Sunday 18 August 2013

Passage in the blistering heat at al Hayer

Saturday was my first full day back in Saudi Arabia. Following recent changes here, it is now the second day of the weekend

If I bird in summer in Saudi Arabia, I do it in the morning as it is marginally cooler. Given that I didn't arrive back at home until 4 am, this wasn't an option. Instead I birded in the afternoon until the evening in blistering heat. I did it because I was keen to see what the early passage would be like or indeed if there even was one!

I birded in my "local patch" at al Hayer south of Riyadh.

common sandpiper

The good news is there was evidence of passage. The first sign was an 11 strong flock of common sandpiper.

 little stint and two common sandpiper

As a bonus there was a single little stint in among them. It was moulting out of its summer and into its winter plumage.   

common sandpiper with crested lark

At times the common sandpiper were joined at the water's edge by unusual partners such as crested lark.

yellow wagtail

All the other passage birds were seen around the pivot fields. I found most passage activity in the field with the shortest growth. Here were tens of yellow wagtail.

yellow wagtail

There were also several Isabelline wheatear here. Some of these may stay through the winter. 

Isabelline wheatear

Another passage bird really interested me. At one moment, I noticed that hundreds of Spanish sparrow and streaked weaver had suddenly taken off from one of the fields with long growth forming a cloud of birds like a shoal of fish. It was a harrier that had spooked them.

It was the only bird of prey I saw all session.

Montagu's harrier

I was pleasantly surprised to see it was Montagu's harrier. I struggled to see this bird in my 2 previous full years in Saudi Arabia. I finally saw one at al Hayer last April. This was only my second. 

It would appear it is the last of the harriers to pass through central Arabia in spring. Now my theory is it is the first to pass through in autumn. Hence the reason I have been struggling to see it. Although it is probably genuinely rarer than pallid harrier and marsh harrier, I simply haven't been here at the right times.

Montagu's harrier

The black bar on the upper wings all Montagu's harrier and the face pattern made this a relatively easy identification.


There are resident, passage and wintering hoopoe in central Arabia. The density seen in the pivot fields yesterday suggest at least some were passage birds.

barn swallow

On the contrary, although huge numbers of barn swallow pass through al Hayer on passage, there is a small summering population too. The lazy and relaxed hawking of the birds seen flying over the water at al Hayer made me guess that these are still the local birds rather than passage birds desperate for food.

Squacco heron

Likewise, al Hayer has resident, passage and wintering Squacco heron, purple heron and cattle egret. My hunch is these were local birds but I have no hard evidence other than the early time of year. 

cattle egret

The cattle egret came out of nowhere at almost exactly 4.30 pm. This is the time the water sprayers are turned on in the fields in summer.

Rufous bush robin

A bird which could be passage or summer breeder is rufous bush robin. There were plenty to be seen along with black bush robin which is resident.

Namaqua dove

Some of the resident birds surprised me. Clearly streaked weaver breed well this year despite some of my fears earlier this year. I have never seen so many. Namaqua dove must have had a good season too. Their numbers in the fields approached those of collared dove and laughing dove for the first time. 

graceful prinia

Graceful prinia was also found in numbers in a wide variety of habitat. Incidentally two other warblers were seen: European reed warbler and eastern olivaceous warbler.

white eared bulbul

Indian silverbill and red avadavat joined the spanish sparrow (and lesser numbers of house sparrow) in the field with low growth.

little green bee-eater

The only bee-eater seen was resident little green bee-eater. There was no sign of the passage bee-eaters although they have been reported elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

brown necked raven

Two other species of note were common myna and brown necked raven. The first bird I nearly always see at al Hayer but the second one quite uncommonly.

Moorhen was the only other species seen and identified not mentioned elsewhere in this report.

However it was a species seen but not identified which provided my only regret of the day. In among the hundreds of streaked weaver and Spanish sparrow in the Tamerisk bushes I had sight of an exotic finch. I think it was an escaped zebra waxbill but I didn't get a photo or enough time to be sure. Shame.

Overall, though, the session was worth it despite the 44C heat.