Monday 7 October 2013

Half Moon Bay and Abqaiq

Delving through the e-bird database and looking at other historical records you can see that black-necked grebe (eared grebe) winters in large numbers south of Khobar on the eastern coast.

It was my target species for the visit on Friday. 

The problem was that I am booked up every weekend until December and so last weekend was my only free date to go east for a long while. But would it be too early? 

The earliest date I had in the records for sightings of the grebe was October 13th. However 39 grebe were seen that day so I thought a few might already be there nine days earlier.

So on Friday, with Bernard Bracken,  I looked carefully at the sea for the grebe while driving south out of Khobar. Yet there was nothing for several kilometres. 

Nevertheless I wasn't quite totally despondent. I had thought the best chance was the inner most and most sheltered part of Half Moon Bay. So we stopped and parked there to have a really close look.

And in the distance in the cove were two barely see-able black-necked grebe.

black-necked grebe

This was one of those lovely moments when you think birding is truly worth while. It was actually really a triumph for good record keeping and sound research.

Black-necked grebe is the 306th bird on my Saudi list using the e-bird/Clements count. (By the way, it's 308 using the OSME count)

Abuqayq lagoon

After visiting Half Moon Bay, the next place on the itinerary was Abqayq lagoons. These are south west of Half Moon Bay and inland. 

Old records show the lagoons were very fruitful for many species of bird including migrant passerines and wintering ducks. However the data on e-bird comes from the mid 1980s. Google earth shown that a sewage works exists on the site today but we didn't know what else to expect. 

On arrival and physical inspection, the water level seems to have dropped from its historical levels and the lagoons are now small and the water brackish. 

It also appears that the sewage works treats local dirty water and puts it into holding areas. From these the treated water seeps into the ground and feeds the lagoons. Unfortunately the supply of water this way is not enough to maintain the water level in the lagoons.

It might be different in winter after rains though. It's worth a second visit then to check.

Meanwhile the bird life we saw on Friday was restricted to passing pied wheatear and Isabelline wheatear as well as resident collared dove in the few trees.

Isabelline wheatear at the lagoons

The Isabelline wheatear were tricky to identify but Beaman's and Madge's "Handbook of bird identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic" was a great help on this one. If all else fails I normally look for the isolated black alula of an Isabelline wheatear but not present on a female Northern wheatear. However this is obscured in this case. Beaman et al give several reasons why this is an Isabelline wheatear. For example the almost non-existent supercilium and an eye ring which is much stronger above the eye than below. I really recommend this book.

Pied wheatear at the lagoons

Four Isabelline wheatear and two pied wheatear were seen at the site.

Like the near-by Hofuf area, the water level is close to the surface in several places in the Abuqayq district. Unlike Hofuf the number of farms is more limited. 


Nevertheless we managed to gain access to a farm on the junction of the main Riyadh-Dammam road and the Abuqayq turn. This was on the way back home. However, the one large pivot field and surrounds was not especially exciting.

Laughing dove and collared dove were hiding in the tree hedge. A couple of hoopoe were accidentally flushed from there too.

spotted flycatcher

Also, unfortunately the grass in the field was very long (and obviously due to be cut) and the water sprayers were off.  This normally makes for poorer birding. One spotted flycatcher on a pivot bar was the best we could find.

Overall though the day trip lived up to expectations. I found my target bird and the passage birds on the Riyadh to Dammam road were fascinating.

List of the 36 species seen during the day's visit to Eastern Province

The list is quite small simply because the part of the journey at the coast was targetted on finding one species. Other species there were often passed over. 

A = Abuqayq area
H = Half Moon Bay
K= Khobar
RD = Riyadh-Dammam Road

Black-necked grebe   H
Socotra cormorant  K
Grey heron   K
Western reef heron   K
Squacco heron   K
Black winged stilt   K
Common ringed plover   K
Kentish plover   K, RD
Lesser sand plover  K
Common greenshank  K
Ruff   K
Slender billed gull   K
Caspian gull   K
Lesser crested tern   K
Caspian tern   K
Common tern   K
Rock pigeon   K,RD
Laughing dove  K, RD
Collared dove   K,H, RD, A
Hoopoe  K,A
Crested lark  K
Barn swallow  K,A
Yellow wagtail   RD
White eared bulbul   K,RD
Graceful prinia   K
Blackcap   RD
Garden warbler   RD
Common whitethroat   RD
Spotted flycatcher   RD,A
Common redstart    RD
Pied wheatear   K,RD
Isabelline wheatear   A
Turkestan shrike   RD
House crow   K
Common myna   K
House sparrow  K,H,RD,A


  1. Nice shots, Rob. Continuing to enjoy your blog. Just out of interest, what are the two extra species you could add if you followed the OSME list?

  2. Andrew, the two extra ones would be yellow-billed kite and African swamphen. BTW I am generally in the anti-splitting camp ! Rob

  3. Fantastic days birding. Thanks for the opportunity to tag along. Will have to book a weekend at the Tulip and take take area very slowly. Bernard

  4. Bernard, glad you enjoyed it. I might join you at the Tulip for a long look. An alternative is to stay at the Intercontinental at Jubail. Rob

  5. Ok will schedule that. Think its gotta be done :)

  6. Re splits, I tend to agree on the Swamphen (I believe the bird I used to see in Qatar were African - I'm not sure what we get here in the UAE) but not on the kite. I've seen those birds in Sana and they're pretty distinct. The potential additional split of Black-eared Kite is IMO far more dubious.