Occasional birds in depth

May 2013 - black headed bunting

I have now seen 281 species of bird in Saudi Arabia with prospects of more to come when I visit both Abha and Jizan in May. I would like to reach 300 this year if possible. 

However outside the south west, I am reaching the stage when I am visiting areas to target just one or at most two unseen species. 

One of these is black headed bunting. I have now seen all the other non-vagrant buntings: cinereous, cretschmar's, ortolanstriolated, cinnamon breasted and corn.

Targeting the rarer birds requires good research and I have researched black headed bunting with very little information to go on within country.

 black headed bunting in my adopted village in Bulgaria mid May 2012

The "official" status of black headed bunting in Saudi Arabia is a scarce  migrant. The only recent record I know about is of a female seen by Jem Babbington on May 10/11 last year near Dammam.

I had to look outside Saudi Arabia to near neighbours for more information.


A study of netting in Eilat (just west of the north west corner of Saudi Arabia) back in 1968 is illuminatiing.

The survey shows it is a later migrant than the other buntings and there is comment in the case of all buntings that the males typically travel before the females in spring.

In the past two years observations of males in Kuwait and Bahrain (both countries towards the east of Saudi Arabia) have both been on April 23rd although in the Bahraini case this was described as early.

Taking the Eilat observations to the west with the Saudi, Kuwaiti and Bahraini information from the east we can assume the best time to see the birds spring migrate through the kingdom is:

males: last week of April, first week of May
females: first two weeks of May

another picture of black headed bunting in my village in Bulgaria

The next question (after "when") I addressed is "where".

distribution of breeding and wintering (from BirdLife Int)

Black-headed bunting is unusual because along with rosy starling they are two of only a few birds from India which breed in significant numbers in the far east of Europe.

Assuming straight line migration which small birds often typically do (larger birds such as raptors are more conditional on thermals and land crossings) then migration is mostly between the brown lines on the map.

The problem with these areas in Saudi Arabia is they are mostly desert and buntings on passage prefer crop land with seeds such as wheat fields. The best area that fits the requirement in the zone is the farming district in the far north, north, west of the country  near the Jordanian border.

Otherwise look in any vegetated land in the zone such as where Jem saw one near Dammam. And they can be seen just outside the zone too such as has been proved with the sightings in Eilat. However these can't be give you the best odds.

My conclusion is that between the last week in April and the second week in May I bet you that in those farming districts next to Jordan you would have an extremely good change of seeing this supposedly scarce bird. All I have to do now is test the theory.

November 2012 - sociable lapwing

November's bird of the month has to be sociable lapwing. Ten were seen by Lou Regensmorter and me in a field with 40 spur winged lapwing just north of Tabuk in north west Saudi Arabia.

three of ten sociable lapwing at Tabuk

In contact with the RSPB, I was told that this is the largest sighting in Saudi Arabia for some years.

part of a map of sociable lapwing  distribution

Furthermore, the sighting has helped start to piece together where the western wintering population of sociable lapwing now goes. They were formerly seen in Sudan and the Jizan area of KSA but they may be extirpated there. (The pink on the map are areas where BirdLife believes it is extirpated, while wintering sites are blue).  

three more sociable lapwing

I have added our sighting of sociable lapwing to the map and marked it with a capital T. In retrospect, if one had looked at the map of known wintering sites before we visited Tabuk then we should have realised it was a possibility.

Was it a one off fluke? Time and more observations will tell.


No it wasn't a fluke. In February 2013, Lou Regenmorter and I saw an even larger flock of 35 sociable lapwing in a field just north of Jizan in south west Saudi Arabia.

August 2012 White - throated robin

This is the first"bird of the month" since I left Libya over a year and a half ago.

White-throated robin deserves to re-start this page and this month. Why?

Well, myself and a birding friend, Brian James saw up to 100 in the mountains of south west, Saudi Arabia this month. It was very common but that in itself was not very remarkable.  Indeed I saw 8 on passage in central Arabia in mid April.

male white-throated robin at al Hair, near Riyadh, April 11th 

However, the observation steadily became more interesting when I read a report posted of Israeli rarities on Saturday 25th on the western palearctic bird forum:

  "White-throated Robin - 1, Eilat, 14/8" 

It is rare there and one, only one?   I wrote back in amazement. I would have thought that Eilat was right on the migration fly route from western and central Turkish breeders to and from wintering quarters.

summer and winter distribution according to IUCN

The next day Colin Richardson posted to the forum from Cyprus:

""Dear Rob,

Until you posted the news of your 100 White-throated Robins last week in
south-west Saudi, I was also under the impression it was a generally scarce bird with a small population. It was always rare wherever I travelled in the Middle East, including on its breeding grounds in Turkey and the Caucasus.It was difficult to find - although annual in spring - in the UAE. It is certainly a vagrant in Cyprus, where we have less than 20 records and we are only 50 miles due south of Turkey!

It looks like you have hit on an important treasure trove of migrating
White-throated Robins.

Colin Richardson

BirdLife Cyprus Recorder, Chairman Rarities Sub-committee""

So I learnt it was rare on passage in Cyprus and Israel and not common in  UAE. Straight line migration clearly doesn't happen.

female white throated robin near Baha , south west Saudi Arabia, August 20th

Then the forum received another post. This time from the east side of the bird's summer range in Uzbekistan:


""I found the species quite easy to see in Uzbekistan in good habitat : maybe the densities are higher there, and the birds seen in high number in Saudi-Arabia highlands by Robert could be migrant from there ?

In Uzbekistan, they are also found in the highlands : I won't be surprised if the species tend to avoid lowland sites to stopover, thus being under-detected by birders (and this could explain the paucity of datas in UAE)

Cheers  Maxime Zucca""

What Maxime wrote encouraged Pierre-André Crochet to tell the forum something about migration in the east.

""Hi Maxime,

The species is very abundant in Kuwait at least in spring migration, so they definitely don't avoid lowlands (there is no highlands at all in Kuwait...). ""

So I learnt that Kuwait but not UAE is on the major flyway for migrating white-throated robin in the east.

Piecing all this information together has helped me produce a map of the possible main migration routes of the western and eastern breeding populations funnelling through south west Saudi Arabia.   

proposed migration routes

It seems to fit the observations by different observers across the Middle East.  

January 2011- Common moorhen
Don't forget to look at previous birds of the month below (Hoopoe, Greater Flamingo, White crowned wheatear, White stork, House bunting, Moussier's redstart)

Common moorhen is another bird which doesn't feature in Libya on the species distribution map of the best selling bird guide!

I have personally seen it at Deryanah, Garyounis, Marj, Wadi Derna and Sebkhet Temimi in north east Libya (Cyrenaica) and at Ain Kaam in north west Libya. I have heard it at Wadi Al Hamsa (Cyrenaica) too. The biggest single concentration is at Marj where I estimate there must be well over 100 resident birds. I know the birds at Marj breed and am fairly confident at Wadi Derna and Temimi too.

The UN winter bird counts (which have been going for several years now) have seen significant numbers in other parts of Cyrenaica - at Al Thama in the city of Benghazi and at Labyar which is a town 40 kilometres east. They have also seen them at the Oases at Hajara, Sebha and at Brak in the mid west of the country.

At more Oases, Bruno Massa and Marta Visentin have reported tens of breeding birds in the middle of the desert at Waw An Namus and at Mahfu, Gabron and Um el Ma lakes in the south and south west of the country. Jens Hering has seen them in most of the same places but also at Waw Al Kebir Oasis.

moorhen at Marj

In summary the bird is a widespread breeder and has colonised virtually all fresh water areas in the south, south west and north east of the country where there is any cover. It seems to be less populous in Tripolitania (north west Libya) and in the south east.  Tripolitania has historically been the best recorded part of Libya and its relative scarcity there may have mislead some observers about its true status in the country.

December 2010- Hoopoe

The 2nd edition of Collins guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe shows hoopoe as only a passage bird in Libya. This is arguably the book's most glaring error of distribution for this country.

resident hoopoe at Gamines

There certainly are passage birds but the bird is very common in the north of the country as a resident and can be easily seen even in the cities of Tripoli and Benghazi.

Correspondence with Les Edwards in Sirt suggests it is a wintering bird there but may not be resident. There is no doubt its numbers are swollen elsewhere in winter too. It may well also be resident in some of the Oasis towns in the south.

best estimate of hoopoe distribution (purple is resident, blue is winter)

Hoopoe in Libya is attracted to any watered areas -naturally or man made presumably because wetter ground contains more insects. During the passage very large numbers can be seen close to well-irrigated fields.

wintering hoopoe at Sirt by Les Edwards

November 2010 - Greater Flamingo

flamingoes near Jagboub Oasis by Jens Hering

Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus roseus is a common wintering bird in Libya. It can be found at almost anyone of the coastal wetlands on or near the northern coast in winter provided there is very little human disturbance.

Recent observations show some also winter at the in-land Jaghboub Oasis area very near the Egyptian border.

Most birds come from summer breeding areas in France, Spain and Turkey (ringing evidence). Adult birds tend to fly further away from their breeding colonies so most birds found in Libya are young birds.

Counts in winter show flamingo numbers vary between 700 and 2300 birds although there could be considerably more in more secluded smaller wetlands not reached by the UN counting team. In particular parts of the massive Taourgha area which can only have a partially count because it is so large and remote.

Sebkhet Boukamesh near the Tunisian border is important. If it is dry as in most recent years (unfortunately) there are no flamingoes. if it is full there can be up to 1,500 there.
 Al Kuz north east of Benghazi always houses 300 to 800 birds. Other important spots are
Taourgha (between Misratah and Sirt) and Jeliana (in Benghazi). 

October 2010- White crowned wheatear

The white-crowned wheatear is the best sign that you are in the Libyan desert. If you see it you are in it. if you don't you aren't.

It thrives in every Libyan desert wadi and next to all desert settlements.

I have made it a personal ambition to chart exactly where its distribution starts and ends. I know this well in Tripolitania but poorly in Cyrenaica.

white-crowned wheatear near Mizdah, February 2010. Photo by Paul Bowden 

The map below shows the boundary of its northernmost distribution. The series of purple Xs are my observations, those of friends or in the literature. The white Xs are where I have looked for it but it hasn't been there. As you can see I am still uncertain in north east Libya. I have travelled as far south as Brega without seeing it. I travelled to Jaghboub via Tobruk in November 2010 and I found it (like others before me) near Jaghboub but no further north. Jaghboub seems to represent its northern boundary.

I visited Jalu (250 kilometres west of Jaghboub) a few weeks later and could find the bird even that far south. 

distribution of white crowned wheatear

The mystery of its north eastern boundary is still not over.

September 2010 - White stork

So some guide books don't have the white stork in Libya at all. For example this year's new edition of  Collin's bird guide of Britain and Europe shows a complete blank for the bird in Libya. Its not down as breeding or passage or winterer. Nothing. I don't blame the editiors! Again this must be down to under-reporting. 

white stork at Tripoli airport taken by Paul Bowden in late February

One irony is that it is occasionally the first bird you see when you land in Libya at Tripoli airport!

There is a small breeding colony at a near-by military area. There is also one other nest in Tripolitania near Wadi Ghan about 50 kilometres south west of the others. These nests are on a minor flight route for migrating storks. A few migrants dont use Gibraltar or Istanbul. They island hop up to Italy.I have seen them at Garabolli on the coast heading north.  Clearly at some time a few birds  decided not bother and stayed in Libya.

There are two much larger colonies 1100 kilometres away at Al Marj and Al Labya in Cyrenaica. These breeding places are coloured purple in the map below. The birds in Cyrenaica spend much of their day at jardinah farm marked with a cross. This is one of about 12-15 "super farms" in Libya. These farms are government showpieces which are excellently managed and well-irrigated. Judging by the number of storks at Jardinah there may be extra unknown breeding colonies in the area too!

map showing white stork distribution in Libya. Blue is winter and purple is summer

Over the past three years much more has become known about the wintering populations of white stork. This is mostly thanks to the ornithologist Jens Hering (and in particular his paper "White storks found in the Central Sahara") and also the winter water bird count carried out by the UN and  Regional Activity Centre for Specially Protected Areas.

Two of the "super farms" similar to Jardinah play a big part. These two are in the far south of the country creating huge watered areas in the desert. There are at Wadi Maknusah (south west Libya) and at Kufra (central eastern Libya). Over 750 storks! were seen at Wadi Maknusah and over 100 at Kufra.

It also appears that the breeding Cyrenaica birds and Tripolitania birds don't migrate (just like those in southern Portugal).  The winter water counts show that some additional European birds also winter at some of the lagoons on the north coast (see blue circles on the map above).  And there is some doubt whether a few of the wintering birds at Wadi Maknusah and Kufra don't stay for the summer despite the intense heat. Indeed Jens Hering found a nest at Jalu north of Kufra which definitely does hold summer birds.

Not bad for a bird that isn't on the map.

the single nest near Wadi Ghan in Tripolitania
a few of the many birds that spend the day at Jardinah farm

August 2010 - House Bunting
Don't forget to look at July's Moussiers redstart below this article!

House Buntings are resident from the plains and hills of central Morocco including on the Moroccan coast through north central Algeria and southern Tunisia into Libya.

As you go further east they retreat from the lowlands. So in north west Libya they are only found on the hilly Jebel Nafusa.

 House bunting at Jadu Spring, Jebel Nafusa

Rather strangely their distribution almost entirely matches the distribution of the berber people in the Magreb who inhabit large parts of central Morocco but mostly upland areas elsewhere to the east.

Plenty of house buntings at Essaouira, Morocco

In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia they are revered. The picture I took above was at a grain and spice shop in Essaouria where the shop keeper made no attempt to move the birds on. This tradition is not followed in Libya.

House bunting distribution in Jebel Nafusa, North West Libya

I have established the most eastern point in their distribution by taking trips out east of Gharyan in the Jebel Nafusa. They inhabit both the drier south & west Nafusa and the wetter north & east.  They are more common in the westerly city of Nalut and central Yfren than in Gharyan. However they stop abruptly barely 5 kilometres east of Gharyan as the hills drop down from 600 metres to 300 metres towards Turhunah. 

But this is not the end of the story.  

Many western palearctic birders don't realise that the house bunting is distributed south of the Sahara as well. They are resident in northern Mauritania, northern Niger, northern Mali and all northern Chad including in the Chadian side of the Tibesti mountains that border Libya. 

Now no one has birded the Libyan Tibesti mountains possibly ever! They cannot now as the area is off-limits because of possible Chadian bandits and landmines left since the Chadian civil war. However it is highly likely that house buntings can be found there (see the larger circle in the map below).

Possible house bunting distribution in southern Libya

And that's not the end of it. The only place in Egypt where house bunting is reported is in Egyptian Uweinat. Uweinat is a mountainous outcrop shared between Libya and Egypt. It is highly likely that house buntings are here too. See the smaller circle on the map. It is now possible to visit this area and I have made enquiries!

So the most likely scenario is that the southern distribution of house bunting continues east from northern Chad through a corner of north west Sudan just into Egypt (and just into Libya).

Stop press (late October 2010) : since writing this article my friends Sam and Jane have reported (and photographed) house bunting as common in Ghat - a town in the far south west of Libya. The is positive proof that the sub Saharan distribution does make it into southern Libya

July 2010 - Moussiers redstart

Described as a resident in Bird Life International's appraisal of the Jebel Nufhusa'a IBA but not present at all according to the distribution map in the latest Collins "Most complete guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe (2nd edition)". 

What is the truth? read on, below the picture, to find out

Moussiers redstart near Wadi Kaam reservoir, Libya - February: Photo by Paul Bowden

The species page of the African Bird Club web site describes the bird as a scarse winter visitor.  This is getting nearer the truth.

However the most reliable information is the United Nations winter count data at Libyan wetlands and (in all modesty!) my own observations.

All the evidence suggests that the bird is actually an uncommon winter visitor. It certainly isn't scarse. If you want to find it you probably can without excessive trouble.

It seems to like wadi valleys which slope and have some vegetative cover particularly at 250-600 metres.  It's not shy. This terrain is similar to its terrain in Morocco and Algeria but at lower altitude. Colleagues and I have seen it as far apart as Wadi Kourdjet, Jebel Nafhusa (near Yefren) and Wadi Kaam which is 80 kilometres further east.  Wadi Kaam is deep into Libya, a long way from Morocco!

The winter censuses look for water birds but they count any non-water birds seen near water. It would appear that Moussiers redstart sometimes strays down off the hills if the weather is particularly cool. In some years the census counters find 3-6 Moussiers Redstart near Farwa which is on the coast and on the border with Tunisia  Otherwise they see it near reservoirs in the hills.

I haven't seen it after mid March despite looking hard. I am very confident it is here in winter only.

second picture of Moussiers redstart by Paul Bowden at Wadi Kaam

The bird above allowed Paul Bowden to take a few minutes videon footage as well as stills. It came ever closer to the camera long after a neighbouring stonechat had become frightened and flown off.

1 comment:

  1. Still learning from our friend by reading his blog.
    We miss you, Birding Rob and remember happy times together in Libya and Saudi Arabia,
    Martin & Alexandra Spencer