09 January 2013

2nd Calendar Year Common Gull – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst birding Sabkhat Al Fasl on Thursday morning I came across a very large flock of Large White-headed Gulls (LWHG), comprising up to 1000 birds, sitting and resting on the wet mud in one of the concrete bunded areas of the site. The flock also consisted on many hundreds of Black-headed Gulls and as I have always been interested in Gulls I stopped and got the telescope out to check to see what was present. I was hoping to find to Baltic Gull or even better a Mediterranean Gull in amongst the large number of gulls but failed on both counts. Most of the LWHG were Steppe Gulls (85%) and Heuglin’s Gulls (10%) with Caspian Gull (5%) making up the remainder of birds. Almost at the end of the flock and right at the very back was a single second calendar year (first winter) Common Gull which is the first time I have seen the species in Saudi Arabia. This species is regarded as a vagrant to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with the following records documented.
15th January 1975, Near Al Khobar
5th November 1976, Al-Uqayr
28th January 1978, Near Al Khobar
7th February 1982, Half Moon Bay, two adults
16th December 1982, Qatif, adult
2nd March 1984, Qatif, first year
3rd January 2013, Sabkhat Al Fasl (Jubail), second calendar year (first winter)

Records from other nearby countries are as follows:
Kuwait – Scarce winter visitor
Bahrain – Vagrant with records in August and March
Qatar – No records
United Arab Emirates - Former vagrant, now a near-annual but rare visitor.
Oman – Rare migrant and winter visitor

As can be seen from the records from surrounding countries, all with more birders present than Saudi Arabia, the species is scarce at best in the region and is rarer the further south in the Arabian Peninsula one goes. As I look at gulls extensively when I see groups it will be interesting to see if I locate any other individuals during my stay in Saudi Arabia. The photos are not great as the bottom ones were directly into the sun, although they are better than nothing.

There are four subspecies of Common Gull of which two may occur in the region Larus canus canus Linnaeus, 1758 – Common Gull. Europe and western Asia. Small size; mantle medium grey (palest subspecies) and Larus canus heinei Homeyer, 1853 – Russian Common Gull. Central northern Asia. Medium size; mantle dark grey (darkest subspecies). Most birds recorded in the region are assigned to Larus canus heinei but they are difficult to separate unless caught and measurements taken, with heinei being slightly larger than canus although measurements overlap. In East Asia Common Gull flocks contain a huge range of variation, and differences between heinei and kamtschatschensis and intergrades between the two are not well-known. There appears to be a large overlap in ranges of the two taxa with intergrades common and as a result it is probably unwise to try to assign a race to the bird I saw and leave it just as a Common Gull.