30 September 2012

Raghadan Forest - Baha

Raghadan Forest covers an area of 600,000 square meters in Al-Baha Province and is one of more than forty reserved zones called (Hema) which is a traditional sustainable recourse management system. Tribal people live in this region and traditionally every tribe have their own (Hema) or reserved zone. The reserve is well signposted with brown tourist signs and is quite popular with the local people for picnics. Although it is quite disturbed the area is still very good for birds and is the most wooded area in Baha that we found. Hamadryas Baboons also occur in the area but guards with sticks keep them away from the general public.  There are a few wadis nearby that are less disturbed and a number of regional endemics have been seen in them including Yemen Thrush, Arabian Wheatear, Arabian Serin, Yemen Serin and Arabian Waxbill. As I was with the family we went to the main reserve area and as a result, out of the regional endemics, I only saw Arabian Wheatear at this site but plenty of other good birds were seen. Twenty Yellow Wagtails mainly Syke’s Wagtail were feeding around on the grass roadside fringes and Spotted Flycatcher and Ortolan Bunting were feeding amongst the trees. A single Dusky Turtle Dove was flushed from cover and gave reasonable views as it flew and landed some distance away. Striolated Bunting was seen on the rocky ground at the top of the reserve and Little Rock Thrish, Arabian Wheatear and Isabelline Wheatear were also in the same area. Common Redstart and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler were plentiful in the taller trees and Fan-tailed Raven was even more common with up to fifty in the air together. Red-backed Shrikes, Woodchat Shrikes and Masked Shrikes were also near the top along with Palestinian Sunbird and a small flock of Crested Larks of a different subspecies to the one that is present in the Eastern Province. Other birds of interest were Spectacled Bulbul and Siberian Stonechat.
Arabian Wheatear - male
Crested Lark
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler
Masked Shrike
Northern Wheatear
Red-backed Shrike
Sykes's Yellow Wagtail
White-spectacled Bulbul


29 September 2012

Golden Tulip Hotel Valley - Baha

Baha is in the highlands of south-west Saudi Arabia and is about 225 kilometres north of Abha in the Asir Mountains. The Asir Mountains and the highlands of southern and western Yemen are designated as an endemic bird area and are located inland and east of the Red Sea, and are a north-south running escarpment and high plateau which is the highest land in the Arabian Peninsula, tilting from west to east. The mountains are composed mainly of limestones, sandstones and shale and overlie a basement of granitic rocks. The rugged mountainous landscape contains several peaks over 2,500 metres within Saudi Arabia. In the west, a steep escarpment drops to the Tihamah plain on the Red Sea coast. To the east is a high plateau, with the mountains then sloping more gently to the inner desert and sands of the Rub’al-Khali (Empty Quarter). This region together with the Tihamah plain is home to the majority of southwest Arabian endemic bird species. The montane juniper woodlands are vital habitat for these birds, such as the Yemen Linet (Carduelis yemenensis), Yemen Thrush (Turdus menachensis) and Yemen Warbler (Parisoma buryi) as they are dependent on juniper berries as a food source and juniper trees for nesting. Although very few birders bird-watch in Saudi Arabia, almost all who do go to the south-west in search of the ten endemics to be found in Saudi Arabia.
Philby’s Partridge (Alectoris philbyi)
Arabian Partridge (Alectoris melanocephala)
Arabian Woodpecker (Dendrocopos dorae)
Yemen Warbler (Parisoma buryi)
Yemen Thrush (Turdus menachensis)
Arabian Wheatear (Oenanthe lugentoides)
Arabian Waxbill (Estrilda rubibarba)
Arabian Serin (Serinus rothschildi)
Yemen Serin (Serinus menachensis)
Yemen Linnet (Carduelis yemenensis)

Only one regional south-west Arabian endemic is not found in Saudi Arabia, the Yemen Accentor. Most of the birders who have been to the south-west usually go to Abha for land birds. A few birders have birded Baha and all the endemics have be found in the area previously. As last weekend was a long weekend, due to Saudi Arabia National day I chose to travel to Baha with the family to see what was there which allowed me to do some birding in the area. We flew from Dammam Airport to Baha by direct flight arriving in Baha at 13:00 hrs. I then hired a car from the airport and drove to the Golden Tulip Resort on the edge of town, which was chosen as it is situated in a good birding area on one of the highest points in the city with a 300 metre drop directly behind it.  A wide, lightly forested wadi descends from beside the hotel (200 metres left of the hotel as you come out of the hotel entrance) starting at 2,100 metres and descends into the city, passing some cultivated land on the way. Six Arabian endemics have been seen in this wadi all within walking distance of the hotel, with many other good birds also in the vicinity. I bird-watched this area on the first and second afternoons as well as the third morning getting to the site before it was light. Even though I spent quite a bit of time birding the area I was not as successful as others in locating the endemics and I only managed to find Yemen Thrush and Arabian Wheatear but I did find many restricted range species for Saudi Arabia in the area as well as large numbers of migrants. Four Yemen Thrush were located flying around the trees in one small wooded area and gave quite good views perched in the trees. Normal views were brief flight views as they flew across open areas in the trees or jumped being scrub when feeding on the ground. Arabian Wheatear was very common and was located in almost all rocky areas with scrub. Many females were seen but also a number of smart males with birds regularly seen behind the hotel where the Hamadryas Baboons gather. The other endemics that have been seen in the wadi that I did not find are Yemen Linnet, which has been seen in small flocks in a number of locations, Arabian Partridge and Philby’s Partridge have been seen at the top of the wadi near the hotel and Arabian Woodpecker has been seen on the dead trees in the wadi itself. I am not certain I birded the same location as the birder who saw these species, as information on the exact location was not available to me, but I was certainly in the same vicinity. Either the timing of my visit was not perfect as many of these birds were seen in spring or I was unlucky with the endemics. Either way I was very happy birding this area as the number of birds and species was amazing compared to what I am used to seeing in the Eastern Province. I am also going to Abha in a months-time and am hoping to add a few more regional endemics to my list there.
Arabian Wheatear - male

 The top end of the valley is right behind the Golden Tulip Hotel and has a steep valley dropping sharply hundreds of metres below. You cannot go down this valley as it is too steep but you can see a few trees and juniper bushes. The area is excellent for Fan-tailed Raven which is very common in the sky and perched on the steep scree slopes and I also saw two Brown-necked Ravens with them. Swifts, Martins and Swallows were numerous in the area with Little Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Barn Swallow, African Rock Martin, Sand Martin and Common Swift all seen in good numbers. As mentioned Arabian Wheatear is common here and other species seen included one Little Rock Thrush, one Scrub Warbler, fifteen Tristram’s Starlings and one Southern Grey Shrike that appeared to be of the subspecies Lanius m buryi which looks very different to the birds seen in the Eastern Province with much darker mantle and less white in the wing (scapulars) but still with white outer two tail feathers. This subspecies is only meant to occur in Yemen so the bird may have been a very dark Lanius m aucheri. Yellow Wagtails were common and three Isabelline Wheatear and two Red-breasted Wheatears were also seen along with two Gambaga Flycatchers. Care needs to be exercised here as hundreds of Hamadrya Baboons are present in the area and although not over aggressive to people they could attack if surprised or frightened. 

Fan-tailed Raven
Tristram's Starling

The middle valley is more wooded with small areas of trees and scrub. It was full of birds when I was there but of a very different variety that when other birders have birded the area. One of the first birds I saw was a small feeding group of Abyssinian White-eye and this was closely followed by a really smart Brown Woodland Warbler and a couple of Arabian Warblers. I then saw an amazing sight of 250 – 300 Alpine Swifts together in the air, none of which were present the next day so were presumably migrants. Four Yemen Thrushes, two smamamisicus Common Redstarts and four female Ruppell’s Weavers mainly associating with House Sparrow which again look like a different subspecies to those we see in the Eastern Province being much darker and less sandy coloured. Shrikes were about in large numbers with Masked Shrikes, Red-backed Shrikes, Woodchat Shrike and Daurian Shrikes all around in good numbers. The only Pipit I saw all trip was also in this area feeding on the stony barren area of the valley and it turned out to be a Long-billed Pipit. White-spectacled Bulbuls were present in small numbers with Laughing Doves around in larger numbers. European Bee-eaters were only seen in ones and twos on the first afternoon birding the valley but the second afternoon and third morning hundreds of birds were flying around catching bees from some broken bee hives, making a very impressive sight. One or two Ortolan Buntings were seen feeding around the stony areas and Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, European Blackcap and Spotted Flycatcher were also seen in good numbers in the trees and scrub. Common Kestrel was the only bird of prey I saw with the exception of a Steppe Eagle near the airport on arrival in Baha. Three Eurasian Hoopoes were seen in flight and a single male Eurasian Golden Oriole flew over. A Wryneck was seen feeding on the ground and crawling around a wall in a building plot where a few  Siberian Stonechats as well as what appeared to be a few African Stonechats were also located. 
Alpine Swift

Red-backed Shrike - juvenile
Red-backed Shrike - juvenile

The allotment and cultivated areas further down the valley held Ortolan Buntings in large groups of up to fifty birds in several areas. Three Tristram’s Starlings were seen on top of a building under construction and two Graceful Prinias were in the scrub nearby. Small groups of Tree Pipits were seen feeding in the allotment areas and a single Yemen Thrush flew past behind one of the allotments in the trees behind. This is the area I was expecting, or hoping, to see Yemen Linnet but with no luck. Again plenty of Red-backed Shrikes and a few Daurian Shrikes were in the area.

Ortolan Bunting
Tree Pipit

28 September 2012

Spotted Crake - Dhahran Hills

I went to the percolation pond yesterday evening as Phil had seen a Spur-winged Plover flying over the pond in the morning whilst I was at Sabkhat Al Fasl birding. This is only the six record for the Eastern Province but the third from the same pond with the last record and adult I saw in August 2012. The species may be coming more common as three records have occurred at this site in two years. I stopped at the drainage ditch on the way to the pond and saw Green Sandpiper, two Little Stints and three Temminck's Stints as well as the first year Citrine Wagtail. The wet flash at the end of the drainage ditch had a very nice surprise in the shape of a Spotted Crake feeding along the edge and a Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail was also in the same area. The pond had two Purple Herons (adult & juvenile) and two Cattle Egrets as well as two Spotted Flycatchers in the bushes and three Clamorous Reed Warblers in the reeds. The Great Crested Grebe was still present out in the middle of the pond and four Black-winged Stilts flew over.

Citrine Wagtail - first year
Spotted Crake
Black-headed (Yellow) Wagtail
Green Sandpiper
Purple Heron

27 September 2012

Arabian Spiny-tailed Lizard - Dhahran Hills

I am just back from a trip to Baha in the Asir Mountains in south-west Saudi Arabia where I went for a family break. I did manage to do a little bit of birding and saw a few good birds whilst there. Migration was much more evident on the west coast than it is on the east coast and the number of birds seen was impressive compared to what I am used to. I will post details of what I saw when I have time to sort through the photos and make some notes. I was away for three days and was glad to be back on the patch and was even more pleased to see that a few more migrants were about than was the case when I left. I also saw my first Arabian Spiny-tailed Lizard since the spring at one of the favourite burrows of the species by the edge of the percolation pond.

Arabian Spiny-tailed Lizard

26 September 2012

Basra Reed Warbler - Dhahran Hills

The first day back on the ‘patch’, after my three day trip to Baha in the south-west of Saudi Arabia, proved to be very successful. Basra Reed Warbler has been described as being regular in September in Dhahran with up to four being seen, mainly in Phragmites reeds and around small ponds. I have failed to see the species so far anywhere in Saudi Arabia and was expecting to locate it in both Dhahran and Sabkhat Al Fasl. On Monday evening I found one in a small clump of Phagmites in one corner of the spray fields which gave very good views allowing me to positively identify the species. Luckily for me a Great Reed Warbler was also very close by in the spray fields itself and allowed a comparison. Basra Reed Warbler certainly looks fairly distinct from both Clamorous and Great Reed Warbler as well as Reed Warbler and I do not think I have overlooked it, although it is of course a possibility, suggesting the species is not common in our area. The area near the spray fields also had three Greater Short-toed Larks feeding along the stony edge but they never really allowed close approach. They are the first birds I have seen in the area since March and are also the first autumn records of the species I have recorded in Dhahran so were a nice find.

Greater Short-toed Lark

 The percolation pond had four species of heron, one adult Purple Heron hiding in the reeds, one Grey Heron on the floating pontoon, five Western Cattle Egrets around the edge of the pond and three Black-crowned Night Herons in a tree at the edge of the pond, including two juveniles and an adult. This is the first time I have seen Black-crowned Night Heron at the pond since September and October last year. Otherwise the pond was fairly quiet with the exception of a couple of Clamorous Reed Warblers and a Spotted Flycatcher in the reeds around the pond.

Black-crowned Night Heron - juvenile

The scrubby desert area had a single Steppe Grey Shrike and not much else as far as I could see. The drainage ditch still had a few waders but the numbers have dropped considerably with only two Temminck’s Stints and two Green Sandpipers present. A juvenile Citrine Wagtail was also present in the ditch giving very good views.

Citrine Wagtail - first year

Temmink's Stint - juvenile

Green Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper

25 September 2012

(Blyth’s) Reed Warblers - Ringing at Alba Marshes (Bahrain)

Nicole went on a net round when we were at Alba Marsh and came back with three birds. She handed me one and I took it out of the bag to be confronted with a small bird superficially looking like a Chiffchaff but with a different shaped bill and different colour. It was obviously a Reed Warbler type but was very small and Nicole said she had another one in one of the other bags. I suspected it may be a Blyth's Reed Warbler so we checked Svensson to see the wing formula and wing length of Blyth’s Reed Warbler both of which fitted (wing length 60mm). We then checked all the other formulas for Blyth’s Reed Warbler with again all fitting the species. The second bird Nicole had was also another Blyth’s Reed Warbler type and I could remember Brendan had ringed one before in Bahrain but I am uncertain where it was caught but it was on 13th August 2007. Blyth’s Reed Warbler is a vagrant to Bahrain and has only been recorded a few times so to catch two together would be unprecedented. Both birds are shown in the photographs with the top three showing one bird and the bottom four showing the second bird. As there were two birds both Nicole and I ringed one.
These birds now appear to be very small Reed Warblers as Yoav Perlman from Israel said to me pers comm that they sometimes catch Reed Warblers there with wings less than 60mm (females) and some down to 58mm. This is not mentioned in any of the ringing books but is a valuable piece of information for me ringing in a similar area to Israel. Yoav also mentioned that the birds have very deep notches, very rounded wings and very short primary projections and it is only the emargination on P4 or not that separates them on wing formula from Blyth's Reed Warbler. Our birds did not have emiginations on P4. I would like to thank Yoav very much for this information and helping me with the identification of these birds

24 September 2012

Common Kingfisher - Ringing at Alba Marshes (Bahrain)

As mentioned in a previous post Nicole and I went to Alba Marsh at the weekend ringing without Brendan for the first time since he left to return home to Ireland. The first two birds we caught were two male Kingfishers (dark lower mandibles) which must have been chasing each other and ended up in the net. We had seen two birds whilst setting up the nets and assumed the two we caught to be these birds. This may not have been the case however as we later caught two more birds one of which was a female (red base to lower mandible). This was a new ringing species for me and I had only seen one bird previously at the site so it was a welcome catch. Nicole had ringed Common Kingfisher before in Turkey but it was a new site ringing bird for her as well. One comical thing about Common Kingfisher is when you come to weigh them if you place them on their backs they stay on the scales without flying off.


23 September 2012

Western Marsh Harriers – Dhahran Hills

Western Marsh Harrier is an uncommon passage migrant and winter visitor to the coastal zone from late August through to May. It is almost always seen where Phragmites reed-beds are plentiful although is often seen over mangroves in Taraut Bay as well. Winter birds have been seen inland at Abqaiq, Hofuf and Al Asfar Lake near Al Hasa with passage birds seen at Haradh and Jawb an isolated camp on the edge of the Rub’ al-Khali desert (Empty Quarter). The premier site for the species is Sabkhat Al Fasl, Jubail, where up to twenty birds can be seen on a single visit in the winter. Two birds were over the percolation pond yesterday quartering the Phragmites reed beds for about ten minutes before flying off. These birds are almost certainly newly arrived migrants as the weather was conducive for migrants to arrive with strong winds and quite a lot of dust in the air. Western Marsh Harrier is an uncommon visitor to Dhahran Saudi Aramco camp with records only during peak migration periods of late February to April and mid-September to October. Birds sometimes stay for a few days and roost in the reed-beds or the spray fields.

22 September 2012

Temminck's Stint - Dhahran Hills

Temminck’s Stint is an uncommon passage migrant and winter visitor to the Eastern Province and is normally seen away from the coast on small wetlands and pools. It occurs from April to May and again from September to November on passage but quite a few birds started wintering in the area from 1981 with records from every month at some sites such as Abqaiq lagoons with up to seven birds wintering at the site and Sabkhat Al Fasl where a few birds winter each year with additional birds seen on migration. Records from Dhahran Saudi Aramco camp ‘patch’ are also uncommon with records of up to two birds from September until November and a single record of a single bird in January. Most of these birds are seen on the percolation pond but the record from 15th September 2012 was from the wet drainage ditch leading to the abandoned spray fields. This bird was a juvenile in fresh plumage and allowed very close views and good comparison with a nearby Little Stint. As can be seen from one of the photographs below Temminck’s Stint is slightly smaller than Little Stint, although measurements do overlap.