30 January 2022

Arabian Toad-headed Agama - Sakaka

Whilst birding in the Sakaka area in January my daughters found an Arabian Toad-headed Agama Phrynocephalus arabicus. This species prefers sandy desert areas and is active in all but the hottest hours of the day looking for insect prey. During the hottest periods, they will stand high on extended legs to limit contact with the sand, balancing on fingertips and heels while using the tail as a prop. They are able to sink rapidly into the sand by vibrating the body in a process called ‘shimmy burial’, and it uses this behaviour to escape from predators or create a nocturnal shelter. They lay eggs, producing a clutch of one to seven which are incubated for around six to eight weeks in a burrow. They often stand with their body raised and dart across the ground to catch insects with the act of raising their body off the ground, exposing it to the breeze helping regulate its temperature. Body colour varies with temperature, being darker when cool and lighter when warm, as well as normally matching the surroundings of the surface it lives on. The tracks made by this agama are quite small and rarely show the drag mark of the tail as they move at speed from point to point with their tail raised. Two species of Toad-headed Agama live in the region Arabian Toad-headed Agama P. arabicus and Spotted Toad-headed Agama P. maculatus. The species are relatively easy to identify by the relatively longer tail compared to snout-vent length in P. maculatus of 130-160%, as opposed to 100-125% in P. arabicus. The two species can also be told apart by their shape, colour & number of scales present between the eye and lip. P. arabicus is short-bodied (45 mm length), well camouflaged with white, black, brown and orange speckles over the top of the body and the upper-side of the tail paler than the body and lacking the spots. The ventral body parts were white with the under-side of the tail orange from the vent to the dark tail band and the species has three to four scales between the eye and lip. P. maculatus is relatively slim and long-bodied and appears larger than P. arabicus and has five to six scales between the eye and lip. The upper-side of the body is sandy grey with five broad dark brown cross bars, with the bars continuing on the tail from vent to the end of the tail with a longer dark terminal tail band, about 20% of the tail length.

28 January 2022

Mourning & White-Crowned Wheatears - Judah

A very early morning trip to Judah in mid-January saw Phil Roberts and I finding eleven Eastern Morning Wheatears and three White-crowned Wheatears. These limestone escarpments are a very good place in winter to see both species and the below photographs were obtained. The White-crowned Wheatear was seen in the middle of a pivot irrigation filed a very strange place to locate one, but it was some distance away. Amazingly as soon as it had been seen it flew and came straight towards us landing only a few metres away. Unfortunately, the sun was not in a good position but some reasonable photos were taken. Eastern mooring Wheatear is quite a specialty of the Arabian Peninsula and is bird sought after by the big birding groups who occasionally visit Bahrain where the species can be seen. Numbers in Saudi Arabia are much higher and easier to see but visiting restrictions to the country have made seeing them more difficult, although it is now possible to obtain tourist visas so anyone really interested can now can and look for them here. 

Eastern Morning Wheatear

Eastern Morning Wheatear

Eastern Morning Wheatear

Eastern Morning Wheatear

Eastern Morning Wheatear

Eastern Morning Wheatear

White-crowned Wheatear

White-crowned Wheatear

White-crowned Wheatear

White-crowned Wheatear

26 January 2022

Sisra Well – Sakaka

Sisra Well is located in the northern end of the city about 200 metres from Za’abal Castle and dates back to the Nabataean Period (First century BC until the end of the first century AD). The well is dug in sandstone, is oval in shape and is about 15 metres deep and nine by eight metres across and has a hole in the eastern side that was used to irrigate the surrounding farms. The well currently has no water in it. It is made of stones in its top with a wide hole and engraved staircase reaching the bottom of the well and there is also a tunnel at the eastern side in the bottom of the well, which is feeding the farms with water that are located in the lower areas about three kilometers away from the city. Sisra Well is considered as one of the most significant antiquities in the region and took its name from the Kanaani military commander, Sisra who fought the Jews in Palestine as the commander of Kanaani army. His name is mentioned in Torah and Christian holy books as a Jew. Some people connect name of Sisrah to the name Cesar as an English translation to the name of Cesar in the western culture.

24 January 2022

A few winter birds - Dhahran Lake

Whilst walking around the lake in Dhahran 20 January I spent some time looking in the relatively newly planted scrubby area. It was full of Bluethroats but is normally the case they were flighty and shy and no photos were obtained this time. The various grasses planted here are very attractive to Indian Silverbills and a small group has been around most of the year but now seems to have increased in numbers to well over twenty individuals. Tawny Pipits were running around on the rough ground along with Crested Larks with a Daurian Shrike, Great Grey Shrike and a Caspian Stonechat also seen perched up on the shrubs and grasses. The pond itself held a few Western Great Egrets, 50+ Western Cattle Egrets, 20 Mallard, one Eurasian Teal, three Ferruginous Duck and 50+ Great Cormorants including a few juveniles. A single Gull-billed Tern and ten Common Black-headed Gull were present along with 23 Little Grebe.

Siberian Stonechat

Siberian Stonechat

Western Great Egret

Indian Silverbill

22 January 2022


Shuwaihtiyeh centre is located along the banks of Shuwaihtiyeh valley. The area was inhabited from the Stone Age dating back 130,000 to 100,000 years ago. It has various interesting sites including the old village, and the Shuwaihtiyeh tree, an ancient Tamarix tree, dating back to 1941. This type of tree was used for ceilings in the old village. It also holds one of the oldest, human inhabited archaeological sites in the Kingdom, which was fenced off and closed when we visited. Field studies have revealed 15 settlements and 2000 stone tools including knifes, hammer stones and arrowheads have been found. Various examples of Rock Art (petroglyphs) can be found on the hills surrounding the area, including depictions of Camel, Ibex and hunting scenes as well as inscriptions.

20 January 2022

Caspian Gulls – Sharma Beach

Whilst birding Sharma Beach in December I came across a small number or large White-headed Gulls. I was looking to see if I could find Yellow-legged Gull that had been recorded in this area previously but was only able to identify Caspian Gulls. The photos below show four different birds from top to bottom as follows:

Bird 1: Probably a Caspian Gull but immature gulls are always extremely tricky.

Bird 2: A pale-eyed variant Caspian Gull with characteristic shape and palish legs. Klaus Malling Olsen mentioned to me previously that the bill colour and pattern in more eastern Caspian Gulls are brighter than seen in the western part of the range.

Bird 3: Caspian Gull with typical wing-tip pattern; complete white tip to p10 and large white spot on p9 as well as long black tongues in mid primaries.

Bird 4: Caspian Gull showing the white tip to p10.

18 January 2022

Petrified Wood – Sakaka

Whilst in the Sakaka area recently my family and I went looking for petrified wood in the rough stony desert areas. We knew they had been found here before and were interested to see what they looked like. We did not know where to look bit drove to an off-road location. Here we were approached by a local Bedouin, and we asked him and his son if they knew were we may be able to find some. They very kindly showed us where some very large pieces were, with at least four large trunks seen although they were all broken up to some degree. These fragments are very large and very heavy but we were very glad to have seen them. The drive to them was over very rough ground and a four-wheel drive car would be essential to reach them although as we were following the Bedouin to reach them and get back safely to the road I have no idea where they actually were.  Petrified wood is the name given to wood that has been turned into stone (fossilized). All of the organic matter becomes replaced by minerals, while much of the original structure such as tree rings in retained. For this to happen the wood needs to be buried in an environment both low in oxygen (preventing decomposition) and with flowing, mineral-laden water. The coloration is due to the various minerals that are present during fossilization.

16 January 2022

Armenian Gull - Al Uqayr

Whilst birding the coastal area of Al Uqayr on 9 January 2022 we came across an Armenian Gull on the shoreline. The bird was very flighty and took off almost as soon as it had been located but luckily landed again. After several short flights we managed to get a couple of photos on the ground and then some flight shots. The bird showed a rather dark grey mantle (slightly darker than Steppe Gull), yellow legs (not bright yellow but obviously yellow), a large amount of black in the outer primaries and a single relatively small mirror on the outer primary (P10). Armenian Gull is often depicted with a dark eye but in fact several studies have shown between 10-15% of adult birds have pale eyes. The bird we saw had a pale eye as shown in the below photos. The very tip of the bill, in front of the black marking, was whitish, with a red gonys well developed on the lower mandible and only marginally continued on the upper mandible, and bright yellow proximal part of the bill creating a four-coloured impression. Armenian Gull is a relatively rare bird worldwide with 98% of the breeding total being concentrated on only four lakes in Turkey, Armenia and Iran. It has an estimated world population around 20,000 – 25,000 breeding pairs. The Turkish breeding population of Armenian Gull is about 2400 pairs on Tuz Golu, Van Golu & a further 11,000-13,000 pairs at two lakes in Armenia and 4,000 - 5,000 pairs at one lake in Iran. They winter mainly in the eastern Mediterranean with some spreading to northern Red Sea, and it is a common gull in Israel in winter with birds regularly seen in Kuwait each winter. Its status in Saudi Arabia is a scarce winter visitor with most records from the northern shores of the Red Sea and is very scarce in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia where they make up possibly only 0.1% of all large white-headed gulls. Birds become scarcer the further south one goes in the Eastern part of the Arabian Peninsula, so more could occur closer to the Kuwait border at Khafji.

14 January 2022

Zaabal Castle – Sakaka

On top of a mountain, the highest point in the area, in the city of Sakaka in northwest Saudi Arabia sits Zaabal Castle. The castle is believed to have been built 200 years ago, but some structures are said to date back to the 1st-century Nabataean era dated from the first century BC to the first century AD. The fort consists of a reservoir and four cylindrical towers, five metres high, that are connected by a single wall and is built of stone and mud. The castle sits on top of a water well system that spans the entire city and has been a source of supply to the city’s inhabitants for centuries. It has a surrounding wall built of mud and stone decorated with mud engravings. The height of the wall is approximately two meters. There are two rooms inside the castle built of mud and stones and the roof covered in palms trunks and palm branches which are available throughout the region. One of these rooms is located in the centre of the castle, was built over a high rock base. The second chamber is located to the left when you walk through the entrance to the castle and is faced by a water tank embedded in rock to a depth of approximately 80 cm and 1 metre length approximately. The tank was used for storing water in case of barricaded inside the fortress. The castle is accessed through semi- circuitous narrow staircase built from stone. On the left on the way into the castle there is a large jebal that holds some very interesting rock art. It is not possible to get close but they are viewable from the bottom of the jebal.

13 January 2022

Birding the Gayal area - Gayal

Gayal is an area on the Red Sea coast, north of Sharma towards the Jordan boarder, where it is possible to access the coast. Here some shallow intertidal areas exist and some large bays that contain a lot of waders. When we were there we saw Dunlin, Eurasian Curlew, Greater Sand Plover and Ruddy Turnstone. Other birds seen included Great Grey Shrike in some shrubs close to the coast and Western Osprey.

Ruddy Turnstone

Great Grey Shrike

Greater Sand Plover

Eurasian Curlew

12 January 2022

Sanderling – Al Uqayr

Whilst birding the area near Al Uqayr Customs House we came across a flooded area caused by the large amount of rain that fell at the end of December. On scanning the few waders that were present I located a single Sanderling amongst the Dunlin and Kentish Plover. This is an Uncommon passage migrant and uncommon winter visitor to Saudi Arabia and bird I don’t see so often. As a result, I turned the car around and carefully tried to get into position to see the waders well with the light behind and avoid getting stick in the mud. On arrival at the area it became apparent there were quite a few Sanderling present totalling twenty birds as well as four Greater Sandplovers and twenty plus Dunlin. We spent some time checking the trees along the coast here for Hypocolious as a large flock had spent last winter in the area and despite quite a lot of effort only managed to find two separate individuals some distance apart. A Lesser Whitethroat, Song Thrush, Eastern Black Redstart, several Common Chiffchaff and a calling Siberian Chiffchaff were only other really notable birds seen.