15 December 2012

European Nightjar in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia & Bahrain (Part 1)

The European Nightjar’s Caprimulgus europaeus global distribution lies in the Palearctic where it breeds from North Africa and Western Europe, widely across temperate regions of Eurasia as far as central Asia and western China. Geographical variation is marked with largest birds being Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus in the northern part of their range, from Scandinavia through Siberia taiga to Lake Baikal and the smallest being Caprimulgus europaeus meridionalis from North Africa, Greece & Turkey and Caprimulgus europaeus unwini from eastern Iraq & Iran to Pakistan. It should also be borne in mind that juvenile birds are distinctly smaller and paler than the adults of the same race. As the European Nightjar is a highly migratory species and birds leave temperate breeding areas to overwinter in Africa, where they are widely distributed south of the Sahara, they should pass through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia & Bahrain as they will overfly the region on their typical migration routes. The European Nightjar is an uncommon passage migrant to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, mainly seen in April to May and September to November, but due to the crepuscular nature of the species, its cryptic plumage and its secretive behaviour many more birds will pass through the region than are seen. Larger numbers are seen in the spring than the autumn although records are over a longer period in autumn than spring. A number of winter records from Arabia, mainly the United Arab Emirates, suggest the species may winter in small numbers in the south of the region, although care has to be taken to ensure birds seen are this species and not Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius which has also started to occur in winter in recent years in the region. There is one winter record from the Eastern Province of a bird found freshly dead at Khafrah Marsh on 29 January, 1999 which although not confirmed to race was assigned as a pale ‘unwini’ type (Brian Meadows pers comm). Another not particularly pale bird was found as a freshly dead road casualty on 3 March, 2000 near Qatif, which may have overwintered or possibly more likely was an early migrant as The Birds of Israel (Shirihai 1996) mentions an early vanguard in March while Birds of UAE (Richardson l990) indicates early migrants occur before the main April-May passage.

The European Nightjar is polytypic with six sub-species described (see below) and much of the geographical variation in plumage and colouration clinal in nature often making it very difficult to identify to race in the field. Typical individuals, should generally be identifiable by size, general colour and extent of white on outer primaries of adult males. Although it is sometimes difficult to identify individual birds to race, two distinct types occur; a larger, darker, well vermiculated type C. e. europaeus possibly including C. e. meridionalis and a smaller, paler, greyer or sandier, less vermiculated type C. e. unwini & Caprimulgus europaeus sarudnyi. Birds seen at the start of the main migration periods are normally the first type whilst later birds can be from either group. It is also worth looking out for the sandy coloured and Egyptian Nightjar like Caprimulgus europaeus plumipes, which has not been recorded in Saudi Arabia but which should occur in our region, with these birds being fairly distinct. If a female or first year male of this race is seen, without white spots on the primaries, and good views are not obtained then this subspecies could easily be overlooked.

European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus Hickling Broad, Norfolk, England – 26th August 2010 by Pete Morris and used with kind permission

European Nightjar, Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus Bahrain, spring 2012 used with kind permission of Brendan Kavanagh

European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus (slightly greyer bird) Dhahran, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia – 22nd April 2011

European Nightjar Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus (slightly greyer bird) Dammam Seafront, Eastern Province, Saudi Arabia – 21st September 2009 by Bob Roberts and used with kind permission

European Nightjar, pale individual Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus (greyer eastern bird) Emirates Palace Hotel grounds, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. 27th November 2010 by Huw Roberts and used with kind permission

Caprimulgus europaeus europaeus (Linnaeus, 1758): Breeds in north & central Europe eastwards through north-central Asia (mainly south of c. 60° N) to the Lake Baikal region and winters in east and southern Africa. Large dark, sometimes grey toned nightjar being the largest and darkest of all the subspecies. They leave their breeding grounds in late July to November (mainly late August to October) with western populations moving south on a broad front through the Middle East (mid-August to early December) and winter mainly in east & south Africa. In spring, returning birds move north or north-east between March & June, generally returning to their breeding grounds in April & May. The darkest and largest race with the general colour of upper parts being dark-brown with black strips that are broad and brown bordered although the plumage colour gets greyer to the east of their range and birds also get smaller in size southwards. They are the most vermiculated and have the most restricted white spots in the wing of male birds of all the subspecies occurring. Males have a white spot on the inner web of P10 which is rounded and doesn’t extend or barely touches the shaft, whereas on P9 the white spot doesn’t pass or barely passes onto the outer web. Females have a buffy spot on inner webs of P10-9 which barely differs from the remaining spots. The British European Nightjar, top photograph above, is markedly dull brownish above & smaller than typical large Scandinavian birds. This type is unlikely to occur in Eastern Saudi Arabia as they migrate from Britain southwards to southern Africa and should not pass through the region.