Sunday 31 March 2013

Fascinating birding at Al Ula

Viv Wilson from Tabuk has been doing some fascinating birding in the north west of Saudi Arabia while I was away on holiday.

He spent a weekend down in the Al Ula district which is 400 kilometres south east of Tabuk. I suspect not too much birding has been done in this area before.

lappet faced vulture

Al Ula is a farming district very close to the much better known Madain Saleh. Madain Saleh is one of Saudi Arabia's best tourist attractions. It was built by the same civilization as Petra in Jordan and is arguably better! because it has less visitors and a more serene feel. 

A joint birding and cultural weekend in the area has lots of attraction. Go to Al Ula mostly for the birds and Madain Saleh mostly for the culture.

I am envious that Viv saw and photographed a lappet faced vulture there. This bird has so far alluded me in Saudi Arabia.

male hooded wheatear

Looking through his photos, Lou Regenmorter alerted Viv to a male hooded wheatear. Indeed it doesn't look like it was a one-off as he also photographed a female. The Helms guide map for this species doesn't have it within 200 kilometres (it says it's much further north). That's the beauty of birding in under-birded areas. You make new discoveries.

female hooded wheatear

Just like at Petra you can see Sinai rosefinch close to the monuments. Friends who visited there have reported this to me before.

Sinai rosefinch

I don't have Viv's full list of birds seen but from his pictures there were marsh harrier on passage in the area and the fields at Al Ula look good for passage passerines such as yellow wagtail.

yellow wagtail

I found the glimpses of Viv's trip fascinating and I have made a mental note to visit Madain Saleh. 

Thanks to Viv for letting me show these photos which have all been cropped from his originals.

Saturday 30 March 2013

The last throws of winter in Bulgaria

I was away from Saudi Arabia for 9 days until today. During that time I had domestic issues to deal with in both the UK and Bulgaria. However I did find time for some birding on three successive mornings in Bulgaria last week.

This blog reports on what I saw as I walked out of the house into a local valley each day.


On the first morning it was foggy as the warm air from the Mediterranean battled the cold air from Russia for supremacy. On second and third mornings the cold air won and there was snow on the ground.

In this part of Bulgaria, it is unusual, but not unheard of, to get snow so late in March. However the effects on the bird life were interesting. It looks like the weather had persuaded some of the winter visitors to linger longer and had stopped many of the passage migrants from travelling any further north. In short there was a log jam in my area of birds set to go north but which had been held up.

One winter visitor was dunnock. Indeed this was the first time I had seen one in my village.

house sparrow feeding on my bird table

There were a remarkable number of thrushes about. I have never seen a concentration of song thrush like it before. 

They don't breed in my area (but do just a little way further north) and I have not seen many in winter before. I can only assume they had backed up ready to go north as soon as the weather warmed.

song thrush in my garden

Loosely associating with the song thrush were several blackbird. I only observed one mistle thrush.

a very cold looking fieldfare

My village gets large numbers of fieldfare in winter. They were still present in large mobile flocks. I was very happy to see at least two redwing among them. Like the dunnock, this is the first time I had seen this species in the village.


Some species were more vocal on the first foggy but warmer morning than on the other two mornings. Singing chaffinch, great tit  and corn bunting were seemingly everywhere.

corn bunting

All three were silent on the second two days. Indeed I even failed to see a corn bunting at all.

great tit

Likewise, I saw crested lark on day one but not on days two and three.

crested lark

Instead of singing, skylark returned to flocking too.

a very cold looking skylark

Lots of magpie were about and a few jay. I hadn't really listened to fieldfare before but their tchak tchak sound fooled me at first in thinking other members of the crow family might have been present.


Given the prevailing weather conditions, I saw surprisingly few starling.


On the other hand there were remarkable numbers of robin present. Many might be migrants but at least one was carrying nesting material.


I felt a bit sorry for the summer breeders which had made it up here to this weather. 

northern wheatear

A northern wheatear was really puffed up to fight the cold.


Hoopoe were seeking out places where the snow had melted to probe for worms. There were far more hoopoe around than the normal summer population. This was another case of some passage birds stopping off.

white wagtail

Similarly there were plenty of white wagtail dotted about.

marsh harrier

Since I live so close to the Black Seaq it was not surprising that there was a steady stream of birds of prey heading north. along "Via Pontica". They were apparently all marsh harrier, hen harrier and pallid harrier. No larger birds of prey were seen.

hen harrier

Now I am back in Saudi Arabia I will see what the passage brings me in the Riyadh area this coming weekend. It should be in full swing and the weather should be a lot warmer too.

 List of birds seen in a local valley in north east Bulgaria:

Pallid harrier
Marsh harrier
Hen harrier
Song thrush
Common buzzard
Mistle thrush
Yellow legged gull
Black redstart
Collared dove
Northern wheatear
House sparrow
Tree sparrow
Great tit
White wagtail
Crested lark
Tree pipit
Corn bunting

Tuesday 19 March 2013

The walk to work

Just over a month ago I posted that I had discovered a very small experimental farm run by the local University's agriculture department and it is only a minor detour on my walk to work.

I vowed to visit it ever morning and evening whenever possible. This I have done. The most interested feature when I first visited was that three types of bulbul are resident: red vented bulbul, yellow vented bulbul and white eared bulbul.

In fact I have been spending about ten minutes there twice a day most days. The plan is to look out for passage birds which might drop in on this small oasis of urban greenery.


For the first three weeks I didn't see any passage activity. That changed about two weeks ago.

There was a sand storm over the night before last which continued on into  the day. I was hopeful when I set out yesterday morning that some passage birds might have been grounded. 

wryneck busily foraging

I nearly missed a well camouflaged bird as I walked round. It was a wryneck. Once I had seen it then it allowed close approach.

It was too busy foraging for ants to pay me much attention. 

male blue rock thrush

Still no warblers have been seen there. However three different blue rock thrush have landed. One was seen two days running.   

female blue rock thrush

The first passage birds seen and the most common so far are pied wheatear. Yet no other wheatear has been observed.   

pied wheatear

I don't think the description in the main regional bird guide book does justice to the variety of habitat that pied wheatear can occupy during passage.

a second pied wheatear

Two shrikes have been seen on the small farm so far. One is quite interesting because it looks like a karelini intergrade between a Daurian shrike and Turkestan shrike.  The head and mantle is concolourous like in a Daurian shrike but it is darker which is a known feature of the intergrade. The supercilium is broad and white like Turkestan shrike. The tail is near chestnut coloured rather than orange-red again a feature more of a Turkestan shrike.  

Turkestan shrike (karelini)

The other shrike was a woodchat shrike. It migrates on a broad front throughout Saudi Arabia and is usually the first passage shrike seen in spring.

woodchat shrike

I am not quite sure whether the final bird is passage or not. We have plenty of resident, wintering and passage hoopoe in the Riyadh area. I suspect this one was passage only because I observed it only once.


Except when I am on annual leave I will continue my work day routine searching for passage birds until at least the end of April. Surely some warblers will be among them?

Monday 18 March 2013

The coast near Yanbu

On Friday morning Brian James, Dan, Alice and I birded more places in the Yanbu area. We started at Sharma Yanbu which is a two pronged sea inlet. The northern prong was most productive with more varied landscape including a small plot of mangrove.

It was near the water line here that we had two tricky identification issues. First we came across two larks which we eventually identified as skylark. They took so long to identify mostly because they were 300 kilometres south of their mapped range in the main regional guide. This made us very cautious and precise.

Actually there were at least half a dozen birds we saw on the trip which were beyond their mapped range. It would appear that the maps are least accurate in the Yanbu area than even anywhere else in Saudi Arabia. I suspect the birding has been most limited there.

 steppe gull

A case in point was with the second tricky identification issue very close to the skylark.

We came across three large white headed gulls. One of them had bright yellow legs and a light coloured eye. With these and other features including seeing it in flight we presumed it might be a yellow legged gull.

 back of steppe gull

The only problem with that is that the map doesn't show it any closer than 700 kilometres north at the top end of the Red Sea.

 steppe gull in flight

I presented the pictures to BirdForum for the experts to look at. There was discussion around whether it was yellow legged gull, Hueglins gull or steppe gull. There are more problems here because the map shows steppe gull no closer than Yemen over 1000 kilometres way and Hueglins gull also in Yemen  and in the top end of the Red Sea 700 kilometres away (next to the yellow legged gull).

 Heuglins gull
The conclusion was that, among other features, the mantle was too dark for yellow legged gull (especially when compared with the adjacent gull which is definitively a third calendar year Heuglins gull. So the mystery adult gull was suggested to be a steppe gull with a light eye (very common among Arabian peninsula wintering steppe gull apparently).

The maps show only Caspian gull and Baltic gull in Yanbu and indeed all the Red Sea coast (and certainly they are the most commonly seen). However to say they are the only large white headed gulls there is surely very wrong. We need some real gull experts to do some survey work here. The maps are a mess.

 mixed gulls and oystercatcher

The picture above shows a more common selection of local gulls with oystercatcher. I can see a Baltic gull, Caspian gull, black headed gull and slender billed gull.

Another notable bird seen in the small amount of mangroves here was common kingfisher.

 black-eared wheatear

The land near Sharma Yanbu held birds other than water birds. In particular we picked up several wheatears including a couple of black eared wheatear.

 purple heron

After finishing with Sharma Yanbu we headed down the coast along Yanbu's corniche towards the mangroves which have been designated IBA (Important Bird Area).

The corniche probably deserved more time but we had to pass through quickly en route towards the mangroves. On passing we stopped for a heron since goliath heron has been reported at Yanbu in the past. It turned out to be a purple heron.

 crab plover and a curlew

Plenty of crab plover were seen in the area as well.

Eurasian spoonbill

The IBA was a bit of a disappointment. According to BirdLife International, it consists of three separate plots of mangroves.  We found the most northerly plot was surrounded by new development though separated by a wall and a canal. From our quick scan we didn't see any thing of interest though it was high tide. The second conservation area was more accessible though it was close to a refinery where photography was banned. We were careful to photograph away from the refinery. We saw Eurasian spoonbill and western reef heron.

 western reef heron

We never did find the third and largest set of mangroves. We believe they were between a refinery and a desalination plant and completely out of bounds for the general public. So if goliath heron is still around then it is not going to be seen by bird watchers.

 Marsh harrier

From noon onwards we started travelling back south towards Thuwal. We tried hard to hug the coast using whatever minor roads and tracks were available. We were on the look out for any mangroves.

The most eventful part of this journey was the number of marsh harrier (and to a lesser extent pallid harrier) we saw. We presumed all were on passage. Unfortunately, there was no sign of a Montagu's harrier which I still haven't seen in Saudi Arabia but which I am told is not uncommon on the west coast at this time of year.

One plot of mangrove was found at a wadi entrance but was the wrong side of extensive mud flats and therefore inaccessible.

 common kestrel

Two other birds of prey seen were common kestrel and osprey.


As we went south we passed through another area full of larks (as we did on the way up) with the same species.

 yellow wagtail
This time we also spotted tens of yellow wagtail and a few tawny pipit as well.

 black crowned sparrow lark

There were very few trees and bushes. Those that there were often held chiffchaff or willow warbler.  

willow warbler

We stopped hugging the coast near Rabigh and the sightings there have been reported in a previous blog.

It was an eventful weekend overall with two additions to my Saudi list. 118 species were seen in all. This is even more than during my visits to Jizan in the south west and a record for me over a weekend.

List of birds seen in the Rabigh and Yanbu area

Common quail
Black stork
Common kingfisher
Eurasian spoonbill
Little green bee-eater
Little bittern
Woodchat shrike
Cattle egret
Masked shrike
Little egret
Daurian shrike
Squacco heron
Turkestan shrike
Grey heron
Asian grey shrike (aucheri)
Purple heron
Arabian babbler
Western reef heron
House crow
Brown necked raven
Black kite
Fan tailed raven
Marsh harrier
Yellow vented bulbul
Pallid harrier
Black crowned sparrow lark
Long legged buzzard
Hoopoe lark
Steppe buzzard
Crested lark
Steppe eagle
Greater short toed lark
Lesser short toed lark
Cream coloured courser
Desert lark
Eurasian oystercatcher
Eurasian crag martin
Black winged stilt
Pale crag martin
Crab plover
Sand martin
Spur winged lapwing
Barn swallow
White tailed lapwing
Graceful prinia
Grey plover
Clamorous reed warbler
Common ringed plover
Eurasian reed warbler
Little ringed plover
Marsh warbler
Kentish plover
Willow warbler
Common snipe
Black tailed godwit
Bar tailed godwit
Arabian warbler
Lesser whitethroat
Eurasian curlew
Spotted redshank
Common myna
Black bush robin
Common redstart
Green sandpiper
Terek sandpiper
Isabelline wheatear
Common sandpipier
Northern wheatear
Little stint
Black eared wheatear
Ruddy turnstone
Desert wheatear
Sooty gull
Pied wheatear
Black headed gull
White crowned wheatear
Slender billed gull
Cyprus wheatear
Caspian gull
House sparrow
Lesser black backed gull (Steppe, Baltic and Heuglins)
Spanish sparrow
Caspian tern
Pale rock sparrow
Whiskered tern
African silverbill
Gull billed tern
Indian silverbill
Chestnut bellied sandgrouse
White wagtail
Rock dove
Yellow wagtail
Collared dove
Grey wagtail
Namaqua dove
Tawny pipit
Laughing dove
Water pipit
Greater spotted cuckoo
Red throated pipit
Common swift
Cretzschmar’s bunting
Pallid swift
Ortolan bunting