30 September 2021

Steppe Eagles – Ushaiqer Dump Site

The Ushaiqer dump site is at the end of a 5 km graded track that splits off from the road between the towns of Ushaiqer and Shaqra (25.326°N, 45.173°E)  and heads west (Figure 1a). The site at Ushaiqer previously received large amounts of chicken offal, which attracted the largest number of eagles ever recorded at a single site in winter 2019 with approximately 7500 birds recorded. Now, however, the dumping of food waste is no longer permitted and the eagle numbers have significantly decreased with only several hundred seen last winter. Early morning 23 September Phil Roberts and I went to the site to see if any eagles had returned. Although the date was quite early, with main migration through Saudi Arabia in October, we managed to locate up to 50 Steppe Eagles. Most birds were adults with only four first year birds seen. It will be interesting to see over the winter if birds remain at this location or move elsewhere due to lack of food. This location is also a good place to see various species of lark, and this trip we saw both Desert Lark and Greater Hoopoe-lark with a nice flock of 20+ Trumpeter Finch.  

Steppe Eagle

Steppe Eagle

Desert Lark

Greater Hoopoe-Lark

28 September 2021

Arabian Toad-headed Agama - Sakaka

Whilst birdwatching the Sakaka area in northwest Saudi Arabia, I found a Toad-headed Agama. I have identified it due to its colouration, size and shape and the fact it was in sandy habitat rather than sabkha, but I am not an expert. This is a small lizard with a total length smaller than 20 cm. It has a head that looks as though it has armour. The tip of the tail changes to black colour and can coil resembling a scorpion, particularly when they are alarmed. They use this strategy to frighten predators by pretending to be like a dangerous scorpion. This is a diurnal species that can be found in dunes and open sandy areas with vegetation and rocks. They eat insects and other small invertebrates. They use the so-called "sit and wait" hunting strategy and they actively use visual orientation to search for food. Females lay eggs. The species ranges from south-eastern Jordan into the Arabian Peninsula, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman and Iran

26 September 2021

Arabian Red Fox – Jubail area

Whilst birding the Jubail area 17 September we came across an Arabian Red Fox. Initially the animal was quite some distance but we managed to manouver the car to get excellent views of the fox which was completely unfazed by our presence. These are the best views I have had of this species for quite a few years and was an excellent start to the days birdwatching. Red Fox is currently recognized as a single species and has the widest natural distribution of any terrestrial carnivore, possibly any terrestrial mammal. Its range spans approximately 70 million square kilometres encompassing much of Europe, Asia and North America and extending into North Africa, with an introduced population in Australia. The Red Fox occupies a wide variety of ecosystems, including forests, grasslands, deserts and agricultural and human-dominated environments with a recent genomically comprehensive study suggesting the originated from the Middle East. The Arabian Red fox has very large ears for its size and is very thin and sandy coloured compared to the European Red Fox looking quite different. This individual appears to have most of its summer coat remaining, but its tail is coming into winter plumage.

24 September 2021

Snake-tailed Fringe-toed Lizard – Jebal Lawz

Whilst birding recently in the Jebal Laws area I came across a number of Snake-tailed Fringe-toed Lizard Acanthodactylus opheodurus. The lizards were very active even during the hottest part of the day and where always found near small low-lying plants with hard sandy soil. It is superficially similar to its larger congener Acanthodactylus boskianus, and was described officially in 1980. As its name suggests, this species has a particularly long tail and, in common with other Acanthodactylus species, the toes are fringed with scales adapted for running over loose sand. Like other lacertids, the body is long and cylindrical, and the legs are well developed, with the animal having a basic body colour of grey, with seven dark stripes running down the back and sides and a tail tinged red in immatures. They live in a range of arid habitats, including plains with relatively hard sand cover and low hills covered by dense bushes. It is a diurnal lizard and lives in burrows excavated out of hard sand where it remains concealed for all but a few hours of the day. Their burrows not only act as a shelter from predators but also provide refuge from extreme temperatures. The snake-tailed fringe-toed lizard is currently known from the Arabian Peninsula and several other countries in the Middle East, including Jordan, Kuwait and Iraq.

22 September 2021

Late Egyptian Nightjar – Jubail area

Whilst birding the Jubail area 17 September we came across a late Egyptian Nightjar. Most Egyptian Nightjars depart the Jubail area in early September although the latest sighting was 23 September 2015, so this was a good record. Most of the hirundines from last week had passed through with only a handful of Barn Swallows and a few more Sand Martins. Good numbers of shrikes were present, mainly Red-backed and Turkestan with a single Daurian. Wheatear numbers had increased with good numbers of Pied Wheatear, one Northern and a single Isabelline. Spotted Flycatchers & Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters are still present and waders were increasing in numbers with the best waders seen being Broad-billed Sandpiper and Marsh Sandpiper. Overt two hundred Caspian Terns and a similar number of Grey Herons were both large counts for the location.

Marsh Sandpiper

Spotted Flycatcher

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Egyptian Nightjar

20 September 2021

Black Cone-headed Grasshopper – Fayd

Whilst in Fayd I came across a Black Cone-headed Grasshopper Poekilocerus bufonius. The Black Cone-headed Grasshopper occurs throughout Saudi Arabia and has a large black body and slow movement and feed on plants in the milkweed family, which produce toxic chemicals. Ingesting these plants make the grasshoppers poisonous and distasteful to predators. When they are attacked, Black Cone-headed Grasshoppers spray a toxic fluid in defense. In Arabic, they are called zagat. Adults are 10 centimeters in length and black or dark-coloured often with yellow spots. Females are substantially larger the males with short wings. As is typical of this order of insects (Orthoptera), the grasshoppers go through incomplete metamorphosis. The young nymphs resemble the adults but have no wings. As they age, they will shed their exoskeletons several times, growing wings until their final moult into a mature adult with fully-developed wings. This is only the second time I have seen this type of grasshopper in Saudi Arabia.

18 September 2021

Plenty of Hirundines – Jubail area

Whilst birding the Jubail area 10 September we came across a good number is hirundines. Most birds were Barn Swallow with very good numbers of Sand Martins included. Barn Swallow is not an easy bird to photograph in my experience in Saudi Arabia, so I spent some time trying to get reasonable shots of a perched bird. Migration has just started in earnest with good numbers of shrikes, mainly Red-backed, Daurian and Turkestan as well as a few Spotted Flycatchers. Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters are passing over in small flocks daily some allowing close inspection and photographs to be taken. Warbler numbers seem to be low in the Eastern Province at present although a good number of Reed Warblers were calling from the reed beds. Herons were present with hundreds of Grey Heron, Squacco Heron and Little Egret and much smaller numbers of Western Reef Heron and a couple of Purple Heron.

16 September 2021

Processionary Moth caterpillars – Tayma

Whilst in the desert near Tayma, central Saudi Arabia, I came across hundreds of bright red-orange caterpillars on the sand. On asking some experts, they came to the conclusion they were a processionary moth Thaumetopoea caterpillar. They are a human irritant because of their venomous hairs, which can cause skin irritation. The exact species involved has not been ascertained. This is the first time I have seen these caterpillars in Saudi Arabia and they certainly made a spectacular sight.

12 September 2021

Duba Fort – Duba

The King Abdulaziz fort is one of the most prominent features of the city of Duba. It was built in 1932 to be a headquarter for the government in Duba. The fortress boasts of four high towers, a number of rooms, a big mosque as well as the courtyard in the middle of the fortress building.

08 September 2021

Hegra (Madain Saleh) – Al Ula

Hegra (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 Hegra. 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 Hegra 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. Hegra (Madain Saleh) contains carved tomb facades, religious areas, residential areas, wells & 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. 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. A visit to Hegra (Madain Saleh) at Al Ula is an unforgettable experience. The trips can be booked through the experiencealula.com website and are two hours long. You need to meet at Al Ula winter park to catch the bus and you are driven to the locations with a guide. You can only currently visit three areas, Ad Diwan, Qasr Al-Bint & Qasr al-Farid and are not allowed to enter any of the tombs. 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-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 which is the one you visit. 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. Depending on time you may not be allowed to visit the tombs at the back of the jebal but if possible it is well worth walking all around to see all the tombs. 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 with the last trip at 3 pm. We visited twice to allow for photography of all places visited and get greater knowledge of the place from different guides.