Monday 30 December 2013

Quwaiiyah to Ruwaidhah

The second half of my trip west out of Riyadh on Friday was the much better than the first half.

The area 200 kilometres and more west of Riyadh between Quwaiiyah to Ruwaidhah is rocky and hilly with green wadis. 

My main stop was brought about by spotting three steppe eagle while driving westward just before reaching  Ruwaidhah.

steppe eagle

I needed to get out of the car and walk round to see the eagles with the sun at my back. From the car the eagles were directly into the sun. As I did this I stumbled upon a large wadi which was invisible from the road. 

another steppe eagle in flight

It was this wadi where I spent over 2 hours birding on foot and which provided quite a diversity of bird life.

wadi just east of Ruwaidhah

On of the first birds seen and one of the most common was blackstart. They were not only tame but inquisitive too.


The only wheatear species seen in the valley was white crowned wheatear which was not at all tame especially compared with its relative the blackstart

immature white-crowned wheatear

As at Tebrak there were plenty of Spanish sparrow but this area must mark the southern edge of its wintering range. Indeed I hadn't expected to see any in this area.

male Spanish sparrow

My hopes of seeing Dunn's lark were dashed again even though the distribution maps have it in west central Saudi Arabia. Instead the main lark of the wadi was surprisingly desert lark.

Desert lark

Desert lark even outnumbered crested lark here.

crested lark

I saw no bulbuls all day in either Tebrak or further west. Instead I came across a mobile group of Arabian babbler which is a much rarer sight for someone based in Riyadh.

Arabian babbler

There were two types of warbler seen. Three desert whitethroat evaded my camera. This area is towards the south western edge of their wintering range.

a well hidden Menetries warbler

A Menetries warbler also evaded my camera pretty well. You can just make out its pink legs if you look hard in the photograph above. This bird hardly overlaps its wintering with desert whitethroat but it clearly does here.

little green bee-eater

Little green bee-eater were observed. This is ideal habitat for them.

blue rock thrush

I am always on the look-out for little owl in habitat like this. However I failed to see one once again. Nevertheless, this habit keeps me looking up on hill sides as well as at any clump of rocks. It was this way I picked out a blue rock thrush way up high and a hoopoe unusually on a rocky outcrop.


Although the wadi just west of Ruwaidhah was the main birding venue for me in the area, I also stopped off at a couple of other places near-by which added a small number of other species to the day list. 

black bush robin

Near the (dry) dam at Quwaiiyah I came across black bush robin in what looks like a range expansion over the map the main regional guide. 

white wagtail

I also picked up white wagtail and pale crag martin at a service station west of the town.

My main conclusion for the day was that the next time I head west out of Riyadh on the Mecca Road, I should not bother stopping in the Tebrak area but head out further west quickly.

The area near Ruwaiadhah and beyond looks more inviting. 

Below is a list of all the birds seen on Friday:

Steppe eagle

Black headed gull

Eurasian collared dove
Laughing dove

Feral pigeon


Little green bee-eater

Arabian babbler

Brown necked raven

Desert lark

Crested lark
Pale crag martin

Menetries warbler

Desert whitethroat

Black bush robin

Isabelline wheatear


Desert wheatear

Eastern mourning wheatear

White crowned wheatear

Blue rock thrush

House sparrow

Spanish sparrow
White wagtail
Tawny pipit


Sunday 29 December 2013

Around Tebrak

On Friday, I went out alone along the Mecca road out of Riyadh since my regular birding partners were on annual leave.

This was speculative birding as I have only travelled 60 or 70 kilometres out west on this road before.

This time I stopped in two areas, one was around Tebrak about 110 kilometres west and again between Quwaiiyah and Ruwaidhah around 220 kiolmetres west.

The area around Tebrak was mostly sandy desert with a few farms courtesy of some advanced water engineering. The area west of Quwaiiyah was altogether different. It was rocky and hilly with several green wadis.

The birding near Tebrak was relatively poor while that west of Quwaiiyah was good.

This blog covers the Tebrak area whereas the next one will look at the much better birding further west.

black-headed gull

The only high point of the birding near Tebrak was the sight of a black -headed gull swimming in a small temporary lake caused by recent rains. This gull must be close to the furthest point in the whole Arabian peninsula away from the sea!

Spanish sparrow

Otherwise the birding was fairly predictable. Spanish sparrow were roaming the bushes and trees around the few farms.

white wagtail

White wagtail were in the fields and everywhere including service stations where there was a hint of moisture.

laughing dove

Many of the farms were date farms so it is not surprising that laughing dove was the most common dove reminding that its alternative name is palm dove

eight laughing dove

A few house sparrow were seen next to human habitation but at this time of year they were outnumbered in the general area by Spanish sparrow.

house sparrow

Three types of wheatear were seen. They were predictably Eastern mourning wheatear, Isabelline wheatear and desert wheatear

Eastern mourning wheatear

My only excitement with the wheatears was trying to identify a rather grey bird shown in the two pictures below.

Isabelline wheatear

It had hardly any supercilium but a very black tail. I narrowed it down to an immature desert wheatear or immature Isabelline wheatear despite the poor supercilium. I tentatively favour a greyer than usual Isabelline wheatear because of the obvious isolated black alula. 

second view of an Isabelline wheatear

The only other bird in the area was crested lark.

In contrast the birding another 100 kilometres west was diverse and very interesting. I will write about that in my next blog.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

The road to Rumah

On Saturday, Bernard Bracken and I went up the escarpment at Thumamah north of Riyadh to look for larks and what ever else might be there. 

This type of birding is hard work as you can go for long periods off-road without seeing any bird at all. In our case after over six hours we came across five species of lark.

Temminck's lark

Most of the landscape was stony or compacted sand desert and semi-desert. The area near Rumah itself was overgrazed by camels and mostly loose sand with only the poisonous apple of sodom as vegetation. It was completely degraded and useless for our purposes as well as very difficult to drive in. However the other areas held prospects.

Contrary to popular belif, we found most larks near the greener patches where recent rains had produced some growth.

This was true of the four Temminck's lark that we encountered.

Hoopoe lark

Although there is lots of overlap, each lark species has slightly different preferences for habitat. Hoopoe lark can tolerate even drier areas than most. However even this lark was seen near temporary greenish areas albeit surrounded by what looked like pure desert. 

Bar-tailed lark

Bar-tailed lark likes compacted sandy areas which are very flat and that is exactly where we found a flock. As usual they were highly mobile and running.

crested lark (courtesy of Bernard Bracken)

Even out here the most common lark are crested lark followed by desert lark. They were easily seen by the road side in all terrains for the former and in hilly terrains for the latter.  

desert wheatear

No Dunn's lark were seen. They prefer some low lying scrub and unfortunately the camels have destroyed these. I suspect private land where camels aren't allowed are the best bet for this species in this area.

Three types of wheatear were come across while looking for larks. These were desert wheatear, Isabelline wheatear and Eastern mourning wheatear.

Isabelline wheatear

Desert wheatear was the most frequently seen.

Eastern mourning wheatear

A few other species were observed. House sparrow were found in one wadi with a road bridge. Two kestrel were observed on look outs in the desert.

steppe eagle

Several steppe eagle were seen on the way out of Riyadh to the escarpment and two were found in the desert itself. They had been attracted by six dumped sheep carcasses in the middle of nowhere. Sadly there were no vultures with them. This is yet another piece of evidence that vultures are no longer found north of Riyadh (to the west and south west there are wintering Griffon vulture) and in particular the Egyptian vulture population here has extirpated.

The other species in the area is pale crag martin. This are best seen next to any piles of rubbish where the flies attract them.

I am going to try my luck with more desert birding on Friday when I'll be travelling 300 kilometres or so west out of Riyadh on the Mecca road. It's a new area for me but most of the target birds are long shots. Let's see.

Monday 23 December 2013

Two parks in Jubail

Having finished at Sebkhet al Fasl in the early afternoon, Bernard Bracken and I moved on to the two parks in northern Jubail. One is called Deffi Park and the other Andalous Park. They are right next to each other and create a large green footprint on the area.

Deffi Park seems to be undergoing some sort of landscaping work at the moment so most of our time was spent in Andalous Park.

One of the first sights on our arrival looked a bit strange. There were three whimbrel nonchalantly walking on an area of lawn.

two whimbrel

The parks are only about 2 kilometres inland so shore birds can always be potential visitors.

three whimbrel

Something else that looked a bit strange to me were the white-eared bulbul.  

white eared bulbul

There were at least two obvious differences between these birds and the ones seen in the Riyadh area.  They look like the naturally occurring sub species Mesopotamia found in Iraq and Kuwait.  This sub species has much yellower eyes and a bigger ear patch.

Whereas the ones in Riyadh, Tabuk, Wadi Dawasir, Sakaka and other areas in central and central western Saudi Arabia look like the Indian sub species leucotis. The bird is believed to have been introduced in these places.

What I am saying about the sub species is contrary to what several databases say on the internet but I am confident I am right! I don't believe the introduced birds are Mesopotamia

Common myna is another bird which has escaped or been introduced into parts of Saudi Arabia. The parks in Jubail had them too.

common myna

The birds on the grassy areas included house sparrow but also two other species in large numbers.

white wagtail

White wagtail were very common. When I visited Deffi Park last winter I saw many water pipit on the grass. They were there again this time.

water pipit

They were more than 250 metres from the nearest water!

a single water pipit

Deffi Park has a reputation for being a good place to find rare finches and thrushes escaping the northern winter though I have never seen a chaffinch, bramling, linnet, robin or blackbird there. And I tried really hard to find one.

song thrush

We did however find a song thrush. This is the first one I have seen in eastern province though I keep seeing them down the west side of the country.

Daurian shrike

As at Sebkhet Al Fasl there were wintering Daurian shrike in the parks. This bird was easy to identify. The total lack of contrast between undersides and upper parts, and an almost lack of a supercilium makes it a Daurian shrike rather than a Turkestan shrike.


A hoopoe put on a display for us.

intermediate morph western reef heron

There was some water at Andalous Park which went round the boundary of the park. There was not a water pipit to be seen there. However we saw several western reef heron including representatives of all three morphs: intermediate, dark and pale. 

pale morph western reef heron

All in all the parks were interesting and always worth a visit if you are in the Jubail area. Next time though I do wonder if the strips of parkland on the near-by corniche would be worth a visit too. Perhaps the northern finches and thrushes are better found there?

Sunday 22 December 2013

Jubail in December

On Friday, I went on a very long day trip to Jubail with Bernard Bracken starting out well before dawn. 

The trip was worth it for the variety of birds seen at Sebkhet al Fasl and Deffi park although no new species were added to my Saudi list.

The main reason for that was probably because the water level was very high following recent rains.The vast mud flats normally hold a large numbers of birds of various species. Unfortunately for me these were completely cover in 50 cms or so of water and many of these species have dispersed elsewhere. My chances of seeing my target, common shelduck, went with them.

On the other hand the sheltered bay which has been created is very attractive to flamingo. There were over 500 present.  

flamingo at Jubail

In the water and at the edge were many black winged stilt.  

Black winged stilt

At the edge were tens of little stint, Kentish plover and a few ringed plover.

Little stint

Common redshank were present too.

common redshank

Around the corner from the main bay is another smaller bay with less deep water. There were two or three sand banks in there which houses some interesting species. The terns were gull billed tern and Caspian tern

Caspian tern with Caspian gull

The gulls were mostly Caspian gull with fewer steppe gull and one hueglins gull.

pied avocet

A single avocet was seen next to one of the sandbanks.

slender billed gull

In the more sheletered areas were several slender billed gull.

great cormorant

A few great cormorant were seen flying over-head too.

purple swamphen

As ever, the birds in the fresh water part of the Sebkhet were quite different. Some purple swamphen have been forced into more open areas by the high water line. Meanwhile moorhen were difficult to see as they clamber around more easily in the reeds.

coot and black necked grebe

The coot were swimming at the edges of the reeds but easily seen.

little grebe and black necked grebe

After not seeing any black necked grebe for my first two years in Saudi Arabia, the Sebkhet was the third place in the past two months. Four were seen mixing with the resident little grebe.

Here the terns were whiskered tern and white winged black tern.


Only one duck was seen all day and it was a male teal.

common snipe

Also in the sheltered areas was common snipe and near-by  three green sandpiper. Flying over them were a small number of wintering barn swallow.

white wagtail

The main small passerines were white wagtail and water pipit.

male Daurian shrike

A single Daurian shrike was also seen as was a common starling. Not too many of these make it this far south.

common starling

Six marsh harrier were seen constantly patrolling the area along with two more restful greater spotted eagle.

Greater spotted eagle

After finishing at Sebket Al Fasl, Bernard and I had time to call in at Deffi Park. There was some good birding there.