Monday 30 September 2013

Still " non residents" on the university farm

It's been tough finding migrants on my walk to work in the past week. No common whitethroat or any other warbler has been seen. The last wryneck was observed a week ago today and no recent spotted flycatcher either. These three bird species had been almost ever present this autumn on the small experimental university farm.  

There have some high points though. Top of these was when a female golden oriole landed very briefly early in the morning on Wednesday.

masked shrike

Today was a bit better. This afternoon, I saw my first shrike on the farm for 10 days. It was a masked shrike almost certainly on passage. I say "almost certainly on passage" because I have records of two in mid winter two years ago when it was much milder than last winter.  

young northern wheatear

And in the very early morning and in poor light, I came across a very flighty young northern wheatear. The light didn't help its identification but I got enough views including one of its tail pattern to be sure.

northern wheatear from behind

A single tree pipit has been around all week as the only other definite passage bird that has lingered. The picture below was taken on Thursday but it was still there this evening.

tree pipit

Two small waves of European bee-eater have occurred. Neither group stopped more than a few minutes. There was a bee research centre here but it looks like it closed down over the summer. When it was running, the bee-eaters used to stay for hours gorging themselves!

European bee-eater resting briefly on the farm

Other non residents have also been present but they might not necessarily be passage birds. They might also be staying the winter (in case of a grey wagtail and green sandpiper) or local movements in the case of  a couple of black winged stilt. I can't tell.  

grey wagtail with dropped wings

This grey wagtail was behaving quite oddly. I have never seen one drop its wings and cock its tail in the manner of a thrush family member before. It was also unusually away from water too.

grey wagtail with cocked tail

This went on for a couple of minutes before it did some heavy preening. Finally it reverted to its normal form.

grey wagtail preening

A grey wagtail was present at the near-by pool this afternoon. It could easily be the same bird reverting to type.

finally grey wagtail in normal pose

The pool has been the focus of other "non residents" during the past week.

black winged stilt at the pool

A couple of black winged stilt have turned up to the pool from a southerly direction most days around 6.30 or 6.45 am. They did so again this morning. I often see them in the afternoon too.

black winged stilt

green sandpiper on the other hand has usually been there first thing in the morning and as I leave in the late afternoon. 

green sandpiper

I wonder just how much more of the passage is left. Its certainly lower key in central Arabia than in spring. Even when it is over I think I will continue the walk. Who knows, there may be some interesting or rare wintering bird(s) there.  

Sunday 29 September 2013

White winged black terns in central Arabia

Bernard Brachen and I moved on from Al Hayer on Saturday during mid morning. The second stop was the lake near Riyadh cricket club.

Nearly all the passage waders have gone since the last time I visited. Nevertheless it was still thronging with birds. Most of which were incredibly nervous of people. 

There is very little cover at this gravel pit and most birds either fly or swim fast away at first sight. 

white winged black tern

Three noticeable exceptions were all white winged black tern. They allowed us as close as the water's edge would take us. They were clearly tired or tamer than the local birds or more likely both. 

Interestingly the distribution map in the Helms regional guide doesn't have this species inland in Saudi Arabia. Though it does for every other country on the map! This sighting was no fluke as a birding friend has told me several were seen at Al Hayer at around the same time on Saturday.  

ferruginous duck

While the terns were remaining calm, the ducks were anything but. Five ferruginous duck repeated flew over seemingly not daring to land.


Five mallard swam as fast as they could towards reed cover. common snipe and a small flock of little stint also vacated our area before we got within 30 metres. Most other birds swam to the furthest part of the lake away from us and crowded themselves there.

little stint

Clearly some hunting is going on and also there is a real lack of cover as you descend into the gravel pit. At ground level there is only thick reed.

spur winged plover and other birds

The far corner of the lake was crowded with spur winged lapwing, coot, moorhen, little grebe and black winged stilt. When they finished flying or swimming away the ferruginous duck had gone deep in reed cover like the mallard before them.

cattle egret

Just before we left for the day, a flock of cattle egret arrived. Like the white winged black tern they were probably strangers because they stayed in the open.

little grebe

Finally I want to draw attention to one little grebe who did not run away. For some reason the one above swam brazenly  near us and the three resting white winged black tern.

List of 45 species seen on Saturday at Al Hayer (H) and/or cricket club lake (C)
Little grebe C
Grey heron H
Purple heron H 
Squacco heron H
Little egret  C
Cattle egret C,H
Little bittern  H
Mallard  C,H 
Ferruginous duck  C
Marsh harrier  H
Moorhen  C,H
Coot  C
Black winged stilt  C,H
Green sandpiper  C
Ruff  C
Little ringed plover  C
Little stint  C
Common snipe  C
White winged black tern  C
Rock pigeon  H
Namaqua dove  H
Collared dove  H
Laughing dove  H
Blue cheeked bee-eater  H
European bee-eater   H
Little green bee-eater  C,H
Crested lark  C,H
Pale crag martin  C
Barn swallow  C,H
Sand martin  H
Yellow wagtail  H
White eared bulbul  H
Graceful prinia  C,H
Eurasian reed warbler  H
Great reed warbler  H
Common whitethroat  H
Northen wheatear  H
Isabelline wheatear  H
Red backed shrike  H
Asian grey shrike (aucheri)  H
Common myna  H
Streaked weaver  H
House sparrow  C,H
Spanish sparrow  H
Ortolan bunting  H

Saturday 28 September 2013

Two types of reed warbler at Al Hayer

I went birding with Bernard Brachen again today. Bernard was new to Saudi birding a couple of weeks ago but is keen to continue in this very different environment to European birding that he is use to.

blue-cheeked bee-eater

There is still significant passage for Bernard to see at Al Hayer today. Both European bee-eater and blue cheeked bee-eater were present although once again this season the latter were more numerous.

Eurasian reed warbler

Among the passage warblers the main story today was about reed warblers. Indeed we only saw one other and that was a single common whitethoart.

Almost the first bird we saw on arrival was the Eurasian reed warbler above. It took us some time to be sure of its identity particularly as in was in the very field which last week I said I doubted that a passage Eurasian reed warbler would choose over the near-by extensive reed beds.  However we were able to separate it from last week's marsh warbler found near the same spot. One of characteristics was the rusty tail this bird has in contrast to the mantle but there were other reasons too. 

We counted five reed warblers in the field but we pressed on in the early morning with our pre planned agenda to look for crakes and other water birds since the waters were deserted apart from us today.

Great reed warbler

Its only when we came back to them two hours later than we realised a possible tactical error. Not all the "reed warblers" at the site were the same. The second one we locked on to was a great reed warbler with its large and stout bill (apparent despite the shadow in the picture).

It proved difficult to relocate the other birds too. In retrospect we probably should have stayed with them all while we had them in our sight.

first year red-backed shrike

Near-by was a very young looking red-backed shrike and a nearly as young ortolan bunting. These were the only ones of their species we observed today.

first year ortolan bunting

Many fewer ortolan bunting have been seen this season compared with spring. This is a common story with many species. Notably exceptions have been blue-cheeked  bee-eater, European roller, collared pratincole and golden oriole. At least they are colourful birds! 

I am beginning to understand the different routes taken by species on passage depending on whether it is spring or autumn.

marsh harrier

No eagles have arrived yet either. We get plenty of steppe eagle, greater spotted eagle and eastern imperial eagle which stay the winter. Only a couple of marsh harrier seem to have arrived.

rows of cattle egret

A few winter birds are already here in force though. We have a few cattle egret sightings all summer though I don't know whether they breed. However today at Al Hayer there were over 60.

black winged stilt in the air

Likewise we have local black winged stilt scattered over several locations in the Riyadh area. However it would be unusual (though admittedly not impossible) to see a group of 24 in the air. 

white eared bulbul

The local birds such have white eared bulbul won't have the place to themselves again until May.

Bernard and I shared camera duties today. All the photos are his except the great reed warbler, red backed shrike and blue cheeked bee-eater. I'd like to thank him for his photos and permission to crop them where necessary.

After we left Al Hayer we visited the cricket club lake. A full list of birds seen today from both places will appear in that report.  

Friday 27 September 2013

Hundreds of levant sparrowhawks at Rabigh

This blog may sound emphatic but it has a message! The message is that the autumn passage down the eastern side of the Red Sea coast is big and that includes important numbers of at least some raptors.

My birding friend Brian James reports that saw 500 levant sparrowhawk over Wadi Rabigh this Monday September 23rd. Yet the Helms regional guide says "passage hatched (referring to the map) but rare Saudi Arabia." 

Rare.... hmm. In its defence, the guide is presenting received wisdom.

juvenile levant sparrowhawk cooling off

It's a known phenomenon that thousands of these birds pass over the Bosphorus and through Eilat over a concentrated 2 or 3 day period at the same time every year. However people (for example in the Helms guide) have assumed they all go south west. Well, a significant proportion clearly goes south east too. 

There weren't any levant sparrowhawk at Wadi Rabigh on September 21st because I was there with Brian then but we had expected them any day. However, I knew I was probably 2 or 3 days early. 

It unlikely that Brian saw all those that chose the south east route. I suspect some passed through the day before and after. 
levant sparrowhawk (with a few other raptors) over Wadi Rabigh 

When I was with Brian two days before we were picking up lots of honey buzzard and some eagles. And just as with the honey buzzard earlier, a small number of the levant sparrowhawk came down to drink in the fresh waters of Wadi Rabigh.

juvenile and adult levant sparrowhawk

I have little expertise with levant sparrowhawk but I do know that females have dark outer primaries and I assume the bird below is female.

All birds including juveniles have a vertical throat mark as nicely shown in the top picture.

adult levant sparrowhawk stretching wings

September 23rd is Saudi Arabia's National Day and always a holiday so I have a good chance to be in the right place at the right time next year. 

I'd like to thank Brian again for the information and the pictures which were all taken by him. I am very grateful.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Lots of colour in the fields at Al Hayer

I visited Al Hayer on the Saudi National Day holiday this Monday. The fishermen arrived nearly as early as me which caused me to spend most of my time away from the water as the disturbance is significant.

There are large roaming mixed flocks of finch-family birds at the moment on the pivot fields. My enforced absence from the water lead to me to inspect them more closely than of late.

two young streaked weaver

The two largest components of the flocks are Spanish sparrow and streaked weaver including many young bids such the ones shown above.

Male Arabian golden sparrow

However there are also often small numbers of Indian silverbill, house sparrow and red avadavat.

Two weeks ago fellow birder Ahmed Al Kassim alerted me to the fact that Arabian golden sparrow had joined the flocks. Indeed there numbers have grown steady over the past year from nothing. 

I saw my first one the weekend before last and on Monday I looked very hard and prolonged at the flocks. I was surprised to see they actually make up 5-10%!

The big issue for me is whether they will survive the cooler winters than in their natural habitat near Jizan. The red avadavat do it by keeping in the dried tall reeds at night, dawn and dusk when its cold.

An unfortunate dyed female house sparrow

Arabian golden sparrow almost certainly came from escapes. Indeed a pink sparrow among the the flock is a pink dyed female house sparrow which was also probably a caged bird sold as a fake exotic. She too found her way to the large flocks at Al Hayer.

blue cheeked bee-eater

More colour was provided by small numbers of blue-cheeked bee-eater which is far more common than European bee-eater in autumn (and in stark contrast to spring).

a second blue-cheeked bee-eater

Their numbers though were down on the week before and there are signs that the overall passage is levelling off.

Marsh warbler

I saw relatively few passage warblers. For example I observed only one common whitethroat and eastern olivaceous warbler. By way of compensation, a marsh warbler gave me very good views in a field right as I arrived at dawn. 

Marsh warbler from another angle

Notice that it has generally lighter bill and legs than the very similar reed warbler. It is also generally a plumper bird. It's underparts were paler and brighter too though this doesn't come out well in these photos (taken in poor light).

Habitat is another useful indicators in these matters. This bird chose a damp field with tall grass over the extensive reed beds just 15 metres way!

Northern wheatear

Northern wheatear and Isabelline wheatear are still coming through. Some of the latter stay all winter in the area but northern wheatear don't.

white throated kingfisher

White-throated kingfisher started out as as a winter visitor according to old records but it stays all year round now and breeds. 

A common kingfisher was seen which was the first this winter but it was too quick for me to photograph. i am sure there will be more chances this winter.

a row of barn swallow

There are still lots of barn swallow passing through. No barn swallow stay all winter (unlike Benghazi where I used to bird) but we get some spring breeders who breed in February. Indeed the Helms regional guide wrongly says red rumped swallow breed here but in fact its the other swallow!  

grey heron

Other activity at Al Hayer on Monday included lots of movement by the heron family in the early morning. Clearly where grey heron and purple heron roost and where they go in daytime are quite different. Likewise black crowned night heron must be active at night in different places to where they roost in the day. All three birds can be seen moving around at about 7 am.

I don't see so much movement at that time with cattle egret and squacco heron but on the other hand they can be readily seen in the fields anyway.

hoopoe at Al Hayer

Among the other notable birds was a single tree pipit.

tree pipit
Shrikes were a bit scarce too. 

lesser grey shrike

Only two species were seen: lesser grey shrike which is a passage bird and three or four Daurian shrike which is passage and wintering.

Daurian shrike

Desert wheatear is another wintering bird and their numbers are just starting to build. Indeed the story of the next few weeks at Al Hayer is going to be increasingly about winter birds building up and not so much about passage which feels it might just be on the wane.

desert wheatear

When I finished at Al Hayer, I decided to take a detour back through Dirab just as I had the weekend before.

Dirab is a more traditional farming area where the water comes from natural sources. The area can attract birds which are tolerant of drier conditions than at Al Hayer. For example its the best place locally to see white crowned wheatear.

white crowned black wheatear

The young bird above hasn't developed its white crown yet though.

Another bird tolerant of dry conditions is blackstart and this was seen too.  

greater short toed lark at Dirab

A flock of greater short toed lark provided the last sight before I finished for the day.

I have just been told that Arabian golden sparrow has been present for several years even though I haven't seen it until recently. I can only assume it has had a bumper breeding season!

List of 46 species seen at Al Hayer (H) and Dirab (D)

Mallard    H
Crested lark   H,D
Common quail    H
Greater short toed lark   D
Black crowned night heron   H
Barn swallow   H,D
Squacco heron    H
Sand martin    H
Grey heron    H
Pale crag martin   H
Purple heron    H
Graceful prinia   H,D
Cattle egret    H
Marsh warbler    H
Marsh harrier    H
Eastern olivaceous warbler    H
Montagu’s harrier    H
Common whitethroat    H
Moorhen    H
Common myna    H
Rock pigeon    H,D
Black bush robin    H,D
Collared dove    H,D
Isabelline wheatear    H,D
Laughing dove    H,D
Northern wheatear    H
Namaqua dove    H
Desert wheatear    H
Hoopoe    H,D
White crowned wheatear   D
White throated kingfisher    H
Blackstart    D
Common kingfisher    H
House sparrow   H,D
Blue cheeked bee-eater    H
Spanish sparrow    H
Little green bee-eater   H,D
Arabian golden sparrow    H
Daurian shrike   H
Indian silverbill    H
Lesser grey shrike   H
Red avadavat    H
Brown necked raven   D
Yellow wagtail    H,D
White eared bulbul   H,D
Tree pipit    H