Wednesday 30 January 2013

More from Zulfi

Today's blog looks further at Mansur al Fahad's visit to Zulfi last week.

He tells me the birding is always good there and I can't dispute that. As well as the pharaoh eagle owl and several steppe eagle featured in the last blog, there is much more to report on.

 Desert finch with a Spanish sparrow and a house sparrow
For starters, Mansur managed to capture three members of the finch/sparrow family in one photograph. A flock of desert finch were caught drinking alongside a Spanish sparrow and a house sparrow.

Desert finch are now a relatively common sight in the Riyadh and Kharj areas although I am told that they have only made their way down from Zulfi and further north in the past few years.

Cream coloured courser

Two of the larger desert birds were seen by Mansur. These were cream coloured courser and sand partridge. Both birds prefer to walk or run to flying off and its surprising how sand partridge in particular can run away so quickly especially up hill sides.

Sand partridge

There is little doubt that the areas north of Riyadh are better for larks than to the south. 

Hoopoe lark

Mansur captured a lovely photograph of a hoopoe lark in flight.

Bar-tailed lark

Bar tailed lark was seen in its usual flat habitat. Crested lark was also  present around Zulfi.

Desert wheatear

I had expected Mansur to have seen desert wheatear but I am a little bit surprised that any Isabelline wheatear winter so far north.

Isabelline wheatear

White crowned wheatear were seen in the drier places.

White crowned wheatear

Eastern mourning wheatear clearly in Zulfi just like they do in the Riyadh area. The wintering birds are apparently those from Iraq and Iran. The Eastern mourning wheatear from further west such as in north west Saudi Arabia are resident and don't come down.

Eastern mourning wheatear

It is no surprise that Mansur found Asian desert wheatear which is another winter visitor.

Asian desert warbler

I have only seen three black redstart in Riyadh in 15 months birding here. Mansur spotted one near Zulfi.

Black redstart

All in all though the species distribution doesn't look that different to the farming areas around Riyadh.

All pictures and information are courtesy of Mansur al Fahad.

Monday 28 January 2013

Eagle and owl at Zulfi

My birding friend Mansur al Fahad originates from Zulfi and visits there from time to time to see family and friends. He also takes the opportunity to bird watch in this farming district over 200 kilometres north of Riyadh.

Pharaoh eagle owl cropped from a photo by Mansur al Fahad

He has sent me several pictures and some commentary on his latest trip over January 20-23rd. Once again he managed to find a pharaoh eagle owl though he tells me it cost a burst tyre to get to it over some tricky terrain.

He has also been told the location of the day time roost of a little owl by a friend which is in a more accessible place than the pharaoh eagle owl.

All this is tantalising to me because although I have seen 261 species in Saudi Arabia I confess to having seen no owls at all yet. I intend to visit Zulfi in the spring when the birding is apparently even better. I will be deeply disappointed if I don't come back having seen any owls after that.

Steppe eagle

Mansur obviously also saw many steppe eagle at Zulfi judging by his photos.

I'll blog what else he saw over the next few days. 

I thank him once again for the opportunity to share these pictures and information.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Vultures so close to Riyadh

On Thursday, after visiting the Kararah lake area, our birding party doubled back away towards Riyadh on the Mecca road before turning off north west. This was on route 505 according to the map but route 902 according to the road sign. 

This is an occupational hazard in Saudi Arabia, road sign numbers and map numbers often don't agree.

The aim was to use a road (route 505) on the plain which ran parallel with the Tuwaiq escarpment and to come off this road from time to time to visit the foothills of the escarpment.

Desert lark

In the back of my mind was the possibility that we might finally see two of my nemesis birds - Egyptian vulture and hooded wheatear. Both have been reported as rare around the escarpment but not reported at all in other parts of central Saudi Arabia.  

Egyptian vulture is relatively common in the west and hooded wheatear in the far north west of the country but both are very rare near Riyadh.

We chose to come off the main road and head to the escarpment at Dhurma and we found an excellent side road to do so.

100 metres before the slope we had to get out and walk down a shallow wadi because the road came to an end.

It didn't look that promising at first, only desert lark and white crowned wheatear to see.

white crowned wheatear

We noticed three dead camels which in retrospective were a clue to what happened later. At the time I didn't think it was anything special because the whole frontage of the escarpment on the plain was scattered with camel herds and presumably the occasional carcass.

Three dead camels. Photo taken by George Darley-Doran

We stopped, watched and listened once we were close to the slopes. We could hear and see white spectacled bulbul (a.k.a yellow vented bulbul) and then we noticed a wave or two of birds of prey flying in various directions above the escarpment. The time was about 11 am and the air had warmed up making flying easier for these types of bird.

adult steppe eagle

We were given an aerial display by four or five steppe eagle. A fan tailed raven also made an appearance.

three steppe eagle of varying ages

However, I spotted a single unknown bird which returned a few minutes later as part of a group of three.

Griffon vulture

Almost unbelievably they were all griffon vulture. We came in search of Egyptian vulture and in return we saw the much less likely griffon vulture. Unfortunately, the pictures are poor as they flew high and fast but have nevertheless been verified by an expert.

second picture of Griffon vulture

Griffon vulture hold wide territories but we also can't rule out that they were all wintering birds. The map in the Helms guide for the Middle East does show them reaching the western side of the Tuwaiq escarpment in places as the eastern limit of their residential range. However, what I also know is they have been very rarely recorded around Riyadh.

I am pretty sure the dead carcasses seen and presumably others in the plain next to the escarpment are important factors in why we found the vultures. 

Resting steppe eagle at "the edge of the world"

The rest of the day was an anti-climax.  We drove on into more desolate areas but with little reward. 

It had been a speculative day that is to say one where we drive into new areas with no known previous birding and so not knowing what to expect. It turned out to be worth the eight hours of relatively low key activity for the 15 minutes of great excitement. 

On the way back and near sunset we stopped off on the top of the escarpment at the place known as "the edge of the world" A lone steppe eagle was perched on a pylon to greet us.

 A list of Thursday's birds has been compiled by Lou Regensmorter:

Eurasian Griffon Vulture (new to my Saudi list and species number 261)
Crested lark
Steppe Eagle
Desert Lark
Common Kestrel
Pale Crag Martin
Laughing Dove
Scrub Warbler
Eurasian Collared Dove
Asian Desert Warbler
Namaqua Dove
Desert Wheatear
Pallid Swift
Eastern Mourning Wheatear
White-crowned Wheatear
Little Green Bee-eater
Brown-necked Raven
House Sparrow
Fan-tailed Raven
Spanish Sparrow
White-spectacled Bulbul
Tawny Pipit
Greater Hoopoe Lark
White Wagtail


Friday 25 January 2013

Kararah lake area

If you travel out of Riyadh on the Mecca road, its not too long, 30 kilometres or so, before you see brown recreational road signs to Kararah lake.

Lou Regensmorter, first time birder George Darley-Doran, and I headed out that way on Thursday morning. 

Eastern mourning wheatear

Of course we knew the "lake" and the near-by "waterfall" would probably only have water directly after the infrequent rain of these parts. And so it proved, the lake was dry and we never found a waterfall. Nevertheless we calculated that the area must have a relatively high water table within the desert area and this also proved true.

There was a farm with a few accessible fields.

field in the desert

The most common bird was crested lark which only really flocks in mid winter and that's what it was doing on our visit. Large flocks of them were all over both the fields we viewed. A pair of hoopoe were perched on one of the pivots.

Collared dove and laughing dove were also numerous. Pale rock martin were hawking for insects over both fields. The wheatear family were represented by wintering desert wheatear and  mourning wheatear. The latter was more common.

desert wheatear

House sparrow were found near the outhouses as would be expected. Two other birds in the neighbourhood were desert lark and three little green bee-eater.

A single kestrel was seen hovering over the second pivot field and that was the only bird of prey seen for the first hour but that all changed as the air got warmer and the morning wore on.

adult steppe eagle

At first we saw a single adult steppe eagle over the field and then a juvenile as we made our way back towards the main road.

juvenile steppe eagle

On the way, we met a large flock of pallid swift moving in the other direction. I thought it was a strange sight to see what looked like a passage group. The local pallid swift are resident but these looked like they were on the move. It reminded me of Tripoli, Libya when I observed they left only between mid November and early February.  In fact their winter away was so short that the Collins guide to European and birds erroneously maps them as resident. 

one of 15 steppe eagle

Minutes later we came across an entirely different type of flock. 15 steppe eagle were circling around the area near the dry lake. It was nearly 10 am and the air was getting warmer. One idea we have is that they had arisen from a local roost and took to the air with the rising temperatures.  Either way it was quite a sight.

Having prised ourselves away from such a large group (for central Arabia) of eagles, we headed back towards Riyadh before turning north, staying below the Tuwaiq escarpment but following it from the plain below. We were searching, among other birds, once again for those elusive hooded wheatear and  Egyptian vulture. These birds are apparently seen albeit very rarely near the western edge of the Tuwaiq escarpment and we have spend a lot of time in the past few weeks looking for them with no success. 

In my opinion, what we actually saw was better still. I'll explain in the next blog.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Thumamah escarpment

For the second half of last Thursday's birding trip, Lou Regensmorter and I ventured up to the top of the Tuwaiq escarpment north of Riyadh. In part we were looking for the elusive hooded wheatear which is one of my nemesis birds. In part this was a speculative look at a potentially new birding place.

the view from the top of Tuwaiq escarpment

There were large numbers of black and white wheatears about. However they were all either Eastern mourning wheatear or more commonly white crowned wheatear.

Eastern mourning wheatear

We begin to speculate whether hooded wheatear can co-exist with white crowned wheatear. The latter bird is very territorial in the breeding season and can be aggressive even towards birds as big as laughing dove.

Eastern mourning wheatear flies off

Eastern mourning wheatear is only a winter visitor (from Iraq and neighbouring areas) and was being tolerated by the white crowned wheatear.

Other birds of note at the top of the escarpment were crested lark and desert lark. Spanish sparrow and white eared bulbul were also present in the bushes and trees in the plateau's shallow wadis.

long legged buzzard

There was also a long shot that we would see Egyptian vulture which has historically been sighted here. Now there is some question whether they are here any longer. Instead the birds of prey riding the thermals over the slopes turned out to be long legged buzzard

Another eastern imperial eagle

On our travels from Rhawdat Khuriam to the escarpment we spotted a second Eastern Imperial eagleAnd at the end of the day just before sunset we went down off the escarpment to the bottom where we were treated to a mad scramble up the hill by a couple of sand partridge.

Given that our permission to visit a particular diary farm never came through, Lou and I will probably be doing some more speculative birding again tomorrow.

Visits to other parts of Saudi Arabia are in train too.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Rhawdat Khuraim in winter

Rhawdat Khuraim is an oasis 80 kilometres north east of Riyadh. It proved to be an excellent place for passage birds when visited last spring.

desert whitethroat

So we visited it again, this time obviously in winter to see what it might hold.

landscape at Rhawdat Khuriam

In many ways it was a bit disappointing.

problematic desert whitethroat 

Only two warblers were seen. These were desert whitethroat and Asian desert warbler

problematic desert whitethroat takes off

Desert whitethoart was  very common though we spent far too long trying to identify one particular bird before realising that its abberant colour around the throat was probably caused by it getting too far into some dust.

dirty faced desert whitethroat

The most common bird by far was house sparrow followed by white eared bulbul and collared dove. Laughing dove and rock pigeon were also present.

house sparrow

One really positive about Rhamdat Khuraim is that it is the easiest and most guaranteed place in central Arabia to see Arabian babbler. There are often seen close to picnickers too.

Arabian babbler

The only lark seen was crested lark which was flocking in quite large groups. It only does this in mid winter in these parts.

Other birds near-by were desert wheatear often accompanied by Asian desert warbler and a single Isabelline wheatear which rarely winters north of Riyadh.

adult or near adult Eastern Imperial eagle

Lou and I were discussing with each other why we hadn't seen any birds of prey over the oasis with its supply of passerines, pigeons and many gerbils. We were hypothesising that the cold morning temperatures might be cramping their style, when just as we were leaving the park we came across an adult or near adult Eastern Imperial eagle.

second view of Eastern Imperial eagle

The two white stripes on its shoulders are useful characteristics to help identification. Strangely the pictures in the Helms guide show these stripes on the perched bird but they have been missed off the pictures of adult and sub adult birds in flight. 

third view of Eastern Imperial eagle

Almost all the Eastern Imperial eagle I have seen in KSA have been juveniles. This was a welcome exception that made the visit to Rhawdat Khuriam a much better experience than it would have been without. 

Monday 14 January 2013

A wild day at Sebkhat al Fasl, Jubail

My visit to Sebkhet al Fasl, Jubail on Thursday afternoon was a cool and windy one.

Great cormorant

It was also wet in the sense that the water level was at least 50 cm higher than during my first visit a few months ago. The picture below is not the open sea. It is part of the sebkhet overrun with water. The sea is beyond the sand banks in the distance of the photograph. When I visited last time this was all dry sand or at best mud flats.

a wild and deep sebkhat with little egret flying over

Most of the reed beds were knee deep or more in water. Some of the resident purple swamphen had taken to walking along the raised paths meant for people.

The common snipe had moved to positions a lot further inland.

The conditions weren't really very good for birding. The only easy birding was seeing the large flocks of great cormorant making periodic movements and a dozen or so marsh harrier continually hawking over the waterlogged marsh.

plenty of gulls

There are three or four bunded areas by the side of the marsh land. One was occupied by many gulls including heuglins gull, steppe gull and black headed gull as well as a few hardy black winged stilt that hadn't taken to cover.

black headed gull

Perhaps the strangest sight for me was a group of barn swallow which had almost certainly chosen to winter there struggled to keep to the area. Seconds after this photo all of them had landed.

barn swallow

Not many barn swallow winter in Saudi Arabia but those which do keep to the coast and usually this type of (rare) marsh land. Near this group I even saw a house martin.

Caspian tern

One of the birds that had'nt taken to cover was Caspian tern. Several of these were seen fishing over water in the marsh.
Greater spotted eagle

I also saw a single greater spotted eagle flying low over the marsh in a manner similar to marsh harrier. This was unusual behaviour to me.

water pipit

On the land, there were very large numbers of white wagtail and water pipit. I saw more water pipit on Thursday than all the last 5 years put together.

This coming weekend I hope to visit a cattle farm subject to permissions. I am sure the birding will be more clement. And cattle farms are known to have wide diversity of birds. I can't wait.

List of birds seen on the east coast last Thursday:

Great crested grebe
Heuglins gull
Little egret
Steppe gull
Squacco heron
Caspian tern
Western reef heron
Rock pigeon
Great cormorant
Laughing dove
Greater spotted eagle
Collared dove
Marsh harrier
Lesser shot toed lark
Purple swamphen
Crested lark
House martin
Barn swallow
Black winged stilt
Kentish plover
House sparrow
Common snipe
White wagtail
Common black headed gull
Water Pipit
Caspian gull