30 November 2013

A few Common Chiffchaffs - Deffi Park (Jubail)

I went to Deffi Park in Jubail very early in the morning to see if any interesting birds had arrived after the poor weather. Unfortunately when I arrived I found almost all the grass areas had been dug up for new irrigation to be put in place. The park has a large number of well-grown trees so I looked in these to see what may be about. There was one Lesser Whitethroat and 20+ Common Chiffchaffs in the trees but very little else. The only grass area was partly flooded by the recent rain and had five Common Greenshank and two Little Egrets. Common birds seen included White Wagtail, Common Myna, House Sparrow and Laughing Dove. The only other birds on note were a Eurasian Sparrowhawk and several hundred Great Cormorant flying over. I hope they re-grass the area soon as this site was very poor without the attraction of the grass for passing birds.
Common Greenshank
Common Myna
Laughing Dove
Common Chiffchaff

29 November 2013

Spur-winged Lapwing again at Ash Sharqiyah Development Farm – Bird records by Dave Kilminster

Dave Kilminster visited Ash Sharqiyah farm at the weekend. The weather was pretty awful – cold and windy, but there were good numbers of birds about. There was not too much on the lake: a large flock of Greater Cormorants, a Little Egret, a Grey Heron, some Little Grebes and a pair of Spur-winged Lapwings. Spur-wined Lapwing was a vagrant to the Eastern Province until a few years ago but now appears to be spreading into the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with birds regularly seen at Ash Sharqiyah farm. It will be interesting to see if they start breeding there soon. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of White Wagtails on the pivot irrigation fields. A pair of suspected common kestrels, but in the wind they moved too fast to conclusive views. A few other raptors were working the fields including Pallid Harrier. There were huge numbers of pipits (I am guessing Water Pipits). A few Desert Wheatears, European Stonechat, Crested Larks and lots of Namaqua Doves.
Spur-winged Lapwing
Dave has also been to Sabkhat Al-Fasl the previous two weeks, but had nothing unusual to report.
North of Jubail, the artificial wetlands where Dave works have seen the Common Ringed Plovers return. There have been four Jack Snipes here for a few months now and the workers watched a Marsh Harrier catch and eat one.

28 November 2013

Waders in the puddles – Dhahran Hills

The heavy rain recently has left large numbers of puddles and small wetlands around the camp. These have been attractive to waders passing through and Green Sandpiper, Little Stint, Ruff and Black-winged Stilt have all been using them. Hundreds of Eurasian Collared Doves arrived after the rains but vey little else was obvious. I found the Eastern Mourning Wheatear again in the same place as last time suggesting it has found this area suitable to winter. I hope this is the case as I have not got any decent photographs of the bird yet. Another good bird in the scrubby desert was a single Asian Desert Warbler, only the second one I have seen in the camp and the first for two years. A Eurasian Sparrowhawk has been seen recently flying around the spray fields and scrubby desert areas. The only other bird of note was a single Daurian/Turkestan Shrike in the spray fields using the spray heads as a perch to hunt from.
Green Sandpiper
Daurian/Turkestan Shrike

27 November 2013

Sanderling a new ‘patch’ species – Dhahran Hills

Whilst birding the ‘patch’ during the week I have come across a couple of interesting birds. Two were on the settling ponds with the best being two Sanderlings feeding along the stone edges and muddy fringes. This is the first time I have seen the species on my local patch and takes my total to 202 species. They are an uncommon winter visitor and passage migrant to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and winter along the littoral where they are present from August through May. On passage a few birds occur regularly inland. In Saudi Arabia as a whole they are regarded as a common migrant and winter visitor to all coasts.

 The other good bird seen on the settling pond was a Baillon’s Crake feeding in a small clump of reeds growing in the middle of the pond. The bird showed well and good ‘scope’ views were obtained before it disappeared into the reeds and could not be re-found. Other birds included two Ruff, two Black-tailed Godwits and two Clamorous Reed Warblers. The trees around the percolation pond had a first calendar year Greater Spotted Eagle sitting in them and nine Great Cormorants were seen flying over.

26 November 2013

A scattering of birds – Khafrah Marsh

A visit to Khafrah Marsh on the way back from Sabkhat Al Fasl, primarily to see if I could see any sign of breeding Purple Swamphens failed to locate the Swamphens but produced a number of good birds. Two Great Crested Grebes were swimming on the water and a flock of four Pochards flew over and around before deciding there may be better places to land. A single Western Marsh Harrier was seen over the red beds and two Caspian Terns were flying over fishing. One Great Cormorant flew in, landed and started fishing in the middle of the lake and 20+ Indian Reef Herons and Little Egrets few around and landed in a small flock at the back of the Marsh. A few waders, mainly Common Ringed Plovers, Kentish Plovers and Black-winged Stilts were feeding along the muddy edges of the marsh and Clamorous Reed warblers were calling from the reeds.
Indian Reef Heron
Caspian Tern
Great Cormorant

25 November 2013

Black Kites in Tabuk – Bird records by Viv Wilson

Viv has been out looking for birds again and is constantly finding birds of prey to photograph. He took a number of photographs over the weekend of Black Kites in the area including adults and juveniles some of which show features of Black-eared Kites. The trouble is there is a big interbreeding area of Black Kite and Black-eared Kite that makes identifying anything but very obvious birds tricky. Viv also took a nice photograph of an adult type Steppe Eagle showing the underwing pattern very nicely which was published with yesterdays post. Viv has once again allowed me to use his photographs on my website and I thank him very much.

24 November 2013

Steppe Eagle over the Golf Course – Dhahran

The last few days on the ‘patch’ have been interesting but still only a few birds are present. There have, however, been a number of different species passing through that have kept the interest levels up. One such bird was an adult type Steppe Eagle flying over the Golf Course. I had not seen Steppe Eagle in Dhahran until this autumn but this is now my third sighting so, hopefully, it will be a good year for raptors. I did not have my camera with me when I saw the Steppe Eagle but Viv Wilson took a very nice photo of a similar bird at Tabuk this week and kindly sent it to me and allowed me to use it on my website which is shown below. 
Steppe Eagle

 Other birds of interest were four Eurasian Skylarks feeding around on one of the football fields with the large numbers of Water Pipits and White Wagtails. I was hoping one may be a Small Skylark, but unfortunately they were not. An Isabelline Wheatear was the first record of that species I have seen on the camp for a few weeks and the number of Western Cattle Egrets have now built up to a minimum of thirty birds. Another interesting sight was a number of small flocks of Great Cormorants flying over looking to see if the percolation pond had water in it, but unluckily for them it is still dry.

23 November 2013

Large numbers of Common Black-headed Gulls – Dhahran Hills

The poor weather with large amounts of rain has left puddles and small lakes all over the place where there is normally desert. As a result Black-headed Gulls have been taking advantage of the water to rest on, fly around and generally enjoying themselves. It is not unusual too see large numbers of the species flying over the camp, but they seldom stop and the current numbers are the largest I have seen since I have been here. At the peak there were probably 60+ birds around. Waders are also enjoying the new wet areas with good numbers of Ruff totalling 22 birds. Little Stint numbers are in double figures and two Common Greenshanks and a Common Redshank were in the wet fields. The best waders were two Ruddy Turnstones, although they only stayed briefly before flying off. A Clamorous Reed Warbler was enjoying the rain and plenty of Water Pipits and White Wagtails were doing likewise. Just as it was getting dark a Northern Shoveler flew in a landed for the night.
Common Black-headed Gull
Common Redshank
Northern Shoveller

22 November 2013

ascalaphus sub-species of Pharaoh Eagle Owl in Saudi Arabia? – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl I found a Pharaoh Eagle Owl Bubo ascalaphus sitting on the ground under some vegetation near one of the water pumping stations (see below four photos). The species is a scarce but widespread breeding resident from areas including the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter), Abqaiq, Hufuf, northern Hejaz, Tabuk, Hail, Riyadh and northern areas such as Harrat al Harrah Reserve. It also appears to be a winter visitor in small numbers to Northern, Eastern and Central areas of Saudi Arabia.  The bird shows all the important features of Pharaoh Eagle Owl of mottled tawny upperparts and head; creamy-white underparts with light black streaks on upper-breast and barred but unstreaked lower-breast, belly and flanks; good dark frame/boarder to the facial disk; small ear tuffs. 

The Pharaoh Eagle Owl is distributed throughout much of North Africa and the Middle East, with two recognised subspecies. The subspecies Bubo ascalaphus ascalaphus occupies the northern part of the species range, being found in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, northern Egypt and Israel east to western Iraq. By contrast, the smaller, paler and sandier coloured Bubo ascalaphus desertorum can be found in the Sahara Desert south to Mauritania & Niger and from Western Sahara, east, to Sudan, as well as in Eritrea, Ethiopia and much of the Arabian Peninsula, as far south as northern Oman and as far east as southern Iraq. They are found in arid habitats, including open desert plains, rocky outcrops and broken escarpments and jabals, mountain cliffs and wadis. Most records from Saudi Arabia have been attributed to the pale B. a. desertorum but the bird I found at Sabkhat Al Fasl and another bird (or possibly the same individual) seen in a similar area two weeks before appear to be different and appear to be the sub-species B. a. ascalaphus. The bird I found at Sabkhat Al Fasl appears to be a different bird to the earlier individual, as my bird was in a different location, had a sick left eye and was in a much better and healthier overall condition. This could have happened in the three weeks between sightings but all three facts make it likely to be a different bird, particularly as a number of birders have been to the site and have failed to locate the first owl.

The above compilation shows the differences in plumage between birds seen in Saudi Arabia.
The top left bird is a really obvious pale looking B. a. desertorum photographed in northern Saudi Arabia, north-east of Hafar Al Batin by AbdulRahman Al-Sirhan
The top right bird is an intermediate plumage bird photographed by myself at Jebal Nayriyyah north-east Saudi Arabia.
The bottom left is an intermediate bird photographed by Mansour Al Fahad in Zulfi north-Central Saudi Arabia, August 2013
The bottom middle is a dark B. a. ascalaphus type bird photogrpahed by Dave Kilminster at Sabkhat Al Fasl 1 November 2013
The bottom right bird is a dark B. a. ascalaphus type bird from Sabkhat Al Fasl 15 November 2013 (possibly a different bird to the middle photo).
B. a. desertorum - AbdulRahmen Al-Sirhan
Intermediate type more like B. a. desertorum - Manour Al Fahad
B. a. ascalaphus - Dave Kilminster
It is possible that the resident breeding population is B. a. desertorum and some of the winter migrants at least are B. a. ascalaphus. I would like to thank AbdulRahman Al-Sirhan, Mansour Al Fahad and Dave Kilminster for allowing me to publish their photos of Pharaoh Eagle Owl and allowing me to compare the two sub-species together.

21 November 2013

Black-necked Grebe new ‘patch’ species – Dhahran Hills

The weather has been very rough the last few days with heavy rain, flooding, thunderstorms and strong wind. Not good conditions for birding but good ones for bringing in new birds. I went to the patch on a day when it was relatively dry and calm (still raining and windy) to see if anything new had come in. I went to the usual places with little luck until I got to the settling pond. Here there were plenty of birds with a good selection of waders and a few birds floating on the water. Most were Little Grebes but a striking black and white grebe with a blood red eye was obviously a Black-necked Grebe, the first time I have seen the species on the ‘patch’ and a very welcome addition. They have been seen quite regularly in the past but this is the first one in the last three years. I had been expecting to see one on the percolation pond rather than the settling pond, but as the percolation pond is still dry the bird had little choice as to where it could go.

The Black-necked Grebe is a regular visitor to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia from late August until March but is generally scarce in April and May and rare in the summer. It is usually local in coastal waters but counts of over 40 are not unusual in Half Moon Bay. Small numbers occur inland on freshwater habitats. Elsewhere in Saudi Arabia it is an irregular winter visitor to Riyadh, Tabuk and the Red Sea.

20 November 2013

Plenty of Waders and ducks – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl was excellent on Saturday 16 November. I arrived early in the morning and the light was only just starting to allow birds to be seen. As nearly always in winter at this site the first bird I saw was a first calendar year Greater Spotted Eagle and over the day I saw a minimum for four birds. Plenty of Western Marsh Harriers were flying over the reeds and at least ten Squacco Herons were in the reed beds. Good numbers of Water Pipit and White wagtails were present as were plenty of Bluethroats, mainly female and immature birds. Terns were also seen in good numbers with 50+ Caspian Terns, ten Gull-billed Terns and two Whiskered Terns were also present.
Caspian Tern
Squacco Heron
Greater Spotted Eagle
Birds seen along the reed edge included three Daurian Shrikes and two Turkestan Shrikes as well as a male Caspian Stonechat showing off its tail nicely. A Pharaoh Eagle Owl was also seen very well near one of the water pumping stations and I will post details of this record in the next few days. This may have been the same bird as seen by Dave Kilminster two weeks before but was probably a different bird to the earlier individual, as my bird was in a different location, had a sick left eye and was in a much better and healthier overall condition. This could have happened in the two weeks between sightings but all three facts make it likely to be a different bird, particularly as a number of birders have been to the site and have failed to locate the first owl. As always a number of Purple Swamphens were present feeding along the reedy edge and at least three Common Snipe and a Jack Snipe were hiding in the wet reed margins and plenty of Clamorous Reed Warblers were calling from the reed beds. Large numbers, maybe as many as 700 Great Cormorants were flying around in a large flock and several small groups of Greater Flamingos were doing likewise, numbers of which should build up as winter progresses.

Greater Flamingo

The flooded sabkha area held a lot of waders, ducks and terns. Five Common Shelducks were the first ones of the winter and 23 Eurasian Widgeon, six Northern Pintails and five Pochards were also present. Waders were mainly made up of Dunlin, Little Stint and Common Ringed Plover but plenty of Common Redshank, Common Greenshank and Black-winged Stilts were also present. A large gathering of Pied Avocet was also located with 144 birds scattered over the sabkha. Another interesting bird seen here was a male Desert Wheatear, the first one I have seen for some time.
Common Ringed Plover
Black-winged Stilt
Desert Wheatear

19 November 2013

Scarce birds in the Al Hassa area (part 2) – Bird records by Shaheen

Continuing on from the last post are some more photos from a local photographer Shaheen who apparently took all the photographs in the area of Al Hassa. I am documenting them here as they are very important ornithologically, and will post further details if they become available. All the photographs below were taken by Shaheen who has given permission for me to use them on my website.

Caspian Plover Charadrius asiaticus is an uncommon but regular passage migrant in the Eastern Province in small numbers during March and April and again from late July until early September. The peak passage of adults is during March and again from August when juveniles are also frequently seen. A flock of 500 was seen in late March 1982 on the northern steppes with other good numbers from the same area including 45 on the Dibdibah 14 April 1983, 30 there 4 November 1983 and 100 in the same area 28 March 1985. Most sightings occur away from the coast but they are often near inland waters. The photograph below was taken near Lake Al Asfar, Al Hassa in 2013?
Kentish Plover
Caspian Plover
Hypocolius Hypocolius ampelinus is an uncommon but regular winter visitor to the Eastern Province from November to April. It is unobtrusive and easily overlooked, frequenting thick palm scrub in oasis and cultivated areas often near settlements. It has been noted at widely scattered locations from Hanidh in the north to Haradh in the south with the highest count being 85-120 at Salasil in December 1983. Migrants have been seen in November and April, with odd males at Haradh and Al Kharj away from the normal palms suggesting migration during those months. Elsewhere in Saudi Arabia it is an uncommon, but may be locally common, winter visitor to Central Arabia, Northen Hejaz, Hejaz and Northern Red Sea. Some large winter roosts have been recorded in Riyadh.
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse Pterocles exustus  is a common and widespread breeding resident on the Tihamah and southern Red Sea coastlands, less common in the Northern Hejaz north to Rabigh with all records below 1000 metres. Most records come from the Tihamah with small flocks of 10-50 birds regularly seen. The species is rare in Central Saudi Arabia and has not been recorded in the Eastern Province. The photograph below is thus very interesting as it shows a number of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse (unfortunately) shot apparently near Al Hassa in 2013? If this can be confirmed this would be the first record of the species for the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia as far as I know.
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse

18 November 2013

Winter birds – Dhahran Hills

Winter really feels like it has arrived now in the Eastern Province. The days are getting shorter with very little time to go birding after work now and most of the winter species in the camp in good numbers. The most obvious winter visitor is the Water Pipit that is showing in good numbers on the sandy areas around the settling pond as well as on all the playing fields. White Wagtails are almost always associated with these gatherings of Water Pipits and there are hundreds of both species present now. Bluethroats have also arrived but their more secretive nature makes them more difficult to see. Another winter visitor that I have seen regularly over the past few days is the European Sparrowhawk normally chasing the Water Pipit and Wagtail flocks. Previously there have been sightings of Goshawk at about this time of year but I have not see anything resembling one since I have been in Saudi Arabia – maybe next week?
Water Pipit
Water Pipit

17 November 2013

Hybrid Red-backed Shrike at Hidd (Bahrain) - Bird record by Jehad Alammadi

When I was ringing in Bahrain at Alba Marsh I met a birdwatcher and photographer called Jehad Alammadi who told me about an interesting shrike he had seen and photographed in Bahrain earlier in the year that may have been a Bay-backed Shrike. This would have been a first for Bahrain as far as I know if it was one so I asked Jehad if he could send me a photo of the bird. He kindly did this saying he had taken the photos of the bird on 27 April 2013 in Hidd Town near an area called ‘Dry Dock’ which it is located near the sea on the north east of the Kingdom of Bahrain. When I got the photos the bird did not look like a Bay-backed Shrike but rather a Red-backed Shrike x Turkestan Shrike hybrid as it had a lot of white in the closed wing and rufous outer tail feathers. The black face mask and amount of black in the wings did not seem enough to me for Bay-backed Shrike. I was not certain if this was the parentage so sent it to Brian Small and Alan Dean for their opinions. I received the following from Alan “You are right that it is not a Bay-backed Shrike but appears to be a Red-backed x Isabelline Shrike hybrid, with Turkestan the obvious candidate for the Isabelline taxon but too little influence in the plumage to say this with certainty. The shrike is clearly an adult male and in Bay-backed would have a much deeper extent of black across the forehead, a richer coloured mantle, a richer and more prominent patch of colour on the flanks and a more solid area of black on the wing (embracing the ‘shoulder’ area). Structurally, the tail would be proportionately longer. Overall, the Bahrain shrike looks quite close to Red-backed but the photos reveal a rufous hue in the outer tail-feathers (wrong for Bay-backed and Red-backed) and it is reasonable to assume that this indicates introgression from Isabelline Shrike. Such birds are encountered not infrequently in the Middle East. There are photos of hybrids similar to the Bahrain bird in E. Panov’s ‘The True Shrikes of the World’, in Fig. 17.7”
The photographs below were taken by Jehad Alammadi and the copyright remains with him and I thank him for allowing me to use them on my website.