29 December 2021

Omar Mosque - Dumat Al Jandal

Omar Mosque was built by the Caliph Omar Bin Al-Khattab during his return from Bait Al Maqdis in Jerusalem. The importance of the mosque stems from its floor plan, which represents a continuation of the same architectural style of the early mosques of Islam and is one of the oldest mosques that has kept its floorplan original. It is distinguished by its minaret, which is considered one of the oldest in Saudi Arabia and which is located in the southwest corner of the mosque. The foundation of the minaret is square but becomes semi-circular at the top which is 12.7 metres tall

25 December 2021

Dumat Al-Jandal Wells - Dumat Al-Jandal

Several wells where built in Dumat Al-Jandal and reflect and advanced irrigation management system. These wells are dated from the Nabataean period more than 2000 years ago. The wells are impressive structures all having a name, often that of the owner’s. Built of horizontal courses of irregular size stones, they generally measure between 3 and 6m in diameter, even though they are not all perfectly round. The wells often have a corbelled structure at the top, made of long blocks protruding from one side of the well, standing over the central void. These structures presumably facilitated drawing water by using a system of ropes (pulled by camels), as is the case for example at Bi’r Haddaj, in Tayma. The wells of Dumat Al-Jandal differ substantially from those found at Madain Salah, by the presence of external stairs (rather than simple steps cut in the walls of the well), and those of the vicinity, like Sisra Well in Sakaka, known for its spiral staircase dug inside the well. At Dumat Al-Jandal, some wells have a staircase integrated into their masonry, entered from outside the well. These staircases led to openings at regular heights inside the well that provided access for cleaning and necessary repairs. Preliminary study of the hydraulic system in the oasis has confirmed that the wells are positioned above underground channels. An aerial photograph taken in 1964 shows many lines of wells oriented east west roughly in the direction of the dried up lake in the south east of the depression. Wallin, who visited the oasis in 1845, described the presence of very well built underground aqueducts of stonework, big enough for a man to stand up. At that time, they extended into areas devoid of cultivation or settlements. The system was widely renovated in the mid-19th century, but is now largely in disuse and filled up with sand or rubble.

21 December 2021

Hijaz Railway – Tabuk

In the late 19th century, Sultan Abdulhamid II ordered the construction of a railway from Damascus to Mecca. Known as the Hijaz Railway, construction began in 1900 and made pilgrims journeys easier whilst significantly reducing their travelling time. Madain Saleh and Al Ula were the final point to which non-Muslims could travel. Construction was interrupted due to the outbreak of World War I, and it reached no further than Medina, 400 kilometres short of Mecca. The completed Damascus to Medina section was 1,300 kilometres long. Its sun-scalded remains can be seen today, cut adrift across northwestern Saudi Arabia in the form of sand-dusted rails, abandoned stations and rusted locomotives.

19 December 2021

Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse – Haradh

Whilst birding the Haradh area on 27 November Phil Roberts and I came across three small flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse totaling 78 birds. The birds appeared to be using the pivot irrigation fields but flew well before they were seen and at a great distance making photography very difficult. This is the third winter in a row we have seen the species in Haradh with this record being only the seventh record for the Eastern Province. They are 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. The species is, however, rare in Central Saudi Arabia and had not been recorded in the Eastern Province until 2013 when I was sent a photograph showing a number of birds (unfortunately) shot, apparently near Al Hassa in 2013. Phil Roberts then saw a single bird at Sabkhat Al Fasl in 2014 and Phil and I saw a single at the same location 12 February 2016. The other records being a flock of over 50 at Haradh on 25 January 2019, a single Al Asfar Lake, 20 September 2019 and a further flock of thirty birds flying over pivot irrigation fields at Haradh, 7 December 2019. They are a relatively small species, with elongated central tail feathers, dark underwing and white traing edge to the primaries, blackish belly and unmarked head. The male has a narrow pectoral band and chestnut brown belly darkening towards rear, whereas the female is more mottled above and shows a tricoloured ventral pattern. Races differ mainly in tone of upperpart coloration with the Arabian population P. e. erlangeri sandy coloured. They typically inhabit bare semi-desert, often with scattered thorny scrubs or trees including Acacia. They feed during the cooler hours of morning and afternoon and drink 2–3 hours after sunrise, while in very hot weather some individuals drink again before sunset.

17 December 2021

Al Tawba Mosque – Tabuk

Al Tawba Mosque is one of the oldest mosques in the world. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) set up camp near here and prayed at this location when he arrived with 30,000 men in AD 630 for the Battle of Tabuk against the Byzantines, although the battle never took place. The mosque was built by Umayyad Caliph Omar bin Abdul Aziz in the location where the Prophet prayed and was originally built with mud and roofed with palm trunk trees. It was restored in 1652 AD and was completely renewed after an order by the late King Faisal ibn ‘Abdul-Aziz.

15 December 2021

Winter birding - Haradh

 Haradh is an excellent site with many pivot irrigation fields that attract a lot of wintering birds. We visited recently and found many of the pivots green with planted winter wheat. We saw a few good birds around the fields such as a male Pallid Harrier, A single adult Eastern Imperial Eagle and a single Steppe Eagle with a few Common Kestrel also located. Small numbers of Greater Short-toed Lark and several White Wagtail were in the wetter fields and a large flock of 38 Spur-winged Lapwing flew over. Several Desert Wheatear were also scattered around the fields and one or two Isabelline Wheatear were also present. One field with crops held a flock of over forty Northern Lapwings and several Spur-winged Lapwing but nothing else of note could be seen with them. A few Greater Hoopoe Lark gave good views as did a few Spanish Sparrows. Black-crowned Sparrow Larks were seen, as always at this location, and the number of Cream-coloured Coursers was amazing with 127 birds seen in total including groups of thirty to forty birds in some fields. It is always enjoyable birding the fields at Haradh and this vist was very rewarding.

Cream-coloured Courser

Pallid Harrier

Pallid Harrier

Spanish Sparrow

13 December 2021

Mugha’ir Shu’ayb – Madyan

Most scholars agree that Al-Bada’ is the ancient city of Madyan. Madyan refers to both a land and a city, probably dates back to the end of the 2nd millennium BC. It is known for being the place where the Prophet Moses spent ten years in voluntary exile after fleeing from Egypt and was inhabited by the Madiyan tribe. Madyan was divided into two zones; the residential area of Al-Maliha that was probably fortified, and the Nabatean necropolis dug in the hillsides of the Jebel Mussalla. Mugha’ir Shu’ayb (the Caves of Jethro) are probably 1st century AD Nabatean tombs. These monuments with ornamented façades with burial chambers dug inside on the ground support the idea that the tombs are similar to the ones at Petra in Jordan and Hegra / Madain Saleh in Madinah Province. There are 16 cemeteries and 30 tombs including some that are decorated with monumental façades of typical Nabatean style. One of them has a column ornamented with a capital showing the influence of ancient Greece and Rome in the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula.

12 December 2021

Large gathering of Hypocolius - Haradh

Hypocolius are quite a difficult species to see, as they occur in regions that are not so easy to access like Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia and are a short-distance migrant. Small numbers remain in western Iran throughout year but the majority migrate south and east to their main wintering areas in southern Iran, Pakistan, western India, west and central Saudi Arabia, and Arabian Gulf States (notably Bahrain). Departure from the breeding areas mainly occurs in August with birds arriving back in April. In Saudi Arabia as a whole, they are an uncommon, but may be a locally common, winter visitor to Eastern and Central Arabia, Northern Hejaz, Hejaz and Northern Red Sea. Flocks of over 100 birds have been recorded in Riyadh each winter. Last winter Phil Roberts found a large flock of up to 200 birds in Haradh and we managed to find approximately the same number in a similar area when we visited at the end of November. The area where these birds were was slightly different to those I have seen before with most records occurring where there are palm trees. These birds were feeding in an area of vegetation next to large pivot irrigation fields and returning to some large acacia bushes at the side of a track. The birds were, as always, quite noisy calling to each other but never settle long enough for good photos.

11 December 2021

Dhahran Al Janob

Whilst in the southwest in mid-November we travelled across to Najran birding the wadies and hills in areas where very few birders have ventured in recent years or even before that. The idea was to try to see what the range of some of the commoner birds were. We located a few birds that have not been recorded in the area previously such as Abyssinian White-eye and Arabian Babbler and others that have not been recorded since 1984 such as Arabian Warbler, Arabian Scops Owl & Arabian Wheatear. Other species seen and photographed included Palestine Sunbird, Arabian Green Bee-eater, Graceful Prinia & Arabian Sunbird.

Palestine Sunbird

Graceful Prinia

Arabian Wheatear

Arabian Wheatear

Arabian Warbler

Arabian Sunbird

Arabian Green Bee-eater

Abyssinian White-eye

10 December 2021

Birding the Salwa area – Salwa

During late November I went to the Salwa area to see if there were any interesting birds about. I spent some time searching wet areas hoping to locate Prinias to try to identify what subspecies if any occurred there. On my previous visit in October I had not heard or seen any Prinias but the reed beds had be either burnt or destroyed by camels. This time the reeds had grown back nicely and more birds were seen. I only heard one Prinia briefly call and did not see it so am none the wiser as to what type, Delicate or Graceful, occurs there. Whilst looking for the Prinias I found an adult European Robin, which was my first record for the Kingdom but the bird was continually moving in the reeds and vegetation and I was not able to obtain any photos. Other birds seen in the reedy area included Spanish Sparrow, Eurasian Skylark and a small flock of about 15 Corn Bunting. These birds were continually coming down to some grain and allowed quite close approach. A Jack Snipe was seen on a large pool and a small number of European Starling were present. Three Black Redstart, several Common Chiffchaff and a Blackcap were seen feeding along the edge of some trees and an usual sight of a late Barn Swallow and very late Red-rumped Swallow together on a wire fence.

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

Corn Bunting

Black Redstart

09 December 2021

Wells of Moses - Madyan

The 12 Wells of Moses is near Maqna where crystal clear water comes out of the ground in several places. The well is surrounded by palm trees and its water runs downhill towards a palm grove. On the north of the well is an archaeological site that is believed to date back to the early Islamic era but is currently not open to the public. Madyan is the land where Moses spent ten years in voluntary exile after fleeing from Egypt following an altercation with an Egyptian that was beating an Israelite. It is believed that Moses crossed the Red Sea and arrived in Maqna and went to a well called Bir Al-Sa’idani to drink. There he saw two girls collecting water for their cattle and he offered to help and then retired to the shade. The girls reported this gentle move to their father, the prophet Shu’ayb and asked him to reward Moses for his help. Shu’ayb went to meet Moses and saw he was chivalrous and valiant so he asked him to stay with him for eight years and offered him his daughter’s hand in marriage, Moses accepted and extended his stay to 10 years with his wife and father-in-law.