29 February 2012

Greater White-fronted Goose - Jubail

I have just recieved news from Andre Marais that he too saw the Russian Greater White-fronted Goose at Jubail the day after my sighting (18th February 2012), in the same place. He took a photograph of the bird and it looks to be the same individual from the markings. Andres kindly sent me his photographs and has allowed me to put them on the website. Andres also saw a Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark at the site, which although not uncommon in the area, I have yet to see at Jubail. He also took some photographs of a second calendar year Greater Spotted Eagle on the ground. There are a few people looking at Jubail now that more people know of its existance and hopefully as time goes on more and more good birds will be seen here as this is certainly the best single site I know in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
 Greater White-fronted Goose (2nd calendar year albifrons)
Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark (male)

The Jebals - Dhahran Hills

A trip to the jebals to see if any interesting wheatears or rock-thrushes had turned up produced very little. These sites are devoid of birds for most of the year but under the right conditions and at the right time of year good birds can be seen here. They are excellent for wheatears when big numbers are moving through although I only managed to see a single Isabelline wheatear and also shrikes of which I failed to see any. Large numbers of rock-thrushes can also be seen here but again I failed in my attempts. The only birds of note I saw were a single Song Thrush feeding under the row of trees on the way to the jebals and two Western Cattle Egrets in the same place. Five Common Chiffchaff were feeding on the grass in a nearby area and two Eurasian Hoopoe were on the Jebals but little else.
 Song Thrush
 Song Thrush
Common Chiffchaff

28 February 2012

Plenty of Plovers - Dammam - Al Khobar Wader Roost South

The tide was high in the evening allowing me to go after work and have a look to see if anything interesting had turned up in the wader roost. There was a definite increase in wader numbers with many more Greater Sand Plovers and Lesser Sand Plovers present some of which were in summer plumage or at least partial summer plumage. Some of the waders were on the newly flattened rough ground behind the high tide wall but they were very flighty. There were at least 200 Lesser Sand Plovers and a minimum of 100 Greater Sand Plovers but the commonest Plover was Kentish Plover. 27 Grey Plovers were present amongst the 200+ Bar-tailed Godwits.
 Greater Sand Plover
 Greater Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
 Kentish Plover
Lesser Sand Plover (left), Kentish Plover (center) & Greater Sand Plover (right)

Small waders included 200+ Dunlins, 17 Sanderlings, five Terek Sandpipers and a single Broad-billed Sandpiper. Larger waders included 75 Eurasian Curlews, three Common Redshanks and six Common Greenshanks. 14 Greater Flamingos, 22 Caspian Terns and 50+ Little / Saunders Little Terns were also using the sand bars to rest.

27 February 2012

Regained Access - Dammam – Al Khobar Wader Roost South

Yesterday I went to the Dammam – Al Khobar Wader Roost South which is the best site for looking for waders in the local area as far as I am aware. The last time I went all the access points to the site had been blocked off as they are about to start building new building in the area. Luckily I have found a new access to this site and was able to check the roost site again, and as the tide was very high many of the waders were on the newly flatted ground behind the sea wall. There were quite a few waders about with most being Dunlin and Little Stint, with well over 150 of each. 50+ Lesser Sand Plovers and similar numbers of Greater Sand Plovers were seen as well, both in much larger numbers than I have seen in recent weeks. A few birds were feeding on the exposed mud and these included six Terek Sandpipers, 25 Common Greenshank, 15 Common Redshank, 35 Eurasian Curlew and 12 Eurasian Whimbrel.
 Greater Sand Plover
Terek Sandpiper

There was a big flock of Gulls roosting on the newly flatted land but unfortunately before I got there a truck frightened them all away. I could see they were mainly Steppe Gulls (100+), with smaller numbers of Caspian Gull (20+) and even smaller numbers of Heuglin’s Gulls (10+). I will go back to this site in the next few days at high tide to try to locate these birds on the ground and try to get some photographs of them as well as continue my learning curve on the identification of them all. Apart from the waders & gulls there were a few terns flying about and loafing on the exposed sand. Most of the birds that were flying where Gull-billed Terns (11) but at least 32 Lesser Crested Terns were also present sitting amongst a large flock of Common Black-headed Gulls.
Gull-billed Tern

On the way out of the site I flushed a bird with a lot of white in the wing as it flew and as it appeared to land in some nearby bushes I stopped to find out what it was. I relocated the bird sitting on a single bush and it turned out to be a Woodchat Shrike which is an early migrant through the area. This particular bird was not in the fine plumage of some of the ones that turn up in the ara at this time of year.
Woodchat Shrike

26 February 2012

A new site - Dhahran Sewage Works

Yesterday morning I visited a new site in Dhahran. I found the area whilst looking on Google Maps and it looked quite interesting so I went there in the early morning to see if I could gain access and bird there. When I got there there was a large sign saying Saudi Aramco please report to the main office if visiting. As I work for Saudi Aramco I went in a went to the office and asked permission to walk around the area. The site has many sewage treatment tank that had hundreds of Common Black-headed Gulls sitting on the railings and in  large tank. I stayed away from this area as it was a working site and I did not want to cause disturbance to anyone.
Common Black-headed Gull (adult summer)

The site is quite large and has large grass areas surrounded by some tall trees. The grass areas had large spray heads which are always good sites to see bird sitting on top of them. This site was no exception with Daurian Shriek, Siberian Stonechat and Pied Wheatear all sitting on the sprays heads and using them as vantage points for hunting food.
 Pied Wheatear
Pied Wheatear

The grass areas were quite wet and had 100+ Water Pipits and 26 White Wagtails busily feeding on them. One Song Thrush was feeding in the leaf litter under the tress and several Rock Dove and Collard Doves were also feeding on the grass. To the edge of the grass area was a large depression where earth has been dug out and this had water in the bottom that had three Common Snipe and a single Isabelline Wheatear. Wheatears are deffinately starting to move through the area now and their numbers should build up over the next few weeks and a few more spcies also arrive such as Northern Wheatear and Black-eared Wheatear.
 Common Snipe
 Common Snipe in flight
Isabelline Wheatear

The best place in the area was a medium sized pool that had quite a bit of vegetation growing around it and this held a few waders including one Common Ringed Plover, one Common Sandpiper, two Common Redshank, three Green Sandpipers, eight Black-winged Stilt and nine Common Snipe. A single Grey Wagtail was also feeding along the edge of this pond and this is the first Grey Wagtail I have seen since last spring.
Black-winged Stilt

25 February 2012

Western Great Egret - Dhahran Hills

A trip to the 'patch' in the evening produced a number of good birds. The percolation pond was quiet when I arrived with only seven Eurasian Coot, one Great Crested Grebe, a few Common Black-headed Gulls and one Squacco Heron, which is the first Squacco I have seen this year in Dhahran. The large flock of Pallid Swifts and Red-rumped Swallows all appeared to have moved on and little was seen in the trees around the pond. As I was leaving a Western Marsh Harrier flew over and after looking along the edge of the pond flew over to the spray fields. I too went over there to see what was present as they were not spraying today. The Western Marsh Harrier was resting in the long grass and there were a few birds on the large pool that had been created by the amount of spraying that has been going on over the last week. On closer inspection there were six Water Pipits, seven White Wagtails and two Little Ringed Plovers. These are the first returning Little Ringed Plovers I have seen this spring and a good sign of things to come.
Little Ringed Plover

Other birds seen in the spray fields included seven Eurasian Skylarks, four Siberian Stonechats and 23 Water Pipits. I then went back to the pond to see if anything else had arrived and was surprised to see a Western Great Egret fly in and land. This is a regular but uncommon species for the 'patch' and are always good to see. Every time I see one I am amazed by how large they are. A single Grey Heron was also present with 65 Western Cattle Egrets that were coming in to roost.
 Western Cattle Egret roost
Western Cattle Egret

24 February 2012

Greater White-fronted Goose (Anser albifrons albifrons) – Sabkhat Al Fasl

On Friday 17th February I found a second calendar year Greater White-fronted Goose of the sub-species Anser albifrons albifrons, sometimes known as Russian White-fronted Goose at Sabkhat Al Fasl. This is an extremely rare visitor to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and in fact to Saudi Arabia as a whole. Over the last few days I have been trying to find out about the status of the species in the country and from what I know it is a vagrant to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with three records of 15 birds prior to this sighting and is also a scarce visitor to rthe emainder of Saudi Arabia. There are several unconfirmed reports from Jeddah and the Gulf that are not thought to be good enough for acceptance. Thanks to Phil Roberts for supplying me with much of the data from the Eastern Province and to Guy Kerwin for supplying the records for elsewhere in Saudi Arabia.

The confirmed records from the Eastern Province were two immature birds seen on a small treated sewage effluent pond at Dhahran Camp 14th November 1985 (Birds of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia - Bundy et al 1989), four birds at Sabkhat Al Fasl 16th November 2007 two of which were shot by a hunter and nine birds at Dhahran Hills percolation pond 13th to 22nd February 2008. 
Records from elsehwhere in Saudi Arabia include the following:-
One near Jeddah prior to 1981 (Jennings)
Immature, Jeddah, 24th December 1982 to 4th March 1983 (J. Saudi Arab. Nat. Hist. Soc. 2(3): 42)
Singles, Yanbu, 1st January 1983, 17th December 1984 to 2nd February 1985, and 25th Dec 1985 (Baldwin & Meadows 1988).

Another photographed at Yanbu in January 1983 was plausibly ascribed to A. a. erythrops.
First-winter, Mansouriyah near Riyadh, 21st December 1984 to 25th January 1985 (R. W. Burrough & A. J. Stagg)
Up to 11 first-winters, Riyadh area, 8th November 1985 to late February 1986 (R. W. Burrough et al.)
One, Mecca bypass, winter 1987/88 (P. Symens)
Four, lower reaches of Riyadh watercourse, November 1990, had increased to 11 by 1st February 1991 (D. Middleton, J. Norton & W. Sawyer)

One Jeddah 19th January 2011 (Phoenix 28)
The status of the species in the Middle East is as follows:-
Kuwait – Vagrant (2 records; February 2005 & November 2009)
Saudi Arabia – Vagrant (5 records - see details above)
Bahrain – Vagrant (November & December)
Qatar – Rare winter visitor mid-November to late February (5 records of 23 birds mainly juveniles)
UAE – Uncommon to rare winter visitor; extreme dates 3rd November to 4th April
Oman – Uncommon winter visitor
Israel – Rare to uncommon winter visitor in northern Israel, much less so in central & southern parts.

The bird I saw was of the sub-species Anser albifrons albifrons which breeds in the north-west Palearctic between Kanin Peninsula and Kolyma and winters in central and south Europe east into central Asia. In the Middle East it is a regular winter visitor to Turkey, Iran, Iraq, northern Syria and northern Egypt. Difference between the sub-species in juvenile plumage are albifrons (Russian White-fronted Goose) has a comparatively small and short pink bill with a dark tip (although is rarely orange) and flavirostris (Greenland White-fronted Goose) has a wedge shaped orange bill (although rarely pinkish). The tail on albifrons is brown and shows limited contrast with the upper-parts whereas flavirostris has a dark tail that is darker than the upper-parts and has a fine white boarder. The upper-parts of flavirostris are dark chocolate brown with buff tones to fringes of coverts and tertials whereas they are grey-brown on albifrons with contrasting  off-white fringes to coverts and tertials. Flavirostris is a bulky bird with a long neck and looks heavy chested whereas albifrons is a more compact goose with a comparatively short neck.

Initially I flushed the bird from the edge of a large open lake where it was hiding close in under a bank and out of sight of me. The bird flew very strongly away and over the reserve and appeared to keep going. On the views I had it was obviously a Goose and my thoughts were it was a Greater-White-fronted Goose, but I could not be certain it was not a Greylag Goose. This left me happy to have seen a goose but very disappointed in being unable to identify it. I went to the back of the reserve in the hope the goose may have landed again, but my hopes were not high as it did not appear to have done so. Fortunately for me I found the bird again on a bank between two large lakes, in the new area I have just found at the site. From these views it became clear the bird was a Greater White-fronted Goose and it looked quite tiered.

I did not want to flush the bird under any circumstances as there were a couple of hunters in a blind in the middle of the main flooded sabkha area and I was worried the bird may fly over that way and be shot, especially as Phil Roberts told me long ago that two of the thee birds he had seen at the same site, were shot and killed by hunters as he was watching them. I took a few photographs of the bird but they were all into the sun and I did not want to move to a better location in case I flushed the bird. After about five minutes a Western Marsh Harrier attacked the Goose and drove it off, and I got a few flight shots. The bird flew around and came right over the car and landed again behind me but again in a position looking slightly into the sun. I took a few more photographs and spent quite a while looking at the bird trying to work out what sub-species it was as I remember seeing something on Birding Frontiers website about eastern race White-fronted Goose in Israel recently. I then left the goose in place, hoping it makes it out of Sabkhat Al Fasl in one piece and does not end up on someone’s dinner table.

23 February 2012

Large flock of Red-rumped Swallows - Dhahran Hills

Yesterday on the 'patch' the large numbers of warblers seen two days before had mainly passed on with only three Common Chiffchaff left out of over 100 birds. Bird numbers were much lower but a large flock of Red-rumped swallows totalling over 70 birds was seen hunting the mosquitoes around the pond. With this flock were a similar number of Plaid Swifts and 20+ House Martins and a single Barn Swallow. The pond itself still had the four Common Pochards from two days previously but they had been joined by four more birds making a good total of eight birds.
 Red-rumped Swallow
Red-rumped Swallow

A walk around the spray fields was a wet affair as the wind was blowing spray all over the place, but allowed me a photograph of a rainbow created from the spray. The spray fields were being watered and a large lake had formed which was a favourite place for the Cattle Egrets to feed with a total of 79 birds present. Three Song Thrushes, six Tawny Pipits and a Siberian Stonechat were the only passerines of note in the fields. On the edge were a good number of Wheatears with the first two female Pied Wheatears of the year being seen along with a male Desert Wheatear and six Isabelline Wheatears showing some passage was happening. A common Kestrel was hunting over the fields and a Green Sandpiper was on a flooded pool.
Rainbow at the Spray Fields

22 February 2012

Getting the Tide Wrong - Dammam – Al Khobar Wader Roost

A quick trip to the Dammam – Al Khobar Wader Roost proved to be not as successful as planned as I timed the tide slightly wrong. It is very difficult to get the tide right in Tarut Bay as the mud has a very gentle slope and the wind and tide height vary each day. As the substrate has such a gentle slope a small change in height of the tide can cause areas to become inundated with water or conversely keep the tide a long distance from the shore. For whatever reason on this day the tide was well in even an hour and a half before high tide.  I am assuming this was because a strong wind was blowing from the north and had pushed the water up quicker than expected. As a result most of the mud flats were completely covered with water and only a few waders were still about including two Grey Plovers, one Eurasian Curlew, three Kentish Plovers including a male in full breeding plumage and seven Ruddy Turnstones.
 Grey Plover
Eurasian Curlew

Other birds of interest were three white phase Indian Reef Herons fishing at the top of the creek and seven Slender-billed Gulls on the water. Two Gull-billed Terns were flying about in the strong wind but very little else was seen. Further out there is a small manmade island that also attracts waders at high tide but it is distant and a telescope is required to view the birds. This roost had many more birds including 56 Eurasian Curlews, 16 Bar-tailed Godwits, 29 Common Redshanks and seven Common Greenshanks. The best birds here, however, were six Mallard (4 females and 2 males), which looked a little out of place sitting on the sea. They are more often found on freshwater in the Eastern Province as well as elsewhere.
 Slender-billed Gull (adult)
Kentish Plover (adult male)

Six Adult Eusasian Spoonbills - Dammam Port Mangroves

A quick trip to Dammam Port Mangroves for yesterday’s high tide produced a couple of good birds. When I arrived at the port I saw three House Crows, which is not unusual as this is the best site close to Dhahran to see them. They have almost certainly arrived there on boats and now have a small breeding colony in the area. As I was walking down to where you can see the mangrove area as the tide is coming in I saw a couple of birds flitting around in the tall Tamrisk trees that grow along the bank. The first bird was very interesting and turned out to be an Eastern Orphean Warbler which is an early migrant and the first one I have seen since last spring. The other bird was a Common Chiffchaff and in fact there were three of them in the Tamarisk trees. These are again signs that the migration season is slowly getting underway, but as I did not have my camera with me, as this is a sensitive area, I did not get any photos of the Eastern Orphean Warbler. As the tide came in it pushed quite a few birds up through the mangroves to a place where I could see them and in amongst them were six adult Spoonbills. These birds stayed right at the very back of the open area and were not photographable but good views could be obtained through the telescope. This site is mainly good for the larger waders and 37 Whimbrels, 72 Eurasian Curlew, 108 Bar-tailed Godwit and 15 Grey Plover where packed tightly together at one edge of the sand bank in front of the mangroves. In amongst the large waders were six Caspian Terns and two Great Black-headed Gulls, one of which was in full summer plumage.
Caspian Terns

A few smaller waders were also present with six Terek Sandpipers, nine Common Greenshanks, 35 Common Redshanks, one Lesser Sand Plover and three Greater Sand Plovers. The only other birds of note that I saw were three Western Great Egrets, 50+ Indian Reef Herons, six Grey Herons and five Common Starlings.
 Common Greenshank & Common Redshank in flight
Greater Sand Plover

21 February 2012

Spanish Sparrows – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl last weekend I saw a small group of Spanish Sparrows feeding in the low tamarisk bushes and scrubby area near the new waste treatment building. This is the first time I have seen the species at the site and only the second time I have seen one in Saudi Arabia. The first occurrence was a single male in the House Sparrow flock on the ‘patch’ last year and the bird only stayed a day. I contacted Phil Roberts who has regularly birded Sabkhat Al Fasl for the last six years to see if he had seen the species at the site, but he said he had not. The flock at Sabkhat Al Fasl comprised nine birds, eight female types and two males. I first saw a female feeding on the ground and it looked slightly different, but it was not until a saw a male sitting in a Tamarisk bush that I was sure they were Spanish Sparrows. The flock stayed together in a small group, feeding in the bushes and on the ground, but where moving from place to place at regular intervals. It will be interesting to see if these birds stay about for the breeding season or if they are just wintering birds passing through.  The species is slowly increasing its range in Saudi Arabia and the Eastern Province in particular, so maybe Sabkhat Al Fasl will turn into a regular site for them, I certainly hope so. After the birds moved off I carried on birding the location and found another male at the other end of the site, which was as certain as can be a different bird to the ones I had seen by the waste treatment plant.

Spanish Sparrow is mainly a winter visitor and resident breeding species in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. Large flocks have been seen but these are mainly on farmland rather than coast sabkhat like the area I saw them.

A good days birding – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Last weekend I went to Sabkhat Al Fasl as there was no ringing trip to Bahrain as everyone was busy at the weekend. The weather was not very promising with strong winds and overcast sky but I still arrived at first light and as this was Friday I had more time to explore the area, as I did not need to get back to Dhahran so early. It was obvious that there were a lot more birds about this time than last weekend and a few migrants had arrived as one of the first birds I saw was a really smart male Woodchat Shrike. This is the first returning bird I have seen this year, although birds have been seen in Bahrain and Riyadh in the last week so it was not unexpected. As is invariably the case I saw a Greater Spotted eagle on arrival flying away and over the reeds and by the end of the day I had seen at least seven birds, mostly 2nd CY birds but also two adults. One 2nd CY bird was seen on the edge of the path through the reeds, but unfortunately as I was trying to get closer to the bird it flew off. It circled around and landed about 100 metres in front of the car but in a position where I could not photograph it as it was through the frond windscreen. After about one minute it flew again and this time I managed to get a couple of photographs of the bird through the open window in flight.
Greater Spotted Eagle (Second calendar year)

A few Squacco Herons were present in the reed-beds looking for small fish and eight Whiskered Terns were flying about doing likewise. Nine Gadwalls were lurking in the reeds at the back of the main lake behind a flock of 300+ Common Black-headed Gulls and several Water rail were calling from the reed-beds with one seen briefly. At least twenty each of White Wagtails and Water Pipits were on the muddy edges and reed fringes of a large lake and a party of 22 migrant Red-rumped Swallows and six Barn Swallows were hunting the plentiful mosquitos in the same place. Further around the main lake areas I saw a flock of 18 Eurasian Skylarks in the short-grass, and this allowed me some opportunities to study them as they were in view for quite a lot of the time. I was hoping to locate an Oriental Skylark, but unfortunately all I could see was Eurasian Skylarks.
Sqaucco Heron
Eurasian Skylark

Whilst driving around it is possible to see through the reeds into the main water areas if a few places. These are normally areas of flattened or cut reeds that have been prepared for hunters, but allow views into otherwise inaccessible places. Some of these areas have small muddy islands and these are very attractive to waders. I saw three Common Greenshank, two Wood Sandpipers, one Marsh Sandpiper and one Spotted Redshank whilst looking here.
Wood Sandpiper

Additional passerines were seen today compared to my meager sightings last weekend, some of them wintering birds and others migrants. A single Turkestan Shrike, three Daurian Shrikes, two Desert Wheatears (male and female), a single Isabelline Wheatear, two Siberian Stonechats, two Tawny Pipits, 50+ White Wagtails, 50+ Water Pipits, six Common Starling, six Common Chiffchaff and a beautiful adult male Citrine Wagtail that was right beside me but by the time I had stopped looking at it through my binoculars and got the camera it had flown away, which was a real shame. The majority of birds are still winter visitors but the first signs of spring migration are slowly starting to appear.
Isabelline Wheatear
Isabelline Wheatear
Water Pipit (A. s. coutelli)

The flooded sabkha area was completely full of water and held plenty of birds. Black-winged Stilts were present in their hundreds; probably migrants as I have seen very few in the last month. Well over 500 Pied Avocets were present along with 50+ Dunlins, 50+ Little Stints, 11 Common Greenshank, six Grey Plover and three Ruff. Scanning the far distance with the telescope produced six Common Shelducks and well over 50 Northern Shovellers, all of which appeared to be dangerously close to two hunters hidden in their hunting blind. This is the best area to see Western Marsh Harrier and Greater Spotted Eagle, with the Harriers normally seen over the reed-beds and the eagles on the mud flats. A large group of terns was sitting on the only island with 27 Caspian Terns and 66 Little Terns / Saunders Little Terns in amongst 97 Slender-billed Gulls.
Ruff (male)