Saturday, 28 February 2015

Valentines Day at Al Hayer a very special day out!!!

On Feb 14th I headed off down to my patch at Al Hayer for a couple of hours to do a little birding and to look into a longer term project I had set myself over a year ago.  There were other things that needed doing on the day so it was going to be a flying visit but as ever there were some of the old favourites waiting.

 house sparrow (Passer domesticus)
A lot of House Sparrows were about as always, the males chirping away to try to get themselves noticed.  I have heard birders describe these as trash birds, something most birders in the UK would not do seeing as their numbers are crashing at an alarming rate.  I recently read a well known monograph on these and to be honest they are truly fascinating.  Still I suppose one man's trash is another mans gold eh!

 purple heron (Ardea purpurea)
The Purple Herons were up and at it early today, heading north again shortly after sun up.  I really must see if I can work out where they are going one of these days

bluethroat (Luscinia svecica)
Pretty active around the reeds today were a fair number of Bluethroats , I only saw one of these here last week and maybe 10 or 12 this time, I guess the throng of migrants is starting to flow through.

graceful prinia (Prinia gracilis)
Love was in the air again this week with the Graceful Prinia singing loudly as always.  I am sure I have mentioned it before but its amazing how something so tiny can make so much noise.  The good old double voicebox coming in handy.

Eurasian collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto)
In the Palm trees were a small group of Eurasian Collared Dove, I counted 7 but I think there were a good few more in the date palms.
Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis)
Another member of the sparrow family were also quite prevalent around the reeds, the Spanish Sparrow is much more distinctly marked than the House Sparrow and had a chocolate coloured head.

 little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)
The Little Green Bee Eaters were also out in smallish numbers, today I saw 5 or 6 about.

Daurian shrike (Lanius isabellinus)
A Daurian Shrike was also about in the bushes looking for food.

Clamorous reed-warbler (Acrocephalus stentoreus)
A lucky one off shot caught me this Clamarous Reed Warbler or perhaps one of the Chiffchaffs I will consult and get back to you on this. These guys are bloody difficult to tell apart, at least for normal mortals like me.

First Confirmed evidence of Barn Swallows breeding in Central Arabia

The exciting thing this week followed on from spotting a couple of Barn Swallows feeding over the fields last week.  The full story of this goes back to one of my first visits to the area in late 2013.  Rob Tovey and I were exploring the south side of the reed beds when we came across some empty nests in an outhouse.  It was clear that the mud nests were from some one of the Swallow or Martin family but we were not sure which at that point. I set myself the task of looking again in April /May 2014 but found the nests still empty.
In November 2014 I looked again in passing and found a number of the nests had been destroyed but decided to look again in Spring.

barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
This week I entered the building again and all the nests on one side were destroyed but one appeared to be in the process of rebuilding. 

barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)

barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)

 However on the other side there were some birds completing the final stages of the nest

barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
and on three nests the birds were already sitting.  I had been around the outhouse for some 25 to 30 minutes so decided at that point I would disturb them no longer for now and left.

barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
One building project did catch my eye as I left as I thought it looked unusual.  These birds usually build close to the ceiling or roof and by the side of the wall.  However, this one had decided to build on a length of cable hanging from the ceiling. There was no shortage of wall space available, yet he decided to build here?  Making a mental note to check on this next week I left.

This finding is exciting as current records show that the Barn Swallow does not breed in this area.  I discussed this briefly with Mike Jennings in 2014 and he had, at that time, not seen any proof that they did, he thought the nests might be Martins nests.  Could this be the proof we need?  Visits over the next few weeks will tell, but I think this is very persuasive.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Al Hayer 30115

After my little vacation to the Gambia I decided I would take a look around my little patch at Al Hayer to see what has been happening since I was away on on a cool morning on January 30th I headed down at around 6:15am.  Clearly we are entering the spring period here as the Graceful Prinia were high in the trees singing their hearts out and there was evidence of a slight increase in the number of birds as I think the passage season is slowly starting.

white-eared bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis)
My constant companion on pretty much every birding trip around the area are the White Cheeked Bulbul which are very common in the Al Hayer area along with the most of Riyadh and surrounding areas.  There are the odd White Spectacled Bulbul starting to appear but still in pretty small numbers.

purple heron (Ardea purpurea)
As always there were a good number of Purple Heron, as noted before these are generally seen at this time of the morning flying north in singles or small groups possible heading further up river.

european stonechat (Saxicola rubicola)
The European Stonechat is a regular passage visitor to the area, despite what my Helm Guide says, and generally is very inquisitive.  They perch on top of low bushes and sticks and watch what the birder is up to, sometimes letting us get quite close.  Over the course of the walk I saw about 8 or 9 of these and sometimes more appear in the fields around this time of year.

graceful prinia (Prinia gracilis)
All over the area in virtually every bush were the delightful Graceful Prinia, as I mentioned above there was a definite sign of increased activity among these guys as we are entering the breeding season.  They are not normally quiet but seemed particularly noisy today with many more out in the open at the top of reeds and bushes singing loudly. Love is in the air methinks :).

white-throated kingfisher (Halcyon smyrnensis)
The White Throated Kingfisher was back in pride of place on the sprinklers again this week.  I had not seen them for a little while although, it is a pretty big reed bed and I can only see a small part of it.

black-winged stilt, (Himantopus himantopus)

As I progressed along my walk a small flock of 12 Black Winged Stilt flew over.  As ever I struggle with photos of birds on the wing so this is a fleeting image but I think you can still make them out, the long trailing legs are a bit of a giveaway.

Namaqua dove (Oena capensis)
At the edge of a field I came across this pair of Namaqua Dove feeding.  They noticed me coming but were not too bothered by my presence staying until well after I had passed.

common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
Not far from there I spotted this Common Kestrel hunting.  It had taken up station on this bush and was making short forays down to the edge of the crop and back.  This guy is around the area quite a bit.

black scrub-robin (Cercotrichas podobe)
The Black Scrub Robin is a resident around these parts though their residence is a little patchy and even here they are sometimes plentiful while at others they are quite scarce.  A nice bird to watch though generally they have their tails up.

little egret (Egretta garzetta)

Another fairly common sight in the area is the Little Egret.  You can see these about the place pretty much any time of the day, unlike their relatives the Cattle Egret which seem to show up in largish numbers to feed and bathe when the sprinklers are working only to vanish again once they are switched off.

 crested lark (Galerida cristata)
The Crested Lark is definitely a very common bird in the area.  You will almost always see at least one but you will definitely hear many many more out in the fields where they forage around in the crop out of sight.  Every now and then something will disturb them and they fly up into the air about 20 feet before plunging back into the crop.
little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)
As always no trip to the area would be complete without a couple of Little Green Bee Eaters appearing as the day gets warmer.  You almost never see these until mid morning, presumably because that is when the bugs start to become most active, once out they perch on a suitable spot and make periodic flights displaying their orange, kite like wings as they swoop on prey then returning to the perch to rest.

house sparrow (Passer domesticus)
Our resident flocks of Sparrows were active as ever all over the site.  We get three types here regularly, the House Sparrow, Spanish Sparrow and the Arabian Golden Sparrow the latter are in fairly small numbers the other two can be seen in good sized flocks.  I understand that the Arabian Golden Sparrow may actually be escapes rather than a local population, it will be interesting to see how they do.

Daurian shrike (Lanius isabellinus)
The Daurian Shrike were out in force again today, I think I spotted about 8 or 9 of them along the walk

spotted flycatcher (Muscicapa striata)
This one has me foxed a bit.  My gut feeling is a Spotted Flycatcher but I could be wrong there.

Finally an ID thanks to my friends on Bird Forum a nice Blue throat, I probably would have made a better fist of identifying it if it had turned around lol.  I also spotted a small number of Barn Swallow feeding over the fields but did not manage to catch a photo but it reminded me it was time to look back at a spot where we found some nests. Perhaps they might have decided to come back and stay a while. This lead to a very exciting discovery. Watch this space for an update.

Anyway another great day out.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Gambia Birding day cotd

On Friday we moved into a park area called Eagle Heights which has been a nature reserve for along time and has significant areas of woodland and scrub.  It has had a little work to enable you to get around and there are some rest areas but by and large its pretty much wild. A new management has taken over here in the past year or so and has raised the price to 400 dalasi (around 8 uk pounds) but I suppose cash is needed to maintain the place.

giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) (M)
Shortly after entering the area we arrived at a small lake which was a little overgrown but right on the edge of the lake was this male Giant Kingfisher.  It was in the bushes which made photography a little tricky but managed to get this snap
giant kingfisher (Megaceryle maxima) (F)
On the opposite branch was his mate, only slightly easier to get a photo of but further away.  I was surprised by both of these as they seemed to be quite happy to allow humans to get pretty close.

Now I thought he was joking when he said watch out for the Crocodiles in the lake, it was a smallish lake and did not look like it would sustain many however, as you can see it does, this guy was about 8ft long.  Lesson!! Listen to the guide ;-)

grey heron (Ardea cinerea)
The Grey heron was fishing in the lake, presumably keeping one eye on the Crocodile or maybe he was watching us.

African darter (Anhinga rufa),
The African Darter could easily be mistaken for a member of the Heron family but its quite separate.  They often inhabit the same habitats as herons and sometimes nest in the same areas.  They swim very low in the water like Cormorants with literally their head and neck showing above the water. They also have little waterproofing on their feathers which means they have to get out and dry off like this one is doing.

black-necked weaver (Ploceus nigricollis)
These little guys were pretty active around a little pond alongside the path about 40m further along from the lake.  I think this is a Black Necked Weaver but need to verify that, there are a number that look fairly similar.
red-bellied paradise flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer)
In the bushes to the side of the pond was the Red Bellied Paradise Flycatcher, nearby there was also an African Paradise Flycatcher and a Hybrid was also spotted, unfortunately I could not get a useful photo of these at the time.

grey-headed bristlebill (Bleda canicapillus)
Very active in the undergrowth was an Oriole Warbler and a Grey Headed Bristle Bill (above), so active in fact that it took 10 or 15 shots to get a half decent photo of this guy.

blue-spotted wood dove (Turtur afer)

Nearby also was a Blue Spotted Wood Dove.  My photo is not great as in the woods its hard to get focus on anything but the trees.  These are fairly common in the Gambia but not that easy to see due to their favoured habitat.

grey woodpecker (Mesopicos goertae)
Working away in a tree close to the pond was a Grey Woodpecker with his bright red rump and head

western plantain-eater (Crinifer piscator),
Then High in a tree was a Western Grey Plantain Eater, a member of the Turaco family although slightly less brightly coloured than its relatives.


violet turaco, (Musophaga violacea),
and that cousin, the Violet Turaco.  This photo does not do it justice as it was quite far away but these really are quite spectacular birds.


snowy-crowned robin-chat (Cossypha niveicapilla)
Deep in the undergrowth thee was a pair of Snowy Crowned Robin Chat, there are two types of Robin Chat in the area, the Snowy crowned and the White Crowned.  The latter I have many photos of from around the hotel, they have a duller white crown and are more visible in the open, the Snowy Crowned tend to reside in the woods and are a bit more difficult to spot.
Finally just a random photo of a Black Crowned Night Heron which was perched on a tree by the roadside, busily preening.

My friend and guide Musa Jatta at the wheel.

Turaco Birding's steed.

My thanks to Musa for all his help and his keen eye especially in the forest.  As I have mentioned a dozen or more times I would definitely recommend a trip to Gambia for any birder, its second to none and when you consider its relative tiny size its bird population is in the region of 550 species, more than countries 20 times its size.  Unlike some places in West Africa there is no Ebola as a result of their stringent protection measures.  So back to KSA and the spring migration!!!!

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Gambia Birding day 1

Odd title but this was the first of two mornings where I went out birding, the others were birding done while hanging around the hotel or whatever.  Up at 6.30am, try to sneak out without waking Mrs B and head off out to meet Musa. The weather was pleasant at about 12 degrees C and blue Sky.

Collared Sunbird
Before the light got up we spotted our first little beauty, the Collared Sunbird with his lovely yellow breast getting ready for a days foraging among the flowers.

northern white-faced owl (Ptilopsis leucotis)
We then spent some time in the woods where we spotted a good number of species but the Northern White Faced Owl was the most exciting by far for me.

northern white-faced owl (Ptilopsis leucotis)
So much so that your getting two photos of him :).  My reasons, well as some of you may know I have been spectacularly unsuccessful at spotting Owls in the wild, this being only my second, but isn't he a cracker.  Anyhow they are fairly widespread in the Gambia though not at all easy to spot.  We did spend some time chasing a potential sighting of a Barn Owl and had lots of sign that it was about but, well maybe next time.

Senegal parrot (Poicephalus senegalus)
A Senegal Parrot was preening away in the woods and not really paying much attention to us, that said trying to get focused on it was not an easy task with bits of branches attracting the auto focus attention.
grey kestrel (Falco ardosiaceus)
All the while a Grey Kestrel watched us from a high perch.

fine-spotted woodpecker (Campethera punctuligera)
Slight tapping in a nearby tree attracted our attention to a Fine Spotted Woodpecker working away at trying to find a meal in the bark.

hamerkop (Scopus umbretta),
Literally feet away from that tree was a pair of Hamerkop just standing there.  Unlike ones I have come across in Saudi these guys were not overly bothered by our presence but then there are a fair few people working out in the fields so they are probably more accustomed to movement, plus there are fewer people shooting at them.

black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax),
A Black Crowned Night Heron was very focused on something in the little pool of water just out of shot.
pied kingfisher (Ceryle rudis)
Guess you might have an idea what these are if you have been reading previous blogs, just took this as it was a pretty picture with a pair of Pied Kingfisher resting on a bush.

lizard buzzard (Kaupifalco monogrammicus)
Back in the hedgerow was a Lizard Buzzard watching for something to pop up for breakfast.

spur-winged lapwing or spur-winged plover (Vanellus spinosus)
and below was a small group of Spur Winged Lapwing feeding in the rice fields.

reed/ long tailed cormorant (Microcarbo africanus),
with a Long Tailed Cormorant looking on curiously.

Wood Sandpiper
A Wood Sandpiper foraged through the reeds and rice stems for morsels of food with a Common Redshank not very far away but out of usable camera range I'm afraid
African jacanas (Actophilornis africanus)
Another first for me was the African Jacana which I missed on my last trip to the country, in all I think there were about half a dozen of these in the rice fields we visited.

spotted thick-knee (Burhinus capensis)
Then in the reeds off to our left was yet another first, the Spotted Thick-Knee, at first we spotted one which I could not get focused on and thought I had lost my chance but thankfully there were a few about and managed to get an ok shot of these two.

Squacco Heron (Ardeola ralloides)
An other familiar friend from my adopted home in Saudi is the Squacco Heron which was quite happy here despite the presence of quite a lot of competition

African green pigeon (Treron calvus)
Just hanging upside down in a nearby tree was yet another first for me the African Green Pigeon, this was proving quite a day for firsts.

piapiac (Ptilostomus afer)

And yes you guessed it, a few meters further on was a young Piapiac, a member of the crow family.  The young ones have a pink beak which eventually turns black as they get older.  The last two species are fairly common in the Gambia but I did not get to see them last time I was here.

black-headed heron (Ardea melanocephala)
A little further out in the rice fields was a Black Headed Heron.

Abyssinian roller (Coracias abyssinicus)
and another nearby tree had an Abyssinian Roller just perched on top watching the world go by.

grey-headed kingfisher (Halcyon leucocephala)
Then yet another first, the Grey Headed Kingfisher.  For someone who had never seen a kingfisher at all until three years ago this place was certainly making up for lost time.  I was always one of these people who seemed to be in the right place at the wrong time as far as these birds are concerned, then one day I saw two together on a riverbank, since then, they are everywhere.

village weaver (Ploceus cucullatus)
All around were loads of little sparrow sized birds of many species which were all a little too quick for me in the woods but next time they are on my radar, this Village Weaver is just one handsome member of that contingent.

All in all this was a fabulous day and such a wide range of birds from a relatively small area.  Definitely this place has so much more to offer the birder.