31 March 2022

Mistletoe Plicosepalus curviflorus - Dhahran Al Janub

When birding at Dhahran Al Janub we came across a number of Mistletoes Plicosepalus curviflorus which is a common species providing useful food for livestock. The leaves are not markedly dissimilar and are clustered on short shoots about 2–7.5 centimeters long. Petals separate, 2.5–3.5 centimeters long; basal part below filament-insertion red, yellow or less often white or orange. They occur in deciduous bushland and Acacia woodland, almost always on Acacia, from 50–2300 metres above sea level. The rnage is north along the Red Sea coast to southernmost Egypt, through Eritrea, Ethiopia and Djibouti to Kenya, Uganda, eastern Zaire and Tanzania, also in the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula. Mistletoes are epiphytic hemiparasitic plants that are known to negatively affect the growth of their hosts, increase tree mortality, and as a consequence change the community dynamics. Mistletoe alters the mineral nutrition of the host and the nutrient cycle in the soil.  Overall, it appears that mistletoe infection has a dual effect. It threatens the health of the Acacia, potentially killing its host tree due to absorption of host nutrients particularly when the infection intense. It also has a positive effect in that it improves the availability of the micro-habitat of nutrients under the canopy, which in turn may contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity.

29 March 2022

Arabian Scops Owl in daytime – Taj Dam

Whilst birdwatching Taj Dam near Tanoumah recently I heard an brief odd single call. We stopped and listened to see if the bird would call again, and when it did were very surprised to hear an Arabian Scops Owl calling in the middle of the day. This is the first time I have heard the birds calling in the daytime. We moved towards where the bird called from and it called again from close range within a thick tangled tree. A second bird returned its call from a little further away but then fell silent. I thought I had a reasonable idea of where the bird last called from so went under the large thick tree to see if I could see anything. I held little hope of locating the bird as they are very cryptic in plumage and remain still and well hidden. Amazingly I noticed the bird well hidden in the thick cover and after moving around managed to get into a position where the bird was mainly visible. We took quite a few photos on various settings to try to get in focus and reasonably clear photos. After a while Phil noticed a second bird hiding behind the first. After a quick review of the photos on the back of the camera I went back and the closer bird had moved back to join the second bird so we took a few photos of both birds together before leaving them in peace. This is the first time I have seen the species in the daytime, although other birders have encountered then in daylight before. The Arabian Scops Owl was split as a distinct species from African Scops Owl O. s. senegalensis. The reasons for this are this southern Arabian taxon is highly divergent from African senegalensis (uncorrected-p mitochondrial genetic distance = 4%). The song of pamelae is very different from that of Eurasian Scops Owl O. scops and Pallid Scops Owl O. brucei but more similar to that of African Scops Owl O. senegalensis. It nevertheless differs from the latter’s song in being higher pitched, sounding ‘scratchier’ and having more prolonged notes; the song sounds two-parted, due to the much quieter first note. In terms of biometrics, results clearly suggest that pamelae is longer winged and longer legged than mainland African populations of senegalensis. In comparison with populations of O. senegalensis in continental Africa, Arabian pamelae is distinguished in being paler overall, with less distinct streaking over the underparts and a less obvious whitish line on the scapulars. Arabian Scops Owl is found in South-west Saudi Arabia, South-west Yemen and north-east to southern Oman and African Scops Owl is now no longer found in Arabia but instead occurs in parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea & Somalia.

27 March 2022

Painted Lady Butterfly – Dhahran Hills

The first Painted Lady butterfly of the year appear in late January possibly as a result of the very heavy rains we have had recently. Although the Painted Lady can survive in Saudi Arabia in most years the majority of butterflies are probably migrants. The Painted Lady is the most widely distributed butterfly in the world occurring on all continents except Antarctica. It is a large butterfly with a buffy-orange background colour to the upper-wings. The forewings have black tips marked with white spots and the hind-wings have rows of brown or black circular spots. The underside of the wing is pale buff brown than the upper-wing. Newly emerged butterflies are brighter coloured, with the colouring becoming muted with age.

25 March 2022

Arabian Spotted Eagle Owls – Abha

Whilst in Abha in mid-March, Phil Roberts and I managed to see and photograph a couple of Arabian Spotted Eagle-owl. One was perched on some overhead lines and allowed very close views. We got out of the car and moved closer getting to about ten metres of the bird with the owl appearing comfortable with our presence, and stayed on the wires the entire time until we left it in peach in the same location. A different bird was located about twenty kilometres away in the early evening on an exposed rock where after some time it was joined by a second bird. Both birds then proceeded to mate with each other before flying off. Birds are resident near the Red Sea coast north to Jeddah and can be seen in the Tihamah and Asir areas including Najran and Hejaz north to Taif. Other birds have been seen in a wooded wadi eight kilometres east of Wadi Juwwah in April and near Tanoumah at various times of year. It is a rather small eagle-owl with long, erect ear-tufts quite tawny coloured. They use a variety of habitats, from rocky outcrops in desert to woodland with sparse ground cover: particularly favours areas with mosaic of low hills, grassland and scrub; prefers semi-open woodland, and rocky hills with scattered trees and bushes; also found in thorn savanna; avoids dense forest. From sea level up to c. 2100 metres. It has recently been split from African Spotted Eagle Owl and now has an isolated range in South-west Saudi Arabia, South-west Yemen and north-east to southern Oman.

23 March 2022

Red Thumb – Al Uqayr

Whilst birding Al Uqayr near Al Hassa I found a couple of nice examples of Red Thumb Cynomorium coccineum. This plant is a parasitic, leafless plant without chlorophyll. It is a fleshy, reddish, club-shaped perennial herb that can grow up to 30 centimeters high and is parasitic on the roots of desert shrubs. It is only visible above ground during its spring flowering period. The flowering stems may emerge from the ground singly but more often they are grouped several together. The interflorescence is dark-red to purplish and is made up of minute scarlet flowers that may be male or female. Flies are attracted by the smell given off from the plant and are thought to be pollinators of the plant which once pollinated turns black. They grow on sandy, saline, ground. The plant is known as 'tarthuth' by the Bedouin and is also known as Maltese Fungus and Desert Thumb and is used in many herbal medicines around the world. Due to its' dark red colour it was thought to be able to cure aneamia and other blood-related diseases and dried spikes were carried by the Crusaders in order to treat wounds. Research being carried out into the plants' actual medicinal properties seems to provisionally confirm several of the traditional uses with extracts of the herb appearing to inhibit HIV, improve blood flow and lower blood pressure.

22 March 2022

Slender-billed Gulls – Al Khobar

Whilst birdwatching Al Khobar recently I came across quite good numbers of Slender-billed Gulls. This species is partially migratory, with birds wintering around the Arabian Peninsula but others staying year around. Its status in Saudi Arabia is a common year-round visitor but is almost entirely found on the coasts where it prefers shallow coastal waters and intertidal areas. Birds are gregarious and almost always found in groups. In late February and March some adults attain summer plumage with black/deep red bills and a strong pinkish flush to the underparts. The photos below wee taken at close range as the birds were feeding on dumped rubbish and would return to the same spot even if disturbed by passing vehicles. 

19 March 2022

Watchtower – Al Uqayr

Whilst birdwatching near Al Uqayr I saw a large watchtower slightly back from the side of the road leading to the Customs House and fort. There are many watchtowers like this scattered throughout the Kingdom but there appear to be less in the Easter Province than elsewhere. They are particularly common in the Asir Mountains. These old structures are always nice to see and help show the history of the area.

17 March 2022

Immature Heuglin’s Gull – Al Khobar

Whilst birdwatching Al Khobar recently I came across this interesting looking gull. It is most probably a second winter heuglini, based on greyish-tinged upperparts, which should be darker (black) in fuscus. The short bill and rounded head suggest a female, which jizz-wise is close to fuscus, but with the rounder head and heavier bill it appears closer to heuglini.Heuglin’s Gull is a regular winter visitor to the Eastenr Province of Saudi Arabia whereasfuscus is rare, but to exclude a fuscus (immature wintering to the north of the wintering range) completely is often not possible. It appears to be a second winter due to amount of black on the bill, pink-coloured legs and brown mottling on the wing feathers.

15 March 2022

Desert Hyacinth – Al Uqayr

Whilst birdwatching near Al Uqayr in late January I saw a small number of new Desert Hyacinth Cistanche tubulosa. The plant was over a fence in some private land so I could only take the photo with my I-phone from above the plant, which is shown below. The Desert Hyacinth is a widely distributed annual that produces a dense pyramid spike of bright yellow flowers topped by maroon-tinted buds. The yellow flowers do not smell very nice and flies are attracted to the smell and carry the pollen on their legs from plant to plant helping with pollination. They are parasitic, one of several such plants in Arabia, and live off other plants to gain their nutritional needs, as they have no green parts or leaves to synthesize chlorophyll directly. The many tiny seeds may remain dormant for years until the roots of the host plant are close enough to trigger germination. It is one of the showiest plants of Eastern Arabia with bright yellow, dense column of flowers sometimes approaching one metre in height. It has varying flower colour with the flowers either tightly packed in the spike or loose. They are widespread on sandy or sandy-silty ground and can tolerate saline environments as well as disturbed conditions, so are often seen growing near roads or tracks in the desert or along the shores of the Arabian Gulf. They flower from early January to early April each year.

13 March 2022

Lesser Crested Terns – Abu Ali Island

Whilst birding Abu Ali Island in February we found a few Lesser Crested Terns sitting on some metal poles sticking out from the sea close to the shore. This species is seen irregularly along the Arabian Gulf coast of Saudi Arabia in winter and return to breed on offshore islands in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in the summer. We have ringed more than 3000 birds so far in Bahrain with ring recoveries all coming from the east of Bahrain with birds recorded in India, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.

11 March 2022

Mediterranean Tiger Blue - Dhahran Lake

Whilst walking around the lake in Dhahran in mid-January I saw a fresh female Mediterranean Tiger Blue Tancus rosaceus butterfly that was feeding on its common hostplant Zizyphus spina-christi. These butterflies are not common in the Dhahran area but can sometimes be seen in the early part of the year until April. They are approximately 18-22 mm in size. It is like Little Tiger Blue Tarucus balkanicus but the underside of the hind-wing line proximal to spots is broken at the veins. The upperside of the wing of the male is blue with fewer spots, whilst the females are hard to separate. The family Tarucus is commonly known as Blue Pierrots and the caterpillars are typically feed on Zizyphus, a genus of spiny shrubs and small trees in the Buckthorn family and are attended by ants. I thank Dubi Benyamini for help with identification.

09 March 2022

Common Starlings - Khafra Marsh

Whilst birding Khafra Marsh in late February we came across a small flock of over seventy Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris in flight and on overhead wires. This winter there appear to be more birds than normal with the species a winter visitor that is common in the Eastern Province but rather uncommon and erratic in Tabuk, Riyadh and Jeddah. I have seen small flocks in Jubail around Sabkhat Al Fasl as well as at Khafra Marsh this winter. These birds will be moving back to their breeding areas soon so was nice to see and be able to at least obtain a couple of photos of them.

07 March 2022

Blue-spotted Arab - Salwa

Whilst birdwatching the Salwa area, near the Qatar border, I came across a number of Blue-spotted Arab Colotis phisis. The Blue-spotted Arab is a small butterfly occurring from Africa to India. They favour arid regions and many butterflies of the same and different Coltis species may fly in the same place. The upper-side of the males forewing has a pale salmon-pink ground color. Base arrogated with bluish-grey scales that extend outwards and a black spot on the underside of the forewing. Back wings much paler, and light or no spot. Clubbed antennae. Rolled up proboscis. Wingspan 20mm. They breed during through the warmer parts of the year with the female laying several eggs that are bottle shaped with ribs down the sides and are generally white but turn pale blue. Pupae stage last several days. When adult emerges it takes a few minutes to harden the veins in the wings. The larva feeds on Salvadora persica (toothbrush bush). 

05 March 2022

Juvenile Black-winged Kite - Khafra Marsh

Whilst birding Khafra Marsh in February we came across a juvenile Black-winged Kite, with this being the first juvenile I have seen in the Eastern Province. An adult Black-winged Kite has been about throughout the year, so this juvenile and another juvenile, able to fly, found at Khafra Marsh a couple of years ago, in the presence of two adults suggests breeding may have occurred. The first record for the Eastern Province was only found on 17 April 2012, but since then has become more common with birds seen in almost every month and every year since the first record. Rather than being a vagrant to the Eastern Province its status has changed to a scarce visitor. All birds sub-specifically identified in the east of the Kingdom are the eastern subspecies Elanus caeruleus vociferous a subspecies that occurs from Pakistan east to southern & eastern China, Indochina and the Malay Peninsula.