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.