31 December 2014

Qasr Al-Bint – Madain Saleh

Qasr Al-Bint is named the daughters or girls palace. This group of tomb lies west of the Jabal Ithlib. The tombs are carved into two sandstone hills, one is very large and oriented in a north - south direction and contains twenty-nine tombs. The other one is much smaller, lying northwest of the former, and containing only two funerary chambers cut on its eastern flank. Tomb 18 is an example of a complete tomb in both its architectural features and decoration. Its façade is crowned by stepped crenellations underneath which are a cornice on two levels. Columns with Nabatean capitals were carved on both sides. There are four columns on the sides of the entrance, two, one each side crowned with Nabatean capitals which bear a transom surmounted by a molding above which lies a triangular cornice with carved bases bearing funeral elements on both sides. The foundation inscription of the tomb lies above the entrance. There are a number of large tombs as well as some unfished ones and this area is another of the most photographed set of tombs in Madain Saleh. The northern end of the west face has a very large, abandoned tomb, that was abandoned in the early stages of construction that would have been the largest tomb on the site if it had been completed. The light is best in the morning for photographing and viewing this site.

30 December 2014

Juvenile fuscus Eurasian (Caspian) Reed Warbler? – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst ringing in September we caught a very bright looking Eurasian Reed Warbler that looked very different to those we normally catch. The race that occurs commonly in Saudi Arabia is fuscus or Caspian Reed Warbler and these are slightly darker and greyer above and paler below than nominate scirpaceus. The bird we caught appeared to be warm brown in colour (see below photograph) and the underparts were not as pale looking as expected and were warm orange brown over most of the underparts instead of being restricted to small areas on the flanks as is usual for fuscus (see photo below). Juvenile fuscus can appear brighter than adults in spring, and this was a juvenile, but this bird was exceptionally bright. This bird was relatively small with a wing length of 63mm. Small reed warblers with wing lengths as small as 61mm have been noted in Israel and Riyadh in Saudi Arabia as well as Bahrain. The probability is this is a bright juvenile fuscus but was an interesting bird to see in the hand.

29 December 2014

Qasr al-Farid - Madain Saleh

Qasr al-Farid is probably the most photogenic and most iconic symbol of Madain Saleh. Qasr al-Farid means "the Lonely Castle," is the largest tomb in Madain Saleh and is located at the southwest of the site. It was given the name Qasr al-Farid because it is completely isolated from the other tombs, “farid” meaning “lonely” in Arabic. Qasir al-Farid is situated all by itself in a separate rocky monolith and includes an architectural feature not found in other tombs, namely the two Nabatean columns found on the lower part of the facade, as well as the side columns, whereas all the other façades at Madain Saleh bear only two pilasters, standing on each side of the façade.  The tomb was never completed as is evident in its lower portion and the open space before the entrance. The foundation inscription of the tomb, which reads “For Hyyan bin Kuza and his descendants”, is undated. The light is best in the evening for photographing and viewing this tomb

28 December 2014

Some birds of prey from Tabuk area – Bird records by Viv Wilson

Viv sent me a number of excellent photos of a few birds, taken in the Tabuk area, that are not easy to see in the Eastern Province. Short-toed Snake Eagle is seen occasionally but is scarce whereas Sooty Falcon and Barbary Falcon  are rare. I have seen all these species in Saudi Arabia but have only seen one Barbary Falcon in Tanoumah, Asir Province in the southwest. Sooty Falcon I have seen on the Farasan Islands as well as at Ragasat near Al Ula in Madina Province. Short-toed Sanke Eagle Ihave seen more often in various parts of Saudi Arabia including twice on the ‘patch’. I thank Viv for allowing me to use his photos on my website.
Short-toed Snake Eagle
Short-toed Snake Eagle
Barbary Falcon
Barbary Falcon
Barbary Falcon
Barbary Falcon
Sooty Falcon
Sooty Falcon

27 December 2014

Ad Diwan & Qasr al-Ajuz area – Madain Saleh

At Ad Diwan niches containing carved columns decorated with symbols or an eagle between two vessels were found whilst other niches contained nothing. These niches are one of the defining features of the Nabatean civilization. Temples have also been found in this area which formed a sacred area for cultic practices. The Diwan itself was a place reserved for religious gatherings and consisted of a rectangular room carved in the rock measuring 12.8 x 9.9 metres and 8 metres in height. A narrow natural rock passage called the Siq, with inscriptions and niches carved on both sides is to the left of Ad Diwan. Qasr al-Ajuz was a center used by priests and is set in the desert slightly behind Ad Diwan. The entrance is as wide as the chamber carved beyond it. On the right wall of the chamber there is a square aperture, while there are five appertures on another wall to the right of which there is a small entrance leading to a small room.

26 December 2014

Black-necked Grebes still on the pond – Dhahran Hills

The Black-necked Grebe is an uncommon but regular visitor to the Eastern Province from late August through March but becomes 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 with birds recorded rarely on the ‘patch’ where prior to this year I had only seen one bird on the settling pond. This winter two birds were seen in October and numbers have increased to five birds in December. They spend much of their time hidden in the reeds but the last few days they have been venturing out into the open water. A few days ago I was lucky enough to see one close to the edge of the percolation pond as I was walking down the edge of the pond and took a few photos before the bird realised I was there and drifted further out to join its friends. Elsewhere in Saudi Arabia birds have occurred in Riyadh, Tabuk and the Red Sea, as well as in the Jizan region.
Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe

Black-necked Grebe

25 December 2014

Madain Saleh (Al Hijr)

Madian Saleh is Saudi Arabia’s first World Heritage Site and is situated near Al Ula in Madina Province. It is a very impressive Nabatean burial site and village and is known locally as Al-Hijr with opening times Saturday to Thursday 09:00 – 18:00 hrs and Friday 15:00 – 18:00 hrs. Foreigners need an entry permit to enter the site whilst local people are exempt and there is no cost for entering. The Nabateans were Arab tribes who became settled and lived in cities. They excelled in commerce as well as in the development of water resources, collecting water through a system of channels and storing it in vast cisterns. They settled in Syria and the northwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula with their capital at Petra in Jordon and Madain Saleh their military base on the southern border of their empire. The Nabateans used the Aramaic script their language was northern Arabic with respect to vocabulary and proper nouns. They formed the Nabatean script by joining some letters one to another, from which the Arabic script of today is developed. Madain Saleh contains carved tomb facades, religious areas, residential areas, wels & water channels, remains of the Syrian pilgrimage route, remains of the Hijaz railway and mud brick houses. The site occupied a strategic position along the old Incense trade route that connected the southern part of the Arabian Peninsula with the north and the civilizations of Mesopotamia, Syria and the Nile Valley of Egypt. The route coming from the south bifurcated at Madain Saleh into two directions; a road to Tayma, Dumat al-Jandal and then Mesopotamia and another road to Petra in Jordon the capital of the Nabateans. Madain Saleh, also known as Al-Hijr, dates back to the Nabatean Civilization and is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia. At first glance, it looks like a vast ground with a huge rock in it, but when you look carefully, those rocks have been carved into shapes of tombs and graves. The levels of these graves vary depending on the level of social and financial status of their owners. People settled in this area due to the suitable climate and the availability of fresh water in the area. The monuments surround the residential area and contain over 100 tombs, ninety-four of which have decorated facades that vary considerably in size. Thirty tombs bear a dated Nabatean inscription incised in a special frame above the door of the funerary vault and every tomb represents a cemetery for one family. Tombs were carved using simple tolls such as chisels, hammers and picks. The process was started by selecting a suitable site and then the carver would hollow out a cavity from the top of the rock to the required depth. He would then proceed to carve the details of the façade from top to bottom without the use of scaffolding. Then the tomb chamber was hollowed out as well as the burial places themselves within the chamber.

24 December 2014

al-Aswad Lion Tombs

Between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE, large sections of the Arabian population transformed into civilized societies dependent on agriculture and the caravan trade. Flourishing cities arose along the northern caravan routes, such as Dedan. The oasis of al-Ula, which was known as Dedan, was the capital of the Lihyanite kingdom. The second half of the first millennium BCE witnessed competition over control of the caravan trade between the Lihyanites and Tayma. The Lihyanites, whose kingdom lasted from the sixth to the third centuries BCE, left inscriptions, temples and works of art, which bear witness to their achievements. Some monuments at al-Ula were created by merchants from Ma’in who came from southern Arabia for trade, and had carved their tombs in the rock faces overlooking al- Ula, adorning the most beautiful of them with carvings of lions. Located a short distance north-east of al-Ula, on the cliffs within the valley is an area known as al-Khuraiba, where a number of tombs can be found, evidence of a settlement in al-Ula, 2600 years ago originally named Dedan. They are known as al-Aswad Tombs and were carved around the 6th century BC by the Lihyanites, who created the Kingdom of Lihyan, which dominated the area during the period between the 6th and 2nd century B.C. These people inhabited the oasis and created the powerful Kingdom of Dedan. The numerous tombs are mostly plain burial chambers carved into the rock, but two of them have lion sculptures above them (eyes can be seen with the cave as a mouth. Pottery shreds of different types and forms are widespread in the site area and stone altars, incense burners, stone and statues with Lihyanite inscriptions have been found. There is also a large number of tombs, each is a room containing a number of graves or simply a single shaft for one person. Some of the tombs have inscription bearing the name of the owner. 

Photo by Julianna Babbington (age 6)

23 December 2014

Eurasian Hoopoe – Dhahran Hills

Dave Kilmister saw my post about the Hoopoes and that the Saudi Arabians like the bird. He mentioned, “In general, there are few birds that are named in Arabic - there are big, small, and shorebirds basically. But the Hoopoe is one of the exceptions as it is the bird that carried a message from the queen (of eqypt?) to Soloman in Biblical times and is mentioned in the holy Koran. In Arabic it is Hud-hud. The only other Arabic names I have come across so far are falcons (suqr) - hence sakr falcon, owl (booma) and eagle (nisr). The naming of birds is a Greek trait that Westerners have carried on but which the Arabs do not share - naming and categorising things”.

22 December 2014

Elephant Rock (Jabal Al Feel) – Al Ula

Elephant rock is situated near to Madain Saleh and is a natural sandstone rock of huge proportions in the shape of an elephant with its trunk touching the ground. The elephant also appears to have an eye made of natural rock formation. It is a really impressive sight and well worth visiting if in Al Ula even for a short time. The best time to photograph the rock is in the morning at around 07:00 – 08:00 hrs as the sun is in a good position and the sunlight not too harsh. Near to the elephant rock is a stacked sandstone rock formation looking like a mushroom or spinning top. It is easy to get to from Elephant rock either by car or a short walk. The local name for Elephant Rock is Jabal Al Feel and there is a signpost on the main road. One of the photos below has my family in it, between the trunk and body of the elephant for scale showing how large the rock formation is.
Elephant Rock
Elephant Rock (with my family for scale)

21 December 2014

Ferruginous Ducks still on the pond – Dhahran Hills

This winter so far has been very good for duck on the percolation pond with high counts of various species including Ferruginous Ducks. The Ferruginous Duck is an uncommon passage migrant, winter visitor and a rare breeder with most birds occurring from September to April. The species is currently listed as Near Threatened and prefers shallower and more vegetated areas than other Aythya species and seldom sits out on open water. Sightings have been scarce and irregular on the ‘patch’ in the four years I have been in Saudi Arabia although this year has seen good numbers with 16 in September and birds seen daily since this time until mid-December. Numbers have decreased and now about five birds remain where they spend most of their time hidden in the reed beds. Due to their behaviour it is difficult to get good photographs of them but on Friday I was lucky to see one swim out of the reeds and into open water at a reasonable range and managed to get my best photos yet of the species. The colour of these birds is really beautiful especially when the sun is shining on them and they are always a pleasure to see.
Ferruginous Duck
Ferruginous Duck

20 December 2014

Musa ibn Nusayr Fort – Al Ula

The Musa ibn Nusayr Fort is situated on the summit of Jabal Umm Nasir which lies in the middle of the old town of Al Ula and was built during the 6th to 3rd centuries BC with Lihyanite inscriptions and Nabatean coins found in the archaeological strata. It has been renovated many times across the years and was built for observation and defence of the town and is accessed by means of stone steps, which is some cases, have been hewn out of the mountain itself. Water for the fort is provided by a well dug at the foot of the mountain on the southern side. It is possible to climb to the top of the fort for a beautiful panoramic view of the old town and new city below.

19 December 2014

African Swamphen a first for the Eastern Province – Dhahran Hills

One of the Puprle Swamphens I found on 12 December in Dhahran had very bright plumage tones and brilliant red waxy bill, plus it had an obvious green hue to the mantle, scapulars and coverts indicating it was an African Swamphen. This is the first record of this species for the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia and only the second for the country. The first was an adult at KAUST near Jeddah in September 2013 that remained for at least three weeks before being killed by a car. The KAUST record is on the coast nearest to Africa so is probably a truly wild bird, whereas the bird in Dhahran is a long way away from Egypt and thus must be of doubtful origin or come from somewhere else. I thus contacted Neil Morris who until earlier this year birded Qatar and has a tremendous knowledge of the birds of the country, as I assumed the birds had come from there rather than Africa. They did not originate from the Sabkhat Al Fasl, Saudi Arabian population, as all the birds there are Grey-headed Swamphens. Neil kindly sent me the following information on the records from Qatar: African Swamphen is a scarce and localised resident breeder, with less than 15 pairs, that was first recorded around March 2004. There is an established population at Abu Nakhla and one was seen at Al Khor water treatment plant throughout November 2009. All the birds documented in Qatar bar one Grey-headed Swamphen are African Swamphens (exactly the opposite to the situation in Saudi Arabia). The Qatar birders think that the African Swamphens in Qatar are derived from the United Arab Emirates population and although this view is conjecture it seems more reasonable than to assume a wild origin. Perhaps they are spreading your way with one possible cause being that their stronghold in Qatar (the giant lagoons of Abu Nahkla) are being drained in order to make way for development. There aren't too many other places for them to relocate to in Qatar, certainly there is only one other place I know, Al Sailiyah, that could host a population of birds, and that location is relatively small scale and is probably already at capacity with ASH. So I wouldn't be surprised if you are seeing relocating Qatar birds. Dave Bishop a birder from Qatar also sent me an e-mail as he had seen my post on the birds in Dhahran and mentioned the authorities have decided to close Abu Nakhla ponds and water levels have dropped considerably leaving the reeds beds above the water line. As a result Dave has not seen any gallinules recently and there are few alternative sites locally for them to relocate to. Although we will never know for certain it looks likely that the birds seen in Dhahran may have come from the Qatar population. I also sent an e-mail to Oscar Campbell in the United Arab Emirates about birds in the UAE and got this reply “All the birds I have seen in the UAE have been obviously Grey-headed Swamphens; I have never seen anything else but apparently there have been records of African Swamphen as confirmed escapes. The origin of all birds in the UAE is questionable - they are clearly being imported to the country but almost all birds in wild, plausible locations are of the correct subspecies for wild origin”. I would like to thank Neil Morris, Oscar Campbell and Dave Bishop for sending me details on the birds from their areas of Qatar and the UAE and Mats Ris for allowing me to use his photographs on my website.
African Swamphen

African Swamphen

African Swamphen