Friday 30 November 2012

The fallacy of the "southern grey shrike"

Yesterday while birding I came across one "grey shrike" and several "red-tailed shrikes" at Al Hayer. I was reminded once again how difficult identification and classification of middle eastern shrikes is.

The grey shrike was aucheri although I often find it difficult to separate from pallidirostris. The black bridge across the bill and the ochre-buff wash to the underparts is often a good indication of aucheri  as usually (but not always) is the general shade of greyness. In the end, I sometimes have to  fall back on the deposition of the white on the wings if these indicators don't help.

aucheri yesterday 

Note, I am deliberately not naming aucheri as southern grey shrike and pallidirostris as steppe grey shrike.

back view of the same grey shrike

As many of you might know, recent DNA work published in 2010 in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution pretty much concludes that the southern grey shrike is a genetic fallacy. Indeed Svensson's Birds of Britain and Europe follows its lead from this DNA work. In this largest selling guide, Southern grey shrike is divided into Iberian grey shrike (clade D2), desert grey shrike (clade B) while aucheri and buryi - the breeding shrikes are back into the great grey shrike (clade A) camp. 

part of the map of grey shrike clades from Olsson et al 2010

Furthrmore pallidirostris is in clade A too. They say they don't know yet where clades A1, A2 and A3 should be split but there isn't enough data to do this yet. So taking this to its logical conclusion pallidirostris is a great grey shrike too. 

I think the DNA evidence is unquestionable. What seems to have perpetuated the idea of southern grey shrike in our part of the world is its inclusion in the 2011 edition of Birds of the Middle East which didn't follow Olsson's  (and Svensson's) lead.  I don't know whether this is because they are waiting for the "official word". 

Red-tailed shrikes are also difficult and I don't believe as much DNA work has been done.

In the field I have day-to-day identification problems. In winter we have very large numbers stay near Riyadh and some can be a real headache.

female adult Daurian shrike

Male adult male red tailed shrike are generally easy to separate but females are more difficult and some first winters are near impossible (for me anyway)!

The bird above is an adult - note the white flash on the wing. The lack of a supercilium and no obvious(?) rufous crown, and dirty underparts tilts me towards Daurian shrike

Then it just gets more difficult. Two more birds I saw yesterday I ended up calling first winter Turkestan shrike but not without angst.

first winter Turkestan shrike

I went for Turkestan shrike with the above above because I managed to get an angle where you can see a rufous crown.  

I went for Turkestan shrike for the second one too because I originally spent so much time on it as I lived in a momentary fantasy that it might be a brown shrike. And Turkestan shrike are a lot closer to brown shrike than Daurian shrike.

a second juvenile Turkestan shrike

I don't particularly enjoy looking at shrikes but I cant really avoid them.

PS. I fixed a bug which meant many viewers couldn't watch the partridge videos in the blog from two days ago. Try it now! It should work.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Indian species in central Arabia

Today has been the coldest day in my time in Riyadh. Furthermore its been the wettest 24 hours. Despite this I went out birding in my local patch at Al Hayer.

When it wasn't raining the birds were out in force including the smaller ones.  And because it was so cool, the birds were active all day.

Indian silverbill

Early on I saw a flock of Indian silverbill. This bird can now be seen throughout much of the non-desert parts of eastern and central Arabia and in the Jeddah area around the ex-pat compounds.  In the Jeddah area, presumably it is there because of escapes but in the east natural range expansion must be an option too. 

male avadavat

A couple of hours later I got my best view of a flock of avadavat in KSA. It was also the largest flock I have seen. This is another Indian bird which has successfully breed ferally from escapes. It has been in the Riyadh area for at least 20 years and though it appears other feral populations of escaped small cage birds have died out, avadavat seems to have adapted well. Having said that I have only ever seen it in the Al Hayer area.

female avadavat

Streaked weaver has a very similar history although it suffered a near catastrophic loss two summers ago when the majority of nests were lost in a reed fire during the breeding period. There are many more this winter than last so the population must have re-bounded.

streaked weaver

The two most common Indian species in the Riyadh region are white-eared bulbul and common myna. Both have a much wider local distribution than avadavat and streaked weaver

white eared bulbul

I saw all four of these species along with Indian silverbill within walking distance of each other near the Pivot fields at Al Hayer. There is one other Indian species which can sometimes be spotted there too. That is bank myna. Its numbers are very small and it may be one of those that fails to survive.

For the sake of completeness I must mention there is one other Indo-Malay bird in the Riyadh area that you cant see at AL Hayer. That is red vented bulbul. I have only seen it at the Intercontinental hotel and in a couple of ex-pat compounds.

In the next blog, I'd like to look at the shrikes seen today and the ever changing taxonomy of the shrikes of the middle east.

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Videos of endemic partridges

My birding friend, Mansur Al Fahad takes videos of his birds in the same way as I take photographs.

When he visited the south west of Saudi Arabia in October he got video of the two endemic partridges.

both partridges together

He found Philby's partridge in the same place as I did within walking distance of the Golden Tulip Hotel, Baha and actually on a side road.

I had also seen Arabian partridge at the same place but a different time of day. Mansur was luckier still. Watch the video and see what happens at about 54 seconds.

Philby's partridge with guest appearance

Some people struggle to see either bird during a prolonged visit to the area. I have never worked out why because I have always found them relatively easily (but red-breasted wheatear which is from the same area on the other hand is nemesis bird of mine). Indeed some journals say the partridges are rare. I simply don't believe it!

Arabian partridge

In another spot, Mansur filmed Arabian partridge in a classic place - right next to a sheer drop. This really is typical. Every time I have seen them there has been a sheer drop very close-by for them to make a rapid and successful escape. They may be elsewhere too but I recommend that all efforts to find them should start next to drops!

Thanks to Mansur for letting me show his videos.

Tuesday 27 November 2012

Tracking birds of prey over Saudi Arabia

I try to keep up with any news and literature on birds in Saudi Arabia. Two recent findings have caught my eye. The first is a recently-published research  paper about the migration of steppe eagle. It includes a section on some excellent work done monitoring birds flying through Saudi Arabia.

The paper is called "Steppe Eagle migration strategies – revealed by satellite telemetry" by Bernd-Ulrich Meyburg, Christiane Meyburg and Patrick Paillat in British Birds 105 • September 2012 • 506–519.

Over a ten year period, 15 steppe eagle were electronically tagged ENE of Taif and followed from there. Of these 8 stayed in Arabia for the winter and 6 crossed over into Africa near the narrowest point in the Red Sea.

Indeed many steppe eagle stay in Arabia for the winter including some further north such as those mentioned in yesterday's blog at Tabuk.
Typical flight of an eagle that crosses the Red Sea (taken from the Meyburg paper)

What was interesting for me about the Meyburg paper was that all the Arabian birds which crossed the Red Sea in late autumn never came back that way in spring preferring an over 1000 kilometre detour up through Egypt.  

So there are less steppe eagle in Saudi Arabia in spring than in autumn. The reason the paper believes that the Red Sea crossing is one way only is because of the prevailing wind direction.

an odd eagle that refused to cross the Red Sea (taken from the Meyburg paper)

One of the 15 tagged birds refused to cross at all and diverted to central Arabia. I wonder how many of the steppe eagle I see near Riyadh in winter are returners like this one and how many flew there direct and decided to go no further?

a steppe eagle seen at Tabuk

Another recent finding that caught my eye is from the excellent website  This is tracking 8 Egyptian vulture from Bulgaria. 7 chose to go south west from Sinai but one chose to go south east after spending a month there.

Egyptian vulture from Bulgaria tracked this month

There are resident populations of Egyptian vulture on the west side of Saudi Arabia(even though I have yet to see one in KSA on one of my all too infrequent visits to the west!).  Their numbers are swollen in winter and at least one of them is from Bulgaria.

Monday 26 November 2012

Some eagles at Tabuk

During our visit to Tabuk two weekends ago, local birder Viv Wilson told Lou Regensmorter that he had recently been told about a place where dead camels were regularly dumped and that they had been attracting large birds.

Even hopeful, we contemplated that we might see some vultures.

adult and juvenile steppe eagle

When we arrived all of the carcasses were old and we didn't see any birds feeding on what was left.

We came close to missing the eagles sitting and resting on the ground on the other side of the road.

We soon realised there were five of them.

I am the first to confess my eagle identification skills are not good. However after over a year in Saudi Arabia they are getting better.

back view of the same adult and juvenile steppe eagle

I could identify two on the ground with a pale nape, broad baggy trousers  and dark plumage as adult steppe eagle.

adult steppe eagle

However, I had to be reminded that the long yellow gape is diagnostic of steppe eagle. This meant that two of the juvenile birds were steppe eagle too.

adult steppe eagle in flight cropped from a photo by Viv Wilson

One of Viv's photos was so clear that you can seeing the barring on the rimeges (type flight feathers) which further proves it is a steppe eagle rather than greater spotted eagle.

juvenile steppe eagle in flight

The juvenile steppe eagle were even easier to identify in flight. Apart from the long yellow gape (again) the pale band all across the wing combined with the dark chest helped confirmation.

two steppe eagle in flight

Of course, one of the birds gave an overall lighter impression. This was the bird most easily identified at the time as a juvenile eastern imperial eagle.

juvenile eastern imperial eagle in flight

We see both these birds near Riyadh all winter along with great spotted eagle. The eastern imperial eagle tends to keep more to the Kharj farming district whereas the other two are found both there and at Al Hair. After the chance to see them so close and for a while at Tabuk I think my eagle skills are improving to nearly adequate. 

It's all about practice.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Literally birding for larks

On Friday Lou Regensmorter, Mansur Al Fahad and I literally went birding for larks. Once again Mansur showed us wonderful local knowledge by taking us to  arguably the best place for larks in central Arabia.

The area is known locally as Ormah and it is north of Thumamah with the small town of Rumah to the east.

 Desert lark
Some of you will notice the first picture is the same bird as the header to my blog. It is a desert lark. Actually its not common in Urmah because the terrain is mostly flat. In rocky parts and on slopes though it can be found.

 Bar tailed lark

The superficially similar bar tailed lark was much more common. They were mostly seen in mobile (by running) flocks even in what looked like pure flat desert.

 Crested lark
For once, crested lark was not the most numerous. It was seen mostly in the slightly more vegetated areas.

 Hoopoe lark

 Hoopoe lark seems to tolerate all the various terrains except the most hilly.

 Temminck's lark

With these species being seen so readily we spent a long time searching for the tougher ones. Dunn's lark and Temminck's lark are apparently less common and so it proved. We visited 4 or 5 sites where Mansur had seen Temminck's lark in the past before finally seeing 3 of them. As is always the case, from then on, we observed them regularly. Unfortunately Dunn's lark evaded us - this time.
 Greater short toed lark

Towards the end of the day in one of the greener areas we spotted a single greater short toed lark too.

Of all the larks, the sighting of Temminck's lark gave me the most pleasure. This is because it was a new one for me in Saudi Arabia though I knew it from Libya. It was my 245th species here. Finding new ones is getting tougher.

Theoretically on Friday we could have seen 4 more lark species (over and above Dunn's lark) in the area or near to it. These are lesser short toed lark, thick billed lark, skylark and even oriental skylark. In summer there are black crowned sparrow lark too. Indeed I have seen them a few kilometres south at Thumamah.

 Desert wheatear

Wheatears were the other main type of bird in the area. Desert wheatear was probably the most common followed by mourning wheatear. Both are winter visitors from a few hundred kilometres north.
 Mourning wheatear

Wintering Mourning wheatear in central Arabia come mostly from Iraq and Iran where the more continental weather means cool winters which drive them down. In contrast, many mourning wheatear from north west Saudi Arabia apparently stay up north.

White crowned wheatear from behind

An Isabelline wheatear was seen and several northern wheatear. Northern wheatear don't normally stay the winter but several were in the area. Furthermore we saw a few at Tabuk a week before. I know September and October were very mild in eastern Europe and central Asia. I now suspect this has kept northern wheatear in the area longer this year.

Desert warbler

The only warbler spotted was desert warbler which was found easily in the few places with knee high bushes.
 five trumpeter finch

The last species seen right next to the escarpment as we headed south was trumpeter finch. This was another bird I knew from Libya and I had only seen a single bird in KSA at Al Jowf before Friday. I wish we had had as much luck looking for their cousin the Sinai rosefinch the week before in Tabuk.

 closer shots of trumpeter finch

We wouldn't have seen them at all if we hadn't stopped to view a steppe eagle on an escarpment.

 steppe eagle

We will certainly like to visit this area again not least to find Dunn's lark but also I have read it is where Egyptian vulture and hooded wheatear breed. Both birds have eluded me so far despite a lot of attention.


 The full list. Thanks as always to Lou Regensmorter
Long Legged Buzzard

Steppe Eagle
Rock dove (wild and domesticated)

Eurasian Collared Dove

Laughing Dove
Little Green Bee-eater
Southern Grey Shrike
Brown Necked Raven
Greater Hoopoe Lark
Crested Lark
Greater Short-toed Lark
Desert Lark
Bar-tailed Lark
Temminck's Lark
Pale Crag Martin
Asian Desert Warbler
Northern Wheatear
Isabelline wheatear
Desert Wheatear

Eastern Mourning Wheatear
White Crowned Wheatear
House Sparrow
Trumpeter Finch

Saturday 24 November 2012

Waste water treatment lake and wetlands, Tabuk

Lou Regensmorter and I spent the morning of Friday 16th with Viv Wilson, a local birder based in Tabuk.

Viv guided us round his local patch which is the treated water lake and wetlands. This is another part of the birding jigsaw that makes the Tabuk area so interesting.

Viv is an excellent photographer and managed to take photos sometimes when I failed. He has kindly let me use some of these. I apologise to him for abusing this offer slightly by heavily cropping some when he managed to get a distant shot and me nothing at all.

squacco heron cropped from a photo by Viv Wilson

For a fresh water lake, the heron/egret count was surprisingly low. We saw three squacco heron and briefly three white egrets which we couldn't identify properly. Viv told us that in summer there are very large numbers of squacco heron. Other heron/egrets can be frequently seen too but we didn't have an in-depth enough conversation about what and when.

Spur winged lapwing, heavily cropped from a photo by Viv Wilson

One of the noisiest and most obvious resident is spur winged lapwing. However, Jem Babbington on his blog, Birds of Saudi Arabia, has published one of Viv's best findings at this venue. Viv frequently (and all year round) sees a pair of white tailed lapwing. Unfortunately for us they weren't present last Friday morning!

terrain with moustached warbler

A sighting that compensated for this loss was a moustached warbler in the spot photographed above. Lou and I have been searching for it near Riyadh for months and quite frankly can't believe it is there contrary to the map in the main regional guide. In contrast we picked it up within half an hour of birding at Tabuk. It is also well known at two sites at Jubail in eastern province. Ironically these places aren't on the map in the regional guide. Having visited many places in Saudi Arabia I am now getting the confidence to question these things!

At the same spot as the moustached warbler but in in the higher reeds we heard the sound of a type of reed warbler. It is unlikely to be Eurasian reed warbler as it is a migrator. This is worth more investigation.


Chiffchaff and graceful prinia were plentiful.

common snipe, cropped from a photo by Viv Wilson

The birds were very jumpy and Viv told us hunters are quite common here. Even staying in the car, birds in the more open terrain such as Green sandpiper and common snipe would fly off within 20 metres of our approcch.  Flocks of ducks would briefly fly up from some water which must be in the middle of the reeds but unseen. Mallard were identified but again there were probably other species present too.

distant view of a bluethroat

One similarity with the treatment water wetlands in central Arabia, bluethroat and white wagtail were fairly numerous although the bluethroat were difficult to see.

white wagtail by Viv Wilson

Viv guide us to a second part of the water complex which we would never have found without him. This was a wetland with low lying vegetation but unfortunately too soggy to approach without losing the car or your shoes. Midway between the lake and this wetland, an unusually pale long legged buzzard was resting.

long legged buzzard

It was only when it flew off a short distance and we could see its underparts that we were sure about its identity.

long legged buzzard by Viv Wilson

In the wetlands we were reduced to long distance views through a spotting scope. However common ringed plover and little stint were definitely there.

Ringed plover heavily cropped from a photo by Viv Wilson

Three marsh terns gave us much identification grief from a distance.

whiskered tern

There were two different species present. In the end we concluded (mostly by head pattern) two were whiskered tern and one was white winged tern.

white winged tern

The white winged tern must be a migration straggler as they move south for winter.

hoopoe lark

One final bird seen in the area was hoopoe lark as we drove back towards the main lake (and then out) from the wetlands.

Thanks again to Viv for his help and hopefully we will be back up there soon.

Thursday 22 November 2012

The other birds in the pivot fields in Tabuk

The pivot fields near Tabuk are north and south east of the city.  Lou Regensmorter and I spent Thursday morning and Friday afternoon in among them. On Friday we met up with Viv Wilson, a local birder and our very hospitable guide for much of the day.

There was more to the fields than  the flock of sociable lapwing that I have already blogged about. They are rich in passerines and birds of prey. The passerines include one which doesn't breed anywhere else in Saudi Arabia.

desert finch

We started birding just after daybreak on Thursday in the northerly set of fields. One of the early sightings was a flock of desert finch which are more numerous in this area than near Riyadh.

white eared bulbul

However two birds which are found in Riyadh were a real surprise here. Looking at the map in the 2011 edition of "Birds of the Middle East", white eared bulbul is not supposed to be within 250 kilometres of Tabuk. The closest place in KSA is meant to be Al Jouf.

The map on common myna is even more inaccurate. Its supposed to stop 450 kilometres south near Yanbu. Either the area has not been birded much or the birds are moving north and west rapidly or more likely both statements are true.

common myna

Another bird probably at one of the edges of its range is Namaqua dove. All three species were seen within an hour of starting birding in the early morning.

Namaqua dove

Both Laughing dove and particularly collared dove were common.

Spanish sparrow and corn bunting

One of the target birds which we expected to see was corn bunting. This was picked up quickly. There were several in a mixed group with Spanish sparrow. Late in the day we saw a large free standing flock too. 

Corn bunting was another addition to my Saudi list. Actually I miscounted in a previous blog. My additions numbered 6 during the weekend not 5 as previously reported.


Some target birds never materialised. No wintering sylvia warbler such as Cyprus warbler were observed. Two of the warblers  which were seen in the fields were chiffchaff which was abundant and graceful prinia

Graceful prinia

Two wheatears were also seen in the area (not forgetting the Finsch's wheatear seen on the uplands on Thursday afternoon). These were northern wheatear and mourning wheatear. The former was a bit of a surprise because it doesn't really winter near Riyadh so why were so many seen further north at Tabuk? 

Northern wheatear

Stonechat was everywhere with proportionately fewer Siberian stonechat and more European stonechat than in the Riyadh area.


Viv Wilson told us the black kite arrived 6 weeks before in huge numbers. Since then they have been dwindling. Nevertheless there were almost certainly a few hundred left in the district.

black kite

Very close to a field with many black kite was a single blue cheeked bee-eater on a wire. This was a seriously late migrant. 

a late blue cheeked bee-eater

As sun started to go down on Friday night, the number of birds started to increase again to similar numbers seen early on Thursday morning. The birding was interesting to the end.


Bluethroat started to come out of the reed stands between the fields.


I finally got a good view of a goldfinch which had been tantalising me with glimpses all afternoon. Had I seen one for sure or not? In the end one stayed still enough for me to be certain. I finally added it to my Saudi list in the only place (the Tabuk pivot fields) in the whole of KSA where it is resident. This  meant alot to me. I really didn't want to go all that way and miss it. 

red throated pipit

As the sun went down , the pivot bars started to crowd with pipits. They must have been in the fields all the time. All the ones we saw were red throated pipit. This must be a good wintering place for them.  

The next blog will look at Friday morning when Viv showed us round his local patch which is the city's waste water lake and wetlands. He is lucky to have such a good venue.