31 July 2014

Schmidt's Fringed-toed Lizard – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Schmidt's Fringed-toed Lizard Acanthodactylus schmidti is one of the most abundant species in the genus Acanthodactylus found in Saudi Arabia and occupies sandy plains, dunes and sabkhas (salt flats), particularly in areas of scrubby vegetation. It was named after Karl Patterson Schmidt, with a type locality of Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and it can be distinguished by the exceptionally long fourth toe found on each of its rear feet. As its name suggests it has 'fringes' of elongated scales along the sides of each toe, which are thought to provide better traction on loose sand. It has a light brown or coffee coloured back that is richly speckled with oval-shaped, pale or white spots and can grow to 18 centimetres in length. They have a cylindrical body with smooth, rectangular scales on the belly that are arranged in well-defined rows and scales on the head that are larger than those on the rest of the body. Little is known about the biology of the species but it is thought that its main prey is ants and when prey is located they instantly go rigid, suddenly quiver their tail and strike. It is a diurnal species that digs burrows in the sand among the roots of vegetation and is found throughout the Arabian Peninsula including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, south-east Iraq and south-west Iran.

30 July 2014

Greater Spotted Eagle – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Sabkhat Al Fasl is the best place in the Eastern Province for seeing Greater Spotted Eagles. Birds generally arrive in September and stay through until the end of March with more than ten individuals wintering in most recent years. This winter has been relatively poor with a maximum count of five birds but last weekend we saw four Greater Spotted Eagles in the air together and three other birds seen elsewhere. The birds in flight showed really well circling around over our heads and allowing some close photos to be taken. The birds are generally first year birds, first calendar year until 1 January and then second calendar year, but some older birds are also present. The photos below show second calendar year birds with well marked underparts and some older birds with less marked belly. Greater Spotted Eagle is listed as Vulnerable on the Red Species list and is not easy to see in many parts of its range. Luckily for us in the east of Saudi Arabia it is almost guaranteed on a visit to Sabkhat Al Fasl in the winter.

29 July 2014

Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) - Dhahran Hills

I found this Clouded Yellow Colias crocus in the pivot Irrigation fields at Dhahran on 2 February which was the first one I have seen at the location. At Qaryat Al Ulya Pivot Irrigation fields are the best site for finding the butterflies and I have not seen them in many places away from here. In the Eastern Province it is abundant in all major cultivated oases such as Al Hassa, Qatif and Taraut Island. Pivot irrigation fields are also good areas to find the species such as those where I saw them. Small isolated populations also exist around Manifa, north of Jubail, on beds of annual winter legumes growing in the hollows between coastal sand dunes with the populations supplemented by migrants. They are 45-54 mm in size and most have an orange-yellow ground with broad black borders to wings. They occurs mainly from December to early May but at Manifa during February and March. It has a characteristic to and fro flight over low vegetation.

28 July 2014

Old record of Great Knot at Al-Khobar – Bird record by Cliff Peterson

An ex birder from Saudi Arabia, Cliff Peterson, contacted me recently and sent me his impressive list of birds seen in the country during his stay from August 1981 until January 1986. Cliff saw well over 300 species in the country birding mainly the Eastern Province, Riyadh area and a couple of overland trips to Asir province. Cliff mentioned he had a large collection of images taken on Kodacrome 64 with a Novoflex 600 and sent me a photo of two Great Knot Calidris tenuirostris on the south shore of Al-Khobar 28-30 May 1984, with one remaining until 9 June 1984. These were the first records for the country and very few have been seen since with all records I know of from the Eastern Province including One at Jubail lagoons in early April 1991, a flock of 107 in full breeding plumage at Al Awamiyah 9 April 1991, a second calendar year bird 11 May at Rahimah Ras Tanurah 1991 and one at Zur 26 November 1991. Cliff kindly allowed me to use his photo on my website and I have reproduced it below.

27 July 2014

Fat Sand Rat near Tabuk – Record by Viv Wilson

The Fat Sand Rat Psammomys obesus is a stocky, gerbil-like rodent, native to desert regions. Its upper parts are reddish-brown, reddish, yellowish or sandy buff and the underparts are yellowish, buffy or whitish. The subspecies that lives in Saudi Arabia is P. o. dianae. The sturdy limbs bear blackish claws and the short, stout tail that is fully haired and has a black terminal tuft. The small, rounded ears are covered with dense whitish to yellowish hair. This species communicates through high-pitched squeaks and by drumming its feet. They have a total length of 25.1 - 35.6 cm with a tail length of 10 - 15.7 cm and weigh 32-43 grams. They are found in North Africa and the Middle East and have been recorded in Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. They inhabit deserts, semi-desert, rocky habitats and grasslands, provided that succulent shrubs, on which the rat feeds, are present. They live in colonies in complex burrow systems, which have separate areas for nesting and the storage of food. Compared to other members of the Muridae family (the mice, rats and gerbils), the fat sand rat is rather unusual as it is diurnal and wholly herbivorous; most other species in this family are nocturnal and feed primarily on grains. In winter their main activity is during the day, but during the summer months they prefer the shade and can be found inside the burrow or in the shade of the surrounding bushes. Its diet consists of leaves and stems and, unlike high-energy seeds, these foods are rather low in energy. As a result, it has to eat around 80 percent of its body weight in food each day to obtain sufficient energy. The fat sand rat does not need to drink water, a useful adaptation in arid habitats, and instead can get all the water it needs by feeding on the leaves of the saltbush which are up to 90 percent water and licking morning dew. However, this water has an extremely high concentration of salt, and so the fat sand rat must produce very salty, concentrated urine in order to expel the salt from its body.

26 July 2014

Some good summer birds – Sabkaht Al Fasl

The weekend trip to Sabkhat Al Fasl turned up a few good birds, even though it is the middle of summer and birding is generally quiet. The best birds were three Egyptian Nightjars, closely followed by two juvenile Eurasian Spoonbills an uncommon species. This is a species becoming more common in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and these birds may even have bred here. Habitat is suitable and adults were seen regularly in May with juveniles now in July. Other birds that are possibly breeding here are Black-headed Yellow Wagtails and Squacco Herons, both species not regarded as breeding species for the site. The long staying Red-wattled Lapwing and over-summering Greater Spotted Eagle were not seen on this trip so may have moved on? A few waders are already on the move with Common Sandpipers and Green Sandpipers seen in small numbers along with breeding Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers and Little Ringed Plovers. A very early female Garganey was also seen which was a bit of a surprise. Other good birds included hundreds of Little Terns, White-cheeked Terns and Indian Reef Herons and well over 1000 Greater Flamingos still present. A few Barn Swallows and two Sand Martins were over the reed beds, but little other signs of migration noted.
Yellow Wagtail
Common Sandpiper
Green Sandpiper
Garganey - female

25 July 2014

Deathstalker Scorpion near Tabuk – Record by Viv Wilson

The Deathstalker Leiurus quinquestriatus contains the subspecies Leiurus quinquestriatus quinquestriatus and Leiurus quinquestriatus hebraeus. The species has a wide range from Africa (Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia) to Asia (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sinai, Syria, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Yemen). African populations of this species correspond largely to the subspecies L. q. quinquestriatus while those of Asian populations to L. q. hebraeus. The Deathstalker is found upon a wide variety of substrates in arid & semi-arid regions. This species is a retreat generalist and will modify and occupy existing spaces under ground cover and debris. It may also adopt existing burrows of other invertebrates and small vertebrates, as well as excavate shallow burrows under rocks to 20 cm in depth. Adult specimens are 80–110 mm total length and typically have a yellow to orange-yellow colour. The metasomal segment V typically has a dark coloration restricted to the posterior 2/3 of the segment with the amount and intensity of the dark coloration varying among specimens. Older specimens may be darker in overall coloration and the dark coloration of metasomal segment V faded, reduced or indistinct. Reported toxicity levels indicate that this species possesses one of the most toxic venoms described in scorpions. Despite this the majority of stings produce only localized effects in up to 97% of victims which is probably due to the average quantity of venom injected (0.225 mg) being small. However, the venom of this species may be fatal in infants and children due to the effects being weight-dependent but fatalities are uncommon in adults. This scorpion was found by Viv Wilson in the desert near Tabuk and Viv has kindly allowed me permission to use his excellent photos on my website which are shown below.

24 July 2014

Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers and Little Grebes – Dhahran Hills

The ‘patch’ has been neglected a bit of late as I spent a weekend away in the southwest of Saudi Arabia looking for Arabian Endemics and other different birds to those we see in the Eastern Province, and a couple of evenings after work when I would normally have been out catching up on sleep due to long hours in the field looking for owls and Nightjars. It doesn’t, however, look like I may have missed much as things are still very quiet. The only birds to see in good numbers are Black-winged Stilts, Kentish Plovers and Little Grebes, species that all breed on or very near the camp. I have looked for the Crested Honey Buzzards a couple of times at 04:30 hrs but without luck and the best bird I have seen all week in the area were two Red-vented Bulbuls in my garden. A few Eurasian Hoopoes are still around looking for food for their young and a small group of five Barn Swallows remain over the spray fields but little else has been about worthy of reporting.
Black-winged Stilt - juvenile
Little Grebe

23 July 2014

The changing status of Egyptian Nightjar in Eastern Saudi Arabia

The Egyptian Nightjar Caprimulgus aegyptius is an uncommon bird in Arabia, with The birds of the western Palearctic (Cramp 1985) mentioning they winter in north-east Africa and migrate on a broad front across Arabia from September to early November & March to mid-May. Although this information is borne out by the data from Arabian countries there is little published information of summer or winter records from the region, and the recently published Birds of the Middle East (Porter et al 2010) has no mention of summer records and only a comment saying birds winter in southern Arabia, although the map depicted only shows passage birds marked. The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia by Mike Jennings (2010) mentions the Egyptian Nightjar is a scarce migrant and winter visitor but numbers are increasing, notably in the northern Arabian Gulf region, with birds present in summer since the beginning of the 21st Century in areas where freshwater can be found. He mentions over-summering has been noted in Kuwait & the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and mentions the species is thought likely to breed. Records of the species in summer are now occurring in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain & Qatar with summer records occurring in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia since 2004 when a pair was discovered at Khafrah Marsh 24th June 2004 where the possibility of this nightjar being overlooked as a breeding species was briefly discussed. Since 2006 additional birds have been located in the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia at Sabkhat Al Fasl (Jubail) in August with the highest count being ten birds together on 22 August 2008. Birds have been seen every year in August at this site since 2006 with birds also seen in July from 2011 to date and the earliest record on the 27 June 2014.

 The summer records are interesting as the subspecies of Egyptian Nightjar occurring in Arabia Caprimulgus aegyptius aegyptius occurs in north-east Egypt and northern Arabian Peninsula, eastwards to extreme central-west China, north-east Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, extreme western Pakistan and south-east Iran and winters in the eastern Sahel arrives on its breeding grounds in early April to mid- May and leaves in September. Birds in Iraq arrive in mid-March and are plentiful in April and depart in September with numbers increasing in August & September (Cramp 1985). Migrant birds further to the east in Kazakhstan, where the species also breeds, occur from mid-April to mid-May and from late August to early October (Gavrilov and Gavrilov 2005). There have been no confirmed breeding records of Egyptian Nightjar in Arabia although these records indicate birds are breeding, attempting to breed, or are very early migrants to the region.

It is clear that the status of the species has changed in eastern Saudi Arabia in the 21st Century, with the majority of birds no longer seen during the migration periods of early November & March to mid-May. In Saudi Arabia it was previously regarded as a vagrant (Bundy et al 1989) but is now known as a scarce passage migrant, summer and winter visitor, with July & August the best period for locating them. All the above photos were taken by me at Sabkhat Al Fasl 18 July 2014 when a minimum of three birds were seen. Sabkhat Al Fasl is certainly the best place in Saudi Arabia for seeing the species and one of the best sites in Arabia as well.

22 July 2014

Sightings of Red Sea Cetaceans – Details supplied by Peter Rudolph

Peter Rudolph contacted me regarding my records of Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphins Tursiops aduncus offshore Farasan Islands and is looking for details of any cetacean sightings from the Red Sea as he is part of a team working on a new checklist of the whales and dolphins of the Red Sea. If anyone has details of cetacean sightings from this area could they please contact me via my e-mail (see contact me tab at top of website), and your records may/will be cited in the new checklist.  Peter is now sure, that the Indo-Pacific Bottlenose Dolphin can be found in all coastal areas of the Red Sea. The holotype of Tursiops aduncus was found in Belhosse Island, Dahlak Archipelago, just “opposite” the Farasan Islands. Distinguishing the two Bottlenose Dolphin species in the Red Sea is not easy and to be 100% certain, you should know if the dolphins have spots on their belly. Peter says that all other information we have on my Farasan Islands sightings (water depth, group size, shape of the dorsal fin) clearly speaks for Tursiops aduncus and the sighting is 99.9% certain.
Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphins
Indo-pacific Bottlenose Dolphin

21 July 2014

Blanford’s Short-toed Lark - Azezza

A trip to a stony plateaux area of Azezza in the hope of seeing Blanford’s Short-toed Lark, formally Red-capped Lark, provided few birds but did turn up a flock of about 40 larks. They were incredibly flighty and very difficult to photograph and as a result I only ended up with a single photo of one bird. We were at the location in the late morning which was not the best time to bird there as it was very hot and we did not want to disturb the birds too much by chasing them around. As a result I will go back to this area again when in Abha to try to get better photographs at a later date. The subspecies seen was Calandrella blanfordi eremica which is restricted to southwest Saudi Arabia and Yemen with other subspecies occurring in Africa in Eritrea and Somalia. Blanford’s Sort-toed Lark is an uncommon breeding resident at high altitudes in the Hejaz and Asir mountains where its preferred habitat appears to be open stony summits with scattered juniper bushes. I would like to thank Lou Regenmorter for putting me onto this site as he had seen birds here in summer 2013. The directions did not have a way point for the exact site but with Phil Roberts navigation skills we managed to work out how to get there. The only other birds we saw at the site were several Little Swifts, one Alpine Swift, five Common Swift and a Short-toed Snake Eagle.
Blanford's Short-toed Lark

20 July 2014

African Paradise Flycatchers - Raydah Escarpment

On the way back to the airport in Abha from Tanoumah area we stopped at the Raydah Escarpment for a few hours. The ranger station gate was open so we go into the reserve easily and drove down to the disused farm. The farm now has a new locked gate blocking access for vehicles along the small track but as we always walked there was no issue as it was easy to get around the outside of the gate. As we were at the location around midday it was relatively quiet but we still saw some good birds including two Arabian Waxbills. This was only the second time we had seen the species with the first in the reed beds at Malaki Dam near Jizan in April 2014. These two birds were perched in the low scrub of a large tree, very different habitat from the previous sighting. Two African Paradise Flycatchers were also seen here including a fantastic male with extra long tail streamers. Little Rock Thrush, Yemen Thrush, Yemen Linnet and Abyssinian White-eye were also common here. With a few Fan-tailed Ravens flying over.
African Paradise Flycatcher - female
African Paradise Flycatcher - male
Yemen Linnet

We then slowly made our way down the incredibly steep road to the small village at the bottom where the first bird I saw when getting out of the car was a Grey-headed Kingfisher. An African Grey Hornbill was sitting quietly in a large tree and a couple of Bruce’s Green Pigeons flew over. Violet-backed Starlings and Gambaga Flycatchers were also seen. Arabian Partridge could be heard calling from the steep cliffs but remained unseen. This was our tenth out of twelve Saudi Arabia Arabian endemics in a two day trip – a good result for two full days birding with virtually no sleep due to looking for owls and nightjars in the dark.  After Raydah we had a hour left so went to the top of Mount Soudah where there were plenty of Fan-tailed Ravens  as always and two Yemen Serins on the rocks at the top.
Gambaga Flycatcher
Violet-backed Starlings
Yemen Serin

19 July 2014

Plenty of Arabian Endemics at Al Mehfar Park – Tanoumah

During the weekend of 11-12 July, Phil Roberts and I went to the southwest of Saudi Arabia for a birding trip. This was a very busy and long weekend with little sleep as we were birding on foot all day and then looking for owls and nightjars all night. We birded the Al Mehfar Park area and I have already posted details of some of the bird we saw but we had a brilliant time at this new site. We spent the entire day there on the first day and most of the morning the second day and saw plenty of good birds including eight of the twelve Arabian Endemics that occur in Saudi Arabia including: Philby’s Partridge Alectoris philbyi, Arabian Scops Owl Otus pamelae, Arabian Woodpecker Dendrocopos dorae, Yemen Warbler Sylvia buryi, Yemen Thrush Turdus menachensis, Arabian Wheatear Oenanthe lugentoides, Yemen Serin Serinus menachensis & Yemen Linnet Carduelis yemenensis. The ones we failed to see were: Arabian Partridge Alectoris melanocephala, Arabian Waxbill Estrilda rubibarba, Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak Rhynchostruthus percivali & Arabian Serin Serinus rothschildi. We arrived at about 03:00 hrs and immediately started looking for Owls without success although located two Montane Nightjars on the road and in flight. As it started getting light we went to the more bare area of the site with large boulders in the hope of seeing Philby’s Partridge an Arabian endemic Phil had not previously see. We heard birds calling briefly but despite extensive searching failed to locate any. We did, however, see four Arabian Magpie Pica pica asirensis an endemic subspecies of Eurasian Magpie sometimes treated as a separate species and with population in danger of extinction with probably less than 500 birds left? Soon after this we found Yemen Warbler in the trees along with a drumming male Arabian Woodpecker, a species we would see three more of during our birding here. The most common species seen were Yemen Serin, a species we had previously not seen before, and Palestine Sunbird with over 100 of each seen. Gambaga Flycatcher was also common as was Yemen Linnet. A few Arabian Wheatears were located along the road along with Red-breasted Wheatears and Long-billed Pipits were also seen in this area in good numbers. Other interesting species seen included Violet-backed Starlings, Abyssinian White-eyes, Common Kestrel, Fan-tailed Ravens and a Barbary Falcon, another new species for me in Saudi Arabia. Two Dusky Turtle Doves were in the wooded areas but little else was seen here. In the late afternoon we returned to look for Philby’s Partridge and saw three birds on the cliff edge. We then located and photographed Arabian Scops Owl in the nighttime (see previous post) and the next morning we returned and saw four more Philby’s Partridges a little further along the cliff top although they remained at distance. All in all we had a great time here and I will certainly be returning to this area again, as it the best birding site in the area that I know off.
Arabian Magpie
Philby's Partridge
Yemen Warbler
Yemen Serin
Yemen Linnet - male
Palestinian Sunbird
Palestinian Sunbird
Violet-backed Starling
Common Kestrel
Abyssinian White-eye
Gambaga Flycatcher
Long-billed Pipit