Monday 30 June 2014

Farewell to Sebkhet Al Fasl

At Sebkhet Al Fasl on Friday, after visiting the flooded salt pan immediately south of the golf course, Bernard Bracken and I took a wider look at the Sebkhet.

Where the fresh water and reeds meet the flooded salt pan many of the birds were the same the area next to the golf course. This means a preponderance of terns, Kentish plover and black winged stilt.

greater sand plover

However there were several moorhen spilling out from the fresh water areas onto the beach in places. Two greater sand plover were also seen. There were over a dozen western reef heron around too.

little tern

In the fresh water reed beds and pools, only one tern was seen. This was little tern. However there were 60 resting in one place. They made up for lack of diversity with numbers.

Purple swamphen were present but mostly well hidden. A few Coot and little grebe ventured out into the larger lakes. A spotted crake flashed into the open and then back into the reeds. Despite our best endeavours we failed to see it again. The main regional guide says they breed in this part of the east coast.

In the reeds, there was noise suggesting the continued presence of Eurasian reed warbler but only one was seen.

yellow wagtail

Yellow wagtail was once reported to have breed opportunistically near Kharj in central Saudi Arabia and it wouldn't be a surprise to know it breeds at Sebkhet Al Fasl from time to time. Both Bernard and I saw the bird above. Bernard also saw an adult male feldegg yellow wagtail (also called black headed wagtail).

breeding little bittern

Very young little bittern were observed and this adult little bittern even has the red bill seen only during the peak mating period. There is little doubt that little bittern breeds here in Jubail.

non breeding curlew sandpiper

A lone curlew sandpiper was sighted in an inland saline pool. It's plumage was strange. It wasn't a juvenile yet there was no sign of breeding summer plumage. This is presumably what no- breeding second calendar birds look like in summer. I don't know why it never decided to go north.

curlew sandpiper

Soon after spotting the curlew sandpiper, a very good bird was seen. An Egyptian nightjar was flushed which then settled under a bush but with long grass between us and it. Bernard bracken managed a photo in focus which he has kindly allowed me to post.

Egyptian nightjar

There has been discussion by Jem Babbington and others as to why Egyptian nightjar are being seen increasingly in the summer months in Jubail area and especially Sebkhet Al Fasl. Until 10 years ago it was only perceived as a scarce passage bird here. One possibility is that it now breeds here from time to time. This artificial terrain (where cleaned waste water meets natural marshland and sea inlet) has much greenery around the edges. This is similar to true habitat in southern Iraq and Iran where it definitely breeds.

After this, we made one last fleeting visit to the area south of the golf course. still looking for the elusive red wattled lapwing. The only different bird from earlier was a little stint in breeding plumage. Although there are thousands around in winter, they are uncommonly seen in  summer plumage.  

And as a final treat, as we drove away round the back of the wetland, we came across the over summering greater spotted eagle that others have reported this year.

little stint

As I am leaving Saudi Arabia for at least a year in the next two or three weeks, this was my last visit to Sebket Al Fasl for some time. It is certainly in the top five places for birding in the kingdom and will be missed.

The 36 species seen at Sebkhet Al Fasl on Friday:

Little grebe
Red-necked phalarope
Greater flamingo
Gull billed tern
Little bittern
Common tern
Squacco heron
White cheeked tern
Western reef heron
Little tern
Greater spotted eagle
Feral pigeon
Spotted crake
Eurasian collared dove
Namaqua dove
Purple swamphen
Egyptian nightjar
Eurasian coot
Black crowned sparrow lark
Black winged stilt
Crested lark
Kentish plover
Barn swallow
Greater sand plover
Graceful prinia
Curlew sandpiper
Eurasian reed warbler
Little stint
Common myna
House sparrow
Ruddy turnstone
Yellow wagtail

Sunday 29 June 2014

Sebkhet Al Fasl, Jubail in late June

I made the very long day trip with Bernard Bracken to Sebkhet Al Fasl, Jubail on Friday. Part of the reason was to see if the red-wattled lapwing reported a couple of times by Jem Babbington was still there.

It wasn't and we looked extensively three times during the day in the area it had been. However the mudflats are so extensive it would only have had to move on 300 metres and we would have missed it.

There was some compensation for it not being in the area just south of the golf course. Among the many waders, that were there, were three red necked phalarope.

red necked phalarope with Kentish plover by Bernard Bracken

Two of the three were still in breeding plumage. They are presumed to be females which went to the arctic to breed, laid eggs and came south almost immediately to leave the males to the rearing. This is typical female red necked phalarope behaviour though late June is a little early for the return passage.

three red necked phalarope

Bernard Bracken has kindly allowed me to post two of his pictures which were better than mine.

Kentish plover

Over ninety percent of all the other waders in this part of the flooded Sebkhet were of two species: Kentish plover and black winged stilt.

Black winged stilt

There were plenty of juveniles of both species.


There were a small number of other waders which may well not have been in perfect health and so not made the spring travel further north. A dunlin was among them.

common tern among other terns

There were at least four types of tern: white cheeked tern, little tern, gull billed tern and a small number of common tern.

three white cheeked tern

White cheeked tern and common tern are very similar. At this time of year, the bill of white cheeked tern is almost black compared with mid red for common tern. The bill of white cheeked tern is more slender and it curves downwards which is well seen in the above photograph.


Out in the deeper water were at least five hundred flamingo.  I have seen ten times that number in winter but clearly plenty over-summer.

The next blog looks at the birds seen elsewhere in the Sebkhet including the fresh water areas.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Farewell to Al Hayer

The trip to Al Hayer on Friday was my last one for some time. My summer break starts in under a month and I have some more distant trips in Saudi Arabia to undertake before then. 

After the summer, I will be working in Salalah, Oman where the birding promises to be superb. However, I am not done with Saudi Arabia. I fully intend to come back in the future but more than likely to a different geographic location.

So Friday was a farewell to Al Hayer. I was lucky enough to see plenty of summer warblers close up and in prolonged fashion. I blogged about that yesterday. This blog looks at the other birds seen.

Al Hayer in summer is a good place to "exotic" and natural members of the finch family. The pivot fields help supply seeds as food and the water is a scarce necessity in summer.

 It is among the most southerly places on earth that Spanish sparrow breed.

male Spanish sparrow

Of course they are house sparrow too. The other natural finch we sometimes see at Al Hayer is desert finch but I saw none on Friday.

streaked weaver

Streaked weaver must have escaped a generation ago and is thriving despite accidental and planned reed burnings over the years. On Friday there were very many. It has been a good year for them.
male streaked weaver

The other smaller bird escapes which have established themselves are Arabian golden sparrow and red avadavat (though there are a few Ruepells weaver upstream). None were seen on Friday. 

Indian silverbill

Nobody knows where Indian silverbill arrived here by natural range expansion or escapes or both. I did managed to observe them in a couple of places.

white eared bulbul

The white eared bulbul of the area is not the sub species found naturally in eastern province. This wide spread bird is a product of escapes but is expanding west and north far away from the greater Riyadh area. 

river along a field

Darting in and out of cover all morning were plenty of moorhen which is a very shy bird in Saudi Arabia.

adult moorhen

Most of the birds now are adults or juveniles. The fledglings of two or three months ago have grown up.

juvenile moorhen

black winged stilt

Several black winged stilt and a couple of mallard were spotted near the water near some of the moorhen. Both birds breed at Al Hayer.

juvenile black winged stilt

There are always large numbers of doves all year round. Eurasian collared dove, laughing dove and Namaqua dove were all observed in large numbers.

adult male Namaqua dove

Namaqua dove is active even in the fiercest heat but equally it needs to drink more and is most easily seen doing just that.

juvenile Namaqua dove

They have finished breeding here for this year too.

juvenile black crowned night heron

Some of the heron family are at Al Hayer in summer. I saw more little bittern than any other but failed to produce a useful photograph.

I suspect from past observations, the most common heron at this time of year is actually black crowned night heron but they roost deep these days. Five were seen flying at various times including a juvenile.

purple heron

The other two herons sighted were purple heron and squacco heron.

black bush robin

Both black bush robin and rufous bush robin were seen. The former is resident.

The only other birds not previously mentioned but spotted were little green bee-eater and white throated kingfisher.

red eared slider

I have often seen other fauna at Al Hayer even including baboons! This time the most exotic was an aged red eared slider.

The 25 species seen at Al Hayer on Friday

Crested lark
Little bittern
Pale crag martin
Black crowned night heron
Barn swallow
Squacco heron
Graceful prinia
Purple heron
Eastern olivaceous warbler
Eurasian reed warbler
Namaqua dove
Rufous bush robin
Eurasian collared dove
Black bush robin
Laughing dove
Spanish sparrow
House sparrow
White throated kingfisher
Indian silverbill
Little green bee-eater
Streaked weaver
White eared bulbul

Friday 20 June 2014

Summer warblers at Al Hayer

I went to Al Hayer today for the first time in nearly two months. Yet I used to go there virtually every week until I started travelling more widely in Saudi Arabia.

It will be my last visit for some time too. I will explain why in the next blog.

As it is now generally seriously hot in central Saudi Arabia, I began birding at about 5.45 am and finished at 10.15 am. Luckily, I was helped that it turned out to be a relatively less hot morning than average for this time of year.

This blog only looks at one aspect of the visit: the summer warblers.

One of the first observations I made on arriving this morning was the huge number of Eurasian reed warbler about. It must have been a very successful breeding season.

one very cooperative Eurasian reed warbler

They weren't just keeping to the reeds either. Plenty were spilling out on to near-by bushes and even into the fields. This wandering away from the reeds was a new phenomenon for me.

At first I struggled to get clear photos until one warbler cooperated in the open.

another pose of the same bird

Before that, in classic warbler style they would move off before I could focus. 

warbler ready to fly off

Having had a chance to see many together (and regretting not looking closer before), some of reed warblers didn't look particularly different from the tones of the nominate species. This is opposed to being greyer on top and whiter below like the fuscus sub species (often called Caspian reed warbler) which dominates breeding in Arabia. 

an apparently darker, browner looking Eurasian reed warbler

For once, graceful prinia wasn't the most common warbler on show at Al Hayer.

graceful prinia

Two hours into the walk, my attention was diverted to loud calls in some dried reeds and small tamarisk bushes. These calls were between a small group of Eastern olivaceous warbler. Small numbers breed here but I rarely see them in the open. However I have rarely visited Al Hayer in June before.

eastern olivaceous warbler calling

This species can be overlooked if you are not careful. It's song is similar to a reed warbler though I think it is more pleasant. It is greyer, the bill is longer and the supercilium more obvious yet in bright sunlight, it would be possible to walk past and miss it.

closer view of eastern olivaceous warbler

Two other warblers are known to breed or have bred at Al Hayer. These are great reed warbler and moustached warbler. I personally have only seen them in the passage seasons at Al Hayer. However others have seen great reed warbler in the summer months. On the other hand, I don't think anyone has seen moustached warbler in summer among those currently birding.

second close up of an eastern olivaceous warbler

In the next blog, I report on all the other birds observed at Al Hayer.

Sunday 15 June 2014

East Salbukh settled down for the summer

Sometimes during a birding session, you can have one small area and moment which produces a totally disproportionate part of your birding enjoyment.

This happened to me as I birded East Salbukh early on Saturday morning.

One corner on the western side of the wetland was a treat to stop at, listen and observe.

little bittern

It was noisy but initially there seemed to be nothing to see. One of the noises was little bittern screaming calls. I soon saw both an adult and a juvenile.

little bittern screaming

Sounds lower down were competing with the little bittern calls. There were intermittent screeches which I suspected were water rail.

young water rail

When I finally saw one it wasn't an adult. The bill was not completely red but had some black. The underparts still had some mottling of a juvenile bird. The black and white stripes on the flanks were not fully developed. This bird was a young bird.

I am now confident that water rail breed there. I also saw four others scattered over the west, north and east side of this rectangular wetland. They aren't going anywhere and its mid June.

Evidence of breeding among little bittern and water rail was not all that I observed in this small patch of the wetland.

young Eurasian reed warbler

Young Eurasian reed warbler were darting around. Luckily they often rested on a small tamarisk bush in the middle of the low lying reeds making views easier than usual.

adult Eurasian reed warbler

I saw incidents of adult Eurasian reed warbler feeding young birds too. The picture below was taken from distance but you can see this happening.

feeding Eurasian reed warbler

Elsewhere in the wetland, there was other evidence of breeding. I was continually mobbed by black winged stilt over part of my walk even though I was nowhere near the water's edge in that area due to the deep mud that fringed it.

black winged stilt

In contrast both Kentish plover and little ringed plover breed earlier.

Kentish plover

There was little sign of adults still caring for young at least as far as feeding is concerned.

Little ringed plover

The overall picture is one of a wetland left for the summer with only the breeding birds left around. It should stay that way for about 6 or 7 weeks before the first birds are once again on the move.


Funnily enough I don't recall seeing any young moorhen since I started visiting the wetland. However they are known to breed very early in central Arabia. 

graceful prinia

Likewise with graceful prinia. They are lots of old graceful prinia nests to see in the the tamarisk bushes.

Namaqua dove

Other sightings at the wetland  included hoopoe and a young Asian grey shrike.


The pink bill on the Asian grey shrike is one of many signs this is a young bird too.

young Asian grey shrike (Aucheri)

Other species seen at the wetland were: Eurasian collared dove, laughing dove, little grebe, crested lark. pale crag martin, house sparrow and perhaps surprisingly barn swallow.


As I left, an unknown lizard  with a distinctive blue face was seen sunning itself. 

In other news, earlier in the weekend, on Friday, I spent an hour in the early morning visiting a site within walking distance of my flat in the Nakheel district. I was acting on a tip off from a friend.

wadi at Nakheel

I had been missing an very good prospect so close to home. The wadi is a mix of orchards, grassland, trees and vines.
more of the wadi at Nakheel

In summer the birding won't be too exciting but in the passages seasons and in winter, I am sure it will be very good indeed.

young common myna

At the moment though birds were the most common birds were common myna, house sparrow, collared dove, laughing dove and black bush robin.

little green bee-eater

There were also little green bee-eater, white eared bulbul and rose ringed parakeet.

white eared bulbul

How could I have missed such a place under my nose?