31 December 2013

Golden Spiny Mouse near Tabuk – Record by Viv Wilson

Viv Wilson was out near Tabuk recently and photographed a Golden Spiny Mouse Acomys russatus. He has kindly allowed me to use his photographs on my website and they are shown below. The Golden Spiny Mouse gets its name from the reddish-orange spiny fur that covers it body from head to tail. The fur is coarse and inflexible and is thought to protect it from predation. The mouse also has yellow flanks and a pale underside. It has gray legs with pale feet and black soles. They only live an average of three years in the wild and feed on seeds, desert plants, snails, and insects. Living in desert regions, they obtain water from the plants they eat, mainly grains and grasses and produce concentrated urine in order to conserve water. They can be seen during the day as well as at night but are generally more active in the daytime and live in groups.

They are native to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, occurring up to 2,642 metres above sea level. They live in extremely arid, rocky areas, such as the edge of wadis, the base of jebels and at mountain summits, where they normally reside in rocky crevices, cracks in soil & the burrows of other rodents. They are a small and stocky mouse with a pointed snout, large, erect ears, and a brittle, furless, scaly tail, but nevertheless it is one of the largest of the Spiny Mouse group, with a body up to 25 cm long and a tail of up to 7 cm.

30 December 2013

Ringed Lesser Crested Tern in Malaysia – Bird records by Ronnie Ooi

Ronnie Ooi went pelagic birding of the coast of West Peninsular Malaysia recently when he spotted a Lesser Crested Tern Sterna bengalensis with a metal ring on one of its tarsus. It was seen on 16 November 2013 at 9.17 am, on a pole located in the sea that was about two kilometres from the shore facing the Straits of Malacca. Ronnie contacted me via my website, as he knew we ringed large numbers of Lesser Crested Terns on two small offshore islands in Bahrain. We have ringed more than 3000 birds so far there in the last five years and as we possible ring more Lesser Crested Terns than anyone and we are also probably the closest main ringing site to Malaysia it is possible the bird is one of ours. We ring with the type of ring shown and also on the left leg as this bird but obviously we cannot confirm it as one of ours as the ring details could not be read. Our recoveries so far have all come from the East of Bahrain, as Malaysia is, with birds recorded in India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

29 December 2013

Arabian Red Fox – Dhahran Hills

Now the weather is getting cooler, sightings of the Arabian Red Foxes appear to be getting less? I did see four foxes the other day and managed to get a few nice photographs of them. These foxes do not look at all like their European cousins being smaller, paler coloured and more sandy rather than reddish, having much larger ears (to dissipate heat) and having large feet with fur on. Their behaviour is, however, very similar to the European Red Fox of which they are a sub-species. I always enjoy encountering the animals when I have the chance and these ones seem particularly tolerant of me and my camera.

28 December 2013

Unidentified Dragonfly in flight – Dhahran Hills

Whilst walking around the ‘patch’ the other day I saw plenty of dragonflies lying about. I only had my big 600mm lens with me so tried my luck at photographing one as I had seen an excellent photo on Mike Popes Birds of Kuwait website. After numerous failed attempts I managed to get a single reasonable shot. It is good fun trying to photograph the dragonflies and I will definitely have another go soon to see what happens.

27 December 2013

Caspian Stonechat – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl I found a very nice male Caspian Stonechat. The Stonechat complex is as its name suggests is very complex and a new paper has been written by Lars Svensson, Hadoram Shirihai, Sylke Frahnert & Edward C. Dickinson on the Taxonomy and nomenclature of the Stonechat complex Saxicola torquatus sensu lato in the Caspian region. This paper suggests that the mainly Asian form becomes the Eastern Stonechat S. maurus (Pallas, 1773). This species has several recognised subspecies, with three occurring in Saudi Arabia as well as being Palearctic taxa: maurus breeding in Russia and marginally in adjacent parts of eastern Europe, in western and south-central Siberia, Kazakhstan and parts of Transcaspia, east to north-west Mongolia and south to Afghanistan and northern Pakistan (possibly also in north-east Iran); variegatus (S. G. Gmelin, 1774) in eastern Ukraine on the lower Don, east Crimea, the Kalmykiya plains north-east to the Volga Delta area, in the south on the northern slopes of Caucasus, apparently reaching north Azerbaijan (named as ‘NCT’ for ‘North Caspian Taxon’); and armenicus Stegmann, 1935, in north-east Turkey, Caucasus (apparently at least locally on the southern slopes), Transcaucasia and western and southern Iran (named as ‘SCT’ for ‘South Caspian Taxon’).

Birds previously known as Caspian Stonechat Saxicola torquatus variegatus are thus now known as North Caspian Taxon (NCT). The paper states that the northern population has a very characteristic male plumage with extensive white portions on each side of the inner tail (between half and three-quarters of the outer tail feathers white), not unlike the pattern in many wheatears or male Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio. This can clearly be seen in the flight shots of the bird I found at Sabkhat Al Fasl with the paper saying it can easily be seen on a flying bird, but can be more difficult to confirm on perched birds with closed tails. The amount of white in the tail on males is subject to a subtle cline; at its maximum in the Volga Delta region, becoming slightly more restricted in the south. Both sexes resemble nominate maurus from further east and north in that they have a large unstreaked pale rump patch, buffish when fresh, white when abraded and bleached. In comparison, European Stonechat S. rubicola has a streaked rump with usually limited white. The NCT male has a concentrated red-brown chest patch and a large white patch on the neck-sides, again more like nominate maurus and different from most rubicola which again can be seen on the photogrpahs of the Sabkhat Al Fasl bird. The NCT female is very similar to females of nominate maurus and usually can be identified only if handled. The female has much less white on the base of the rectrices than the male, generally requiring that the tail-coverts be lifted to reveal the white, and a few females lack any. The name used for the NCT in Vaurie (1959), Ripley (1964), Urquhart (2002) and Dickinson (2003) has been variegatus.

26 December 2013

Painted Lady Butterfly – Dhahran Hills

The first Painted Lady butterflies of the year  started to appear in late November possibly as a result of the very heavy rains. Additonal butterflies have been seen through to now suggesting it may be a good year for them again. They were mainly in the spray fields but also along the edge of the dry percolation pond. Although the Painted Lady can survive in Saudi Arabia in most years the majority of butterflies are probably migrants. The Painted Lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world occurring on all continents except Antarctica. It is a large butterfly with a buffy-orange background colour to the upper-wings. The forewings have black tips marked with white spots and the hind-wings have rows of brown or black circular spots. The underside of the wing is pale buff brown than the upper-wing. Newly emerged butterflies are brighter coloured, with the colouring becoming muted with age.

25 December 2013

Mangrove White-eye sp Zosterops (abyssinicus?) sp - Red Sea Mangroves

An unidentified ‘mangrove white-eye’ species occurs along the Red Sea Coast of southwest Saudi Arabia (Newton 2006) but very few records of the birds have been published. The birds were found during a survey of southern Red Sea mangrove stands in 1994 when white-eyes were discovered between the villages of Shuqaiq and Amq, approximately midway between Jizan and al Qunfudah. This represented a range of approaching 100 kilometres, though it was thought it may have extend further to the north given the abundant mangrove stands, although subsequent surveys of these areas failed to locate any birds. The birds choice of habitat as well as smaller size, confirmed by biometrics, and brighter plumaged compared to the nearby montane populations of Abyssinian white-eye Zosterops abyssinicus arabs led to the suggestion that DNA evidence may be necessary to unravel the bird's identity and until this is done the birds should remain unidentified and were best treated as 'mangrove white-eye sp' (Newton 2006). A comment in Porter & Aspinall (2010) under Abyssinian White-eye states a population of white-eyes present in the mangroves on the southern Red sea coast of Saudi Arabia and Yemen remains unidentified. In Jennings (2010), however, there was no mention of the birds in the mangroves of the Red Sea coast possibly as they have not been positively identified and despite extensive searching no further data has been located on these birds and no other documented records have been found. In Oman, Oriental White-eyes were found in 1999 on the small offshore mangrove island of Mahawt where they used similar habitat and occurred only in the canopy of mature mangroves similar to the behavior of the ‘mangrove white-eyes’ in Saudi Arabia. They do not however, appear to be this species as they have obvious differences in plumage and bill colour. The Saudi Arabian birds resemble Abyssinian White-eye but one obvious difference is that the amount of white around the eye is much larger on the ‘mangrove white-eye’ than on Abyssinian White-eye form the Asir highlands taken at the same time of year - see photo below.
Abyssinian White-eye

 On 2 July 2013 whilst birding Either Mangroves (17.16375N, 42.40585E), I saw two ‘mangrove white-eyes’ feeding in the top of mature mangrove trees at the water edge. They kept high in the treetops although dropped down slightly in response to ‘pishing’ but moved off quickly. They were very mobile and although they did not give very good views a photograph was taken of one bird by Phil Roberts wh has kindly allowed me to use his photograph on my website. The location of Either Mangroves is approximately 75 kilometres south, as the crow flies, of the southernmost location noted by Newton, almost doubling their known range and extending it to over 175 kilometres of the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast. The lack of records is interesting as a number of birdwatchers have been to the mangroves near Shuqaiq in recent years to look for Collared Kingfisher Todirhamphus chloris with no sightings of the White-eyes and Brian Meadows told me that he never saw or trapped any in the mangroves at Yanbu on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia during the ten years he was present, 1984-1994, possibly because all the trees were either stunted or young rather than mature. This is another possible new Arabian Endemic species but work needs to be carried out to ascertain if this is the case or not. This may prove to be difficult as I am unable to get permission from the Saudi Authorities at present to carry out ringing in the country and this will be required to get DNA of the birds.

24 December 2013

Change to the Status of Savis Warbler in Bahrain – Alba Marsh (Bahrain)

An early morning ringing trip to Alba Marsh in Bahrain in mid-October produced another Savi’s Warbler. This is the fourth record of the species we have had from this small marsh in Bahrain. Prior to ringing at the marsh there had only been a few records of the species recorded from Bahrain and it was regarded as a vagrant. We have caught birds in the spring and autumn and the true status of the species is probably a scarce passage migrant, which is similar to the status of nearby Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. This is a useful piece of information that has been added during out small scale ringing project and as the species is not easy to see I suppose this has always been the status but birds just have not been seen by the limited number of birders that bird or have birded the country. This bird was in wing moult.

23 December 2013

First calendar year Citrine Wagtail – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl in mid-November I can across a Citrine Wagtial Motacilla citreola. This species is a scarce winter visitor to the Eastern province with most birds seen at either Dhahran or Sabkhat Al Fasl probably because these are the better-watched sites in the region. Elsewhere in Saudi Arabia it is also a scarce winter visitor with records of summer plumage adults seen in late March but the majority of birds are first winters seen in August to October. This bird was very confiding and came so close to the car that I could not focus my big 600mm lens on it. It was using the car to gain some shade whilst catching small insects. It spent most of its time feeding around the edges of the concrete supports to the newly erected electricity pylons but was in shade most of the time. As it was actively feeding it was constantly on the move and proved quite difficult to photograph, but eventually after some time I did manage to get a couple of reasonable shots, shown below. These are my best photos of the species so far in Saudi Arabia of Citrine Wagtail and made a very nice end to a good days birding at the site.

The bird is a first calendar year female in winter plumage with the bottom photograph a first winter bird I photographed in August 2012 in Dhahran to show the difference in plumage between this bird and a typical first winter.

22 December 2013

Slender Skimmer– Dhahran Hills

The dragonflies of Dhahran Hills are about in good numbers at the moment but they are finding it hard to find any water to use. This Slender Skimmer Orthetrum sabina also known as Oasis Skimmer was flying around the only small patch of reeds on the outside of the fence to the Percolation Pond. It regularly used twigs and reed stems to rest on and the photo below was taken with a 600mm lens and I had to walk back several metres to be able to focus on the insect but the resulting image turned out quite well.
Slender Skimmer
The slender skimmer is a green to greyish-yellow dragonfly with the thorax and abdomen striped black. The abdomen is swollen towards the base and there is a small dark spot present at the base of the hindwing. The adult dragonfly spends a few days to several months feeding and maturing where the dragonfly normally develops its full adult colour. The slender skimmer is renowned for feeding on other dragonfly species, including some species larger than itself. It is an extremely widespread species occurring from south-eastern Europe to Japan and south to Australia and Micronesia. They occupy a broad range of slow-flowing and still water habitats, from ponds to wet rice fields and marshes and are very tolerant of disturbance sometimes occupying temporary water sources.

21 December 2013

Interesting Heron update – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Further to my post on the interesting heron I photographed at Sabhat Al Fasl on 16 March 2013 I have received the following comments from various people I have contacted and I thank them for replying to my question. I will not include their names as there are differences in opinion and I have not asked permission to publish their comments.

“I have had a long look at your heron and my initial thoughts about how dark and maroon the back looked has been tempered by the rather thin and broken streaking on the head and neck. I haven't seen these well for a while, but my memories of IPH are that the streaks are broad and dark and more prominent across the whole head.  There is also often a very obvious dark line across the lores, which yours hints at, but is not quite prominent enough. If I was on a committee, I would say that the bird might be IPH, but as there are discrepancies between it and my impression of IPH I would not accept it. It might well still be, but based on this one image, am not sure”.

“Your heron certainly looks like an Indian Pond Heron and is too dark for a Squacco. Was it taken in late spring as the bird is obviously in breeding plumage? I don't think the lack of streaking on the breast is a problem in breeding plumage, nor the lack of a dark line through the lores. They are field marks in winter plumage, but not so obvious in summer. The bill looks rather long and pointed though, but still I would go for and Indian Pond Heron”.

“I think it an Indian Pond heron based on the loral area shape and size amongst other features”.

“Annoyingly, your bird has no crown streamers that should be pure white in summer plumaged IPH and black tipped in Squacco Heron. Apart from the very dark back (but I guess some SHs could come close to this, especially late evening – it looks like the sun was low when you photographed this bird) there is nothing really suggestive of IPH here – little or no loral bar for example (a few IPH in full breeding plumage in OBC images have this very reduced, but not all) and the neck streaking, seemingly on a buffy tinged ground colour does not seem excessively heavy compared to the adjacent SH. So, in conclusion, I agree with you – I do not think this is a safe call for IPH, especially as a rare vagrant. However, I would not be certain that I would put it down as a definite SH either; would want to evaluate the back in much better light before doing that. An interesting bird.”

This could be IPH; I don't think I would like to say for sure on the basis of this image. Certainly it appears too dark for SH but I wonder what my bird (darkish backed SH) would have looked like if photographed at dawn instead of full sunlight. Given that it was taken in mid-March, I guess that an IPH that has moulted its mantle and scaps, but is yet to moult the neck feathers would look like this. From what I recall, the Alula reference suggests that the neck is moulted last (?) If the neck has started to moult, this may explain why the streaks are maybe not as heavy as they might be as well. I agree that the loral bar does appear to be rather weak or non-existent on some bp IPH so the weakness of that in your bird may not be a problem”.

“looks OK for Indian Pond Heron to me”.

“it looks good, especially dark upperparts and the bonus that you have direct comparison with a Squacco Heron. Apparently there is quite a variation within the species as regards overall streaking and therefore, in particular, the prominence of the loral line”.
Interesting Heron
I sent a message to Mike Jennings the coordinator of the Arabian Breeding Birds Atlas, asking if he had any records of Indian Pond Heron for Saudi Arabia as he has a database of (mainly breeding) birds in the country, to see if he knew of any records. Mike kindly checked his database and did not have any Indian Pond Heron records for Saudi Arabia.  However as it is not (yet) a breeding species his recording has not been 100% thorough and a quick check of other sources shows that in his 1981 checklist of Saudi birds, he rejected a record from 1976-7 by Warren in the Gulf and sent me the paper detailing this record which does not, in my opinion, positively identify the bird seen as an Indian Pond Heron. I do not know of any other records of the species for Saudi Arabia.    
Indian Pond Heron
Jens Eriksson sent an excellent photo of an Indian Pond Heron from Salalah, Oman taken in early May for comparison to my bird and Nitin Srinivasamurthy also took a nice photo of an Indian Pond Heron in India in mid-February at Kumarakom, Kerala, India and kindly allowed me to use it on my website, as always the copyright of this photograph remains with the photographer Nitin. As a result of being able to use these two photos I made a compilation photo of the three birds and as they are taken at slightly different times, mid-Feb, mid-March and early May so I could see how the moult may progress. This does make the bird in Saudi Arabia look a lot more like an Indian Pond Heron than my initial impression as it fits in perfectly between the two other images. The paper on identification of Squacco, Indian and Chinese Pond Herons by Frederic Jiguet (Alula 3-2006 – 114-119) states that the neck feathers are the last to be moulted and the back and mantle the first, so maybe this is why the neck streaking is not quite as thick as I expected? And some summer plumaged IPH have very reduced dark loral strip like the Saudi Arabian bird such as the photograph from India shown below. As Indian Pond Heron would be either a rare vagrant or a first for the country (although they have occurred in UAE & Kuwait) the photograph of the bird I took is not sufficient to claim this as a definite record of the species. This bird certainly has some of the features of an Indian Pond Heron but for me personally I will need to find a really classic example for me to claim a first for Saudi Arabia. I will certainly keep my eye out for other interesting birds when I see any Squacco Herons in Saudi Arabia.