31 July 2013

Bird resembling a Taimyr Gull Larus taimyrensis – Al Khobar

After doing some more thinking and investigation into the pale Steppe Gull Larus barabensis I saw in Al Khobar, Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia on 30th November 2012, I have the following points to raise. Initially the bird looked like a Caspian Gull Larus cachinnans due to its pale mantle colour, which was considerably paler than all of the surrounding Steppe Gulls and Heuglin’s Gulls Larus heuglini, but the wing pattern and structure made the bird look more like a Steppe / Heuglin’s Gull. I only managed to get a single photo of the bird as they were disturbed just as I got my camera out. The photo I did take is, however, is quite a decent one so many details can be seen. It certainly lacks many of the typical Steppe Gull features, associated with typical birds in the region and has quite a strong resemblance to Taimyr Gull Larus taimyrensis. Comparing my photo to pictures published in Taimyr Gulls: evidence for Pacific winter range, with notes on morphology and breeding - Klaas van Dijk, Sergei Kharitonov, Holmer Vonk & Bart Ebbinge (Dutch Birding 33: 9-21, 2011), although admittedly taken at a different time of year, show strong resemblances. I contacted Klaas to ask his opinion but he was unable to shed any light on the bird as it is away from the breeding area.

Adult Larus taimyrensis generally resemble Herring Gull Larus argentatus in size and shape. The upper-parts coloration is darker than in argentatus breeding in the Netherlands, being more similar to Yellow-legged Gulls Larus michahellis breeding in the Mediterranean. The legs are short to medium in length and rather stout. Most individual’s exhibit dull yellows legs but variation is extensive, legs being pink or grey­ish in some individuals. The iris is pale yellow or ochre, with a variable amount of dark speckling. The orbital ring and gape are usually orange-red. The bill is relatively short, firm and rather blunt with a weak gonydeal angle and with an extensive red gonys spot restricted to the lower mandible. The wing pattern usually shows an isolated mirror in a largely black p10, relatively small apical spots to the outer primaries and dark markings extending to p4.

Ring recoveries indicate that taimyrensis spend the winter in coastal areas in the north-western Pacific and that they cross the mainland of Asia in a south-easterly direction when migrating from the breeding grounds towards the wintering areas. As a result they appear unlikely to occur in the Arabia Gulf region, although this cannot be entirely ruled out. There are indications, but no ring recoveries, that taimyrensis might predominantly winter in a quite mild environment, most likely in coastal areas of the East China Sea and the South China Sea. More observations of birds marked on Taimyr and more insight in the winter ecology are needed to establish its core winter range and to get a better picture of the migration route. Furthermore, observations of marked birds are necessary to clarify if Taimyr Gulls also spend the winter in coastal areas around the Arabian Sea, or elsewhere along a south-westerly flyway. Recent sources indicate that gulls resembling Taimyr Gulls spend the winter in low numbers in southern Iran (Scott 2007) and Bahrain (Yésou & Hirschfeld 1997). The term "Big Pale heuglini" refers to the small number of birds seen in Bahrain (and elsewhere in the Persian Gulf region) that where previously considered to be taimyrensis. Compared to the normal Bahrain heuglini these birds are generally paler, larger, longer-legged, show more flesh tones in the legs, have longer bills and more angular heads, and perhaps average a larger P10 mirror and more often have a small P9 mirror. There is a possibility that a small number of unidentified large white-headed gulls seen at Okha, western India, described and depicted in Buchheim (2006) may also be taimyrensis.

There are no confirmed records of Taimyr Gull in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates or Israel and it is not mentioned in the latest Kuwait List although Steppe Gull is a common passage migrant and winter visitor. This bird maybe another example and shows at least the type of birds that occur in the Arabian Gulf, which look like Taimyr Gull even if they cannot be proven to be such.

30 July 2013

King Abdul Aziz Palace - Natta’a

The Palace of King Abdul Aziz at Natta,a is located near the water valley that separates Najd and the east of the Arabian Peninsula. It was built in 1930 (1349 Hijri) by the order of King Abdul Aziz al Saud to serve as a defense point of the nation. The palace has a sturdy construction and design with the walls provided with small holes for archers and surveillance. The palace is on the main road from Hanidh travelling northwards through Alsarar towards Nayriyyah and is located on the left hand side of the road. It was closed for renovation when we visited but it was good to see that the historical sights of this area are being maintained and repaired.

29 July 2013

Arabian & Mauryan Grey Shrikes – Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding the ‘patch’ I was lucky enough to locate an Arabian (Southern) Grey Shrike in the scrubby desert area. After taking a few poor photos of the bird a dog walker flushed it and it flew into the small bushes at the edge of the spray fields. Whilst looking for the bird I found a second shrike this time a Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike. This allowed for some good comparisons between the two as well as allowing some decent photographs to be taken. Below are photographs of the two species for you to compare yourselves.
Arabian (Southern) Grey Shrike
Arabian (Southern) Grey Shrike
Arabian (Southern) Grey Shrike
I think the bird above is an Arabian (Southern) Grey Shrike Lanius m. aucheri as the bill is deeper based than a typical Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike Lanius m. pallidirostris. The dark lores and black bill are too dark for pallidirostris, which normally show a slightly paler mask even in adults in the spring and the bill is not really jet black like aucheri. The mask of this bird extends over the bill a typical character of aucheri and although it can be seen on occasional palidirostris it is not this obvious. The mantle is slightly darker grey than that shown by the majority of pallidirostris but this can be difficult to judge on lone birds. The wings are sooty black which is a character of aucheri rather than pallidirostris.
The amount of white in the closed secondaries is less on the Arabian Grey Shrike compared to the Mauryan Grey Shrike which is shown in the photographs below.
Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike
Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike
Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike
As I have mentioned before the shrikes in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia are very complex and not easily assignable to sub-species as most of the sub-species are clinal in nature. These two birds seem to show what I believe are the main points for the two sub-species.

28 July 2013

Lesser Scarab – North of Jubail

Whilst birding a set of pivot irrigation fields I came across this scarab beetle feeding in the sandy edges of the field. It has taken me quite a long time to try to identify the insect but have come to the conclusion it is a Lesser Scarab. If anyone has any other ideas please leave a message and let me know. They are common in the north of the Eastern Province from Dammam to Khafji on the Kuwait boarder. They often follow herds of sheep and camels in the desert where they use fresh droppings to lay eggs in after burying them in the sand and covering them in earth if available. This allows the larvae to have a ready source of nourishment when they hatch which is enough for them to complete their development.

27 July 2013

European Bee-eaters – Dhahran Hills

A large movement of Bee-eaters occurred this spring in the eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and birds were seen in many areas of the camp including in the trees directly in front of my house. As I arrived home from work I could hear the birds calling but they were all out of sight, so I got my camera and went out to try to photograph them. There were at least fifty birds present with 22 sitting in a single tree and I managed to obtain a couple of reasonable photographs for my efforts. European Bee-eaters are always great birds to see, as their plumage is wonderful but so is their call, which often alerts you to their presence.

26 July 2013

A few terns and waders – Abu Ali Island

A trip to Abu Ali Island last weekend was not very exciting with a few waders and terns seen but not much else. The terns were mainly White-cheeked and Little Terns but we saw about 30+ Lesser Crested Terns resting along the high tide mark at one spot. Waders were few and far between but we did see one Terek Sandpiper, One Whimbrel, two Eurasian Curlews, three Greater Sand Plovers and 50+ Kentish Plovers. Other birds of note included five Greater Flamingos, 20+ Indian Reef Herons and a Great Crested Grebe. This site is becoming the best place to see Great Crested Grebe in the Eastern Province with birds present of virtually every visit in the last two years.
Indian Reef Heron
Greater Sand Plover
Little Terns
One point to mention is the old check point to the island is no longer manned but a new Coast guard check point has been set up between Battina Island and Abu Ali Island with a barrier blocking the road. Here you have to show identification to allow you to enter the island and I am not sure what would happen if you did not have any.

25 July 2013

Clamorous Reed Warbler taking fish – Sabkhat Al Fasl

On 20 July 2013, I saw a Clamorous Reed Warbler catch a fish. It picked the small fish, which was alive, from the water whilst standing in the reeds. The water was very shallow and the bird took the fish to some nearby reeds and proceeded to hit the fish on the reed stems. The bird was joined by two other Clamorous Reed Warblers and then disappeared before we could see if the fish was eaten. The behaviour certainly indicated the fish was going to be eaten, as they have been known to kill young frogs before swallowing by knocking them against ground. The food of Clamorous Reed Warbler, according to Birds of the Western Palearctic is largely insects and other invertebrates. The following has been recorded in the diet: Dragonflies and damsel flies, stoneflies, grasshoppers, mantises, bugs, adult and larval Lepidoptera, caddis flies, flies, ants, bees, beetles, spiders, slugs snails and young frogs. Plant food includes seeds of aquatic plants. In Israel a considerable proportion of food is collected from the water surface although they also take items from vegetation and by hopping about on the ground near water. Fish are not mentioned as a food source for the species so this is an interesting record.

24 July 2013

Big increase in wader numbers – Sabkhat Al Fasl

The weekend trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl produced quite a few more birds than last weekend. On arrival at the water areas we encountered well over 50 Squacco Herons including a number of juveniles indicating the species breeds at this site. They have not been recorded breeding here before but I am sure they must have done as I saw many adults in summer and juveniles in autumn there last year. Another bird that breeds is Little Bittern and we saw a single juvenile standing on some reeds. Two Little Egrets and 50+ Indian Reef Herons were also seen in the same area.
Little Bittern - juvenile
Terns were plentiful with hundreds of White-cheeked Terns, two Caspian Terns and 100+ Little Terns flying about. The real surprise was the increase in number of waders since last week. Little Stint numbers had increased from a single bird to several hundred and Black-winged Stilt numbers were well over 500 an amazing sight. Other waders seen included eight Common Greenshanks, three Ruff, two Common Redshank, two Greater Sand Plovers, five Little Ringed Plovers, 100+ Kentish Plovers and three Common Sandpipers.
Curlew Sandpipers
Greater Sand Plover
Greater Sand Plover
Kentish Plover - juvenile
Common Sandpiper
The only other signs of migration were one Sand Martin, four Barn Swallows and two Yellow Wagtails including one Black-headed Wagtail.

23 July 2013

Only a few doves – Dhahran Hills

The ‘patch’ has been very quiet recently made even worse by the fact that the percolation pond has been drained of water. The number of birds has thus fallen with hundreds of Black-winged Stilts using the last small pool before it eventually disappeared and now no birds are left. There are really only a few doves about with several flighty Namaqua Doves and hundreds of Eurasian Collared Doves and Laughing Doves. Common Mynas and House Sparrows are the only other birds seen in good numbers. Several Barn Swallows are flying over the very dry spray fields but very little else has been seen in recent days / weeks.
Eurasian Collared Dove
Eurasian Collared Dove
Laughing Dove
Common Myna
The settling pond still has some water and 50+ Black-winged Stilts and 50+ Kentish Plovers are present here. Three Clamorous Reed Warblers are still singing from the red patch but very little else is happening there.

22 July 2013

Arabian Wall Brown – Sallal Al Danha

Whilst birding the southwest of Saudi Arabia earlier in the month we saw an Arabian Wall Brown Lasiommata felix a butterfly in the Nymphalidae family. It is found in southwestern Saudi Arabia and Yemen where it inhabits the western escarpment of the Arabian Peninsula. It can be found all the way north to Taif in Saudi Arabia but always in the mountains. The one photographed here was at Sallal Al Danha a high waterfall near Tanumah north of Abha in the Asir Mountains.

21 July 2013

The House Sparrow – Dhahran Expro Wader Roost

This is a common and widespread species in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where birds can be seen in any town, village, cultivated area as well as certain semi-desert and desert areas, particularly on rocky outcrops. The species breeds in the Dhahran / Dammam / Al Khobar area with many birds have three broods each breeding season if food is abundant. Breeding can occur in large colonies but in this area birds tend to nest individually or in small groups. After the main breeding season large flocks can sometimes be seen with flocks of over 100 birds often encountered. There are twelve subspecies of House Sparrow divided into two groups, the Oriental indicus group, and the Palearctic domesticus group. Birds of the domesticus group have grey cheeks, while indicus group birds have white cheeks as well as bright colouration on the crown, a smaller bill, and a longer black bib. Birds seen in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia appear to be of the less widespread indicus group subspecies P. d. hufufae from eastern Arabia, which is quite pale.

20 July 2013

Some Saudi Arabian Geckos from Zulfi – Records by Mansur Al-Fahad

Here are some more photos from Mansur Al Fahad taken near Zulfi during the second week of June 2013. Zulfi is approximately 260 kilometres northwest of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. These three lizards shown below are Geckos with the first one a Yellow Fan-fingered Gecko also known as Common Fan-footed Gecko, the second a Rough-tailed Gecko also known as Rough-tailed Bowfoot Gecko and the third a Baluch Ground Gecko. The Geckos they generally exceptional climbers, able to run across vertical rock faces and even overhangs and cave roofs. They are able to do this due to specialised toe scales, known as scansors, which have up to 150,000 microscopic, highly branched and hair-like structures known as setae. The setae form hundreds of saucer-shaped end plates, which give the gecko an enormous surface area in relation to its body size, enabling it to grip all kinds of surfaces. I would like to thank Mansur for sending me information on the lizards and for kindly allowing me to use his photos that are reproduced here, the copyright of which remains with Mansur.
Yellow Fan-fingered Gecko
Yellow Fan-fingered Gecko Ptyodactylus hasselquistii is common in homes in central Saudi Arabia although they alos occur in caves and the edges of mountains. The lizard has long legs that end in widely splayed toes, tipped on either side by a wide, fan-like fringe from which the lizard gets its common name. The body colouration is pallid, helping to provide camouflage amongst its rocky habitat. They are a relatively vocal species, with males calling with a series of chirrups at night that can be heard at a distance of over 50 metres. 
The common fan-footed gecko is a nocturnal species, emerging after dusk from daytime refuges such as caves and crevices to feed on insects and spiders. They are generally sociable and often encountered in small groups and have a widespread range extending throughout North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East. Populations occur from Morocco east to Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, north as far as Iran, and south as far as eastern Ethiopia and northern Somalia.
Rough-tailed Bowfoot Gecko
The Rough-tailed Bowfoot Gecko Cyrtopodion scabrum is a small, nocturnal ground gecko, with exceptionally long, angular toes. The head is flattened downwards, and the eyes are large, lacking eyelids, with vertical pupils that can be contracted during the day to prevent light from damaging the retina. The tail is longer than the head and body and is relatively flat and tapered, with rows of prominent keeled scales and a series of ridged, wart-like bumps, called tubercles, which are arranged regularly along the length of the back. It is sandy in colour and whiter underneath, marked with regular brown spots on the body, and brown bands on the tail. They are active during the night, hunting for small insects such as ants, termites, beetles, moths, and grasshoppers, often foraging in artificially lit areas, often associated with human habitation, where it picks off insects that are attracted to the light. 
They are distributed throughout southwest Asia, including south east Turkey, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is primarily found in disturbed habitats such as towns, oil camps and desert farms and also lives in homes in villages, but is very rare in cities
Baluch Ground Gecko
The Baluch Ground Gecko Bunopus tuberculatus is a small, ground-dwelling gecko with rather short, straight toes, a long tail, and conspicuous tubercles on the back and flanks. The body is generally tan coloured, giving good camouflage against its sandy habitat, and the tail is barred. As in other geckos, the eyelids are fused together, forming a transparent covering to the eye, however, unlike many other geckos, it lacks expanded toe pads, and is therefore unable to climb vertical surfaces. As its common name suggests, it lives on the ground, digging burrows in the sand and also hiding under surface debris. It is likely to be active at night, feeding on a variety of insects, spiders and other small invertebrates but little is known about it lifestyle. They have been reported as abundant and widespread in vegetated sandy plains and in coastal habitats and can also be found in rocky deserts and near farms, but are not seen in homes. They are found in the Middle East, Arabian Peninsula and southwest Asia, from Israel, Jordan and Syria, south into Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman, north to Turkmenistan and east to Pakistan. 

19 July 2013

Desert (Pale) Agama & Blandford’s Agama from Zulfi – Records by Mansur Al Fahad

Mansur Al Fahad, a birdwatcher and photographer from the Riyadh area, has very kindly sent me, and allowed me to use, some of his photographs of lizards he took near Zulfi during the second week of June 2013. Zulfi is approximately 260 kilometres northwest of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. These two lizards shown below are agamas with the first one a Desert Agama or Pale Agama and the second a Blandford’s Agama photographed in the middle of the day. I would like to thank Mansur for sending me information on the lizards and for kindly allowing me to use his photos that are reproduced here, the copyright of which remains with Mansur.
Desert or Pale Agama
The Desert Agama Trapelus mutabilis is a small to medium-sized lizard with a rather flattened body and a short, thick head with its key characteristics being the small spines located around the openings of its ears. It has long hind limbs, long digits with quite large claws, and a fairly stout, cylindrical tail which is only slightly longer than the body. They are usually grey-brown to sandy grey in colour, with four to five brown stripes running along their backs and have a tail that is horizontally striped with brown or dark grey. In the breeding season, the male desert agama develops a violet-blue throat and flanks or a blue to light grey head while in the female the head becomes orange. The Desert Agama inhabits deserts and semi-deserts, in areas with very little rainfall, typically inhabiting areas of stone plains, which have a covering of sparse vegetation and lots of gravel. It is widespread across northern Africa, occurring from Western Sahara, Mauritania and Morocco east to Egypt and Sudan. The subspecies T. m. pallidus Pale Agama occurs in the north central region of Saudi Arabia to Jordan, west Iraq, Israel and the Sinai. The taxonomy of the desert agama has been much debated with three subspecies often recognised. Of these Trapelus mutabilis pallidus has often been considered to be a separate species, the Pale Agama Trapelus pallidus. This form differs in having more uniformly sized, smooth scales on the back, and a blue head rather than a blue throat and flanks in breeding males. However, recent genetic and morphological studies have supported the classification of the Pale Agama as a subspecies of the Desert Agama.
Blandford's Agama
Blandford’s Agama Trapelus ruderatus ranges from northeastern Jordan and southern Syria, through northern and eastern Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait and southern and central Iran as far south as Shiraz (Rastegar-Pouyani 2000). The species occurs from close to sea level to around 1,000 metres above sea level. It can be moderately common in suitable habitat. This ground-dwelling species is associated with low shrubs (Nitraria) on the fringe of sandy dunes in arid areas and in sandy desert areas. It can sometimes be found perching on bushes but is not found in modified areas. Blanford's Agama is similar to Yellow-spotted Agama but has lines on its back which are missing on Yellow-spotted Agama.

18 July 2013

Nesting Eurasian Collared Dove - Al Khobar

One the way through Al Khobar I found a breeding Eurasian Collared Dove nesting in a small roadside tree. It was not very well hidden and I hope no one disturbs its nest during the breeding season. One good point for the bird is it is on a not very well used road. The Eurasian Collared Dove has probably had the most dramatic natural range expansion of any bird species during the 20th Century. It has spread westward and entered Arabia via Kuwait from south-east Asia in the 1960's when the first non feral breeding record for Arabia was noted in 1963. The species has expanded hugely and now breeds in most areas of Arabia with the exception of the southern areas such as the Rub Al Khali desert areas. Where it is resent is is very common and is one of the few birds that can be seen in good numbers in the hit summer months.

17 July 2013

European Turtle Dove ringing recovery – Tabuk

Brendan has just received details of a European Turtle Dove ringed in Bahrain, at its breeding site, and shot and killed at Tabuk in Saudi Arabia, presumably on its way back to its breeding area in Bahrain?
Ring Number: DE35144
Ringing date: 13-Jul-2012
Ringing Place: Near Al Reem Wildlife Park, Bahrain, Bahrain & Qatar (Co-ords: 26deg 00minN 50deg 29minE)
Age: Pullus
Ringer: B Kavanagh, 4736
Finding date: 30-Apr-2013
Finding Place: Tabuk, Saudi Arabia (Co-ords: 28deg 23minN 36deg 33minE)
Finding Condition: Bird freshly dead (shot)
Duration: 291 days
Distance: 1402 km
Direction: 281 deg (WNW)
Finder: Abdulla Ahmed, Bahrain

16 July 2013

First signs of autumn? – Sabkhat Al Fasl

The new Saudi Arabia weekend of Friday and Saturday, rather than Thursday and Friday saw Phil and I off to Sabkhat Al Fasl on a new day of Saturday. We got to the site just after first light and it was immediately obvious there were few birds about. Even though few birds were seen we had a couple of interesting records including the first returning Yellow Wagtail of the autumn showing that the first signs of autumn and arriving? Another interesting record was a Western Marsh Harrier seen flushing all the egrets and herons form the scrape and perching on a fence post. The bird later flew a few times and disappeared over the reeds. Summer records of the species are rare and it is the first time I have seen the species in the summer in Saudi Arabia. There were plenty of Squacco Herons and Indian Reef Herons on the scrape as well as a Common Sandpiper.
Yellow Wagtail
Common Sandpiper
Other returning waders included a Terek Sandpiper, 10+ Dunlin, several Greater Sand Plovers and 50+ Black-winged Stilts. Hundreds of Kentish Plover were present with the many breeding birds now supplemented by passage migrants. Little Ringed Plover numbers were also high with a lot of juveniles seen amongst a few adults indicating a good breeding season for the species.
Little Ringed Plover - juvenile
Black-winged Stilt
Other interesting sightings included a juvenile Little Bittern showing the species has bred again this year in the reed-beds and still a good number of Little Grebes on the water. Tern numbers were high with 500+ Little Terns the largest gathering I have seen at Sabkhat Al Fasl, 50+ White-cheeked Terns, one Gull-billed Tern and one White-winged Tern. Three Eurasian Reed Warblers were feeding along one reedy area and several Clamorous Reed Warblers were also present some still singing.
Little Grebe

15 July 2013

Bar-tailed Godwits in various plumages – Dhahran Expro Wader Roost.

Another early morning trip to Dhahran Expro Wader Roost, arriving just before high tide, produced the first returning Broad-billed Sandpipers of the autumn. Three birds were present but remained at the very back of the site and did not allow photographs to be taken of them. A good number of Bar-tailed Godwits have now arrived with some in almost full breeding plumage.
Bar-tailed Godwit
Bar-tailed Godwit
Other waders in summer type plumage included Curlew Sandpiper with a few reasonably well marked Lesser Sand Plovers and Greater Sand Plovers. Other waders seen included plenty of Kentish Plovers, three Ruddy Turnstones, five Whimbrel and ten Eurasian Curlew of the long-billed Subspecies orientalis we get in the Eastern Province. This sub-species breeds around the River Volga and Urals east through central Russia and northern Kazakhstan to central Manchuria and winters in West, East & South Africa, and from the southern Caspian Sea south to the Arabian Gulf and east through southern Asia to eastern China and southern Japan, and south to the Philippines and Greater Sundas.
Curlew Sandpiper
Greater Sand Plover
Kentish Plover
Kentish Plover

14 July 2013

Anderson's Rock Agama - Tanumah

The Anderson's Rock Agama Acanthocercus adramitanus is endemic to the Arabian Peninsula, where it is found in west and south Arabia, from Taif (Saudi Arabia) in the north to Dhofar (Oman) in the east. Its range includes Oman, Yemen, and south western Saudi Arabia and is the most common species of Agama in Yemen. It is also common in Saudi Arabia on rocks. It is a rock dwelling lizard mainly present in mountainous areas and is found to around 2,000 metres above sea level but we saw one at 2200 metres above sea level at Tanumah Park in south-west Saudi Arabia. Populations can be found on vertical rocks, rock steps and amongst boulders often in the vicinity of water. They can occur in precipitous wadis surrounded by dense vegetation, with the animals usually seen on the top of boulders. They do not however require water, obtaining moisture from their insect prey. We saw another lizard at Sallal at Danha which is relatively close (10 kilometres) to Tanumah Park.