the Riyadh area.

desert lark drinking in a pool at Wadi Awsat.

Likewise, in the largest acacia grove, there was a flock of Arabian babbler, the closest to Riyadh that I have seen this bird.

Wadi Awsat

The city based white eared bulbul and the country based yellow vented bulbul were present in roughly equal proportions here. Indeed its the only venue I have been to where one doesn't dominate over the other.

white eared bulbul

We spent much of our time examining the acacia trees for warblers. Desert whitethroat and blackcap were the species we identified.

yellow vented bulbul

Blackstart were common in the area.


The two wheatears seen was white crowned wheatear and an Isabelline wheatear. I had hoped to see the elusive hooded wheatear which Mansur has seen here in the past but which has evaded me since I arrived in Saudi Arabia over a year ago. Even he has only seen it once though.

There were also two larks. These were desert lark and crested lark. The former was more numerous.

white crowned wheatear

After birding here we headed to al Hayer via Dirab. We had seen a few barn swallow at wadi Awsat but this farming area (Dirab) was a magnet for them hawking for insects.  

barn swallow

I have been to Dirab a few times but have always found it a bit disappointing. I find that near-by al Hayer has the same birds and more with the exception of white crowned wheatear.

The most notable bird in the area yesterday was a willow warbler on the outskirts of the town.

Isabelline wheatear hiding from the sun at Dirab

The next blog will look at what we saw at al Hayer. It includes a look at one bird I had been hoping to see all passage and also looks at the arrival of the first eagles this autumn.