Monday 16 December 2013

Fascinating birds in the northern desert

The last blog recounts last weekend with Brian James and Lou Regenmorter as far as 30 kilometres north of Dawmat Al Jandal and especially two lakes. 

This blog looks at the area between there and the farms in the Tabarjal area.

Much of this area is desert or semi-desert.

blue rock thrush

We visited an area of semi-desert with rocky hills first around Friday midday. 

Except at two isolated farms we found very few birds. The most common were white crowned wheatear and Eastern mourning wheatear though even they were more easily seen near the farms. Interestingly this area was the furthest north that we verifiably saw these species. I am not convinced that they occur further north and any black and white wheatear seen beyond there should be closely inspected. Red rumped wheatear must be a possibility but we failed to positively identify one on this trip.

map of birded desert areas plus Tabarjal (NW) and Dawmat al Jandal and Sakaka (SE)

Otherwise the birds in this area were restricted to desert lark, a single rock thrush and rock dove in the rocky areas, and European stonechat, crested lark and white wagtail on the farms.

fox in the hills

There may have been more birds but this area was difficult to travel into because of the terrain.

rock dove

Two hours later after we had got back on to the main highway and travelled up towards Tabarjal we again deviated off the road into the desert 30 kilometres south east of Tabarjal. This terrain is quite different. It is flat, pebbly desert with a few more sandy areas. 

We were looking for larks in particular thick-billed lark and Dunn's lark

Temminck's lark

We failed to see any and I personally doubt too many thick-billed lark remain this far north in mid winter. Nevertheless our persistence was not unrewarded.

We came across four or five desert wheatear at regular intervals. Lark sightings were nearly all in flocks. There were hoopoe lark, Temminck's lark and crested lark. Near a camel pen we came across a very large flock of lesser short toed lark too.

male (eastern) merlin

Almost at sunset as we were nearly back at the main road, I had my best sighting of the day. We found a merlin. While we were tracking it, it caught and started to eat a desert wheatear.

male merlin with killed desert wheatear

Its a shame the light was so poor because my camera struggled to capture the beauty of the bird.

Though a few merlin apparently make their way down the west coast in winter, going to the far north gives you by far the best chance of seeing this essentially palearctic bird. This one sighting alone justified the long journey up there though other sightings latter improved even on that.

Merlin was the 315th bird on my Saudi list.

Our next foray into the desert wasn't until mid morning the next day (Saturday) on our way back from Tabarjal towards Sakaka. This time we headed out into the desert south west of Tabarjal.

female Finsch's wheatear

Once again an isolated camel pen proved very lucrative. A wheatear spending time there turned out to be a female Finsch's wheatear. And once again your chances of seeing this bird greatly improve if you are willing to go to the far north of the country where a few are known to winter. 

From my experience on this trip and before, I would certainly recommend birding camel pens in desert areas.

hoopoe lark

The same larks were seen as in the desert south east of the city the day before. These were Temminck's lark, hoopoe lark and yet more lesser short toed lark in a large flock.

Gerbil (a.k.a desert rat)

The desert had other wildlife too. This gerbil was found hiding under a water container at the camel pen. 

The next blog is the last in the series about the weekend trip. It concentrates on the farm in Tabarjal and south of there. 

From my perspective, the farm-based birding was the best of the weekend not least because I finally added to my Saudi list, a bird I have being looking for for a very long time. 

Birds seen in the deserts: 

Desert SW of Tabarjal
Desert SE Tabarjal
Semi-desert north of Dawmat al Jandal
Black kite



Steppe eagle


Rock dove

Desert lark

Hoopoe lark

Crested lark
Lesser short toed lark

Temminck’s lark

White wagtail

Blue rock thrush

European stonechat

White crowned wheatear

Eastern mourning wheatear

Desert wheatear


Finsch’s wheatear

Isabelline wheatear

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