Thursday 28 February 2013

Birds on the east coast

This is the second blog to look at Mnasur Al Fahad's trip two weeks ago to the east coast.

He saw a very large number and variety of waders, some of which gave almost as many identification headaches as the gulls.

However this blog looks at some of the non-waders he saw. 

All the pictures are his and most have been cropped by me. I am grateful for his permission to post them.


The first two pictures show the beautiful and the ugly! Flamingo is common on the coast and house crow is common in the urban areas in the east. Flamingo is a winter visitor and house crow is a resident.

House crow

All around the coastline of Arabia you can see western reef heron.

 Western reef heron (dark morph)

On my visit to the Jizan area recently you may recall I posted a mixed pairing of dark and light morph.

 Western reef heron (light morph)

There are two common types of cormorant on the east coast. These are great cormorant and Socotra cormorant.

 Great cormorant

Despite two visits and plenty of time spent looking I have so far failed to spot any of the later bird. Indeed it has joined my revised list of nemesis birds.

 Purple swamphen

Sekhet al Fasl near Jubail is one of the very few places in Saudi Arabia where you are pretty much guaranteed to see purple swamphen.

 water pipit
And along the eastern coast line near Jubail, Dammam and Khobar you are also guaranteed to see water pipit in winter. You may recall I saw more in one day than in my whole life before the last time I went to Jubail.

song thrush

While on the subject of Jubail, Deffi Park in the city is worth a visit in winter because it is reported to be one of the best places in the kingdom to see northern migrant winterers such as blackbird, chaffinch, brambling and robin.

However I know that several birding visits have been made this winter without success including one from me. Mansur has now come the closest. He observed a song thrush there which is not as rare but also not very common on the east side of the country.

Wednesday 27 February 2013

A really big one among the gulls and terns

Two weeks ago Riyadh based birder, Mansur Al Fahad paid a visit to the east coast of Saudi Arabia. 

I don't visit the coastline of Eastern Province very often so I was interested in what he would find.

Great black headed gull with four black headed gull

He saw many gulls and terns near Dammam. I am particularly envious about one of his sightings! Among a group of black headed gull was a single great black headed gull a.k.a Pallas's gull.

It was already in breeding plumage unlike the smaller black headed gull which are only just beginning to change.

Its not very common on the Arabian coast but it is so conspicuous by its size that when it does occur it is more often recorded than most other birds.

It is in fact the third largest gull in the world after great black backed gull and glaucous gull

I haven't seen one in Saudi Arabia yet. Indeed the last time I saw one was when I used to bird in Azerbaijan four years ago. It was quite common along the Caspian coast.

Slender billed gull

As well as two types of black headed gull, there were plenty of slender billed gull present too.

Heuglin's gull

The birds in the lesser black backed gull complex are very difficult for me to separate and especially so using stand-alone pictures.

My primitive method of separation starts with a comparisons of mantle colours in a mixed group (and in a stand alone picture I can't do this!) . The degree of darkness is in the order: Baltic>Heuglins>steppe>Caspian. We don't usually have to bother with intermedius as an option this far east.

Looking at the top picture on mantle colour alone they have to be either Baltic gull or Heuglins gull. I am minded towards Heuglins gull because the mantle looks decidedly lighter than the upper tail coverts whereas in a Baltic gull the colour is nearly the same.

Please comment if you can help me confirm the bird's ID.

Caspian gull or steppe gull

With this stand-alone picture I could only narrow the choice down to Caspian gull or steppe gull. I posted the picture on BirdForum and the experts there agreed that it couldn't be decisively identified without an open wing picture.

Gull billed tern

No such problems were encountered on identifying the terns. the one above is a gull billed tern. The only possible confusion would be a wintering sandwich tern but the uniform bill colour alone is enough to separate these two.

Lesser crested tern with Terek sandpiper

The final picture is of lesser crested tern heading towards breeding plumage. They seem to be keeping company with a group of Terek sandpiper.

I am not sure I will ever enjoy gull identification and it's made more difficult because I work in Riyadh over 400 kilometres for the coast. I'll try to visit the east coast more often to get more practice.

Sincere thanks to Mansur Al Fahad for providing the pictures which I have heavily cropped in places.

Tuesday 26 February 2013

Birds of prey near Riyadh

Early spring is a good time to look hard at the birds of prey in the Riyadh area. 

The wintering eagles gather and seem to be reinforced by others on passage before moving on.

Fulvescens greater spotted eagle at Al Hayer

Different types of other birds of prey pass through too.

Last weekend saw some of these events.

For example a fulvescens greater spotted eagle remained  near the pivot fields at Al Hayer on both Thursday and Friday even though I had been seeing one near Dirab at various times in the winter, quite possibly the same one.

Second shot of fulvescens greater spotted eagle

On Friday he was standing on the ground in a pivot field, with his head barely above the crop height, where 6 other eagles were aggregated.

Eastern Imperial eagle at Al Hayer

The eagles were four other greater spotted eagle and two Eastern imperial eagleThere were no steppe eagle even though they are the most common eagle in winter.

undershot of eastern Imperial eagle

It looks like they were meeting up for a reason and I can only imagine they were preparing to move off but I am not an expert on eagle behaviour.

Greater spotted eagle at Al Hayer

Near-by a lesser kestrel was perched over one of the largest trees in the area (and central Arabia!). Inside the branches were many tens of Spanish sparrow and a few collared dove.

Lesser kestrel at Al Hayer

Lesser kestrel are passage birds only in central Arabia. They can be in small groups or singularly.

Meanwhile the regular kestrel were hawking over some of the fields and marsh harrier were present over the reed beds. Unfortunately there was no sign of other harriers on passage. I am still looking for my first Montagu's harrier in Saudi Arabia which is much rarer than Pallid harrier.

two steppe eagle at Sulay

Following a tip off from bird photographer, Tholightz Quindara, Lou ande mad a short visit to the main city waste dump at Sulay on Thursday to check out the eagles that had been reported massing there in the afternoons.

steppe eagle in flight at Sulay

We arrived in the early afternoon but still counted 14 eagles. Four of them were perched on electricity pylons from time to time.

As far as I could tell all the ones we saw were steppe eagle.

steppe eagle in flight at Sulay

And we were on the look out for any exceptions.

remaining perched steppe eagle

I knew very little about eagle identification before I came to Saudi Arabia but I am certainly getting a lot of practice in the winters.

Monday 25 February 2013

100 night herons

At about midday on Friday as I walked along the edge of the reed banks by the "Riyadh river" at al Hayer, a great number of birds took to the air in three waves.  

This was after I moved towards a repeated strange noise that sounded like a cross between a mallard's "quack" and a crow. It was a sort of "quawrk" sound.

black crowned night heron roosting

It took me a few moments to realise I had stumbled upon a day time roost of a very large number of black crowned night heron.

first wave of night herons moving

They had been sleeping in a few trees and tamarisk bushes that grow inside the edge of the reeds. Over 30 birds flew out. However it didn't stop there. A second wave of about 20 birds shot out about 30 seconds later.

third wave of night herons moving

I then starting to walk on down stream, past the place and to my great surprise after I had walked on a few metres away  from the bushes a third and biggest wave of 53 birds left in the opposite direction to the other two.

In total there were over 100 black-crowned night-heron in the roost. The big majority were adults.

Anyway the good news is that once I was safely 50 metres or so away they returned to the same place and disappeared from view. 

I didn't capture events well on camera because I was continually caught by surprise.

I am left wondering if this sized flock is usual? it was certainly the first time I had seen so many.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Round up of Al Hayer in February

Last year I visited Al Hayer south of Riyadh  almost weekly and it became what we birders call my local patch.

This year I vowed to make trips more widely within Saudi Arabia and I have been doing so. However last weekend I returned to Al Hayer for the first time in over 6 weeks. I went with Lou Regenmorter on Thursday and on my own on Friday.

pied wheatear

There were the first hints of the spring passage. As last year, one of the first indications is the arrival of pied wheatear on their way through to the north. Isabelline wheatear numbers are also bulging at the moment with the few winterers being temporarily reinforced.

Incidentally although we saw hundreds of pied wheatear come through Al Hayer last spring and this spring looks to be the same pattern, very few were seen in the past two autumns.

desert wheatear

A few wintering desert wheatear remain though they have already thinned out.

field of fodder at Al Hayer

In among the many tens of white wagtail in the fields, two yellow wagtail were spotted. They don't winter at Al Hayer so this is another sign of early passage.

white wagtail

The other signs of passage relate to herons. A large flock of squacco heron (14 strong) and black crowned night heron were seen.

squacco heron

The squacco heron were seen both days around the fields. I want to comment much more on the black crowned night heron in the next blog.

European reed warbler

The reeds are very noisy at present mostly with a mix of the calls of reed warblers and graceful prinia.

I was extremely patience following the sounds of the reed warblers trying to catch a glimpse so I could identify them. I am on the look out for Basra reed warbler (a possible passage bird in these parts) which I have never seen and it would be a useful addition to my Saudi list. Unfortunately for me the twice I saw the warblers over the two days, both were European reed warbler

The incessant calling makes me think the European reed warbler is ready to breed.


I noticed in my trip to Jizan that many resident birds breed in December/January and there is lots of evidence that some resident birds in the Riyadh area breed early too. The moorhen above had just shepherded her chicks to safety seconds before this photo was taken.

red avadavat

And I don't know what has caused this male avadavat to moult. Certainly the males in December were all in breeding plumage the last time I visited Al Hayer. I think its probably a juvenile turning into an adult.

graceful prinia

Graceful prinia are even more exposed than usual at the moment. These acts of foolhardy bravery are often associated with courtship.

desert finch

I am seeing desert finch more regularly at Al Hayer than when I first arrived 18 months ago but I wouldn't draw any conclusions from that. I might just be better at picking them up.

Asian grey shrike

I also have trouble separating pallidirostris from aucheri grey shrikes. The former has been called steppe grey shrike and the later a sub species of southern grey shrike. Now DNA evidence shows they are closely related to each other than any other sub species. Dutch birding calls them collectively Asian grey shrike and I go with that. This bird has an ochre buff wash not pink wash on its front which suggests it is aucheri.

Daurian shrike

Red tailed shrikes are also often difficult to separate as well. This one is a Daurian shrike. The easiest way to tell with this one is the virtual lack of a supercilium as well having no contrast between the head colour and the back. . 


There is no doubt that the number of bluethroat around was higher than all winter. I can only assume that some passage birds have reinforced the wintering ones before they both move off.

Siberian stonechat

They are still some Siberian stonechat about in or next to the fodder fields. They are all in their breeding plumage now.

Two teal and a garganey

If I have one regret this winter it has been that I didn't pay enough attention to the ducks at Al Hayer. This is partly because the effort involved is so large. They are secretive and very easily spooked. They have so many hiding places too. Luckily on Friday I came across some while in good cover and got good views of a mixed group of garganey and teal on the ground.I still don't understand why I have never seen wigeon at al Hayer because historical recorders have said it is quite common in winter. Its a mystery.

List of bird species seen at Al Hayer (40)

Crested lark
Eurasian teal
Pale rock martin
Black-crowned night-heron
Barn swallow
Squacco heron
Graceful prinia
Grey heron
Purple heron
European reed warbler
Marsh harrier
Common whitethroat
Greater spotted eagle
Common myna
Eastern Imperial eagle
Lesser kestrel
Black bush robin
Siberian stonechat
Pied wheatear
Common sandpiper
Isabelline wheatear
Rock dove
Desert wheatear
Namaqua dove
House sparrow
Collared dove
Spanish sparrow
Laughing dove
Red avadavat
Daurian shrike
White wagtail
Asian grey shrike (aucheri)
Yellow wagtail
White eared bulbul
Tawny pipit

Saturday 23 February 2013

The buzzard from Tabuk

A couple of weeks ago I posted two pictures of a buzzard from Tabuk in the far NW of Saudi Arabia close to Israel. these were taken by local birder Viv Wilson who has kindly let me reproduce them. 

The bird caught my attention for this main reason: Buteo buteo buteo (common buzzard) is "unrecorded in Arabia" but is a "regular winter visitor to Israel" according to Birds of the Middle East.

The default sub species in Arabia is buteo buteo vulpinus or steppe buzzard but they are supposed to winter much further south.


One of the original photos of the buzzard

All Viv's first set of pictures were of a perched bird and the conclusion from the experts on BirdForum was that from pictures of a perched bird we cant tell which it was.

I asked whether Viv could try to find it again it and see if he could get some flight pictures. He went out a week later, he found the same bird and he did!

a second of the original photos of the buzzard

This time I asked people on Birdforum and also privately to other experts. One or two of them said it was still impossible to tell which begs the question how do the Israelis do it.

new photo of the buzzard in flight

Those who did try for an identification chose vulpinus or steppe buzzard.

One correspondent said "let's try to get it by moult pattern, everybody will agree on having 2 generations of tail feathers and secondaries (I am not sure about P1-4), which would be rather odd for B.b. buteo in winter and normal in B.b.vulpinus...."

second photo of the buzzard in flight

Another added " even on plumage - darker birds with pale flashes on primary bases plus narrow tail band both fit vulpinus much better"

third photo of the buzzard in flight

The other point they made is that because it was so far north in winter that is quite likely to have some part buteo genes a generation or two back. In other words it might be a mostly vulpinus (steppe buzzard) inter-grade with the other sub species.

the buzzard landing

I think that's as close as we will ever know to what this bird is.

Thanks again to Viv Wilson for the pictures which I have cropped severely in places.