Thursday 31 October 2013

The coast inside Yanbu city

Brian James and I finished our tour of the Yanbu area last Saturday afternoon with a journey down the coast within Yanbu city heading southward. 

The density of sea birds here was much higher than the area north of the city which had spend several hours observing. Indeed we saw every sea bird in Yanbu that we had seen over many kilometres of coast line further north with the exception of a single common tern.

So in future I would drop the trip to the north of the city and concentrate on the city coast and further south.

There are mangroves on the southern trip and within the city which adds to its attraction. Furthermore on part of the route there is a grassed and bushy southern corniche which acts as a magnet for land birds.

It's shame we had little time to do it justice.


This blog concentrates on the extra species seen within the city not seen on the northern coast up to the cement works.

Flamingo was a good start.

crab plover

Crab plover and ruddy turnstone were also seen in the city bit not north of it.

European spoonbill

Three European spoonbill were also present near an area with a large number (over 10) of grey heron.

Caspian gull

Again the main gulls were slender-billed gull, sooty gull and a few Caspian gull.

Steppe gull

Here though we also observed three steppe gull with their deep yellow legs and bills but darker mantle than yellow legged gull

close up of the face of a steppe gull

One was also seen here last spring on our previous visit. This species is not shown on the regional guides distribution map for the Red Sea coast. Please also note that many steppe gull that Saudi Arabia gets in winter do not have the more typical dark eye.

house crow

The grassed south corniche was slowly driven past rather than thoroughly birded because of time constraints. Even by driving past, we could see, it was teeming with birds from doves to house crow as well as warblers, shrikes and common redstart in the bushes.  

House crow now seems to have colonised the whole eastern red sea coast all the way from Jizan in the south west to Haql on the Jordanian border.

female blackcap

We didn't get a chance to look at warblers on the corniche but we had seen some bushes on the outskirts of the city before the main trip down the coast. 

Here we saw the phenomenon of large numbers of blackcap travelling as a flock. I had first observed this in spring in the Riyadh area where one tree had 21 blackcap and there were 35 altogether in the small wadi.

Likewise at Yanbu where four bushes close to each other which housed at least 7 or 8 blackcap each.  

blackcaps in a bush

Overall the trip to Yanbu was a success. We saw over 100 species over the weekend but with some adjustments to the routes in the hills and along the coast, we could make it even better next time.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Coast north of Yanbu

Last Saturday Brian James and I visited the coast north of  Yanbu. After a short look at the sharm (inlet) on the northern edge of the city, we headed north to the cement works and worked our way down the coast back to the city.

The area just north of the cement works has some good historical records and that's why we went there. However it appears the scrub there is drier than it used to be (unless it rains?) and that's why species like common crane and European golden plover, previously recorded were an obvious non-starter for us.

In the drier but still bushy landscape we did see a good variety of birds though not sensational.

common kestrel

Two birds of prey were seen in the scrub. There were three common kestrel scattered about and a female pallid harrier passed by.

common redstart

Several of the bushes house common redstart presumably on passage.

northern wheatear

The only wheatears were desert wheatear and northern wheatear

red-backed shrike

Red-backed shrike were common and a single spotted flycatcher was observed. Both are very common passage birds throughout Saudi Arabia.

The warblers were a bit more varied than in many places. The majority were willow warbler but there were also a small number of blackcap, a Menetries warbler and a skulking clamorous reed warbler in slightly unusual terrain for it even on passage.

hoopoe lark

A sign of how dry parts of the area has become was the presence of hoopoe lark as well as crested lark.

On the other hand,  this was also the only place on the coast where we saw Arabian babbler which doesn't tolerate really dry places.

Having finished with the cement factory area, we headed down the coast trying where possible to keep to the shore line.

Eurasian curlew

Here we saw several Eurasian curlew and  fewer whimbrel.

lesser crested tern

Four types of tern were also observed. The most abundant were lesser crested tern.

Caspian tern

There were a splattering of Caspian tern

common tern

There was a single common tern alongside three greater crested tern (a.k.a swift tern). This is the first time I have seen a common tern on the west coast.

slender-billed gull

Most of the gulls were slender bill gull or sooty gull. Two white eyed gull were also seen.

Caspian gull

The main large white headed gull on the coast is Caspian gull though the next blog will show that contrary to the maps it and lesser black-backed gull - baltic (not seen on this trip) are not the only two in the area.

Caspian gull and sooty gull

A bird I have rarely seen in Saudi Arabia is sanderling. It prefers large expanses of sandy beach and I don't visit them very often. 


This was the first time I have photographed one close up since leaving Libya three years ago.

Terek sandpiper

The most prevalent sandpiper was actually Terek sandpiper.


The only bird of prey observed south of the cement works was a solitary osprey.

We had to travel many kilometres to see these birds which were not densely packed for the most part.

The shore birding was better when we got back within the city and that's what the next blog will look at.

Monday 28 October 2013

Circular route north of Yanbu.

After visiting Yanbu dump and waste water lakes on Friday morning, Brian James and I travelled east and then completed a circular route up to Umluj and down the coast (but not birding there) back to Yanbu. 

male shining sunbird

The route was speculative birding since I couldn't find any previous records. It was also probably a little too ambitious. In the end we only had time to bird in the three areas with red circles in the map below. And although the birding was all above 1000 metres we didn't find a way up into the higher areas. We failed to find a route up Jebel Jar (marked A on the map).

One of the most remarkable features was that we only saw three bird of prey throughout this trip though one was a lesser kestrel. Another was common kestrel.

We did pick up some more highland species. For example shining sunbird is only found at altitude in Saudi Arabia. It was seen at the northern most point of our journey.

circular route from Yanbu round Jebel Jar to Umluj

Probably the most common bird seen and certainly the most widespread was white spectacled bulbul.

white spectacled bulbul

In the drier areas blackstart were common too.


Another bird of altitude is Tristram's starling. We found this most often close to human occupation.

Tristram's starling

Of course house sparrow were near human occupation too.

house sparrow

In the  large, greener wadis especially in a plateau area the bird life was most diverse. 

Arabian babbler

In one of these we saw our only Arabian babbler and hoopoe of the trip.


In the remoter areas and in the small bushes there were many warblers but nearly all were of two species.

unidentified warbler

All those identified  were either willow warbler (on passage) and Menetries warbler (wintering).

The dropped wings and cocked tail is typical of a Menetries warbler as in the picture above. However as I write this blog I am unhappy with the colour of the tail. It's the same bird in both pictures. I would expect to see a dark tail in a Menetries warbler of all ages.

unidentified warbler

I will review my pictures and post to BirdForum. If anyone reading this blog can identify the bird, please say in the comments. The breast is a buff-rufous wash and so sub-alpine warbler must be a possibility. Interesting.....

A few little green bee-eater and black bush robin were sharing the bushes with the warblers.

Relatively few wheatear were seen and all were northern wheatear (passage) or desert wheatear (wintering) except one wintering eastern mourning wheatear which allowed close approach.

Eastern mourning wheatear

Other notable birds included a third bird of prey which was a steppe buzzard.

steppe buzzard

An Asian desert warbler was of interest too. Though this one was not in the company of a desert wheatear as is so often the case.

Asian desert warbler

In summary, this trip was useful for providing new data points for ebird database and so improve collective knowledge on species distribution. Next time it could be improved by making a full day out of it and by picking out a more minor route which takes in higher land and short cuts the journey (see the map at the start of the blog for that route). 

In the next blog, I'll write about our Saturday journey doing coastal birding.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Now a yellow browed warbler at Yanbu

Brain James and I met up in Yanbu from our respected bases in Thuwal and Riyadh last weekend. We started out on Friday morning with a trip to Yanbu dump and waste water lakes. 

This is one of the most unsavoury birding locations in the kingdom. It is also one of the best. 

There is always a variety of both land birds and shore birds. It is major stopping off point for migrants too.

yellow browed warbler at Yanbu

The biggest discovery was another yellow browed warbler. Lou Regenmorter and I saw one east of Haql, 500 kilometres north of Yanbu the week before. Brian James and I saw one at the dump. We both got excellent views and photographs. This bird is not even mentioned as a vagrant in the kingdom in the main regional guide.

Like so many birds the reason for its lack of its presence on distribution maps is a lack of Saudi-based bird watchers particularly outside the three big cities. At least twenty species I know have much wider distribution than the guide's maps. On the other hand, a smaller number of others are said to breed which don't (anymore).

Yanbu dump

There was much more to the Yanbu dump site than this warbler although other warblers weren't particularly varied. Willow warbler was however abundant and presumably on passage.

willow warbler

The only other warbler here was graceful prinia.

common redstart

An excellent cross section of migrants was very much in evidence from small to large. Common redstart was in virtually every large bush and tree.

Daurian shrike

Red-backed shrike was common on top of bushes with at least one Daurian shrike also present.

spotted flycatcher

A small number of spotted flycatcher were also observed.

red-throated pipit

Like Tabuk the weekend before, there were no yellow wagtail still up there. However there were plenty of their frequent travelling partner: red-throated pipit. There were an equal number of tree pipit too. I suppose some red-throated pipit may winter there but it needs a mid-winter visit to be sure. White wagtail wintering numbers were higher than in Tabuk.

tree pipit

Whinchat were common as is usually the case in coastal areas on autumn passage. A single stonechat was also there.


A nightjar was accidentally flushed but landed close-by. It was a European nightjar but not a sub species I have seen before. It was a unwini. This bird breeds in Iraq and Iran and is described as rare. It is much lighter than the nominate sub-species and on colour more closely resembles Nubian and Egyptian nightjars.

The long white moustache and pearls of white on the wing help define it as a European nightjar though.

European nightjar (unwini sub species)

When the bird flew initially there was no white flash underneath making it a female or an immature.

blue-cheeked bee-eater

Another interesting medium-sized migrant was blue-cheeked bee-eater. Four were seen on site.

There is evidence that the general passage in the Middle East is late this year and this was one sign.

female garganey

Unlike Libya where I used to bird, some garganey actually stay all winter. I am not sure they do so as far "north' as Yanbu. At least three were present along with a pintail and several mallard.

two female garganey and a female pintail

Both passage northern wheatear and probable wintering desert wheatear were around in the drier parts of the dump.

desert wheatear

I don't believe there are any fish in the lakes. 

little egret

This is a restriction on the attraction of the area to the heron family though grey heron, squacco heron, purple heron, little egret and a single black crowned night heron (immature) were seen.

little egret with grey heron

Marsh harrier were trying to prey on small birds.

marsh harrier

A very pale headed bird of prey was also present that I couldn't identify. I now know it is a steppe buzzard thanks to BirdForum. It is certainly the palest headed one I have seen though I know they are very variable.

pale headed steppe buzzard

Miscellaneous other medium birds included hoopoe and moorhen.


Moorhen is extremely common. We spent twenty minutes or so near them looking for crakes without any success though some habitat looks ideal.


In the wetter areas, there was a large variety of waders. Spur winged lapwing were the most obvious and vocal.


Ruff are also abundant and some were in breeding plumage though this doesn't necessarily mean local breeding.

common ringed plover and little stint

The most numerous smaller waders were little stint and common ringed plover.  Dunlin were less numerous. One was still in summer plumage. A couple of lesser sand plover were also seen. Green sandpiper and a single wood sandpiper were observed though I don't recall any common sandpiper.

black winged stilt

Some of the many black winged stilt actually managed to stay clean.

Indian silverbill

One final observation which doesn't fit into the narrative anywhere else, the silverbill here are Indian silverbill despite it being on the west coast.

This was an excellent start to our weekend. We then moved on inland to do some speculative birding in areas where I hadn't found any previous reports. I'll blog on these next.