31 March 2014

More migrants arriving – Dhahran Hills

The ‘patch’ has been slightly better this week with a number of new migrant species arriving. Phil had a male Semi-collared Flycatcher, a bird that would have been a new species for the ‘patch’ for me, but I did not see the bird, so wasn’t. A smart male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush was found eating ants along the perimeter fence and allowed a few decent photos to be taken of it. Also along the fence were several Pied Wheatears. Other new migrants included a male Masked Shrike, tens of Turkestan Shrikes, including a smart male keralini type that again I failed to photograph and several Daurian Shrikes Whilst I was watching the Masked Shrike a Desert Whitethroat (Central Asian Lesser Whitethroat Sylvia curruca halimodendri type) flew into a nearby tree and gave some good but brief views. The wintering Western Marsh Harrier was still about over the spray fields and a Western Osprey was perched in one of the trees near the percolation pond. A few Yellow Wagtails and several Tree Pipits were seen with one Tree Pipit bathing in a small puddle of water left over from the heavy rain of a few days before. Other migrants included two Common Swifts and a Tawny Pipit. An Indian (Clamorous) Reed Warbler was singing from the small patch of reeds in the corner of the spray fields with two Eurasian hoopoes nearby. Hopefully these new birds are a sign of things to come and the migration season will start picking up.
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush
Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush
Turkestan Shrike
Desert Lesser Whitethroat
Tree Pipit

30 March 2014

Birding Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area – Near Taif

I went birding at Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area, a 2244 square kilometre Protected Area, managed by the Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA) and situated in Central Saudi Arabia on the Najd Plateau on 22 March. The Protected Area is entirely fenced and it is not possible to entre without permission. Birding was fairly slow with not many birds seen, but some very good ones included. We saw both the scarce reintroduced species, North African Red-necked Ostrich and Macqueen’s Bustard. We saw several groups of North African Red-necked Ostrich in different parts of the Protected Area including from the watchtower of one of the ranger stations. Most groups had both males and females in them but were very wary of us and never allowed close approach. The rangers even showed us an old nest of the Ostrich with a number of infertile eggs in that are twenty times bigger that a chicken egg. A single Macqueen’s Bustard was seen in flight and on the ground at great distance that was an amazing sight but unfortunately my photos are quite poor. Both of these species were new birds in Saudi Arabia for me and were soon joined by a third new species Lappet-faced Vulture of which we saw ten birds including six together thermalling of a small jebal within the Protected Area.
North African Red-necked Ostrich
North African Red-necked Ostrich
Abandoned North African Red-necked Ostrich Nest
Macqueen's Bustard
Lappet-faced Vulture
Other birds seen included a good number of House Sparrows around the ranger station along with two White-spectacled Bulbuls. An Eastern Black-eared Wheatear, Isabelline Wheatear and Pied Wheatear were all seen in very small numbers along with two Southern Grey Shrikes. Two Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse were seen flying over in the early morning and three more later in the day only the second time I have seen the species in Saudi Arabia. A few Greater Short-toed Larks and tens of Crested Larks were also scattered over the Protected Area and a single close view of a Short-toed Snake Eagle was also an amazing sight. A single Common Redstart and a Blackstart were located in the vegetation but otherwise birding was slow. Brown-necked Raven was one of the commonest sight in the Protected Area with birds seen in many areas.

Short-toed Snake Eagle

29 March 2014

Laura the Satellite Tagged Baltic Gull update – Records by Per Hansson

Laura the satellite tagged Baltic Gull that was originally ringed as a breeding female in Sweden and migrated to south of Jizan for the winter is still in the same small area she has spent the entire winter. The area is south of Jizan towards the Yemen boarder but she has never crossed over the boarder and has spent the entire time in Saudi Arabia. I thank Per for continually updating me on this bird and allowing me to publish the details on my website. The records shown below are from the period 18-24 March 2014.

28 March 2014

Striped Hawk-moth Dhahran Hills – Record by Elizabeth Ayouby

I received an e-mail a few days ago with some great photos of a Striped Hawk-moth from Elizabeth Ayouby who lives in Dhahran Hills. Her family found the moth in their garden over the last weekend, a moth I have yet to see in Saudi Arabia. The Striped Hawk-moth is the most common Hawk-moth in Arabia, it is an insect of the open desert where it breeds on a number of different plants. It flies at night and migrates to other countries reaching as far north as Scandinavia.  A successful breeding season often occurs after heavy rain with vast numbers of moths occurring. The thorax of the Striped Hawk-moth has four distinct white stripes running lengthways, and the antennae have white tips. There is a white dorsal stripe running along the abdomen and each of the underwings has a bright red patch. Elizabeth kindly allowed me to use her photos on my website which are shown below, with the top photo having a business card shown for scale.

27 March 2014

A slow start to the migration season – Dhahran Hills

The migration season has got off to a slow start in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia with very few birds present compared to recent years. The most obvious species are the shrikes an wheatears with Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike, Daurian Shrike, Turkestan and Woodchat Shrikes all being seen in small numbers and Pied Wheatears seen daily in twos and threes. Other birds seen of note have included a single Namaqua Dove and one Western Osprey sitting in a dead tree at the side of the percolation pond before flying off over the camp fence and off. Small groups of Yellow Wagtails have been seen daily with most being feldegg and beema types.
Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrike
Pied Wheatear - female
Namaqua Dove
The water level in the percolation pond has dropped and the reeds are growing back but few birds are present in the area. The number of Eurasian Coot has now increased to ten and there are 18 Little Grebes present along with the Great Crested Grebe but not much else. A small number of waders are passing through with Kentish Plover, Little Ringed Plover and Wood Sandpiper all being seen occasionally. A few Pallid and several Common Swifts have been flying over the pond and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk has also been in the same area.
Euraisan Coot
Wood Sandpiper

26 March 2014

National Wildlife Research Centre – Taif

My family and I were very lucky to be invited to look around the Saudi Wildlife Authority National Wildlife Research Centre (NWRC). This is an amazing centre that works on the reintroduction of rare and scarce species to many of its Protected Areas around the Kingdom and is a huge credit to the country for its forward thinking on conservation matters. The centre was established in 1986 and is particularly involved in the reintroduction of the rapidly declining Macqueen’s Bustard as well as reintroducing the extinct Ostrich. The Ostrich that occurred in Saudi Arabia, and was last seen in 1941, was the Arabian Ostrich Stuthio camelus syriacus, but unfortunately there are no examples of their subspecies left so the birds being reintroduced are the North African Red-necked Ostrich Stuthio camelus camelus from Sudan, that is genetically the closest surviving subspecies. Birds were reintroduced in Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area and now have a self-sustaining population of around 300 birds, and this is the only place in Saudi Arabia where you can see this species. The birds are now self-sustaining and are in fact so successful at breeding that individuals are now being sent overseas to other breeding centres. Macqueen’s Bustards were reintroduced to the Protected Area to re-establish a sustainable resident breeding population, with the NWRC pioneering the captive breeding of Macqueen’s Bustard, which has now been employed by other centres around the Middle East and North Africa. The captive breeding birds came from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Jordon, Iran and confiscated birds of unknown origin and produce between 150 – 300 birds annually. There are currently about 250 to 300 Macqueen’s Bustards in Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area but they are very difficult to see. A huge amount of scientific work has gone into the reintroduction of these birds and many scientific papers have also been written and this is another great success story from the NWRC. Breeding birds of both of these species are kept at the NWRC but the success of the Ostrich has meant that no breeding is required anymore. You are not allowed out of the vehicle near the Bustards as they do not want them habituated to humans.
North African Red-necked Ostrich
Macqueen's Bustard

The centre also has a number of rescued or confiscated animals including Arabian Leopard, Stripped Hyena, Wolf, Cheetah and Lion. Nubian Ibex is being raised at the centre and a Honey Badger is there that was trapped in Saudi Arabia and sent to the NWRC. Other animals that have been reintroduced by the NWRC are Arabian Oryx and Sand Gazelle. Since 1997 a number of Arabian Leopard Panthera pardus nimr have been collected by the centre and with cooperation with the Breeding Centre for Endangered Arabian Wildlife in Sharjah, which pioneered captive breeding techniques for the species, a number of cubs have been born. These animals will, hopefully, ensure the captive survival of the species and could allow future reintroductions to the wild.
Arabian Leopard
Arabian Oryx
Honey Badger
Striped Hyena
Nubian Ibex

25 March 2014

Crimson-speckled Footman – Dhahran Hills

The Crimson-speckled Footman Utetheisa pulchella is a small, day flying moth measuring approximately 30-40mm in length. They are mostly white, speckled with black and crimson and have characteristic black eyes. The legs are white in colour and the antennae are black. The moth is found from Africa to southern Europe, throughout the Middle East, central & southern Asia and Australia. They are migratory moths but I assume the ones I have been seeing in the last few days are residents? They are seen every year in Dhahran in February and March and are not very easy to see until you flush one from its resting place and it flies to its new location. They very rarely, if ever, land with their wings spread and almost always end up in a position similar to that in the photograph above.

23 March 2014

Eastern Black-headed Wagtails again – Dhahran Hills

Mike Pope in Kuwait saw some Black-headed Wagtails a couple of weeks ago and mentioned that the majority were typical feldegg, but he did find (and a first for him) and single Eastern Black-headed Wagtail and was able to photograph both in similar poses for comparative purposes. I also found three of these Eastern Black-headed Yellow Wagtails in a group of typical feldegg on 16 March, as well as five on the 18 March and followed Mike’s example with the results the bottom compilation photo. These were also my first records of this sub-species in Saudi Arabia and it is interesting to see that the excellent Birds of Kuwait a comprehensive visual guide has their status as a common passage migrant with feldegg as a very common passage migrant and winter visitor. If this is the correct status of melanogrisea it is surprising both Mike and myself have not seen them before in our respective countries of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Mike mentioned that others in Kuwait have seen the subspecies more often than him and the status of common is fine and also mentioned the status may be seasonal with birds more abundant in some years than others. I will be keeping a close look out for this type of bird again to see if the status in Kuwait matches that in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The group of birds I saw on 18 March, all of which were around the edge of the settling pond as previously, totalled ten birds with five males all of which were melanogrisea.

Some individuals, more common in the eastern part of their range, show some white on sides of the throat (often also on upper throat) like the ones I saw. Melanogrisea is said to breed from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea south to northern Afghanistan and the Tian Shan, and east to Lake Balkhash, Tarbagatay and Dzungaria and winter mainly in India. Plumage wise it is close to feldegg but slightly brighter and paler green on the back, paler yellow below with the chin white instead of yellow and the yellow throat separated from the black ear-coverts by a more or less narrow white line lacking in feldegg. The hood also does not reach the back onto the mantle. These differences are not consistent according to Alstrom and Mild ‘Pipits & Wagtails’ and they do not think it is a valid subspecies saying birds showing characteristics of melanogrisea are uncommon spring migrants in East Africa and comprise 10% of the feldegg passing in spring in Israel and many birds in spring in India appear to be typical feldegg. Birds on the breeding grounds of melanogrisea also lack the white stripe and some birds in the European breeding range of feldegg also have a white stripe. As a result Alstrom & Mild regard melanogrisea as a plumage variant within feldegg that becomes clinally commoner in the eastern part of the breeding rang

22 March 2014

Laura the Satellite Tagged Baltic Gull update – Records by Per Hansson

Laura the satellite tagged Baltic Gull from Sweden who has spent the entire winter in a very small area south of Jizan, between the city and the Yemen boarder is still present in the same area  - see below map for latest locations. She has been very faithful to this small area and I for one am surprised that a gull like this does not range more widely. It presumably means that the feeding and safety of this area is good for a bird like her, which is encouraging. This satellite tagged bird has give a tremendous amount of information on the position of the species in Saudi Arabia and has confirmed their status as a common winter visitor to the southern Red Sea coast of the Kingdom. They are scarce on the Gulf coast and despite extensive searching I am yet to see one in the Eastern Province although a few records do exist. Laura should be moving north in the next few weeks back to her breeding ground and it will be interesting to see what route she takes. On her arrival she travelled down the Red Sae coast, so I suspect this is the most likely course out of Saudi Arabia for her.

21 March 2014

Migration still progressing slowly – Dhahran Hills

Birding the ‘patch’ the last week produced a few more migrants with each trip out enabling me to see something of note. A female Pallid Harrier was seen one night over the spray fields where it would continually drop to the ground for a few minutes and then take off and hunt again. It was doing this near a flooded area of the fields but I did not see what, if anything, it was catching. The spray fields have also had three species of Shrike, Turkestan, Daurian and Woodchat. The last few Meadow and Water Pipits are also still in the spray fields and a single Western Cattle Egret was also seen in the same area. Small numbers of Yellow Wagtails, mostly Black-headed, were feeding in the wet areas of the fields and a few Common Snipe were present but little else.
Woodchat Shrike
Western Cattle Egret
The percolation pond was very quiet with a few singing Indian (Clamorous) Reed Warblers and Six Eurasian Coot, an increase of one over recent weeks. Little Grebe numbers have dropped with only five birds seen, but possibly some are hiding in the reed beds? One Pallid Sift and two Common Moorhen were also around the pond and a smart male Common Redstart, my first of the spring, was in the bushes around the edge of the pond adding a splash of colour to the day. Several Kentish Plover have also been seen in various sandy areas, probably prospecting for nesting sites. There have been quite a few Eurasian Hoopoes passing through in the last week with five seen together on one occasion.
Eurasian Hoopoe

20 March 2014

Plenty of Gulls & Shrikes – Sabkhat Al Fasl

My weekend trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl with Phil Roberts produced a few good birds but nothing exceptional. Great Black-headed Gulls have been seen more regularly at the site this winter than in previous years and we saw a small group with one adult summer and five second calendar year birds in the concrete bunded area of the location. We managed to get quite close to them by driving down a bund but unfortunately the sun was in the wrong direction for better photos. Other Large White-headed Gulls seen included Caspian Gulls, Steppe Gulls and a single Hueglin’s Gull. The largest gathering of Black-headed Gulls I have seen in Saudi Arabia were also present with 2000+ present, mainly adults in full breeding plumage. Despite extensive searching, nothing unusual could be located amongst them. Apart from the gulls the next most obvious birds were shrikes. There were tens of Turkestan Shrikes and a few less Daurian Shrikes but also a single Arabian (Southern) Grey Shrike and two Mauryan (Steppe) Grey Shrikes. A very smart ‘keralini’ type Turkestan shrike was also seen but the couple of photos I took only show the front and none of the real features, a second much less well defined bird was also seen in a different part of the location.
Great Black-headed Gull - adult summer
Great Black-headed Gull - second calendar year
Caspian Gull
Daurian Shrike
Turkestan Shrike
Turkestan Shrike
Mauryan Grey Shrike
A few other migrants seen were a couple of Common Chiffchaffs, three Barn Swallows, one House Martin and good numbers of Yellow Wagtails including Black-headed and Blue-headed types. A really smart male Citrine Wagtail was also seen with one group but evaded having his picture taken. A singling male Red-spotted Bluethroat was a nice bird to see and the first time I have seen one singing in Saudi Arabia and a White-spotted Male Bluethroat was also located later feeding along the bottom of the reeds at the track edge. A single Savi’s Warbler was heard reeling and plenty of Eurasian Reed Warblers were also heard amongst the many Indian (Clamorous) Reed Warblers. A small group of Meadow Pipits was slightly unusual and three Tawny Pipits were also seen all in the scrubby desert area of the site.
Red-spotted Bluethroat
Winter visitors were much reduced with only a single Greater Spotted Eagle although Western Marsh Harriers were still around with more than ten seen during the day. There were many less White Wagtails and Water Pipits and the Greater Flamingo flock had reduced to about 1000 birds. A group of 114 Pied Avocets were about the only unusual waders seen and two Brown-necked Ravens were also slightly unusual at the site, although they are resident and reasonably common in their favoured habitat of jebals in the desert. As always several Purple Swamphens were also very visible around the edges of the wet areas.
Purple Swamphen
Purple Swamphen