31 July 2012

Western Osprey – Dhahran Hills

One of the great things about working a ‘patch’ is you can see birds that are common in the region but rare or uncommon on the patch, which make your day. One such bird is the Western Osprey that I see every time I go to the Dammam – Al Khobar Wader Roost south and almost every time I go to Sabkhat Al Fasl, but that I have only seen four times on the patch with the first being on 5th March 2012. The species is a resident breeder in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where it is commonly seen but in low numbers. A nice, fairly confiding, bird was seen sitting on the wire fence surrounding the percolation pond and allowed me fairly close approach before flying off and attempting, but failing, to catch a fish in the pond. It was then mercilessly mobbed by Black-winged Stilts which drove if off from the area.

Western Osprey
Western Osprey

Birds like this make it worth the effort of going out every day in the middle of summer when most people do not leave their houses. There were very few birds about apart from this with two Little Stints on the settling pond and one Blue-cheeked Bee-eater around the percolation pond being the best. There seem to be plenty of juvenile Namaqua Doves this year compared to last year indicating they have had a better breeding season.

30 July 2012

Crab Plovers - Abu Ali Island

I set off on an early morning trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl and Abu Ali Island with Bob Roberts to see if we could find any Egyptian Nightjars as Bob had not seen any for many years since his last sighting in Bahrain. When we arrived at Sabkhat Al Fasl we saw quite a few terns gathered in one area including many White-cheeked Terns. These were adults and juveniles with many of the juveniles loudly begging for food from the adult birds. Twenty-two Caspian Terns were also present along with a single winter plumaged White-winged Tern and five Little/Saunder’s Terns.
White-cheeked Tern - juvenile
White-cheeked Tern - begging juvenile & adult

Migrants were very thin on the ground today with the only sightings being a single Barn Swallow and two Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. Luckily we managed to get excellent views of an Egyptian Nightjar (see previous post for photographs) in the normal place we see the species in the summer at this location as well as a second bird by the edge of the reed beds by the main sabkha area. Purple Swamphens were about in good numbers and a few Clamorous Reed Warblers were busy collecting food for their young. A very good record of five juvenile Eurasian Spoonbills were seen in flight over the main scrape area where two summer plumaged Grey Plovers were also seen. Four White-winged Terns were seen flying around here also along with three Little Ringed Plovers, three Common Sandpipers, several Little Stints and five Curlew Sandpipers.
White-winged Tern - moulting adult

After looking at Sabkhat Al Fasl we went to Abu Ali Island and again few birds were about. A very nice sight though were two Crab Plovers on the water edge at high tide just after the security check post leading onto the island. This site has has up to 120 birds present during the big oil spill of 1991 but very few have been seen here since. These birds were an adult with a begging juvenile, which is the first young bird I have seen this year. Several Whmbrel were also in the same area. At the main lagoon there was a single Great Crested Grebe, twelve Greater Flamingos and 50+ White-cheeked Terns.

29 July 2012

Two Egyptian Nightjars - Sabkhat Al Fasl

The Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius is an uncommon bird in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, but it is clear that the status of the species has changed in the region in the 21st Century. It was previously regarded as a vagrant (Bundy et al Birds of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia 1989) but is now known as a scarce passage migrant, summer and winter visitor. The majority of birds are no longer seen during the migration periods of early November & March to mid-May, but are now more often seen in the summer months of June, July & August and the winter period of December to March. Summer records have been recorded since 2004 when a pair was discovered at Khafrah Marsh 24th June 2004 where the possibility of this nightjar being overlooked as a breeding species was briefly discussed (Meadows 2005). Since 2006 additional birds have been located in the region at Sabkhat Al Fasl (Jubail) in August with the highest count being ten birds together on 22 August 2008. Birds have been seen every year in August at this site since 2006 with birds also seen in July in 2011 & 2012 and the earliest record 5 July 2012.

The photographs shown here are of two different birds seen at Sabkhat Al Fasl 26th July 2012. The first bird was seen in the normal area resting in the shade under a bush as they like to do. This area is a man made bank close to the water edge with small clumps of vegetation. The second bird was flushed from the edge of the main sabkha area where it was seen out in the open. The bird was in fairly tatty condition and eventually flew off and landed in the extensive reed beds that are next to this location. The last photograph was taken by Bob Roberts and is used with his permission.

Photograph kind permission of Bob Roberts

28 July 2012

Some Hot Birds – Dhahran Hills

The temperatures have been very hot over the last week with daily highs of 47 degrees Celsius. This makes birding a bit difficult as even in the early morning and late evening the temperatures are around the low 40 degree Celsius mark. Even so, I go out every day to see what I can find on my local patch and have been rewarded this month with a few good birds for the site. This period is the quietest month for birding in my area and also the rest of Saudi Arabia with the very few birders here birding less due to the temperatures than at other times of year. There are still good birds to be found though, so it is worth sticking it out and seeing what one can see. As can be seen from the two photographs below even the birds are finding the temperatures hot and many species can be seen panting to try to cool down. The Blue-cheeked Bee-eater is a passage migrant with this bird being a returning migrant, whereas the White-eared Bulbul & Crested Larks are resident breeders. If the resident birds are panting you know the temperatures are hot, and these photographs were taken in the late evening at about 17:00 hrs when the temperatures are lower than at midday. Saudi Arabia in the summer is one of the hottest places on earth and these photos give some idea of what the conditions are like.
Crested Lark

White-eared Bulbul
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

27 July 2012

Western Great Egret - Dhahran Hills

Things have been quite this week on the ‘patch’ but, hopefully, the migration season will start in true form in the next week or two? A few migrants are about with one European Bee-eater and two Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters still around with good numbers of Barn Swallows and Sand Martins. Apart from this there is little else to see apart from a few good summer visitors like European Turtle Doves with a few juvenile birds about and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin of which there are currently two pairs carry food for their young in the scrubby areas at different sides of the percolation pond. Namaqua Doves are quite common at the moment with adult birds and juveniles at various places but mainly by the side of the spray fields. Four Little Terns are still on the percolation pond with two Gull-billed Terns, but the bird of the week was seen on 24th July and was an adult Western Great Egret. The only other birds of note being a male Little Bittern and a juvenile white phase Indian Reef Heron. Both Clamorous Reed Warblers and Caspian Reed Warblers are still showing quite well in the reeds and surrounding scrub with the occasional one using the wire fence surround to the percolation pond as a song post.

European Turtle Dove - adult
European Turtle Dove - juvenile
Namaqua Dove - female
Clamorus Reed Warbler

26 July 2012

Breeding plumaged Bar-tailed Godwits - Dammam / Al Khobar Wader Roost south

High tide at the Dammam / Al Khobar Wader Roost south is not easy to judge. The tide times give you the timings but as the water is so shallow the wind and height of the tides have a major impact on when the tide covers the mud. I arrived during the week almost two hours before high tide and was just in time to see the waders being pushed into shore. A group of really smart breeding plumage Bar-tailed Godwits was present with a single adult Crab Plover amongst them. Nine Whibrel were in the flock of Eurasian Curlew and six Common Redshanks were also present. A group of three Eurasian Oystercatchers was feeding at one end with some Slender-billed Gulls and Gull-billed Terns. Smaller waders consisted of 12 Terek Sandpipers, one Ruddy Turnstone, seven Curlew Sandpipers 100+ Greater Sand Plovers and 25+ Lesser Sand Plovers. A single adult Greater Flamingo looked a little out of place a considerable distance from shore.

Slender-billed Gull - adult

Gull-billed Tern

Crab Plover

Greater Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover

25 July 2012

Plenty of terns - Sabkhat Al Fasl

A trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl at the weekend was good for Terns. There are now plenty of White-cheeked Terns feeding almost fully grown juveniles along the main track to the water treatment plant. Some of these birds are beginning to look very-worn, plumage wise, but they are finding it very easy to catch fish at this site. Other terns included 10+ Caspian Terns and three Gull-billed Terns as well as a small group of 25 Little/Saunder’s Terns. Six White-winged Terns were a nice sight with four moulting adults in almost full breeding plumage along with two adult winter plumaged birds.

White-cheeked Tern
White-cheeked Tern in flight
White-winged Tern
Gull-billed Tern

24 July 2012

Another Egyptian Nightjar - Sabkhat Al Fasl

A trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl proved quite successful with the finding of another Egyptian Nightjar, this time at the other side of the site under a small Tamarisk bush on the edge of the now dry sabkha area. Birds are now regular here and I have seen one on the last three weekends even though it is only July. August has been the best month for the species at this site with only one July record previously last year.
Egyptian Nightjar

Other birds seen included quite a number of waders. Numbers have increased significantly in the last week with only a single Little Stint last week and 200+ this week. Eight Little Ringed Plovers, two Common Greenshanks, 30+ Curlew Sandpipers (some in almost full breeding plumage), one Common Ringed Plover, three Greater Sand Plovers, one Ruff and 300+ Kentish Plovers.  The numbers of Slender-billed Gulls has increased significantly also with over 200 now present. In amonst them was a single adult large white-headed gull whihc was distant but due to the very early timing of this sighting was almost certainly a Steppe Gull.
Curlew Sandpiper

Slender-billed Gull

Other interesting birds included three Clamorous Reed Warblers, two Namaqua Doves, six Squacco Herons, one Little Egret, 70+ Indian Reef Herons and nine Purple Swamphens. An Upcher's Warbler was my first record of this species for the site and look a little out of place in the scrub and reeds. Five Purple Swamphens were also seen at Khafra Marsh on the way home, which is the new breeding site we found last year. Although no young birds were seen it is obvious this site has now been colonised by the species. The first five returning Yellow Wagtails of the autumn, including one male feldegg Black-headed Wagtail, were present on the mud at the edge of the main scrape.

23 July 2012

Lesser Sand Plovers arriving - Dammam / Al Khobar Wader Roost

The last two days I have been down to the Dammam / Al Khobar Wader Roost which is really an inlet that as the tide rises pushes the birds up the inlet. Good views can be had of the birds but they do not really roost here just fly off when the tide completely covers the substrate. There have been quite a few good birds and the wader numbers have really increased over the last week. 50 Broad-billed Sandpipers were present along with four Common Greenshanks, seven Terek Sandpipers, one Common Sandpiper, one Ruff, two Eurasian Curlew, seven Lesser Sand Plovers and two Greater Sand Plovers. Little Stint numbers have increased from one last week to over one hundred and Curlew Sandpipers from five to over fifty, many in partial summer plumage. 30+ Saunder's Terns and two Gull-billed Terns were fishing along with two white phase Indian Reef Herons.
Terek Sandpiper

Curlew Sandpiper
Eurasian Curlew
Greater Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover
Lesser Sand Plover

22 July 2012

Breeding Crested Larks – Dhahran Hills

Crested Lark is a common and widespread breeding resident in the Eastern Province with good numbers breeding in the Dhahran Hills are where I carry out most of my bird-watching activities. They prefer lightly vegetated semi-desert, waste ground and cultivation mainly in the coastal zone. The Dhahran Hills scrubby desert has ideal conditions for the species with waste land and lightly vegetated semi-desert abounding and as a result numerous pairs of the species breed there. Yesterday whilst bird-watching the area I found a very young juvenile Crested Lark feeding on insects by the edge of the scrubby desert area and the bird allowed close approach. One of its parents was looking on from a nearby rock to make sure all was well with its offspring. The nest is built on the ground in a depression, usually in close proximity to some sort of vegetation. Birds presumably have more than one brood as the first juveniles are seen from April onwards and this one being the end of June suggests double brooding.

21 July 2012

Common Tern showing some characteristics of Sterna hirundo longipennis – Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding the local ‘patch’ on 9th July 2012 I saw an unusual tern flying around the percolation pond. Superficially it looked like a Gull-billed Tern as it had an all dark bill, but the bill did not appear to the right size or shape for Gull-billed Tern. On closer inspection it became apparent it was a Common Tern which is a scarce to uncommon migrant & winter visitor to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with records from February to June and once in September on the coast. Inland migrants were noted in April, May & August at Abqaiq & Hofuf with records of single birds in February, June & July & three birds in September at Hofuf. Well inland at Haradh one was recorded in September and was thought to have been a trans-desert migrant (Bundy et al 1989). Common Terns of the subspecies hirundo are the birds that should normally occur in Arabia but these have a red coloured bill and legs, whereas this bird had a black coloured bill and legs resembling longipennis. The first photograph below was taken by Phil Roberts and is used with his permission.

Subspecies of Common Tern
Sterna hirundo hirundo (Linnaeus, 1758) - North America to northern South America, Atlantic islands, Europe, north Africa (Tunisia) and west Africa (Mauritania, Senegal, erratically Nigeria), through Middle East and Black and Caspian Seas to Yenisey Valley; winters south of Tropic of Cancer
Sterna hirundo minussensis (Sushkin, 1925) - Central Asia through Transbaikalia to northern Mongolia and South Tibet; winters mainly north Indian Ocean. This is oftern regarded as a hybrid between longipennis and hirundo
Sterna hirundo tibetana (Saunders, 1876) - West Mongolia south to Kashmir, Tibet and Sichuan, at high altitudes; winters mostly east Indian Ocean
Sterna hirundo longipennis (Nordmann, 1835) – North-east Siberia south to north-east China (central Heilongjiang to Inner Mongolia and Shanxi); winters South-east Asia to Australia

The following features have been mentioned as those that can help differentiate an Adult Eastern Common Tern longipennis from a Common Tern hirundo:
Slightly more svelte appearance; Smaller more domed head/crown; Slightly longer wings, outer tail feathers project slightly beyond wing-tips; Bill shorter & finer, sharper, less dagger-shaped (though some variability); Bill black, some with crimson-purple at base of lower, brightening in spring; Bill has less arched culmen; Black crown has more sharply defined edges, sharper contours behind head; Dark trailing edge to secondaries on underwing; Upperparts more ash grey; White cheek stripe, esp. in front of eye; Under-parts dusted with lavender grey, isolating a white cheek stripe; Legs dark reddish brown/brown/chestnut; Call less shrill

The problem with longipennis Common Tern, also known as Eastern Common Tern, is it breeds and winters a very long way away from Saudi Arabia and is therefore an unlikely visitor. There have also been records of hirundo Common Terns with all black bills. Adult breeding longipennis should show a black bill and legs but also dusky under-parts that this bird did not show in all conditions. The bird did, however, have a modest length tail, a Common Tern like under & upper-wing pattern, as well as flight action. The bill was very obvious though and did not fit a typical hirundo Common Tern at all in my eyes being a slightly odd shape, maybe an illusion caused by the black colour, and was entirely blackish along its length. The completely black cap and neat body plumage suggested it was in adult summer plumage. There are many records from Israel of longipensis type birds where it has been regarded as an uncommon but regular migrant, The Birds of Israel (Shirahai 1996). Although the bird I saw showed some characteristics of longipennis Common Tern, it’s a far from conclusive record and is more likely a black-billed Common Tern than a true longipennis.

20 July 2012

A thin scattering of migrants - Dhahran Hills

Birding the 'patch' recently has been a bit slow but there are normally one or two good birds about to keep you on your toes. Today I saw my first returning Upcher's Warblers of the autumn with two different birds seen in the trees surrounding the percolation pond. A walk through the area in the hope of locating Egyptian Nightjar did not locate any Nightjars bur turned up the Upcher's Warblers and three Caspian Reed Warblers as well as three Clamorous Reed Warblers. European Turtle Doves were also present with a couple of adults and a juvenile bird seen indicating the species has again bred in the area, which is very good news for this globally declining species.
European Turtle Dove
Black-winged Stilt (juvenile)
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater

A few waders are slowly starting to appear with almost 100 Black-winged Stilts, five Kentish Plover, one Common Sandpiper and one Little Ringed Plover. The resident Grey Heron was still in place on one of the floating islands and the adult male Little Bittern was seen in flight across the pond. Other migrants included two Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, 10+ Barn Swallows, 10+ Sand Martins and an early Common Swift.

19 July 2012

Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Sabkhat Al Fasl is probably the best birding site in the Eastern Province and it is good at attracting shrikes of various species. The commonest shrikes here through the year are Daurian Shrike, but Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike Lanius m pallidirostris also occurs in small numbers. This year it is the first returning shrike with one at Dhahran Camp during the week and another at Sabkhat. This bird was seen very early in the morning and was very obliging which is unusual for this species. One interesting thing about this shrike is the amount of black extending over the bill area with this meant to be a feature of Southern Gry Shrike. The shrikes out here in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are very complex and need further study as much is not known about them. The pale bill and large primary patch is typical of Steppe Grey Shrike and the wing and tail pattern of the bird in flight was also typical. Most drawings of the species show young birds with pale lores, bit many birds out here are adults with dark lores. The bills on some adults can also be black, although this is rare, resembling Southern Grey shrike even more.