30 April 2013

An amazing number of birds – Sabkhat Al Fasl

My weekly trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl proved to be a really amazing birding spectacle with migrant birds everywhere. Signs that is was going to be good was the sighting of eight Red-backed Shrikes along the track you drive in to get the first real birding area. Often I do not see anything down here and certainly not the number of birds I saw on Thursday. Other birds that were seen down the track included Barred Warbler, two Common Redstarts, Common Whitethroat and two Little Ringed Plovers.
Red-backed Shrike - adult male
Red-backed Shrike - adult male

Once at the concrete bunded area and surrounding scrub it became apparent that there were literally thousands of migrant birds around. Here we saw our first three Whinchats of well over 25 seen during the day and plenty of European Bee-eaters were seen flying about. We found a small bush with 29 European Bee-eaters in it and a few more flying about overhead and more birds were seen in various places throughout the site. Whilst birding this area it became apparent that the largest numbers of birds were Red-throated Pipits and Yellow Wagtails of various sub-species. The majority of birds were beema (Blue headed) and thunbergi (Grey headed) although a few feldegg (Black headed) were also seen. A minimum of 250 birds of both Red-throated Pipit and Yellow Wagtail were seen but these are certainly underestimates of what was about. An Eastern Olivaceous Warbler was a new species for the site for me in the scrubby area at the end of the track around the concrete bunded area.
European Bee-eater
Yellow Wagtail - beema
Yellow Wagtail - thunbergi
Due to the number of birds seen it took a long time to move from one place to another in the site, but on the way around it became clear there were also a good number of Tree Pipits associated with the Red-throated Pipits. The Tree Pipits behaved quite well allowing good photographs to be taken but the Red-throated Pipits were continually on the move or hiding behind objects making it difficult to photograph them.
Red-throated Pipit
Tree Pipit 
Tree Pipit
The wet scrape area had a good selection of birds and a stop just before this in the area where I had seen Spotted Crake the previous two weeks provided a Corncrake and presumably the same Spotted Crake, this time feeding out in the open and allowing better photos to be taken than the last two trips. A Little Ringed Plover flew over and scared the crake, and it was amazing to see how fast the bird could run. The scrape had a few waders including Little Stint and Wood Sandpiper and a badly injured Collared Praincole that looked like it had been shot, although there were no hunters apparent at the site. The bird could still fly but had lost one of its eyes. Why someone would want to shoot such a beautiful bird is beyond me. A Great Reed Warbler and an Upcher’s Warbler were in the reeds with the Great Reed Warbler being the first bird of that species I have seen this spring.
Spotted Crake 
Wood Sandpiper
Shrikes were everywhere with a minimum of 30 Red-backed Shrikes, 10+Turkestan Shrikes, five Daurian Shrikes and two Lesser Grey Shrikes seen. A single White-spotted Bluethroat was seen and several Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins. Several Blue-cheeked bee-eaters were present and two Western Marsh Harriers were late staying winter birds. The fooded Sabkha area had 200 Greater Flamingos, several Little Terns, a Caspian Tern and a few White-winged Terns. There was a group of ten interesting looking Pratincoles that I need to look into further and will post details about at a later date.
White-winged Tern

29 April 2013

Purple Herons – Dhahran Hills

This spring has been very poor for Purple Herons in the Eastern Province with my only sighting a single adult in the spray fields a few days ago. On Saturday there were three Purple Herons in the same field with two adults and a second calendar year bird. Their normal favourite haunt in the camp is the percolation pond but this has not had a single bird that I have seen this spring. The flooded area of the fields had a few waders but the Black-winged Pratincoles had moved off. There were five Little Stints, three Little Ringed Plovers, two Wood Sandpipers and two Black-winged Stilts and a few Yellow Wagtails and Red-throated Pipits. Numbers of most birds had dropped significantly from the previous few days but there was still plenty to see including a Barred Warbler, ten Red-backed Shrikes, two Lesser Grey Shrikes, two adult male Woodchat Shrikes, thee Whinchats and plenty of European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters.
Purple Heron - adult
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
The settling pond had a few birds including the unusual sight of two Terek Sandpipers. This is only the third time I have seen the species in the camp. Several Yellow Wagtails were present and a single Common Sandpiper. A number of Sand Martins and several Barn Swallows were resting on the sandy surround to the settling pond and appeared to be very tiered as they allowed very close approach. The percolation pond had two Garganey that have been present for a month, two Squacco Herons and a single adult Little Tern, which is the first for the year for me at the site.
Terek Sandpiper
Sand Martin
The wet ditch and scrubby desert have been very quiet recently with only a few Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters to be seen. Today I saw a Great Reed Warbler sitting on the edge of a thorny bush which was a pleasant surprise and was the first one I have seen on the ‘patch’ this spring.
Great Reed Warbler

28 April 2013

Two Black-winged Pratincoles still present – Dhahran Hills

The two Black-winged Pratincoles found three days ago are still present on the same muddy edge to a wet area on the spray fields. Today, although the weather was cloudy and overcast, I managed to get a few slightly better photos of them. They allow quite close approach, even on foot, and it is a pity the weather is not better. They do not fly very often, and we do not want to disturb them, so flight shots are not so good. Black-winged Pratincole is classed as a scarce passage migrant to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia but there are very few records with about ten in Bundy’s ‘Birds of the Eastern Province (1989)’ and I only know of one other record of a bird seen in spring at Sabkhat Al Fasl. Birds of the Western Palearctic states ‘Migrates from breeding grounds (south-west Asia, south-east Europe) to African tropics on broad front across Iran, Iraq, Turkey (only marginally extending to Balkans), and northern Arabia, but very few passage observations anywhere in the Middle East, and it is assumed these often arid areas are crossed at high-altitude in unbroken flight’. Birds presumably are seen after inclement weather or if the birds become tired on their journey.

27 April 2013

Another arrival of Shrikes - Dhahran Hills

The large movement of birds through Dhahran has continued probably helped by the unsettled weather of cloud and strong, mainly northerly, winds. Last Saturday we had a large arrival of shrikes, but over the next few days they gradually reduced in numbers. Then another arrival of shrikes occurred and again many species were associated with it. The largest numbers were Red-backed Shrikes with over 20 birds seen including adult males, adult females and juvenile males. Eight Turkestan Shrikes and six Daurian Shrikes were in the spray fields, which is a big increase in the number of Daurian Shrikes seen recently where only one or two have been seen. Two Lesser Grey Shrikes were giving good views at the edge of the spray fields and a single adult male Woodchat Shrike was seen in the spray fields as well.
Lesser Grey Shrike
Lesser Grey Shrike
Red-backed Shrike - adult male
Red-backed Shrike - immature male
Woodchat Shrike - adult male

An impressive ten plus Whinchats were in the spray fields with a small group of 15 Ortolan Buntings still feeding on the seed heads but now in a different area of the field. Red-throated Pipits were common but always hiding in the long grass and many Willow Warblers were doing likewise. Two brownish grey Common Chiffchaffs were seen in the trees along the edge of the fields and were probably tristris types. A single dark phase Western Marsh Harrier was hunting over the fields and a large number of at least thirty Yellow Wagtails were still present including some quite bright lutea/flavissima type birds. Pallid Swifts and Sand Martins were still present in good numbers and two Little Stints and two Wood Sandpipers were feeding on the flooded area along with a late Western Cattle Egret, the first bird of this species I have seen for a couple of weeks.
Ortolan Bunting

26 April 2013

Plenty of birds passing through – Dhahran Hills

There have been plenty of birds passing through Dhahran Hills in the last few days, with new birds seen on a daily basis. Shrike numbers have decreased but at least two Masked Shrikes, including one stunning adult male, have been seen in the tress surrounding the percolation pond. The pond itself has been quiet but two Garganey were still present and a male Mallard had joined them. A Squacco Heron was seen and a Purple Heron was seen flying over that had been disturbed from its original place of the flooded area of the spray fields. This is the first Purple Heron I have seen this spring, which is unusual as they are normally quite common and was a spectacular bird.
Purple Heron
Squacco Heron
The spray fields have held the majority of the birds over the last few days with 15+ Ortolan Buntings, 50+ Red-throated Pipits, 15+ Yellow Wagtails including Blue-headed Wagtail (beema), Black-headed Wagtail (feldegg), Yellow-headed Wagtail (lutea/flavissima) and Grey-headed Wagtail (thunbergi). Willow Warblers were around in the long grass in large numbers with a minimum of 30 birds seen. A group of 30+ Sand Martins were hunting insects over the flooded area and a single Red-rumped Swallow was seen flying over with a few Pallid Swifts.
Yellow Wagtail - lutea/flavissima
Yellow Wagtail - lutea/flavissima

25 April 2013

Plenty of migrants – Sabkhat Al Fasl

An early morning start combined with some overnight and early morning rain led us to hope for a good mornings birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl. Before we had even arrived at the site we had, had a few small groups of European Bee-eaters flying over indicating birds may have been grounded by the poor weather. The drive along the roadside edge of the site had three Common Redstarts, one Upcher’s Warbler, two Lesser Whitethroats a Common Whitethroat and a European Sparrowhawk. Shrikes were also visible along this stretch with Lesser Grey Shrike, Red-backed Shrike, Turkestan Shrike and Daurian Shrike all seen. Lesser Grey Shrike is not a common species at Sabkhat Al Fasl so was a nice start to the day. A few Wheatears were also seen including northern Wheatear and Pied Wheatear.
Northern Wheatear
The back area by the concrete bund had a few migrants as well with the best bird being a Wryneck that although out in the open for much of the time always eluded being photographed. Plenty of Willow Warblers were scattered about the entire site indicating the number of birds that had settled overnight. European Bee-eaters were about in good numbers and two Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were also seen. Six Yellow Wagtails included five beema and one thunbergi were feeding on the ground and plenty of Clamorous Reed Warblers were singing.
Willow Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler
A single European Roller was an unusual site. Waders were seen in small numbers with most being Little Stints, one Dunlin, one Terek Sandpiper, Seven Common Snipe, one Little Ringed Plover, three Temmink's Stints and five Wood Sandpipers. Two Spotted Crakes were seen at different locations, but remained hidden for much of the time. Birds of prey included a single Greater Spotted Eagle and seven Western Marsh Harriers including one and possibly two adult male birds.
Common Snipe
Little Ringed Plover
Temminck's Stint
Spotted Crake

24 April 2013

Two Black-winged Pratincoles another new ‘patch’ species – Dhahran Hills

I was only able to go to the ‘patch’ for thirty minutes last night, but it proved well worth the effort. I was late down as I had to pick up the children from yoga class and as I was late I headed straight to the spray field, as this is where the majority of birds have been recently. This proved to be a good decision as the flooded area had dried out considerably and was attracting a lot of birds. Phil was already down there and as I walked out to join him a Pratincole flew in front of me showing its dark under-wing and lack of white trailing edge to the secondaries proving it was a Black-winged Pratincole. It flew around briefly and landed amazingly next to another Black-winged Pratincole. This was another new species for the ‘patch’ for both Phil and I, and made it three new ‘patch’ species for me in four days taking my total to 195 species. Collared Pratincole is seen very occasionally in Dhahran but I have not seen one this year making it even more surprising to see Black-winged Pratincole. The birds were reluctant to fly and appeared very tired so we did not disturb them too much and left them sitting on the muddy edge of the flooded area. I then had to leave, as I needed to go and pick up the organic vegetables from the farmer.