23 April 2013

Montagu’s Harrier a new ‘patch’ species – Dhahran Hills

Spring migration has been a bit stop, start, this year, but currently there are plenty of migrants about and the spray fields are alive with birds. Sunday was quite windy in the afternoon and this probably helped bring in a few birds. On the way to the spray fields I saw an immature male Pallid Harrier flying over and then saw another female/immature Harrier on the ground some way off. I drove slowly towards where the bird was and could see it was a dark Harrier without an obvious neck collar but with obvious white patches around the eye. Unfortunately the bird flew, but this did allow me to see it had four obvious primary fingers ruling out Hen Harrier which shows five. The bird also appeared to have a long hand compared to arm on the wing and my thoughts turned to Montagu’s Harrier, a species I had not seen on the ‘patch’ before, or for that matter in Saudi Arabia. I saw Phil and went and got him as the bird had landed again and together we went to try to get better views. These proved difficult to obtain on the ground, so we decided we would try to get a few flight shots to try to confirm the identification. It had now become apparent there were three Harriers with two Pallid and the other bird. In flight the latter bird looked slightly different, with different, narrower, shaped wings but this was difficult to ascertain properly as direct comparison to the Pallid Harriers could not be made. We walked over the spray fields to try to get some flight shots as the birds were now flying about over the fields and occasionally landing in the long grass. We eventually managed a few flight shots, although the bird remained distant from us at all time, many features fitted Montagu’s Harrier although the secondaries on the underwing looked quite dark and the lines did not look as strongly marked as on many Montagu’s Harriers although these features are variable. These poorly marked juvenile secondaries indicated the bird was a juvenile (2nd calendar year) female which was confirmed by the eye colour. A Pallid Harrier of similar age would have shown a typical Pallid Harrier head-pattern, with distinct pale collar, completely lacking in this bird.

Migrant Montagu’s Harriers were regular in April, September and October in the Eastern Province in the early 1980’s but they now appear much scarcer as can be seen by the fact that neither I nor Phil have seen one in the province despite birding the region on an almost daily basis, with Phil being here for many years. Although I was quite sure the bird was a Montagu's Harrier, I have very little experience of seeing the species, making this a difficult bird to identify for me due to its similarity to Pallid Harrier in this plumage, which can occasionally lack a pale collar. The identification was very kindly confirmed by Dick Forsman.