19 Apr 2014

Yellow-billed Kite & more – Malaki Dam Lake

Malaki Dam (also known as Malakiyah, Wadi Jizan Dam or Hakima Dam) is probably the largest and most variable expanse of freshwater habitats in the southwestern provinces of Saudi Arabia. This area is a large lake (17 04.72N, 42 97.88E) at the edge of the Asir foothills, 15km east of Abu Arish and is regarded by many of the birders who have bird-watched Saudi Arabia as the best single site in the entire country. It is fed by four main wadis and at high water levels the lake spreads to over ten square kilometres and has a large catchment area extending south into Yemen. The reservoir is bordered to the north by basaltic lava plains and to the south several rocky outcrops which form the edge of Wadi Juwwah, another excellent birding area. The surrounding acacia and salvadora scrubland is interspersed with Tamarix where the hills are grazed and cultivated with some areas with shallow water, the dead remains of flooded trees forming ideal roost sites for herons and egrets. The Lake is on a main migration route and its surrounding area has one of the highest diversities of breeding birds in Arabia with many species being of Afro-tropical origin accounting for the large number of species recorded. We bird-watched a small arm of the lake on 5 April that is less disturbed and has easier access than the other areas. This site is excellent for the endemic Arabian Waxbill in the winter and spring, when flocks can be seen in the reeds and other vegetation near to the water. We managed to find this species after several hours with a number of birds seen flying over calling from one reed bed area to another. Three birds seen well included two adults and a juvenile, but we never got views that allowed photographs to be taken. This was a new species for me in Saudi Arabia and is an Arabian endemic, leaving me two more Endemics to see of the eleven species occurring, Yemen Serin and Arabian Scops Owl. The lake itself held a good amount of water and therefor had good numbers of water birds. Waders included Black-tailed Godwits, Spur-winged Plovers, Common Sandpipers, Kentish Plovers, Common Greenshanks, Common Redshanks, Spotted Redshanks, Temminck’s Stints and Black-winged Stilts. Seven Eurasian Spoonbill,three Hammerkops, with several Glossy Ibis, Grey Herons, Western Cattle Egrets & Squacco Herons were present. Other water birds included Whiskered Little Terns, Common Moorhens and plenty of Little Grebes. Non water birds included African Collared Doves, Zitting Cisticolas, Graceful Prinias, Ruppells Weavers, Laughing Doves, Namaqua Doves and Arabian Babbler. A few swifts were seen including 10+ Common Swifts, 10+ African Palm Swifts, two Alpine Swifts and a Little Swift hunting insects low over the water. We also had two White-browed Coucals, Black-crowned Sparrow-lark, Nile Valley Sunbird, three White-spectacled Bulbul and three Black Scrub Robins. Migrants included eight Barred Warblers in a very small area of acacia along with a female Eurasian Blackcap and several Common Chiffchaffs and two Willow Warblers.
Alpine Swift
Barred Warbler
Spotted Redshank
Spotted Redshank

 We also saw several birds of prey including a second calendar year Greater Spotted Eagle, a dark morph Booted Eagle and a Yellow-Billed Kite. The status of this species/sub-species within the genus of Black Kite Milvus migrans is still imperfectly understood. Up until the mid-1990’s the yellow-billed African breeding populations, aegyptius and parasitus (including tenebrosus) were generally maintained as a subspecies of Black Kite. However, recent work based on DNA shows that the yellow-billed race is significantly distinct from the Black Kite elevating it to full species status Yellow-billed Kite Milvus aegyptius. In the field, the Yellow-billed Kite is distinguished from the Black Kite based on several characters, the most obvious being its all-yellow bill.
Booted Eagle - dark morph
Yellow-billed Kite

18 Apr 2014

Red-backed x Isabelline Shrike hybrid – Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding the ‘patch’ on 13 April I came across an interesting looking shrike. The bird looked like a hybrid between Red-backed Shrike & Turkestan Shrike to me and was a very striking bird. I took a few photos and sent an e-mail containing the pictures to Alan Dean who is an expert in hybrid shrikes, asking him for his thoughts. He very kindly replied with the following details:
“Yes, it certainly looks like a hybrid between Red-backed Shrike and ‘Isabelline Shrike’. Given that it has a broad (even though diffuse) supercilium, it might be concluded that the Isabelline Shrike form involved is Turkestan (phoenicuroides) and collurio x phoenicuroides is the commonest form of hybrid.  However, this may not be certain. The bird appears to have quite a lot of grey interwoven into the upperparts – paler grey than is typical in phoenicuroides  – while the forehead is pale and the loral bar diffuse. This could just be the outcome of hybridization (which doesn’t always produce quite the appearance we might expect) or perhaps ‘karelini’ input but it’s conceivable that Daurian Shrike (isabellinus aka speculigerus) is involved. This is a less common hybrid with collurio but does occur. There are photos of a somewhat similar bird from the Chuta Steppes in Evgeniy Panov’s book ‘The True Shrikes of the World’, though that has less-marked supercilium and a peachy (rather than collurio pink) tinge to the underparts. Turkestan is most likely the ‘other’ parent but I wouldn’t regard this as absolute”.
Lars Svensson kindly added the following: “As you say, very difficult to know the outcome of hybridization, which it clearly is a case of here. I thought this bird was particularly interesting in that it for once (among such hybrids) showed a decent amount of collurio characters. To me it is a real toss a coin situation whether phoenicuroides or isabellinus is the other parent.”
Magnus Hellström mentioned the following: “Establishing the ID of the non-collurio parent beyond doubt is of course difficult, but like Alan I would find phoenicuroides a more likely candidate. I find the scale of colours in this individual rather different from the one shown by hybrid birds in the area of isabellinus x collurio hybidization (Altai/NV Mongolia), and more consistent with hybrid birds seen further west (e.g. Kazakhstan).”
Brian Small mentioned: “I tend to agree with Magnus and Alan in getting a feeling that phoenicuroides is involved.”
These hybrid shrikes are not uncommon in the overlapping breeding zones of Red-backed and Turkestan & Daurian Shrikes and various examples, including ‘karelini’ types have been seen in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia over the last few years. I would like to thank Alan, Lars, Magnus and Brian for commenting on this very interesting hybrid shrike.

17 Apr 2014

Four Hypocolius a new ‘patch’ species – Dhahran Hills

My evening trip to the ‘patch’ on 15 April produce a very nice surprise when I found a single female Hypocolius in a depression with a few bushes and shrubs in. This area had been good for birds in recent days with plenty of Barred Warblers and when I got there I could again see it was alive with birds. Most were Barred Warblers but then my attention was drawn to an odd looking bird sitting on top of a bush some distance away. On looking through my binoculars I could immediately see it was a female Hypocolius a bird I had not seen until then on the ‘patch’ or Saudi Arabia for that matter. Hypocolius is an uncommon winter visitor from late October to early April, mainly to Central Arabia, Northern Hejaz, Hejaz and the northern Red Sea, but it is relatively common in the right places in KSA with birds seen throughout the winter in Riyadh. but as I don’t ‘twitch’ birds I had not seen one. Mid-April is quite late in the season for seeing the species but these birds are definitely on migration back to their breeding grounds. To me finding good birds on my local ‘patch’ is what birding is all about and this sighting left me extremely happy. I called Phil who was just down the road and after looking at the bird for some time, hearing it calling and flying about we left it in peace. I said to Phil, half joking, all the calling was probably to attract its lost friends to the same area and as it turned out Phil and I at the end of the evening, when it was almost dark, found four birds together, three females and a male. Phil told me that he had seen Hypocolius before but as far as I am aware this is only the second record of the species for the camp? The photos are not the best as the light was poor, especially when we had all four together but, hopefully, they will stay around to allow better photos to be obtained.

16 Apr 2014

Plenty of Warblers – Dhahran Hills

The ‘patch’ was alive with warblers on 12 April with birds flitting around everywhere. The majority were Barred Warblers, although good numbers of Eurasian Reed Warblers, Eurasian Blackcaps, Willow Warblers and Lesser Whitethroats were seen. Most birds had either gone to ground or dispersed by 09:00 hrs, showing that it is important to get out early in the migration season. I am not sure I saw a Eurasian Blackcap in Saudi Arabia last year, and certainly did not on the camp so to see so many already this spring is encouraging. Despite looking very hard at all the warblers present I could not locate anything unusual although I did see one unusual Lesser Whitethroat that does not look like a typical Lesser Whitethroat, Desert Whitethroat, Central Asian Whitethroat or Hume’s Whitethroat. The type of Lesser Whitethroat this is, is a mystery to me and may well be from an overlap (hybrid) zone? It looks most like a Hume’s type but does not appear dark enough or large enough in the field. The striking feature of this bird is it has a uniformly coloured head and mantle and also has what appears to be a long thin bill and dark eye. There is still plenty to learn about the Lesser Whitethroats that pass through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Barred Warbler
Eurasian Blackcap - female
Eurasian Blackcap - male
Willow Warbler
Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat

15 Apr 2014

A good catch of Warblers – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Nicole and I went ringing again at Sabkhat Al Fasl at the weekend of 11 April and caught a good bag (for us) of warblers. There were few birds about although a good number of singing Eurasian (Caspian) Reed Warblers. We set all five of our nets but moved one to a new location in between tamarisk and reed beds to try to catch and stray migrant warblers that were not dependent on reeds. This net turned out to be the best of all and in total we caught 27 birds including nine Sedge Warblers, two Little Bitterns, three Caspian Reed Warblers, seven Indian (Clamorous) Reed Warblers, one Great Reed Warbler, two Willow Warblers and one Central Asian (Desert) Lesser Whitethroat. Although we had caught all the species before at Alba Marsh in Bahrain, it was surprising the number of Sedge Warblers we caught as we only caught a very small number in Bahrain. Another surprise was that we caught a European (Caspian) Reed Warbler with a brood patch showing the bird was breeding at the site. We caught lots in Bahrain but never showing any signs of breeding. Other birds caught with brood patches included three Indian (Clamorous) Reed Warblers and a Little Bittern. All these species have been recorded as breeding birds at Sabkhat Al Fasl before but these are good records especially the Reed Warbler. One of the last birds we caught was a bird showing characteristics of a Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat, which was a very nice record. The Great Reed Warbler we caught was a very large bird as can be seen from the below photo where it is side by side with an Indian (Clamorous) Reed Warbler.
Little Bittern - male
Little Bittern - female
Great Reed Warbler
Great Reed Warbler (left) & Indian Reed Warbler (Right)
Eurasian (Caspian) Reed Warbler
Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat
Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat