31 October 2012

Two first calendar year Greater Spotted Eagles – Dhahran Hills

As soon as I got back from Abha, after our family holiday there, I went to the percolation pond to see what I had been missing in the previous four days. As soon as I got there I could see two large birds of prey sitting in the trees at the edge of the pond. As I was walking I thought it would be better to get back in my car and drive closer to see if I could identify them and get some photos. Although the sun was in the wrong direction for good views I could see they were both first calendar year Greater Spotted Eagles and needed to get the other side of the birds to be able to get any chance of a decent photo. Luckily the birds remained in their place as I drove past and turned the car around and was able to get a few photos before a mountain biker scared the birds off. I was then able to see them fly off and land in the trees at the edge of the spray fields. Although I have seen Greater Spotted Eagle a number of times in Dhahran, this is the first time I have seen two birds together and also the first time I have managed to get close enough to get any decent photographs of the birds.

The Greater Spotted Eagle is an uncommon passage migrant and winter visitor to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with a few summer records. Most birds that occur in the region are seen on passage from late September until November and from late February until late April. Winter records from December to February are generally on the littoral with birds seen mainly around lowland man-made lakes and sewage farms as well as central pivot irrigation fields. Prime locations for seeing the species are Sabkhat Al Fasl, Jubail green belt zone, Khafrah Marsh, Jubail sanitary landfill site, Qatif sanitary landfill site and Dhahran Saudi Aramco compound. The wintering population has been increasing in recent years with a minimum of 6 – 8 birds in the mid 2000’s but by 2011 this number had increased to 15 – 20 with a ratio of adults to young birds of about 20% adults to 80% youngsters and the maximum number of birds seen in a single day being thirteen on 9th February 2012 at Sabkhat Al Fasl.

30 October 2012

Hamadryas Baboon - Baha

The Hamadryas Baboon Papio hamadryas is the northernmost of all the baboons and is distinguished from other baboons by the male’s long, silver-grey shoulder cape (mane and mantle), and the pink or red rather than black face and rump. They are large monkeys with a dog-like face, pronounced brow ridges, relatively long limbs with short digits, rather coarse fur, and a relatively short tail. The male is considerably larger than the female, often twice as large, and has a heavy silvery-grey coat, bushy cheeks, and large canine teeth whilst the juvenile and females are brown, with dark brown skin on the face and rump. Males may have a body measurement of up to 80 cm and weigh 20–30 kg; females weigh 10–15 kg and have a body length of 40–45 cm.  The tail adds a further 40–60 cm to the length, and ends in a small tuft. They occur from north-eastern Africa, mainly in Ethiopia, but also eastern Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and northern Somalia as well as the Arabian Peninsula, in Saudi Arabia and Yemen where it is the only native non-human primate. In Saudi Arabia they inhabit arid sub-desert, steppe, hilly areas, escarpments at elevations of up to 3,000 metres requiring cliffs for sleeping and finding water. They are primarily terrestrial, but will sleep in trees or on cliffs at night. An opportunistic feeder, it will take a wide variety of foods, including grass, fruit, roots and tubers, seeds, leaves, buds and insects. The female usually gives birth to a single young with the new-born having black fur and pink skin, and is suckled for up to 15 months. Each adult male controls a small group of females (a harem) and their young, and remains bonded with the same females over several years, aggressively ‘herding’ any that wander, and retaining exclusive mating rights over the group. The females will often compete to groom and stay close to the male, and it is the male who dictates the group’s movements. The Hamadryas Baboon is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Recent studies have suggested that the population of Hamadryas Baboons in Arabia colonised the peninsula much longer ago than previously thought, and shows a considerable amount of genetic variation compared to the African population.

29 October 2012

Southern Grey Shrike - Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding the ‘patch’ last week I found a Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis in the bushes at one end of the spray fields. This is a favoured spot for shrikes to rest and hunt from and I was able to get quite close using the car as a hide (blind). The Grey shrikes in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are very confusing and there is often healthy debate between the birders of the region over what species, and subspecies, individual birds are. Based on morphological and ecological characteristics and geographical distributions, several authors have divided the Great Grey Shrike species into two subspecies groups, a northern and a southern one with most recent authors going a step further and treating these subspecies groups as two polytypic species; Great Grey Shrike Lanius excubitor and Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis. This is based on alleged sympatry between the northern and southern groups in two areas without any evidence of interbreeding, in combination with differences in morphology and ecology. Intergrades between two Southern Grey Shrike subspecies that occur in Saudi Arabia, aucheri (mainly eastern areas) and elegans (extreme west), have been reported from areas where they occur in close proximity, such as south-west Israel, eastern Egypt and north-east Sudan indicating the possibility of gene flow between them. These hybrids are likely in western Saudi Arabia as well as the range overlaps here. Mauryan Grey Shrike (Steppe Grey Shrike) pallidirostris occurs regularly in the region as a fairly common migrant and winter visitor, with peak migration in mid-March and September to October. This complicates matters with Southern Grey Shrikes further as interbreeding occurs freely between pallidirostris and the locally breeding Southern Grey Shrike subspecies aucheri with an intermediate population occurring in north-east Iran. These birds could quite easily occur in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia as well. As you can see from the above the picture is far from clear and some ringing data would be very valuable on these birds.

28 October 2012

Crested Lark reacting to threat - Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding at the spray fields I saw this Crested Lark fly in very close to me acting in a very agitated maner. First it stood upright and looked around nervoulsy and then it saw something that it did not like and crouched down low to avoid what I suspected was a treat to the bird. When looking around to see what was the issue I saw a Western Opsrey flying over heading towards the percolation pond and its favoutie perch of the dead tree nearby. This was a great example of how many species of bird react to treats to them to lessen the cance of being predated.

27 October 2012

Indian Silverbill flock – Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding the local ‘patch’ I found a small flock of nine Indian Silverbills feeding on some grasses growing next to a small ditch near to the abandoned spray fields. The birds were initially located by their distinctive calls. They were associating with a small group of House Sparrows but after a while the House Sparrows left and only the Indian Silverbills remained. This is one of the largest groups of birds I have seen with the majority of sightings being pairs, or up to four birds, often flying over but occasionally perched in small bushes or trees. I have seen them in every month of the year excepting December and February. There has been some debate as to whether this species was originally from escaped cage birds or occurred naturally.

Birds were first noted in Dhahran in 1974 when up to 15 were seen occasionally with House Sparrows during April to December. These birds were considered as escapes as many were for sale in nearby Al-Khobar at the time. This may have in fact been the start of colonization of this species in the Eastern Province? A pair and another party of four were seen at the Dammam sewage works 23rd May 1980 which appeared wild. Numbers then started increasing with four at Dhahran 19th September until 18th October 1981 and six reappearing at the same site during January 1982. Twelve birds were present in an area of neglected cultivation on the outskirts of Dammam in July & August 1984 when a few were also seen in Dhahran. By 1988 small flocks of about ten birds had established themselves at a number of locations within the Saudi Aramco camp but breeding had not been established.  By the end of the 20th centuary breeding birds had been noted in many places in the Eastern Province with nest building recorded in every month of the year. Since this date small groups of birds are still to be found in the Saudi Aramco camp where they appear to be resident with groups occurring in the autumn presumably after breeding has occurred.

26 October 2012

Arabian Red Fox - Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding a few days ago I saw an Arabian Red Fox Vulpes vulpes arabica just before it was getting dark. It was seen in the scrubby desert near to the percolation pond, an area where I have seen animals many times before. Although they are not scarce in the area, they are seldom seen and very rarely allow close approach. When I saw my first one just after arriving in Saudi Arabia I mistakenly thought it was a Ruppell’s Sand Fox due to the size, large ears and colour but was informed that as the animal had a black blaze down its chest it was an Arabian Red Fox. Since then I have only seen the same type of animals and have not recorded Ruppell’s Sand Fox.

The Arabian Red Fox Vulpes vulpes arabica is a subspecies of the Red Fox and is native to Arabia and adapted to life in the desert. It inhabits virtually every environment in Arabia from cities along the coast to desert and mountains. It is the most common of the three fox species found in the Arabian Peninsula, and is one of forty-six subspecies of Red Fox which are distributed throughout the world, particularly the Northern hemisphere. The Arabian Red Fox is small in stature (2.7 – 4.5 kg), has a pale coloured coat, and large ears and is well suited to the desert climate. It is small in size as it doesn’t require such a large body mass to maintain its body heat. It has fur between its toes to prevent it burning its feet on the hot sand. They lack the dense fur of the European subspecies and thus appear to have thin bodies and long legs, but proportionally they are the same, with the exception of the Arabian Red Foxes large ears which are used to maintain the animal’s body temperature as well as allow for excellent hearing. Colouration suits the habitat the fox is found in being pale sandy coloured in the pale sandy desert areas. Its food usually consists of rodents, birds, fish, carrion and some vegetation. Animals are most active at night and can be most often seen at dawn and dusk.

25 October 2012

Isabelline Wheatear - Dhahran Hills

Temperatures are finally starting to drop and the weather is becoming a little cloudy but things are far from cool at 33 degrees Celsius at 16:30 hrs. Today I did my normal routine of looking first at the wet drainage ditch and the settling pond on the way to the spray fields. I then park the car and walk around the edge of the spray fields, through some scrubby desert and around the back of the percolation pond. Then check the pond itself from the path in front of the pond and back through the spray fields to the car. Daylight is becoming short now and it is dark by 17:30 hrs and I am not back from work and out birding until 16:20 hrs at the earliest so not much time for birding. It is still better to spend an hour birding than not at all as you never know what you may find in Dhahran. A few good birds are still around with a female Western Marsh Harrier allowing close approach whilst sitting on the ground in the late evening being a nice sight and a Common Kestrel flying over the spray fields being the only other bird of prey seen. The biggest increase in number of birds has been the steady rise in numbers of White Wagtails which are arriving for the winter and 16 birds seen feeding along the edge of the settling pond being an indication of how many are now in the area. The only waders seen were four Wood Sandpipers, ten Common Snipe and a Pin-tailed Snipe on the settling pond.  Pin-tailed Snipe is a vagrant to the Eastern province with only eight records but they are regular in nearby Bahrain according to Howard King who has lived there for many years. I suspect they are probably regular in the Eastern Province to as I have seen five different birds but getting good enough views to identify them is often tricky. There were five Mallards, four males and a female on the percolation pond along with a Squacco Heron and the Great Crested Grebe. Two Daurian Shrikes were hunting from an exposed bush near to the spray fields, an Isabelline Wheatear was also in the same area and 50+ Barn Swallows were hunting insects over the settling pond and percolation pond. A few groups of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters are still passing over and a single European Bee-eater was with them. The only other bird of note was a single male Desert Wheatear which is my first returning bird of the autumn/winter.
Isabelline Wheatear

24 October 2012

Plenty of Clamorous Reed Warblers - Alba Marsh (Bahrain)

Nicole and I went ringing again at Alba Marsh on Friday morning. A very early start from Saudi Arabia to get across the causeway and to the Alba Marsh site in Bahrain by first light was undertaken and after setting the nets it became apparent there were a few ore birds about than the previous week. As it turned out we caught a few more birds also, but almost all of them were Clamorous Reed Warblers with four re-traps from 2011 or 2012 amongst them all from the same site. I like Clamorous Reed Warblers more than almost any bird we catch and it was good to catch so many in a single session with the final total being nine birds. We also caught a single Graceful Prinia, one Red-Backed Shrike (which was a new ringing species for me) and the first returning Common Chiffchaff of the year. A few birds were seen but not caught including two Purple Herons, two Eastern Marsh Harriers and lots of waders mainly Little Stint, Common Greenshank and Common Redshank. We met a local hunter who had killed a Eurasian Teal and had a beautiful juvenile Gyr Falcon in his car which he said he was training to hunt. We also met Howard King, a birder from Bahrain who has lived and bird-watched the country for 28 years along with John Watson a visiting birder who may come ringing with us in early November as a helper. It will be great if John can come and help as we are a very small team at the moment and would welcome some support.
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Red-backed Shrike - juvenile

23 October 2012

Some birds from early 2009 - By Bob Roberts

Here are a few photographs I have just been sent by Bob Roberts of some birds he took in spring 2009 and which he kindly gave me permission to use. They were taken are the Dammam – Al Khobar Wader Roost and show two Black-tailed Godwits, taken on the 6th March 2009, which are an uncommon passage migrant and winter visitor to the coast and inland pools. The next photograph shows an adult Black Tailed Godwit, male in breeding plumage, which appears to have a damaged wing, hence it has overstayed when most Godwits had already departed, Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, 16th April 2009. Little Stint is a very common passage migrant and winter visitor to the coast with thousands seen on occasions. In the spring and autumn many birds are seen in full breeding plumage such as the bird shown here. This photograph was taken on 16th April 2009.
Black-tailed Godwit - adult summer plumage
Black-tailed Godwit
Little Stint

European Spoonbill was a rare bird to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia twenty years ago but now it is scarce visitor which can be seen at any time of year although early autumn is the best time to see the species when most birds seen are juveniles. This photograph was taken at Dammam Port Mangroves on 9th January 2009. Socotra Cormorant is a very common breeding resident to the area with thousands occasionally seen flying in large groups out at sea.

Eurasian Spoonbill

Eurasian Spoonbill

Grebes are not common in Saudi Arabia with the exception of Little Grebe. Bob took the photograph of the Black-necked Grebe at a lagoon that had been formed on the reclaimed land at the side of the Dammam – Al Khobar Wader Roost. Although it is a regular winter visitor to the Eastern Province I have so far failed to see any birds. The Great Crested Grebe photographs were taken at Dammam Seafront and again this is a bird that is uncommon and restricted in the number of sites where it occurs both birds were seen on 9th January 2009.

Black-necked Grebe
Great Crested Grebe
Socotra Cormorant

22 October 2012

Temminck's Stint - Dhahran Hills

Birding the local 'patch' this week has again produced a few good birds. As with previous weeks birds are thin on the ground but each day has produced something of note. Probably the best bird was a Greater Spotted Eagle which flew out of a tree at the edge of the percolation pond and disappeared from view, at the time unidentified. On walking around the pond Phil and I decided to look at the back of the site where there are a couple of large trees which birds of prey sometimes sit in or on the rough ground nearby. Luckily for us the bird was in the tallest tree and it could be identified as a first calendar year Greater Spotted Eagle, the first one I have seen this autumn. Phil saw one at Sabkhat Al Fasl a couple of weekends ago and another bird was found tangled in rope at a mine near Jubail almost a month ago so birds are on there way back to spend the winter in the Eastern Province which is very good news. Other interesting birds included an unidentified acrocephalus warbler that looked like a Basra Reed Warbler but did not have very white underparts and the eye ring was not as clear as I would have expected so has been left unidentified. Good numbers of Barn Swallows are still passing through and a few groups of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. A female Eastern Marsh Harrier was over the pond and 30 Western Cattle Egrets are roosting in the reeds of the pond. Waders seen included a Temminck's Stint, five Wood Sandpipers, three Green Sandpipers and a Common Sandpiper on the settling pond and a Common Snipe in the drainage ditch. Yellow Wagtails are roosting in the reeds of the pond with 20+ birds seen each evening and four purple Herons flew over on night. The Great Crested Grebe is still in residence and 50+ Northern Shoveler were also on the pond on morning.
Temminck's Stint
Temminck's Stint

21 October 2012

Lesser Crested Tern – Ringing Recovery

We have just received details of another ringing recovery of a Lesser Crested tern from Bahrain. This recorded fits in nicely with the other tern ringing recoveries we have had, where birds tend to move to India in an east-south-east direction, with one going all the way to Sri Lanka. We have had six ringing recoveries from the terns we have ringed with the following numbers of birds ringed on Al Jarim Island south and middle.

White-cheeked Tern – 674
Bridled Tern – 1173
Lesser Crested Tern - 3845
As we have ringed so many Lesser Crested Terns it is not surprising that four of the six recoveries have been on this species with two Bridled Terns also recovered. Full details of all these ringing recoveries can be found under the ringing tab at the top of the website.

Lesser Crested Tern
Ring Number: DE64753
Ringing date: 22-Jun-2012
Ringing Place: Al Jarim Island South, Bahrain, Bahrain & Qatar (Co-ords: 26deg 23min N 50deg 28min E) 
Age: Pullus
Ringer: B Kavanagh, 4736
Finding date: 10-September-2012
Finding Place: Golvad, Maharastra, India (Co-ords: 20deg 5min N  72deg 43min E) 
Finding Condition: Dead – tideline corpse
Duration: 80 days
Distance: 2376 km
Direction: 108 deg (ESE)
Finder: Divyesh Desai, 401702, India

20 October 2012

Ringing at Alba Marsh - Bahrain

Nicole and I went ringing again at Alba Marsh on Friday Morning leaving Dhahran at 04:30 hrs to get to Alba for first light. It is proving to be a good time to go as the causeway to Bahrain is quiet at this time and when we come back at around 11:00 hrs it is also not very busy. This makes life a lot more pleasant than getting stuck in the traffic as I often did when coming back in the evening. Nicole is going to be buying some new nets but in the meantime we are using the four nets Brendan left behind for us when he went back to Ireland. We set all four nets in similar places to last weekend with one positioned changed to a location where we used to have it at the start of the year. Our normal two nets caught all the birds this time and numbers were down compared to the last two trips with only six birds trapped and ringed. Two were recaptures, both ringed at the same site previously, with one a Graceful Prinia from 26th August 2011, which was my first Graceful Prinia ringed and so I was happy to see it still doing well. The other was a re-trapped Savi’s Warbler, which we caught last week in the same place. We also ringed two Clamorous Reed Warblers, Great Reed Warbler and an immature male Little Bittern. The Little Bittern is only the third one we have caught at the site so was a good bird for us.

Little Bittern
Little Bittern
Little Bittern
Graceful Prinia
Graceful Prinia
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler