30 September 2013

Brown Noddy & Sooty Falcon - Farasan Offshore Islands

On one day we hired a boat from just south of the Farasan Coral Resort. We left at 06:00 hrs and kept the boat for five hours. The boats cost 150-200 SAR per hour which it may be possible to get for a cheaper rate as we were short of time and had no car so did not try to negotiate too hard although the original price was 250 SAR per hour. We started by looking for dolphins but failed to see any and then went to a rocky island to look for a few birds and found my two target species quite quickly, a Brown Noddy and a Sooty Falcon. I only saw one Brown Noddy but it was perched in full view on a rocky island, although taking photographs of it was not easy as it was almost directly into the sun.
Brown Noddy
Brown Noddy
 We also saw Pink-backed Pelican, Striated Herons, Brown Boobys, Lesser Crested Terns, Little Terns, Common Redshanks, Common Sandpipers and Sooty Gulls. We found a big feeding flock of terns but nothing unusual appeared to be in with them. After spending some time looking at the fish and collecting shells with the family, where I saw a Greater Hoopoe Lark, we returned to try to find the dolphins. Luckily I found a huge group, with a minimum of fifty animals, on the way back.
Brown Booby
Pink-backed Pelican
Sooty Gull
A very tired Whinchat landed on the boat but was so close I could hardly photograph it. The boat driver caught the bird by hand but we made him release it. It stayed on the boat for some time before flying off to a close by island. This was a real reminder of how difficult it is for small birds to migrate long distances and how tired they get in the process.
Offshore Island - Farasan Islands

29 September 2013

A few more migrants passing through – Dhahran Hills

An afternoon trip to the ‘patch’ giving me a little more time than normal, as it was the weekend, produced a number of good birds for the camp. The first good birds seen were in the scrubby desert area where a few acacia trees grow. Three Greater Short-toed Larks were feeding along the desert edge of the football field and a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin was feeding in close proximity under a tree by the ditch. Whilst looking along the ditch for other migrants a European Roller flew across and landed on one of the large floodlights. Unfortunately it stayed only for a few seconds before flying off and disappearing. The wet ditch by the football field had a Wood Sandpiper and a Little Stint.
Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin
Greater Short-toed Lark
The main wet ditch is drying out but still had seven Little Stints and a Kentish Plover. The scrubby desert nearby also had a couple of migrants including a Spotted Flycatcher and a Pied Wheatear. The main number of waders were on the settling pond with three Wood Sandpipers, 15 Little Stints, six Black-winged Stilts and three Kentish Plovers. A Grey Heron, seven Common Moorhen and two Little Grebes were also on the water. Good numbers of both Barn Swallow and Sand Martin were passing over in small groups and most unexpectedly an immature Steppe Eagle also flew over the spray field. To round things off I had great views of six Arabian Red Foxes at dusk.
Spotted Flycatcher

28 September 2013

Farasan Kabir - Farasan Islands

Taking your own car is extremely useful as transport is limited on the islands although as mentioned previously unless you do this sometime in advance it will not be possible to get your car booked on the ferry. There are a few cars with drivers who can take you around but the prices they charge are high at 30-60 SAR per hour. Mansur Al Fahad a birding friend from Riyadh kindly sent me some useful words in Arabic to try to say to the driver that he would probably understand: Tour (Jaolah), Gazelle (Ghazal), Birds (Toyor), Vultur (Rukhmh), Boat (Qareb). These may prove extremely useful if you need to hire a local car and driver. Farasan Kabir is the largest island of the Farasan group and is where the ferry lands. The island is mainly coral but there are some quite extensive mangrove stands particularly next to the port. There is as much reef in the Farasan Islands as there is along the entire coastline of Saudi Arabia and as a result there are 231 species of fish, 49 species of reef building coral, 3 species of Dolphin, crustaceans, large numbers of breeding seabirds as well as populations of breeding Western Osprey, Sooty Falcons and Crab Plovers. A remnant population of endangered Dugong also occurs here along with three species of Turtles. The shorebirds can be seen along any of the tidal and reef areas and land birds congregate in the few areas where cover is present, with the best cover the gardens of the Farasan Coral Resort Hotel which held plenty of migrants during our stay. We saw 20+ Yellow Wagtails, two Red-throated Pipits, six Tree Pipits, Whinchat, Northern Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear, Daurian Shrike, Steppe Grey Shrike, Woodchat Shrike, Willow Warbler, four Black-crowned Sparrow Larks, six Crested Larks, four House Crows, three Western Cattle Egrets, ten Barn Swallows, three Sand Martins, one Little Swift and several House Sparrows. Western Osprey, Pink-backed Pelican and 20+ Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were also seen flying over the hotel.
Black-crowned Sparrow Lark
Common Redshank 
Tree Pipit
Plenty of Brown-necked Ravens were seen in various places and along the coast Black-crowned Sparrow Larks, Kentish Plovers, Eurasian Oystercatchers, Eurasian Curlews, Crab Plovers, Greater Sand Plovers, Lesser Sand Plovers, Common Sandpipers, Common Redshanks, Common Ringed Plover, Grey Heron, Indian Reef Herons, Striated Herons and Sooty Gulls. Two White-eyed Gulls were seen amongst the Sooty Gulls.
Brown-necked Raven

27 September 2013

Birding the Farasan Islands

During the long holiday for Saudi Arabia national day my family and I went for three days to the Farasan Islands. This was a family holiday but I took my camera and binoculars and did a bit of birdwatching. Over the next couple of days I will post details about what we saw on the islands. The Farasan Islands are an archipelago in the Red Sea, about 50 kilometres from the city of Jizan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia between 16°29’ and 17°10’ N and 41°30’ and 42°30’ E. The islands were established as a protected area in 1996 by the Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA) and are one of the most important breeding sites for seabirds and shorebirds in the Red Sea, including the endemic White-eyed gulls Larus leucophthalmus and Crab plover Dromas ardeola. The archipelago is comprised of dozens of named islands and innumerable islets and sandbars, with only two of any size Farazan Kabir and Segid. They are joined by a road and bridge and both have settled villages on them. The islands are low lying and their surface is composed of fossilised corals forming low hills with faults forming irregular gullies and cliffs up to ten metres high in some places. The rock surfaces are very rough and as a consequence have little soil cover except for small portions of the wadi beds. On Zefaf island, extensive uplifting has resulted in the formation of a 86 metre high dome known as Jabal Zefaf. High coral reefs form steep sea cliffs along the shoreline of the islands. Sand banks occur where the reefs are absent and salt flats extend from the shoreline to the coral hills. Precipitation in the area is low and hence the islands lack any streams or other water bodies. Sporadic rainfall does occur which creates intermittent water flows toward the sea allowing densely vegetated areas to occur near the shoreline. The high subterranean water table within the islands enables the shrubs to stay green throughout the year. The vegetation of the islands is mainly composed of xerophytic scrub, herbs and perennial grasses. The climate is hot & humid throughout the year and agricultural activities and date cultivation are minimal. All the islands are low lying with the two larger islands having a broken terrain of small hills, gullies and craggy coastal cliffs. The islands comprise a variety of habitat types including mangrove thickets, wet and dry salt marshes, sand dunes, sand plains and tidal flats mainly along the coast with dense scrub of acacia and euphorbia thickets.
Jizan to Farasan Ferry
Farasan Islands Map
You can hire a two-wheel drive Toyota Corolla from Budget Car Hire at Jizan King Abdullah Airport (tel: +966 17 3215776) who are open from 06:00 – 02:00 hrs each day except Friday when they are open 17:00 – 02:00 hrs. I get 40% discount on the price of Budget cars in Saudi Arabia as well as 225 free kilometres instead of the normal 125 kilometres. The car would cost 115 Saudi Arabian Riyals (SAR) per day with an additional 20 SAR collision damage waiver with 0.6 SAR extra per kilometre driven over the limit. I tried numerous times to get the hire car details from Budget to allow me to book the car in advance onto the ferry but I was not able to do so. As a result we were unable to get the car over to the islands.
With the arrival of a new ship in 2006, the travel time between Jizan and Farasan was improved from 3 hours to 1.5 hours. The ticket for the boat is free of cost and as well as people it also carries 35-40 cars. You can book the ferry in advance, if you know the car registration details, in fact you have to do this as otherwise you will not get the car over. We got to the ferry office at 01:00 hrs and waited for it to open at 06:00 hrs and were the first people in the queue as well as the first people to ask about getting a car over but still could not get the car booked on the ferry. The ferry site is https://www.mot.gov.sa/ar/Pages/home.aspx but does not support English so if you don’t speak Arabic then you will need help of someone who does to book the tickets and car. It takes up to ten days to get registered for the site, so ensure you do this well before you travel. The ferries go at 07:00 hrs & 13:00 from Jizan and at 09:00 hrs & 15:30 hrs from Farasan. If you decide not to take your car or cannot book it on the ferry then there is a small parking area within the port where you can leave it free of charge for a short number of days (+/-3 days). Getting on the ferry as a foot passenger is simple although remember to bring your passport or Iqama to enable you to get a ticket at the port booking office which is directly to the left to the port gate. If you failed to get a ticket from the Customs for the ferry, you can avoid further frustration by renting a fluka. Flukas carry up to 12 passengers and have a ticket price is SR50 per person each way. They are faster than the ferry and you can take one at any time you want, but you cannot take the car.  They take about 1hour and can be hired at any time as long as you pay the cost of the minimum number of the passengers which is six or SR 300. As soon as you arrive in Farasan, you need to proceed immediately to the customs office in the town centre to reserve your return ticket to Jizan if you have not got one in advance. STC have installed communication systems providing internet, landline and mobile phone services on the island.
Farasan Fort
There are no taxis on Farasan, only ordinary cars and their owners who will drive you around if you ask. They can be found directly after you get off the ferry or in the small town and will approach you as you get off the ferry. Prices are negotiable with foregners paying more than locals. A trip from the port to the Coral Hotel was 30 – 50 SAR although we got a free lift both ways with a nice Saudi couple who were staying at the same hotel and gave us a lift. If you want to see the Gazelles from the port some try to charge a high price with a 2 hour tour to see gazelles and back to the port costing 250 riyals. We hired a car and driver for five hours for 250 SAR to see the Gazalles from the hotel where the Restaurant manager sorted the car out for us. There are a few small buses from the port to the town that cost about 5 SAR but do not go around the islands. You can rent a boat from near the port and near the Coral Resort Hotel for 150- 200 SAR per hour to go to the small rocky islands where you can see Brown Noddy, Sooty Falcon and up to three species of Dolphins.
Mangroves on Farasan Kabir

We stayed in the Farasan Coral Resort which is probably the best hotel on the islands. There website is http://www.coralhotels.com.sa/fcr_home.asp and the telephone number is +966 17 3160000. The hotel has free wi-fi internet access in the lobby area. They can arrange cars and boats for you, although they do not have any of their own, with cars about 30-50 SAR per hour and boats 150-200 SAR per hour. We also contacted the Farasan Hotel but decided to stay in the Farasan Coral Resort as we had small children and it was on the beach whereas the Farasan Hotel was in the town. We booked the room about one month in advance, prior to that they said it was not possible to reserve a room. We checked the room was still booked for us two days before departure, and all was fine although when we got there they did not have our reservation at hand although a room was soon found for us. The operators on the hotel front desk often do not speak English but the Restaurant manager who is a Bangladeshi can speak excellent English and he is the best person to ask to arrange boats and cars. The hotel cost 450 SAR for a family room for four people.

26 September 2013

Still some waders in the wet ditch – Dhahran Hills

The wet ditch is still proving to be an attractive place for the few birds that are present in Dhahran Hills. As it is one of the only places within the area with standing water the passing waders are very fond of it. The ditch is small but has held three Wood Sandpipers Two Green Sandpipers, five Little Stints and two Black-winged Stilts for the last few weeks. One of the good things about the ditch is you can get close to the birds so if something unusual drops into the area then, hopefully, I will be able to identify it as such.
Wood Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Little Stint
Black-winged Stilt
Several species of doves are also using the water to bathe in with Eurasian Collared Dove the commonest, followed by Laughing Dove, Namaqua Dove and Eurasian Turtle Dove. The Great Reed Warbler appears to have moved off and the only other birds seen in good numbers here are House Sparrow and Crested Lark.

25 September 2013

Western Cattle Egrets returning – Dhahran Hills

The ‘patch’ is still fairly quiet and the pond still has no water. The lack of water on the pond does make the few water birds congregate in only two areas, the wet ditch and the settling pond. Some of these birds move to the nearby spray fields when they have enough water to spray. The only real change in the last week has been the arrival of the first Western Cattle Egrets of the winter. Seven birds were seen last night with five on the settling pond and two more on the spray fields where they appeared to be enjoying the shower from the spray heads. Other birds seen here included ten Yellow Wagtails, one Isabelline Wheatear and one Northern Wheatear. 25+ Barn Swallows and 30+ Sand Martins were hawking insects over the same fields.
Western Cattle Egret
The only other place that had some interesting birds was the settling pond which still had two Wood Sandpipers, one Green Sandpiper, three Little Stints, five Common Moorhens, one little Grebe, six Kentish Plovers and a Common Snipe.
Wood Sandpiper
Little Stint

24 September 2013

Male Arabian Red Fox – Dhahran Hills

On my daily birding trip through Dhahran hills in the evening I found a really smart looking male Arabian Red Fox. I had seen one earlier at distance on the dried up bottom of the percolation pond and moved around the pond edge to try to get closer. The fox disappeared but I found the same or another on the nearby rocky boulder strew bank and got reasonably close to the animal. The last few I have seen have been worn and dishevelled females with cubs but this one was in fine fettle and was an adult male. It has been an excellent year for foxes in Dhahran this year and I have had better views this year than any year previously. I always enjoy seeing the foxes as they are really beautiful animals, and this was no exception.

23 September 2013

Purple Heron – Dhahran Hills

The Purple Heron Ardea purpura is an uncommon passage migrant from March to June and August to November that is rarely seen in summer and winter. Birds are more common in autumn with juveniles predominating although plenty of adults are also seen. Birds mainly frequent inland freshwater habitats but can also be seen along the coast in coastal plant growth. The highest count I have had in Dhahran was nine together, in the reeds of the percolation pond, but singles are much more common. The photographs below were taken in the spray fields where a single bird was seen by some standing water before flying off and landing in a tall tree alongside the percolation pond. This bird is a juvenile which are most common age of birds seen in the autumn. Sabkhat Al Fasl is a good location for Purple Herons in the Eastern Province but, unfortunately many are shot here as it appears to be a favorite species for the hunters.

22 September 2013

Second Calendar Year Crested Honey-Buzzard – Tanumah Park

Crested Honey Buzzard is regarded as a scarce passage migrant and winter visitor to Saudi Arabia with almost all records from the Eastern Province region, all within the last two decades with no records from Saudi Arabia before 1981 (Jennings 1981). There is only one documented summer record from the country of an adult male at Dhahran, Eastern Province, 30 July 2011 (Babbington 2012). The species is not documented as occurring in the south-west of Saudi Arabia.

On 5 July 2013 Phil Roberts and I visited Tanumah Park. I have already posted details of what we saw there including a photograph of a bird we thought was a European Honey-Buzzard. Yoav Perlman kindly dropped me an e-mail saying the bird looked a little odd and had features of both European Honey-Buzzard and Crested Honey Buzzard and suggested I contact one of the world authorities on the birds. As I know Andrea Corso I sent him an email and he very kindly replied with the following information.The bird was identified as a 2nd calendar year from the pale cere, the dark‘fingers’, the tail pattern and the pattern of retained secondaries and is a female from the moulted primary pattern, the pale iris and the wing and tail shape. It was moulting its inner primaries with the innermost primaries new on both wings, while P5 was missing (possibly growing or still to grow) giving the bird a wing formula like in European Honey Buzzard Pernis apivorus. This is a very interesting record as it is only the second documented record of the species in summer in Saudi Arabia and is in a region more than 1000 kilometres away from the Eastern Province where the previous summer record occurred. Unfortunately, as all pernis migrate with active wing moult, it is not possible to know if the bird summered in the region was an early migrant. Another interesting point about this record is the species is also not documented as occuring in south-west Saudi Arabia although Rob Tovey (pers comm) informed me of one record from the southwest at Najran, Najran Province, an adult male December 2012 seen by Lou Regenmorter and another bird, a second calendar year male February 2012 at the same location, which was not positively identified but looked promising for the species. This makes this record only the second or third documented record from SW Saudi Arabia.

One of the good things, in my opinion, of having a blog is birders with more knowledge than me can correct identification mistakes. They normally, like Yoav did, do so in a very kind and respectful way. Then I can get advice form other authorities and try to broaden my knowledge of the birds identification features and their status in Saudi Arabia. I would like to thank Yoav Perlman for giving me a ‘heads up’ that this may be something other than a European Honey Buzzard and Andrea Corso for taking the time to look at the photos and correctly identify the bird. I would also like to thank Rob Tovey for supplying me with data of the two south-west Saudi Arabian records.

21 September 2013

Lesser Grey Shrike autumn migration through the Eastern Province

Until recently the Lesser Grey Shrike Lanius minor range covered most parts of Europe, the Middle East south of west Siberia to central Asia.  The European population has declined in numbers and its range has contracted in recent years. Vaurie treated the eastern populations as a different subspecies Lanius minor turanicus inhabiting the Caucuses, Iran, Afghanistan, Central Asia and west Siberia. This subspecies apparently had a paler colouration for juveniles and first winter birds with a characteristic warm sandy hue with adults showing a warm tinge to the underparts and reduced black on the forehead and a slightly larger size. Lesser Grey Shrike migration of eastern populations occurs through Iran and the Arabian Peninsula to their wintering areas in Africa, with adult birds leaving Kazakhstan in early August and by the end of the month only first year birds remain in this region. Subspecific identification in the field is difficult and the birds in Eastern Saudi Arabia may be either L. m. minor or L. m. turanicus if it is a valid subspecies.

A good ‘fall’ of Lesser Grey Shrikes occurred at Sabkhat Al Fasl 24 August 2013 with a minimum of ten birds seen scattered around the whole site. This is easily the largest number of birds of this species I have seen in Saudi Arabia in a single day but is a typical date for locating them as autumn migration through the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia occurs quite early stretching from mid-August to mid-September but occasionally into October. Autumn migration is less regular than spring migration when birds are normally seen from late April until June. In some autumns no birds are recorded at all and it is thought that most birds overfly the coastal zone during this period.

20 September 2013

Western White Stork still present – Dhahran Hills

The Western White Stork, was still present at the same football field along with the juvenile Collared Pratincole yesterday. This time the light was better as I got to the field earlier in the evening and managed to get a few better photographs. Yellow Wagtail numbers had increased with a few smart looking beema types about. The wet ditch still holds three Little Stints, one Green Sandpiper and one Wood Sandpiper and the Great Reed Warbler is still flitting about in the small patches of reeds growing along the edge of the ditch. Very few other birds are around in this area apart from a few European Bee-eaters flying over calling and several Eurasian Hoopoes looking for food in the soft banks.
Western White Stork
Western White Stork
Western White Stork
Western White Stork
Collared Pratincole - juvenile
Collared Pratincole - juvenile
Collared Pratincole - juvenile

 The best bird seen around the spray fields and pond was an adult Southern Grey Shrike in the bushes near the pond. The only other real sign of migration was plenty of Yellow Wagtails on the fields and scrubby desert area and several Sand Martins flying over the settling pond where waders included Black-winged Stilt, Little Stint, Wood Sandpiper and Kentish Plover in varying numbers. A juvenile Purple Heron was seen in the ate evening flying over the scrubby desert area as it was getting dark.
Yellow Wagtail - beema

19 September 2013

Western White Stork new 'Patch' species – Dhahran Hills

On 17 September I found a Western White Stork ciconia ciconia ciconia feeding on a grassy football field at the bottom on Dhahran School near the scrubby desert area. The bird was quite happy feeding on the insects on the grass until a runner came by and flushed it up the field. Then another runner flushed it again this time onto a tall floodlight pole where it stayed until I left after about an hour. On the way back home a quick check of the area failed to locate the bird. Phil mentioned this was the first record of Western White Stork for Dhahran since the early 1990's and was a new 'Patch' as well as Saudi Arabia tick for both Phil and myself. The last record for the Eastern Province that I know of was a single bird at Sabkhat Al Fasl 25 May 2012 foud by Sander Willems.

The Western White Stork is an uncommon migrant to all areas of Saudi Arabia mostly in autumn. They are usually seen singly or in small numbers but once a group of 70 occurred in Riyadh. Winter records are rare but a single bird wintered at Tabuk one year. In the Eastern Province they are a scarce and irregular migrant. Most records have been in the autumn from August to mid-October with a well marked peak in late August. The latest record was one 15 kilometres north of Haradh 2 November 1965. The largest flock was 71 which came to roost at Abqaiq 9 October 1982. Most birds move on quickly although a group at Haradh stayed for a week from 28 September 1894. Spring records are very scarce with birds seen in late April and early May. In 1986 when conditions were exceptionally favourable small numbers overwintered at an inundated area to the west of Dammam Second Industril City during January to March. Birds are thought to pass over the area unnoticed which is borne out by a paper on electrocution and collision of birds with power lines in Saudi Arabia by Mohammed Shobrak (2012) where he recorded 242 dead birds in 2008 with 150 dead birds found on 29 August 2008 alone. The power line surveyed was 100 kilometres south of Jeddah on the west coast of Saudi Arabia.

18 September 2013

Collared Pratincole – Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding Dhahran Hills I came across a grassy field with hundreds of birds present on it. Most of the birds were House Sparrows and Common Mynas but quite a few Yellow Wagtails were scattered in amongst them. As I was watching, a juvenile Collared Pratincole flew in and landed on the grass and allowed quite close approach as it ran around the grass field catching insects. This is the first Collared Pratincole I have seen on the ‘patch’ this autumn and was a pleasant surprise, as I have not seen one on a field before. Two other waders were also present, one Ruff and a Wood Sandpiper but they did not stay long. Other migrants on the field included an Isabelline Wheatear and several Eurasian Hoopoes. A single Little Egret flew over, probably looking for somewhere to land but as there is no water on the pond it had nowhere to go. This is the first Little Egret I have seen in Dhahran for many months. A Purple Heron was seen flying over a little further down towards the scrubby desert area.
Collared Pratincole - juvenile
Collared Pratincole - juvenile
Eurasian Hoopoe
Little Egret