Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The river banks at Al Hayer

On Saturday morning, I made one irregular visits to the pivot field area south of Al Hayer. In my first two years in Riyadh I visited this area about twice each month.   In a sense it could be seen as my "local patch". However in the past year, the frequency has dropped to about twice every three months as I travel more.

Nevertheless it was a welcome return. There has been a lot of development recently and the Riyadh river seems to be continually changing course as reeds are burnt and earth moved.

I decided to concentrate on the edge of the water rather than spend too much time in the pivot fields themselves.

common kingfisher

A early surprise was the sight of a common kingfisher. One or two are known to winter near the fields every year but I wasn't expecting one to still be around on April 19th. 

purple heron

The birding had started well but before seeing it. A purple heron rose up at the very start as I walked along a new stretch of the river.

rufous-tailed bush robin

Near-by, on some scrub land between the river and the nearest field I witnessed my first rufous tailed bush robin of spring.

European collared dove

I only ventured into the near-by field trying to follow a streaked weaver. During my very short stay in  there I only saw crested lark and European collared dove.

new course of the river

As I returned to the river, I accidentally flushed three common snipe.  Further along near the river's edge were several red-throated pipit.

red-throated pipit

From the river I could see five cattle egret resting on the pivot bar in the middle of the field. While watching these, a black crowned night heron flew past me.

cattle egret

There was much more streaked weaver activity in the reeds at the far side of the river.  I saw 4 nests close together and i am sure there were plenty more out of sight.

male streaked weaver

Unfortunately this was a place where four fishermen were fishing. Sadly two hours later they had produced a barbeque which made the reeds catch fire and a very large area of reeds and tamarisk were burnt down almost certainly destroying all the nests. At least 50 black crowned night heron which I hadn't previously seen flew up into the air to avoid the smoke and fire.

I saw two similar fires last spring. This act made me angry and sad in equal measure. 

female streaked weaver

Further up stream I came across more weavers' nests so at least the whole population wasn't wiped out. The picture of the female above is from that different group.

squacco heron

In the same area were three squacco heron who like the ones in Jubail the day before were in complete summer plumage.

graceful prinia

There are lots of tamarisk and other bushes in this section but I failed to see many warblers who must be passing through at the moment. I can only think that the high temperatures are forcing them deep into cover during the day. Nevertheless the local graceful prinia were braving the heat and I also briefing saw my first barred warbler of the spring.

red avadavat

I have noted before that the exotic birds such as streaked weaver and red avadavat almost disappear from this area in winter only to reappear in spring. I believe they find more densely bushed areas up stream. Both are back in numbers. Red avadavat was easy to see. The males have started to gain some of their breeding plumage since my last sighting two weeks ago but they have a long way to go. However you can start to see why one alternative name is strawberry munia.

young moorhen

In contrast moorhen have been busy breeding since late January.

Turkestan shrike

As the heat steadily rose towards midday, fewer and few birds were disclosing themselves. Turkestan shrike perch out in all heat so one of these could be seen. A black bush robin was seen fleetingly.

grey heron

Something must have disturbed a grey heron which rose up unexpectedly. This was one of the last birds I saw before ending around 11.30 with temperatures still rising.

Strangely I didn't see a single bird of prey all the time at al Hayer. This must be a first.

kestrel at the Riyadh cricket club lake

The only one I saw was at the lake near Riyadh cricket club on the way out towards Al Hayer when I had travelled out with Bernard Bracken who spent the day there.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Jubail on an April afternoon

After about noon on Friday, Bernard Bracken and I moved away from the salient lagoons at Sebket Al Fasl, Jubail into the adjacent fresh water wetland.  

One of our first sights was a flock of over twenty squacco heron all in summer plumage.

squacco heron

They disturbed very easily but moved off only a short distance. As they moved off, we thought we glimpsed a Eurasian spoonbill take off with them but which didn't land.  We weren't certain though.

little egret with Kentish plover

In the same pool there were two little egret as well as several Kentish plover and little tern.

little grebe

Further on round the wetland we spotted coot, moorhen, little grebe and more purple swamphen.

Eurasian spoonbill

While watching these a Eurasian spoonbill  rose up in the distance proving we had seen one earlier.

Also in the distance from time to time was a marsh harrier, one of only two birds of prey seen all day at the wetland.

yellow wagtail

At the banks of one of the pools, was a small flock of yellow wagtail with a single red-throated pipit which gave good views.

red throated pipit

We had been seeing flashes of red throated pipit for some time but none had allowed good viewing. 

little ringed plover

Even in this fresh water area we saw some waders though nowhere near as many as at the salty lagoon earlier.  Little stint and Kentish plover were commonplace. Though a small number of little ringed plover and a single dunlin were also observed.


There was only a single common sandpiper too.

common sandpiper

The reed beds were thronging with sound of various reed warblers and probably sedge warblers as well though I not proficient enough to tell the difference between them. 

clamorous reed warbler by Bernard Bracken

Luckily at one stage  two of the reed warblers came out into the open briefly and Bernard was quick enough to photograph one of them.  Bernard has kindly allowed me to use his photo in the blog.

It was a clamorous reed warbler of the sub species brunnescens.  This sub species is often called Indian reed warbler.  

Later two great reed warbler also made appearances.

black crowned night heron swimming

As we walked round the heat was more and more oppressive.  The birds were feeling the heat too. Many had there bills continually open. A black crowned night heron was one of the last birds we saw and it was swimming to keep cool. I am not sure I have ever seen a member of the heron family swim before.

There were 38 species positively identified at Sebkhet Al Fasl

Eurasian spoonbill
Little stint
Black crowned night heron
Curlew sandpiper
Squacco heron
Grey heron
Slender-billed gull
Little egret
Little tern
Western reef heron
White winged black tern
Caspian tern
Marsh harrier
Eurasian collared dove
Turkestan shrike
Purple swamphen
Crested lark
Eurasian coot
Barn swallow
Black winged stilt
Graceful prinia
Common ringed plover
Clamorous reed warbler (Indian reed warbler)
Little ringed plover
Great reed warbler
Kentish plover
Common snipe
House sparrow
Common redshank
Yellow wagtail
Wood sandpiper
White wagtail
Common sandpiper
Red throated pipit

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Jubail on an April morning

Bernard Bracken and I made the very long day trip to Sebkhet Al Fasl near Jubail on Friday.

This place is one of the best birding sites in the kingdom. It is the result of the treated waste water from the north of city emptying out into a salt pan next to the coast. The are roughly divides into two: the saline filled salt pan and the fresh water wetland with huge reed beds and other vegetation. There is also an intermediate zone.

Bernard and I birded the salty lagoon with its mud flats in the morning.

little tern (with a little stint)

It was an abnormally hot day for April reaching 37C. Birding was tough. 

We started out by walking as far out into the mudflats as we could to observe the several hundred waders and other water birds.

Among the other birds were many tern: Caspian tern, little tern and in the intermediate salinity areas, white winged black tern.  I hadn't seen any little tern on any of my winter visits but they were the most numerous tern on Friday.

curlew sandpiper and little tern

There were hundreds of little stint and several tens of dunlin. Plumage varied from full winter to almost full breeding. There were a small number of curlew sandpiper which are much easier to separate from dunlin in their summer plumage.

mixed waders

The group above comprises two little stint, one dunlin, a ringed plover and a sleeping curlew sandpiper.

common redshank

Other waders included a few common redshank, wood sandpiper and common sandpiper.

wood sandpiper

In the deeper water were several surprisingly tame black winged stilt.

black winged stilt

In winter there are several thousand flamingo in the lagoon but none remain. In the distance we could see several reef heron who are here all year round. 


We moved on from the lagoon towards the fresh water wetland towards noon. On a wire was one of only two birds of prey seen all day. It was an osprey.

purple swamphen

The wetland is the domain of many purple swamphen. It didn't take us more than five minutes to see the first one.

slender billed gull

Both on the edge of the lagoon and in a couple of pools near the wetland, several slender billed gull were seen. Many immature slender billed gull over stay in the summer. They are the only gull usually seen seen  from mid April to mid August.

After noon we spent most of our time in the wetland where the birding was better than in the salty areas. 

I will blog about this next. 

Monday, April 14, 2014

Mahazat in the afternoon

On Friday afternoon, Brian James and I continued our roaming around the Mahazat as -Sayd Nature Reserve. We were looking in particular for ostrich.

The re-introduced sub species here is Struthio camelus camelus sometimes called red-necked ostrich.

Dr M. Zafar ul Islam who was our host told us it is extremely close genetically to the ostrich which used to frequent Mahazat as -Sayd as proven from the DNA inside ancient eggs.

I had expected to see the birds readily. I suppose this is because of my experience in East Africa where there are often habituated birds close to settlements. 

To the credit of the management, the birds in Mahazat as -Sayd are not habituated at all.

Lappet-face vulture

During our roaming in the early afternoon, we came across two more lappet faced vulture nests. In one of them an occupant stood up giving reasonable pictures.

desert whitethroat

A single desert whitethroat became the third warbler seen in the reserve. I suspect there are a lot more in winter. 

red backed shrike

A third shrike was also seen. This one was a red backed shrike

After 3 hours of looking in the afternoon, we still hadn't found any ostrich and had returned to camp. 

We recounted this to Zafar who kindly agree to show us himself where they are often found. However this area was 27 kilometres away "as the crow flies".  

Incidentally one member of the crow family was present in the reserve. We observed brown necked raven on a few occasions but mostly in the more barren areas.


Finally we arrived at the spot where Zafar sees them most frequently at this time of year. We were lucky and Zafar was able to point a few birds out to us in the distance. They never came close.

pregnant gazelle

On the way back we detoured to go to one of the few high points on the plain. We were interested to see if there were any owls there which was always going to be long shot. There weren't.

booted eagle

The highlight on the way back was a grounded booted eagle.

European bee-eater

Brian and I returned the next morning for a couple of hours but didn't really add much to our observations. The only addition to Friday's list was a smart male marsh harrier

We did get to photograph one of the European bee-eater which we had been seeing passing through.  

female type pied wheatear

Other good photo opportunities was a female pied wheatear which allowed quite close contact and a second European roller of the trip.

European roller

Birding on Saturday morning was very difficult because there had been a sandstorm over-night continuing only a little less intensely during the morning.

white spectacled bulbul

We had to leave early because of Brian's travel arrangements. The white spectacled bulbul was seen at Taif airport while I killed time before my flight back to Riyadh.  

I returned to Riyadh very satisfied. Thanks and gratitude are due to Dr M. Zafar ul Islam and his team who were excellent hosts and to Brian who did all the driving.

34 species seen on the Mahazat reserve

Lappet faced vulture
Asian grey shrike (aucheri)
Marsh harrier
Brown necked raven
Pallid harrier
White spectacled bulbul
Montagu’s harrier
Black crowned sparrow lark
Booted eagle
Hoopoe lark
Macqueen’s bustard (Asian houbara)
Bar tailed lark
Chestnut bellied sandgrouse
Barn swallow
Scrub warbler
Feral pigeon
Willow warbler
Eurasian collared dove
Lesser whitethroat
Laughing dove
Desert whitethroat
Namaqua dove
White throated robin
Common swift
Northern wheatear
European roller
Pied wheatear
European bee-eater
Spotted flycatcher
Woodchat shrike
House sparrow
Red backed shrike
Yellow wagtail

In the near-by town of Khurmah where stayed on Friday night, we saw 6 species when passing through:

Black bush robin, Siberian stonechat, Kestrel, barn swallow, house sparrow and yellow wagtail.  The first three species were additional to the Mahazat list.

Following this trip, there are now 325 species on my Saudi list.