31 October 2011

Desert Hedgehog - Dhahran Main Camp

A friend of mine Darrell Foreman has a Desert Hedgehog visiting his garden each night in Dhahran main camp and invited me and my family around to see it. It gave very good views feeding around the garden after dark and good photographs were taken of it.

The Desert Hedgehog (Paraechinus aethiopicus) is a species found in northern Africa, from Morocco & Mauritania in the west to Egypt in the east as well as the Middle East including Israel, Jordan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Yemen. A typical hedgehog in appearance, the desert hedgehog has a dense, spiny coat, an elongated snout, and the ability to curl into a defensive ball when threatened. For more information on the species see under the Wildlife Tab at the top of the page.

30 October 2011

Bahrain - Ringing at the Chicken Farm

The whole ringing team of Brendan, Abdulla, Nicole and I along with Howard King went ringing at the Chicken Farm on Friday and caught 19 Barn Swallows, one Graceful Prinia and one Steppe Grey Shrike. We set the nets up around a grass field on two different sides with the hope of catching all the birds that were in there but unfortunately we did not catch anything there. We also set up three 16 metre nets across a grass field where we hoped to catch a few Barn Swallows that were gathering before going to roost. We did manage to catch a few Barn Swallows although a few more used the net and poles as perches and did not go into the nets. Abdulla caught a Steppe Grey Shrike with the newly refurbished spring trap. We had seen this bird on the way into the ringing site along with a number of Isabelline Wheatear, two Northern Wheatear, one Desert Wheatear and a Pied Wheatear. There were also three Daurian Shrike, 10 Indian Silverbills and four Red Avadavat present. After we had finished ringing Brendan took us on a tour to look for Egyptian Nightjar and we managed to see at least two birds. One was very tame so we thought we would have a go and try and catch it, but it disappeared before we got all the tools ready - maybe next time for that species?
 Barn Swallow (juvenile)
 Barn Swallow (juvenile)
 Graceful Prinia
 Graceful Prinia
Graceful Prinia

29 October 2011

Sabkhat Al Fasl

Another very early trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl and luckily there were no shooters present today. Maybe they knew something as the number of birds were considerably less than normal although there was still plenty to look at. The first bird I saw, as is often the case, was a juvenile Greater Spotted Eagle sitting on one of the street light posts. There were quite a few birds of prey about today with another two Greater Spotted Eagles both of which were adults, two adult Steppe Eagles and 10 Western Marsh Harriers. A few passerines were about with a Red-throated Pipit and two Water Pipits being the first of each species I have seen this autumn in Saudi Arabia. 20+ Blue-cheeked Bee-eater were making short work of the really annoying Horse Flys that frequent Sabkhat, four Daurian Shrike, two Turkestan Shrike, one European Stonechat, 10 White Wagtail and two Yellow Wagtail. Waders included 500+ Dunlin, 1000+ Little Stint, 200+ Black-winged Stilt, 50+ Common Redshank and 20+ Common Ringed Plover. Three Caspian Tern and a single Gull-billed Tern were flying about and at least six Common Kingfisher were seen.
 Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
 Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
 Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
 European Stonechat
 Common Kingfisher
 Common Kingfisher
 Common Morehen
 Purple Swamphen
Squacco Heron

28 October 2011

Female Pied Wheatear - Sabkhat Al Fasl

I have been looking more into this issue of the Wheatear at Sabkhat Al Fasl (see previous post) and apart from the tail pattern everything else looked more like a Pied Wheatear especially the pale tipped (scaly) mantle feathers. As mentioned by Yoav Perlman as well as Sherpa on Surfbirds, the Jizz appeared wrong for Pied Wheatear and the bill is too small and fine. Yoav also mentioned that the tail pattern of Pied Wheatear (and Eastern Pied Wheatear) shows tremendous variation from almost white at one extreme to tail patterns like the bird we saw at the other extreme. If you exclude the tail pattern then everything falls into place for Pied Wheatear. Howard King mentioned the fact that Pied Wheatear show a pale throat/neck band which is not found on Finsch’s. Luckily we caught a first year female Pied Wheatear at Busaiteen in Bahrain on Friday and Howard was there, so he pointed out this feature and it was very obvious in the hand and can be seen in the field quite easily as well on one I looked at later. I really appreciate the help with this bird from Yoav Perlman, Sherpa and Howard King – now I know about the variation in tail pattern things should be easier next time?!
Pied Wheatear (female)
Pied Wheatear - Tail (female)

27 October 2011

Mallard - Dhahran Hills

The pond is being flattened by a large digger and many of the reed beds have been dug up. This is making for more open areas and more muddy edges so there are still plenty of birds about. Waders included one Green Sandpiper, two Marsh Sandpiper, two Kentish Plover, two Common Ringed Plover, 23 Little Stint and 25 Black-winged Stilt. The pond was almost covered in duck with two Garganey, six Mallard, 44 Eurasian Teal and 96 Northern Shoveller. This is only the second time I have seen Mallard on the pond. The only other bird of note was an adult Greater Spotted Eagle sitting in the trees at the edge of the pond before flying off over the nearby jebels.
Mallard (adult male)

26 October 2011

Northern Shoveler increasing - Dhahran Hills

Yesterday at the 'patch' there were again plenty of birds. The water level at the pond is attracting plenty of waders with one Marsh Sandpiper, one Common Greenshank, one Common Ringed Plover, two Dunlin, two Green Sandpiper, four Wood Sandpiper, six Kentish Plover, 11 Common Snipe and 25 Little Stint. The waders all took flight at one point and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk flew over, but it looked like it had already fed on something as its crop was full. Ducks were again on the pond in good numbers with two Garganey, 33 Eurasian Teal and 74 Northern Shoveller. A group of six Blue-cheeked Bee-eater were catching insects over the pond along with 12 Sand Martin and 11 Barn Swallow and two Cattle Egret flew in at last light and landed in one of the tall trees to roost. The only other bird of note was a Caspian Reed Warbler in the reeds at the edge of the pond which is the first one I have seen there for a few weeks.
 Northern Shoveler
Eurasian Teal

25 October 2011

Short-toed Snake Eagles & Eastern Imperial Eagle – Dhahran Hills

On the evening of the 22nd October I went to the ‘patch’ for a late evenings birding. A strong Shamal wind (north-westerly) had been blowing for a couple of days and with the weather being clear, without dust that is often associated with these winds, I had hopes that something may be about. On the way to the main site of the percolation pond, in the scrubby desert area, I saw a large bird of prey flying briefly before disappearing over a hill. I cautiously drove to the approximate area where the bird had disappeared and immediately saw two birds sitting together on the top on a pile of rubble. They looked interesting and I got the telescope on them and they turned out to both be juvenile Short-toed Snake Eagles. I did not have my camera with me as the light is so poor in the evening that it is impossible to photograph anything now but I still crept up on them in the car until quite close. Very good views were obtained before they flew off as a security car drove past. All the features associated with the species were seen both on the ground as well as in flight. I then saw another large bird of prey fly over and land on a nearby telegraph pole and when I set the telescope on this and saw it fly later it became apparent it was a juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle a species I have not seen before in Saudi Arabia although they are relatively regular at Sabkhat Al Fasl in the winter.

As I did not get any photographs of the birds I saw so I am including these three photographs of a second calendar year (2cy) Short-toed Snake Eagle I saw in the same place on 31st March 2011. The species is scarce in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with 21 records seen between 1979 and 1989 when the Birds of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia by Bundy, Connor & Harrison was published in August 1989. There is only one previous record for the Dhahran area as all the other records have been recorded well north of Dhahran. I have now seen three different birds on less than a year in Dhahran Hills.
Short-toed Snake Eagle (2nd Calendar Year)
 Short-toed Snake Eagle (2nd Calendar Year)
Short-toed Snake Eagle (2nd Calendar Year)

When I got home I looked at the Birds of Kuwait Website and saw that AbdulRahman Al-Shiran had also seen a good number of raptors at Jahra Pool Reserve in Kuwait the same morning so raptor migration must have been good over the entire northern & central region of the Arabian Peninsula. He also saw two Short-toed Snake Eagle and a Juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle plus a few other raptors and details of his sightings plus an amazing photograph of the juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle he saw can be found at this link

24 October 2011

Great Snipe – Dhahran Hills

The days are drawing in and now there is only just enough time during the week to do a quick visit to the percolation pond after work before it gets dark, which is what I did on Saturday 22nd October. The water levels on the pond are low again as there is some heavy machinery work going on grubbing up some of the reed beds. As a result there are plenty of muddy edges for waders to feed about on and plenty of snipe were feeding around in the mud by the edge of the reeds. I spent quite a bit of time looking at them through the telescope in the hope I would find another Pin-tailed Snipe but all of them where Common Snipe. Just as I was about to leave I saw three snipe in a small area just below where I was standing that had been hidden by reeds until I moved. One immediately looked larger and darker than the other two snipe, but I have had a false alarm before with a dark looking oiled Common Snipe. This one was very different however and it soon became apparent it was a Great Snipe.

I am familiar with Great Snipe having seen them on a number of occasions in various countries including vagrants in Britain. The features I based my observations on are as follows:-
Size was larger than the nearby two Common Snipe that were feeding directly with and had a thicker looking but shorter bill. The bird appeared much bulkier and quite Woodcock like due to its ‘pot-bellied’ appearance.
The under-parts were noticeably darker than Common Snipe as the barring was very extensive and no obvious white was seen, with the exception of a paler area on the lower belly. It was basically barred from the throat to behind the legs. The legs were a darker colour than the nearby Common Snipe.
Wing coverts were heavily barred.
I did not try to flush the bird as I did not want to disturb it but luckily for me it jumped and spread its wings and tail on one occasion showing no white trailing edge to the wing but an obvious wing-bar formed by the white tips to the primary coverts. The tail had extensive white outer tail feathers which contrasted with the rufous central tail feathers.
Great Snipe breeds mainly above the tree line in the Scandinavian mountains as well as in lowland boggy areas of eastern Europe. They migrate from late August onwards to their wintering grounds in Africa.

Great Snipe is regarded as a vagrant to the eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and the only previous records I could find for the region were all from Abqaiq. One 9th - 10th May 1976, up to three 3rd - 16th September 1977, one 12th - 13th October 1977 and one 30th April 1982. These records are mentioned in Birds of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia by Bundy, Connor & Harrison 1989).

I was not able to take a photograph of the bird as the light was too poor by the time I got my camera out. If you go to this link there is a beautiful photograph of a Great Snipe, very similar to the one I saw taken by Rashed Al-Hajji in Kuwait in 2009.

23 October 2011

Bahrain - Ringing Wheatears at Busaiteen

On Friday I went ringing with Brendan and Abdulla at Busaiteen, with the spring traps, in search of Wheatears. We had plenty of worms this time but the weather was against us with a strong Shamal wind (north-westerly) blowing. As a result most of the birds were sheltering from the wind or where absent and we did not see too many Wheatears or many other birds. We managed to catch two Pied Wheatears, and adult male and a first year female, as well as two Isabelline Wheatears all in the spring traps. We had two other Pied Wheatears positioned right above two traps but they would not go for the bait unfortunately. I had not seen a female Pied Wheatear in the hand before and it was a valuable experience as a few pointers to the unidentified Wheatear from Sabkhat Al Fasl last weekend were noted showing this bird was almost certainly a Pied Wheatear rather than a Finsch’s Wheatear.  
 Isabelline Wheatear (adult)
 Isabelline Wheatear - Tail (adult)
 Isabelline Wheatear (1st year)
 Isabelline Wheatear - Tail (1st year)
 Pied Wheatear (adult male)
 Pied Wheatear (adult male)
Pied Wheatear - Tail (adult male)

22 October 2011

Wheatears - Dammam - Al Khobar Wader Roost South

On Thursday at Dammam - Al Khobar Wader Roost South I got the tide slightly wrong as I only had the very early morning available for birding due to having to get the car serviced and other family commitments. The tide was coming in but was not as far in as I would have liked but there were still quite a few good waders about including three Crab Plover, six Broad-Billed Sandpiper, 20+ Bar-tailed Godwit, eight Eurasian Oystercatcher, four Terek Sandpiper, three Greater Sand Plover and plenty of Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Dunlin, Little Stint and Common Redshank. The waste ground behind the wader roost had a lot of wheatears including three Isabelline Wheatear, eight Pied Wheatear and a single Desert Wheatear. There were probably more than this about but I was limited on time. This wader roost is an excellent site for Crab Plover and I have seen birds here every time I have visited since June. Hopefully birds will remain through the winter but only time will tell.
 Isabelline Wheatear
 Desert Wheatear
Pied Wheatear

21 October 2011

Finsch’s or Pied Wheatear? - Sabkhat Al Fasl

I saw this bird a week ago at Sabkhat Al Fasl (Jubail) Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with Phil Roberts. I have been studying it since and have been unable to convince myself of its identification.
Phil and I have seen plenty of female type Pied Wheatears in Saudi Arabia but not one that looked like this and when we saw it we thought it was a Finsch’s Wheatear. This was partly based on the tail pattern which appeared to fit Finsch’s Wheatear (we saw the tail quite well on a number of occasions but you can never be certain about tail pattern as the birds often do not afford views of the fully spread tail). A 1st year male Pied Wheatear was also present in the same place and its tail pattern was obvious and easy to see. Apart from the tail pattern the general colouration and underpart patterning also fitted appeared to fit Finsch’s Wheatear well. The more I have looked into the bird the less certain I have become about its identification as there are a few photographs on the internet that look similar and are labeled as female Pied Wheatear while others look like this bird and are labeled female Finsch’s Wheatear. The bird looks similar to the drawing in Birds of the Middle East - Richard Porter & Simon Aspinall (Aug 2010 - Helm Field Guides) but very different from the drawing in Collins Bird Guide - Lars Svensson, Killian Mullarney, Dan Zetterstrom & Peter J. Grant (Mar 2010).
Pied Wheatear is much the commoner species in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and many are currently on passage through the area. Finsch’s Wheatear is a scarce bird in our area of Saudi Arabia (neither of us have seen one before here) and Birds of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia - G. Bundy, RJ. Connor & C. Harrison (Aug 1989) says they occur from November onwards, although quite a few changes have occurred in bird distribution and numbers since the writing of this excellent book. Shirihai in his book The Birds of Israel says that autumn migration in Israel starts from the beginning of October to end of November mainly in mid October to mid November.
If you have any ideas or comments on the identification of this bird please let me know by e-mail or by leaving a comment below.

20 October 2011

Southern Grey Shrike Ringing at A'Ali Farm - Bahrain

Whilst ringing at A'Ali Farm Abdulla had a single worm left for the spring trap, left over from the previous weeks ringing and as we had seen a nice male Desert Wheatear in the short cut areas of the farm we tried at first to catch this bird. It was not being very co-operative and the farm is a place where we cannot leave the trap for very long without moving it as there are a lot of ants about that kill the worm if they find it. We then moved the trap to a spray field area where there was a dark breasted Daurian Shrike and again this did not want to be co-operative and kept flying over the trap and never landing on the spray head under which the trap was positioned. There were quite a lot of Pied Wheatear about but as we were driving about we saw a Southern Grey Shrike sitting on some twigs as well as an Isabelline Wheatear. We put the trap under a nice metal post where the Isabelline Wheatear had been sitting and hoped for the best. To my delight the Southern Grey Shrike then landed on the metal post, saw the worm and promptly trapped itself. This was a new ringing species for me. I did not put these photos with the other ringing photos as I was making sure this bird was a Southern Grey Shrike rather than a Steppe grey Shrike as in first winter plumage they can look very similar. I would like to thank Major Abdulla, Brendan Kavenagh and AbdulRahman Al-Shiran from Kuwait for their help with the identification of this bird. Abdulla knew all along it was a Southern Grey Shrike but I wanted to make sure from my point of view. The two outer tail feathers of this bird were all white similar to Steppe Grey Shrike but also fitting elegeans Southern Grey Shrike, although the subspecies we are meant to get in Bahrain and Eastern Saudi Arabia is aucheri. This is a complex and often confusing group of birds whose taxonomic status is still being worked out. One thing is certain and that is we will document any birds we catch to see if we can work things out a bit better.

19 October 2011

Nabors Arabia Rig 861 – Shadan Area

I went to visit one of our drilling rigs in the desert in the Shadan Field about 100 kilometres from Harad. The rig is in the true desert 45 kilometres from the nearest main road and is probably one of the only sources of water and tall structures in the surrounding area. As a result it is an obvious point of reference for migrating birds and although we saw no birds on the journey to the rig as soon as I arrived I saw two Yellow Wagtails at the edge of the lease. Whilst on the rig itself there were five male and two female Eurasian Blackcaps, flitting around the high pressure pipework. They seemed quite happy in their temporary home. Seeing passerines in the middle of the desert is always an exciting experience as they are not often seen. Below are a couple of photographs of a male and a female Eurasian Blackcap we caught in Bahrain last week.

Eurasian Blackcap (adult female)
 Eurasian Blackcap (adult male)
Eurasian Blackcap (adult female)

18 October 2011

Plenty of Duck - Dhahran Hills

Yesterday at the 'patch' was really good for birds. The scrubby desert area held a female Pied Wheatear and a female Desert Wheatear which was the first returning bird I have seen in Saudi Arabia this autumn. The percolation pond had plenty of duck with 61 Northern Shoveller, 11 Garganey, 15 Eurasian Teal and 13 Northern Pintail which was a new species for the patch for me. Another new 'patch' bird was a Jack Snipe which was present with four Common Snipe, one Temminck's Stint, one Little Stint, one Marsh Sandpiper, one Little Ringed Plover, one Common Redshank and one Wood Sandpiper. A Greater Spotted Eagle was also seen flying over the pond and luckily landed in a tree. It was an adult bird and looked quite different to all the juveniles and 2nd calendar year birds I have seen before in Saudi Arabia. I got very good views of the bird, but in very poor light as it was almost dark, and I assume the bird was going to spend the night in the tree. Other good birds included six Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, one Little Tern and one White Wagtail which is the first returning bird of the autumn for me in Saudi Arabia although I saw plenty in Bahrain last weekend.
 Marsh Sandpiper
Marsh Sandpiper

Wood Sandpiper