31 August 2013

Al Kaseer Lake, Zulfi – Bird records by Mansur Al Fahad

Mansur Al Fahad went birding at Al Kaseer Lake over the last two weeks and found some interesting birds. Zulfi in north central Saudi Arabia is his home town which has good birding habitat. One issue is the lack of open water available to bird-watch although there is a water purification plant (to be used in the irrigation of public parks) that contains four large lakes, but unfortunately does not allow entry without permission. A sewage treatment plant is located in the north which again does not allow entry. Luckily the torrential rains of the night of 11 April 2103 produced enough water to fill Al- Kaseer Lake (20 km north-east of Zulfi) which is a huge lake when full. The lake is accessed easily by paved road from Zulfi, and is on the main Zulfi – Hafar al Batin road east of the city of Zulfi (route 60). The turning to the lake is located next to the equestrian field and is on the left hand side. Drive up this road for 12 kilometres and the lake can be seen some distance to the east (right).
Collared Pratincole
Broad-billed Sandpiper
Black-winged Stilt
Common Sandpiper
Pied Avocets
Common Ringed Plover
Terek Sandpiper

The lake has extensive muddy edges, although this causes a problem when taking photographs. Another problem is many people come in the morning and breakfast near the water or come in the afternoon for tea and stay a make dinner, which makes the birds is very cautious. Mansur saw a good number of waders of many different species with an inland Broad-billed Sandpiper being slightly unusual. Other good birds seen were a flock of Pied Avocets and Collared Pratincole with other waders including Common Ringed Plover, Ruff, Dunlin, Little Stint, Black-winged Stilt, Common Sandpiper, Wood Sandpiper and Terek Sandpiper. Two species of tern were also present in the form of Gull-billed Tern and White-winged Tern. The below photographs are a sample of what Mansur saw and are taken with his 600mm Canon ISII lens and 1.4x converter. I thank him for allowing me permission to reproduce his excellent photographs the copyright of which remains with Mansur.
White-winged Tern
Gull-billed Tern

30 August 2013

Plenty of migrants – Sabkhat Al Fasl

An early morning trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl had us arriving in the hope of seeing Egyptian Nightjar. August is the best month for seeing this species at the site and one was seen last weekend apparently, but alas we failed. We did, however, have a very good mornings birding before it became too hot to continue. The first bird we saw was an early Spotted Flycatcher in the trees along the entrance track. After moving to the back of the site we found plenty of Purple Swamphens that are now seen more regularly that the disturbance has reduced. A single Eurasian Curlew was out of place at the reed edge and a few Squacco Herons were present. A Lesser Grey Shrike was seen along the reeds, which was joined by three more birds, with a total of ten seen during the day. Other shrikes seen were a single very worn Turkestan/Daurian Shrike and a single Southern Grey Shrike. Barn Swallows and Sand Martins were plentiful but the next surprise was an adult European Roller. European Rollers can be seen in August but they are almost invariably juveniles so seeing an adult was a surprise. Late on we saw another juvenile bird and probably a second adult making three birds in total. A few terns were flying around including White-cheeked and Little Terns but not much else.
European Roller
Moving around the site we located a few Isabelline Wheatears, some hiding under the bushes out of the hot sun. Plenty of Yellow Wagtails in various plumages were seen and heard and four Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins were along the reed edges. European Hoopoe is a migrant to the site and up to ten were seen during the day. A walk along the scrubby reed edges produced no Egyptian Nightjars but we did see an odd warbler in the scrub that turned out to be a European Reed Warbler. Groups of Green Sandpipers including one of sixteen together were seen and several Black-winged Stilts. Other waders were six Little Stints, two Temminck’s Stints, two Little Ringed Plovers and a Wood Sandpiper.
Isabelline Wheatear
Temminck's Stint

Going to the flooded Sabkhat area produced a huge number of waders. Thousands of birds were seen here, mainly Dunlin, Little Stint, Kentish Plover and Lesser Sand Plover with several thousand of each. Plenty of Greater Sand Plover, Terek Sandpipers and hundreds of Common Ringed Plovers were seen with eleven Broad-billed Sandpipers feeding along the muddy margins. Two juvenile Collared Pratincoles were seen by another local birder but not by me. Large numbers of terns were also seen including hundreds of Little Terns and Gull-billed Terns, one White-winged Tern and three Caspian Terns. Ten Pied Avocets, 11 Garganey, 50+ Greater Flamingos and several Ruddy Turnstones made up the remainder of the good birds seen. All in all this turned out to be a good mornings birding and we left for home happy with our efforts.
White-winged Tern

29 August 2013

Migration picking up – Dhahran Hills

Passage migration is slowly picking up in Dhahran with a number of new birds being seen daily. The wet drainage ditch and settling ponds are holding a reasonable number of waders with Little Stints being the commonest and up to 20 birds seen daily. Kentish Plover numbers are also high with a maximum daily count of 19 recorded. Wood Sandpipers and Green Sandpipers have both been seen in double figures and seven Black-winged Stilts the highest count of this species.  The best birds seen in the spray fields have been two European Rollers, three Northern Wheatears, one Isabelline Wheatear, four Yellow Wagtails and 10+ Namaqua Doves that again appear to have had a good breeding season. Fifteen Barn Swallows and three Sand Martins made up the rest of the migrants seen.
Little Stint
Little Stint
Little Stint
Wood Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Kentish Plover
Kentish Plover
European Roller
Northern Wheatear
Yellow Wagtail

28 August 2013

Early migration through Zulfi – Bird records by Mansur Al Fahad

Mansur Al Fahad is a very good Saudi Arabian birdwatcher, as well as all round naturalist, who currently lives in Riyadh, but who is originally from Zulfi (north-central Saudi Arabia). Mansur has previously sent me photographs of a number of lizards he has seen in the region as well as helped me with the identification of a lizard I saw at Sabkhat Al Fasl in the Eastern Province. Recently he sent me some excellent photographs, which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce here, taken with his new camera set up of a Canon 7D and 600mm F4 ISII which he took when on holiday in his original home town of Zulfi in August. Copyright of the below photos remains with Mansur.

Zulfi consists of five main environments:
1 - Sand dunes with some shrubs and palm oases constitute two-thirds of the area and are mainly in the north and west.
2 – The eastern plateau with high ground and valleys with some acacia trees and shrubs.
3 – The sharp western edge of the plateau overlooking the city with good vegetation cover and valleys.
4 - Farms around the city consisting mostly of palm plantations, animal feed fields and vegetables
5 - Large farms in western Zulfi (in the sandy plains), for grain and animal feed (pivot irrigation) with some new palm plantations.

Central Saudi Arabia has quite a different birding fauna to the Eastern Province and birds pass through the region and slightly different times and in slightly different numbers. Mansur photographed a number of birds that have yet to come through the Eastern Province this autumn, as far as I am aware, including White-throated Robin and Greater Short-toed Lark. White-throated Robin is a very scarce autumn migrant through the Eastern Province with only two documented records until 1989 (Bundy et al) although it is more regular in spring. Large numbers of this species have recently been seen in the Abha region of South-west Saudi Arabia indicating it has a westerly migration route in autumn through Saudi Arabia. Greater Short-toed Lark is seen in autumn from September until October in the Eastern Province, but again is commoner in spring, showing this species passes earlier through central Saudi Arabia than the east of the country. These records appear to show that Zulfi is on a migration route of a number of birds that do not occur as regularly further east in the country.
White-throated Robin
Greater Short-toed Lark

All the other birds Mansur sent me photographs of have been seen in the Eastern Province this autumn with some resident bird numbers increasing due to passing migrants. Eurasian Hoopoe, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin are examples of three species whose breeding numbers are greatly increased by passing migrants. European Reed Warbler may or may not breed in the Eastern Province but is an early passage migrant with both races including the eastern race Caspian Reed Warbler fuscus passing through. Marsh Warbler is a difficult bird to identify in the field but has been recorded by both Mansur and birders in the Eastern Province this autumn.
Upcher's Warbler
Eurasian Hoopoe
Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin
European Reed Warbler
Marsh Warbler
I would like to thank Mansur for allowing me to use his excellent photographs and hope to have a few more of his excellent photos to post in the coming days.

27 August 2013

Crab Plovers – Dhahran Expro Wader Roost

An evening trip to the Dhahran Expro Wader roost meant the light was in the wrong direction for viewing on the flooded back area of the site. Luckily many of the birds were on the front area of exposed mud and these waders included three Crab Plovers. One adult was on its own with a group of 11 Eurasian Oystercathcers and the other two an adult and juvenile. Although I have seen Crab Plovers at the nearby Dammam Al Khobar Wader Roost South I have not seen them at this site before so this was an interesting sight. Crab Plovers pass through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in small numbers form July to October.
Crab Plover with Eurasian Oystercatchers & Bar-tailed Godwits
Crab Plover
Crab Plovers

Plenty of other waders were present including ten Broad-billed Sandpipers, ten Whimbrels, 50+ Bar-tailed Godwits, 12 Ruddy Turnstones, two Common Greenshanks, one Marsh Sandpiper, 25 Common Redshanks, 200+ Greater Sand Plovers, 100+ Lesser Sand Plovers and 50+ Little Stints.

26 August 2013

A few early migrants – Dhahran Hills

The dry conditions, high temperatures of over 40 degrees centigrade and no water in the percolation pond have made the conditions at Dhahran less than ideal for migrants. Having said that, there are still a few birds passing, mainly waders on the settling pond and wet ditches, but also a few passerines. Isabelline Wheatear is always one of the first returning passerines and I saw two birds on the spray fields. Three Barn Swallows were also flying over this area hunting for insects.
Isabelline Wheatear
Doves are still about in good numbers with most being European Collared Doves, less numbers of Namaqua Doves, one European Turtle Dove and one a few Rock Doves. European Turtle Dove has been scarce this year with very few records compared to the previous two years. They are in serious decline worldwide due to hunting and habitat change in their breeding and wintering areas.
European Turtle Dove

Namaqua Dove - adult female

25 August 2013

A few waders in the ditch – Dhahran Hills

With the percolation pond dry and the spray fields also not spraying at full capacity there are limited places for waders to go on the ‘patch’ at the moment. One exception is the drainage ditch at the edge of the scrubby desert area and as this almost always holds at least some water the passage waders are being attracted to this area. There were three Little Ringed Plovers, two Black-winged Stilts, seven Little Stints, three Green Sandpipers, two Wood Sandpipers and a Kentish Plover. Other birds using the ditch included several House Sparrows, seven Indian Mynas and three European Collared Doves.
Green Sandpiper
Kentish Plover 
Little Ringed Plover
Little Stint
Wood Sandpiper

24 August 2013

Raydah Ridge

At first light on out last day 6 July, we were at the top of the Raydah Escarpment but this time we drove along the ridge to the left of the entrance in the hope of locating Philby’s Partridge. Birds have been seen in this area previously including May 2002 but Lou had been along a similar path the day before and failed to locate any birds and despite extensive searching we also failed. We did see a Montane Nightjar on the road just below the turn to the Raydah Escarpment that gave good if brief views and we will be looking for this species again on our next trip to the area. There were plenty of birds about along the ridge including good numbers of Yemen Linnet, a pair of African Stonechats, one Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, three Eurasian Hoopoes, two Common Kestrels, two Long-billed Pipits, five Fan-tailed Ravens, five White-spectacled Bulbuls, three Scrub Warblers, four Yemen Thrushes, two Red-breasted Wheatears, 20+ Yemen Linnets and two Dusky Turtle Doves.
Cinnamon-breasted Bunting
Eurasian Hoopoe
Yemen Linnet
African Stonechat - female
African Stonechat - male
Dusky Turtle Dove

23 August 2013

Tale’a Valley

At just over 3000 m Jebal Souda is the highest peak in Saudi Arabia and includes the Raydah protected area on its western escarpment, and is surrounded by a plateau, mostly over 2500 m. The juniper Juniperus procera forests in the highlands are probably the most extensive anywhere in Arabia and there are also some thickly wooded acacia valleys. The road to Mount Soudah is in very good condition up to the top, although a little steep, and is well signposted from the city of Abha. There are several car parks and picnic areas to stop at and have a look around as you approach the summit, many of which are good for birds. We did not bird this area this trip as it was holiday season and the traffic going to the top of Mount Souda was ridiculous with gridlock each afternoon. We did bird the Tale’a Valley, situated off the main road from Abha to Mount Soudah. The road goes through some good farmland with cultivated fields and ravines or wadis with acacia trees growing in them. This has previously been a good site for the endemic Arabian Woodpecker and Arabian Wheatear and the Asir race of the European Magpie has also been seen here. 
Ruppell's Weaver
We birded this site in the early afternoon of 5 July and did so by driving down the road until we saw some nice areas of acacia trees. The primary species we were looking for at this site was Arabian Woodpecker whose preferred habitat is acacia woodland with the occasional dead tree interspersed. We found a nice looking wadi full of big trees and the occasional dead one and set about trying to locate the woodpecker. We failed here but found 20+ Gambaga Flycatchers, five White-spectacled Bulbuls, five Ruppell’s Warblers, ten House Sparrows, one Scrub Warbler, five Little Rock Thrush, one Cinnamon Breasted Bunting, five Arabian Warblers, five Arabian Babblers, ten Ruppell’s Weavers, two Dusky Turtle Doves and several Laughing Doves. Three Red-breasted Wheatears were hopping about the rocks and one Arabian Wheatear was also present.
Little Rock Thrush
Gambaga Flycatcher
 After failing at the first site we started driving back to an area where Lou had seen birds previously. On the way we found another good-looking area of trees and stopped again to look. Here we found a female Arabian Woodpecker that flew out of a dead tree and into some green trees where it started finding food. Females lack the red patch on the head of males. This was one of my three missing endemics and I was very pleased to find one, even if it did not give great views.
Arabian Woodpecker