Sunday 24 November 2013

Birding inside Sakaka

I was away from Riyadh on business over the weekend. I had to visit Sakaka in the north of the country. This was the third weekend running that my birding has necessarily been restricted because of work.

Nevertheless Friday was a free day up there and so I managed to snatch some time to go birding. Transport was limited in Sakaka so I literally birded straight out of the hotel, walking several kilometres. This was nearly all urban birding.

It was a strange experience because although there were hundreds of birds seen they were mostly limited to six or so species. The diversity was ridiculously low.

However, there were a few nuggets.

two Eurasian crag martin

First and foremost, there were plenty of Eurasian crag martin in the city.

The distribution of Eurasian crag martin in Saudi Arabia is poorly known. Taking two examples from the internet, the map in the wikipedia entry doesn't show it in Saudi Arabia at all. The map in the IUCN red list web site shows it breeding down much of the west coast. 

Neither shows it residing in the north at Sakaka and its the first time I have seen birds where migration looks less likely than residency anywhere in Saudi Arabia.  I am pretty sure the IUCN map is imperfect too.

Actually the main breeding crag martin in much of Saudi Arabia is pale crag martin. 

Anyway returning to Sakaka, I spent a very pleasant 20 minutes watching a pair of Eurasian crag martin returning time and time again to a patch of wet sand. Sometimes they were hawking for insects above the sand and other times they landed. They appeared to be collecting building material for a nest though I couldn't see where they were taking it.  

Eurasian crag martin with mud

It was very easy to distinguish these birds from the pale crag martin that I am much more used to. The lores (and behind the eye too) are dark, the upper wings are darker and of course the dark patches on the lesser coverts on under-wing are obvious.

note the dark patches

I cant believe the species breeds as early it might appear by the nest building behaviour observed although many birds breed very early here. I suspect this was some sort of practice.

Eurasian crag martin resting

Much of the rest of the birding inside this oasis city was ordinary even though patches of palm and other greenery such as Tamarisk are scattered throughout the north west corner that I walked through.

old, deserted buildings

Indeed this part of the city was more interesting than the less featured more modern majority areas.

herd of goats

In one place, I actually saw a herd of goats.

white-eared bulbul with a catch

I said earlier that the urban bird life was dominated by a few species.

second white-eared bulbul

One of these was white-eared bulbul. It's range is expanding and Sakaka is on the north western edge. It's hard to imagine that a generation ago that even fewer species were resident here. White-eared bulbul probably arrived in the last 25 years. 

house sparrow

A very few  Spanish sparrow were seen in the middle of the city either though house sparrow were very numerous. 

Eurasian collared dove

Eurasian collared dove and laughing dove were extremely common.

pinkish looking collared dove

One or two of the collared doves looked pinker than the others though it is nearly impossible than African collared dove venture that far north.


As well as the two doves, the city was teeming with feral pigeons too.

white wagtail

Only two wintering species were seen. The abundant one was white wagtail

Otherwise a single chiffchaff was the only other ones seen at all.

rose ringed parakeet

Rose-ringed parakeet added some more variation. 

I also managed to spend a small amount of time birding on the outskirts of the city: near the conference centre I was working at and near the historic castle. The birding was quite different there. I'll write about this in my next blog.


  1. Rob,

    Eurasian Crag Martin has been seen in Northern Saudi Arabia previously in November but I am not sure about other months. The survey involved only recorded them in November and not any other months even though t was conducted over a period of four years. It would be interesting to know if these birds stay or move through? Good records from an under recorded part of the country.


  2. Jem, I have just looked up my own records. I recorded one in May 2012 on my last visit too (its on e-bird). Its quite not enough evidence yet but that record plus the behaviour of this weekend's birds looks interesting. Rob