31 May 2013

Pinstriped Ground Weevil – Dhahran Hills

Whilst out bird-watching with my daughters at the spray fields, they found a Pinstriped Ground Weevil Ammocieonus aschabadensis under some vegetation at the edge of the field. This is a species commonly found in Saudi Arabia around oasis fringes and on salt-flats. They possess a rostrum with jaws situated at the extremity which they use to bore into plant tissue. They normally found on the ground near vegetation although they are sometimes also seen in low vegetation. They have a hard cuticle that protects them from enemies and are very well camouflaged and when threatened roll over on their backs and lash out with their feet which are armed with sharp claws. They are mainly seen between April and August.

30 May 2013

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater – Dhahran Hills

Migration has almost stopped in Dhahran but I found a really smart Blue-cheeked Bee-eater sitting in a small tree by the side of the spray fields, which brightened up an otherwise fairly uneventful evening birding. I had seen a Blue-cheeked Bee-eater a few days before but it was distant perched in a tree by the percolation pond and this was the first one I had seen for more than a week. It has been a good spring for the species with a number of good photographic opportunities presenting themselves and a lot of birds passing through. Lets hope the return autumn passage is also good.

29 May 2013

Carmine Darter – Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding the ‘patch’ yesterday I found a larger dragonfly than the common Purple Darter. This insect was a bright red colour and perched regularly on a small tamarisk shrub where I managed to get a decent photograph of it at one stage when it perched in some sunlight briefly. The Carmine Darter Crocothemis erythraea is a common and numerous dragonfly throughout the Middle East, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Oman. The adult male has a bright orange red to carmine red, widened abdomen, and small yellowish-amber patches at the bases of the hind wings. Pterostigma are yellow. The male is carmine red, while the female is a significantly drabber yellow-buff colour with two paler marks on top of the thorax. It is a medium-sized dragonfly approximately 52mm in length. The abdomen is wider than other members of the family, flattened and tapering to the end. It is widespread in the Arabian Peninsula where it prefers a habitat of rocky areas and dry watercourses as well as shallow, still, eutrophic waters such as small ponds, paddy fields, and desert pools, but it avoids oases. Adults only live for up to two months. Some odonate species are migratory and more broadly ranging than others, and this distribution is related to the type of temporary breeding habitats they utilize. Adults spend much of their time perched on vegetation although they have a fast, darting flight and hover frequently.

28 May 2013

Migration almost over and breeding season starting – Dhahran Hills

Birding the ‘patch’ is becoming less exciting by the day with very few migrants about. The best bird seen in recent days was a late Blue-cheeked Bee-eater and an Upcher’s Warbler, both of which were in the trees surrounding the spray fields. A few other migrants seen included three Yellow Wagtails, several Willow Warblers, three Red-backed Shrikes, three Barn Swallows and five Sand Martins.
Red-backed Shrike - female
Red-backed Shrike - female
Now I will have to start concentrating on recording the breeding activity of birds in the camp with plenty of breeding activity occurring on the percolation pond at present. Eurasian Coots have two different sizes of young as do Common Moorhens. Little Grebes are sitting on eggs with at least four nests seen and Little Terns were seen feeding well grown young at the pond, although they did not breed at the site. Clamorous Reed Warblers are still singing continuously indicating breeding again in the reed beds.

27 May 2013

Purple Darter – Dhahran Hills

Whilst walking around the percolation pond area yesterday I saw quite a number of Purple Darter dragonflies flying about and landing regularly. They were a dark purplish-black colour and quite small and regularly perched in the open on small shrubs so I was able to get a few photos of them. This darter has an iridescent dark-purplish sheen which gives rise to its name the Purple Darter. It is also known as the black percher, due to the male being almost entirely black, and to the species’ habit of regularly perching on grasses and other vegetation. In contrast to the male, the female is a vibrant yellowish-green, with small black stripes across the thorax. The wings of the purple darter are very clear, although they turn slightly amber towards the base of the hind-wing. This amber patch is bigger and darker in females. Both the male and female have a greyish-brown cell, known as the pterostigma, near the tip of the wing and it has a widespread distribution, primarily occurring in Africa, outside of forested areas but can also be found on several islands in the Mediterranean Sea, as well as across the southern half of the Iberian Peninsula, and through Arabia to the Indian subcontinent.

26 May 2013

Still a few straggling migrants - Sabkhat Al Fasl

Another early morning trip to my normal weekend haunt of Sabkhat Al Fasl was undertaken arriving at first light. The drive in which has been full of birds in the last few trips produced virtually nothing and it was looking like it may be a long hard day looking for something good. As it turned out there were still a few migrants about with Red-backed Shrike being the most common and 17 birds were seen during the day with about 50% Males and 50% females. Other migrants included several Willow Warblers, one Common Redstart, one Yellow Wagtail, three Spotted Flycatchers, 30+ Sand Martins and 10+ Barn Swallows.
Red-backed Shrike - female
Red-backed Shrike - male
Spotted Flycatcher
The wet areas held a few waders with most being Little Ringed Plovers and Kentish Plovers, with both species breeding at this site and young of both seen. Other waders included two Red-necked Phalaropes (see earlier post), three Wood Sandpipers, 30+ Black-winged Stilts and a Ruff. A few Purple Swamphens were still around.
Little Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Purple Swamphen
The flooded Sabkha area still has a lot of water and 300+ Greater Flamingo, including adults and young birds were seen. The birds were quite close in so I spent a bit of time looking to see if I could find any colour-ringed birds but without luck. Several terns were feeding about with most being Gull-billed and Little Terns but also Caspian Tern. A late second calendar year gull got my attention but turned out to be a Black-headed Gull rather than anything more unusual.
Caspian Tern
Common Black-headed Gull

25 May 2013

Painted Lady – Shedgum Escarpment

As Saudi Arabia has a mostly desert environment it is often difficult to persuade people that wildlife can be abundant at certain times in the region. One such even that occurs annually is the migration of Painted Lady butterflies which is one of no less than 130 species of butterfly that occur in the Arabian region. The majority of these butterflies live in the mountainous regions of south-west Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman, but even the desert regions have their permanent and semi-permanent residents. The Painted Lady belongs to a group of butterflies which have not specialized, yet also survive. They are a migrant species and their survival strategy is based on mobility and the endless search for conditions where they can breed. The Painted Lady is the world's most cosmopolitan butterfly and when it has a successful breeding season; individual butterflies can fly in any direction with some travelling thousands of kilometres. Thus if some habitat in Arabia is suddenly blessed with an abundance of rain, some Painted Lady will almost certainly find it, breed and lay their eggs. Their progeny will then almost certainly leave the area, so if the area is not suitable for breeding again for many years, it won't matter; the progeny will have found still other places to breed. Obviously many butterflies die in such a process as this nomadic life is harsh, but the species will survive. The Painted Lady and other migrant butterflies are less specialized in their choice of food plant and habitat than most of the sedentary species. This is because they can't be as fussy to survive and as a result can live in harsher environments. If winter rains have been good and flora has flourished the number of Painted Lady recorded increases significantly.

24 May 2013

Red-necked Phalarope – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl yesterday I found two Red-necked Phalaropes feeding on a smallish flooded area by the water pumping station. This is only the second time I have seen the species in Saudi Arabia and the first time in the spring. The previous record was a single bird seen on 5 August 2011 at Al Khobar on a small roadside pool by the Dammam / Al Khobar Wader Roost South. Bundy’s ‘Birds of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia’ published in October 1989 states that they are regular in varying numbers on marshy pools in spring but very scarce and irregular in autumn. It seems likely that a large number that winter in the Arabian Gulf and northern Indian Ocean area overfly the region with a record of 10,000 birds 40 kilometres west of Bahrain and close to the Saudi Arabia coast 27 March 1980. Records are regular in Kuwait to the north but from the Eastern Province are limited with one record from March, scare in April and regular in May with the peak inland count being 150 birds at Abqaiq in May 1976.

The two birds I saw were behaving in a typical Phalarope manner turning around in circles on the water in search of food and picking insects off the waters surface in a fast and active manner. This is a new species for me at Sabkhat Al Fasl although I know Phil has had at least one sighting here in the past.

23 May 2013

Five Little Terns – Dhahran Hills

Dhahran Hills has been very quiet for a few days now with very little sign of migration. The only really unusual occurrence was five Little Terns, flying around the percolation pond. This is the largest number of this species I have seen at a single time on the ‘patch’. Little Tern is common along the coast at this time of year and breed in a few areas in the Eastern Province but normally only one or two birds are seen on the pond.
Little Tern
Little Tern
 Other signs of migration included a Lesser Grey Shrike and two adult male Red-backed Shrikes in the spry fields and 15 Sand Martins flying over the same area.
Lesser Grey Shrike

22 May 2013

Arabian Spiny-tailed Lizards – Dhahran Hills

Whilst out birding I saw two different Arabian Spiny-tailed Lizards in different places on the camp. The first one shown was quite a small one only about 50 centimetres long and was quite a dull colour. The second one was a much bigger animal, well over a metre long and was also a brighter colour. The first lizard was living in a small hole under a concrete slab whereas the larger lizard had a very big burrow on its own in the scrubby desert area. Now the temperatures are high the lizards are becoming much easier to see as they bask in the evening, or early morning sun to get warm. On foot they are very difficult to approach but let you get quite close if you remain in the car.

21 May 2013

Terns fishing - Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst at Sabkhat Al Fasl last weekend we found a group of terns fishing at close range near to a water outflow from one of the core areas into the flooded sabkha. This area is usually quite dry by now but due to the unusual amounts of rain we have had this spring it is still full of water. The terns were fishing for small fish that had gathered around this outflow. It looked like good photographic opportunities would be available, as the birds were close and performing well. There were probably twenty terns in all with most being White-cheeked Terns and the others Little Terns. The top photograph is what I take to be a Little Tern and shows how dark grey the rumps can be on some of the Little Terns that occur in the Gulf region. One disadvantage of having a big lens (600mm) is that when birds are close and active the big lens is not the best for taking photos. As a result I did not manage to get the good shots I thought I might, and below are the best I achieved.
Little Tern
White-cheeked Tern
White-cheeked Tern
White-cheeked Tern

20 May 2013

Migration slowing down – Sabkhat Al Fasl

An early morning trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl turned out to be fairly quiet. There were still plenty of Red-backed Shrikes, with over twenty seen during the visit, as well as Willow Warblers, but not really much else. Passerine migrants included an Upcher’s Warbler, ten Spotted Flycatchers, three Common Redstarts, one Daurian Shrike and a Eurasian Turtle Dove that appeared to be collecting nesting material. Several Sand Martins and Barn Swallows were flying over with one or two European Bee-eaters but very little else.
Common Redstart
Spotted Flycatcher
Herons were represented by seven Little Bitterns, two Grey Herons, one Purple Heron and ten Squacco Herons. Very few waders were seen but evidence of breeding was noted for Kentish Plovers and Little Ringed Plover with several very young Kentish Plovers seen with parents looking on and two juvenile Little Ringed Plover that must have bred somewhere nearby. Other passage waders included a few Curlew Sandpipers in summer plumage and a few Little Stints
Kentish Plover - chicks
Kentish Plover
Little Ringed Plover - juvenile
Curlew Sandpiper
Curlew Sandpiper
Terns are becoming more obvious with the most common species seen now being White-cheeked Terns. Several were sitting around and other flying over the flooded sabkha area. Three Caspian Terns were seen along with several Little Terns in various plumages.
White-cheeked Tern
White-cheeked Tern
Caspian Tern
 The only other birds seen of note were three Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks, two males and a female, which are not seen too often at this location. Seeing this species as well as the breeding waders really gave me the feeling spring is almost over and summer has finally arrived in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.
Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark - male
Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark - female

19 May 2013

Bird numbers dropping - Dhahran Hills

Bird numbers have decreased significantly over the last few days with the only migrant still in good numbers being the Willow Warbler. There are still a few Red-backed Shrikes about and surprisingly a nice adult male Turkestan Shrike, which is the first male of this species I have seen for more than two weeks. The scrubby desert area had two European Bee-eaters and an Upcher’s Warbler showing very well in the low bushes.
Upcher's Warbler
Red-backed Shrike
Turkestan Shrike
The spray fields had an immature Purple Heron and a late Western Cattle Egret that was oiled and looked slightly odd at a distance. A female Eurasian Blackcap and several Common Whitethroats were also present and a Namaqua Dove was sitting briefly in a tree at the edge. Two Little Terns were also on the wet pool on the spray fields along with three Black-winged Stilt and a Wood Sandpiper. The only interesting birds on the percolation pond were two Squacco Herons and the Great Crested Grebe. The late migrating Spotted Flycatcher is still around with six birds seen in the trees around the pond where four Eastern Olivaceous Warblers were also present. Good numbers of Sand Martins and Barn Swallows were over the settling pond and spray fields and a single Eurasian Sparrowhawk also flew over.

Namaqua Dove
Namaqua Dove
Sand Martin