Sunday, 31 May 2015

A little sidebar - The Spoon-billed Sandpiper

Not been out birding a lot over the past few weeks as have been tangled up in some issues with work but thought I'd share something that I have been watching closely over the past few months.  It involves the survival of a very enigmatic little bird called the Spoon-billed Sandiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) and the efforts being made to protect it. Now critically endangered with less than 200 birds left in the wild.

Spoonbill sandpiper
spoon-billed sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus)

I first came across the story when I was looking for a project to work on for one of the modules I was studying but have become fascinated by the great efforts being made to preserve this enigmatic little creature.
As the name suggests it is a Sandpiper but has a unique bill shape which it uses in a scythe like motion catching invertebrates from the water.  They breed in the north east of Russia and migrate annually to the shores of the Indian Ocean along the Bay of Bengal and the China Sea.  They tend spend the winter in estuaries feeding, though with so few left you would be very lucky to see one.  Their population has decreased rapidly in recent years due, it is thought, to the reclamation of many of their favourite winter retreats and a high level of chick mortality.  What is clear is that the numbers are now so low that extinction is almost inevitable if action is not taken to protect them.

A number of groups have taken up the plight of this bird notable among these is a Trust from almost the other side of the planet, the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust in the UK who have, along with the BTO, RSPB, Moscow Zoo and Russian birding groups.  A specially built center has been made available by the WWT at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire UK and a number of eggs have been taken from the wild and are being manually reared there for later re-introduction.  If they are taken at the right time of year then the adults will lay a second batch so it is hoped the chances of survival can be improved in that way.  Sounds simple enough but there are huge technical and logistical difficulties involved which require a great deal of skill and cash to make it happen.  I attach a 7 minute video of the work that has been done over the past few years and a link to a BBC article on the topic.

I know spare cash is a rare commodity at the best of times and when there is the world is full of need, but maybe.....

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Passing Migrants 24415

Headed back down to Al Hayer this week but planned to cover the other end of the fields for a change.  As ever I wanted to also check on the Barn Swallows as I think this will be the last trip I can make for a month as I will be out of town a lot.
The crops in the fields had all been cut and in the northern fields the farmer had burned the stubble in the fields.  This is a form of clearance I remember was used in the fields around where I grew up but had not seen it in Saudi Arabia before.  The remnants of the flooding of a few weeks earlier also remained so there was a possibility of seeing something interesting along the way.

ruddy turnstone (Arenaria interpres)
One unexpected little visitor to lift the mood was this solitary Ruddy Turnstone which stopped off on the way through to get a drink and feed a little.  These are more usually found by the shoreline but must fly over this country on migration.  I think if we could see all the birds that pass over this country in a year we would be truly amazed.

Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis)
The Spanish Sparrow population has been rising a lot over the past couple of months and I notice today that there were fairly large flocks of them out in the fields.  I caught a photo of a part of one of these flocks,

Spanish sparrow (Passer hispaniolensis)

I am estimating over 600 birds and there were about the same  in another flock a bit further on.  I know they have been breeding this year in the trees and bushes on the other side of the river and it seems there was a good year.

rock dove (Columba livia)
Another much smaller flock (about 35)I came across on my walk today was this group of Feral/Rock Doves.  They must have been travelling and stopped for a rest as they were very reluctant to take off as I approached.

The other flocking bird about today was the Streaked Weaver which were about in good numbers feeding on the spare grain.

streaked weaver (Ploceus manyar)
These guys are really very well camouflaged in the hay, there were about 20 or 30 of them and quite a few more around the area but they were dispersed around the field.

streaked weaver (Ploceus manyar)
A slightly better shot of these little guys.  They are not listed as breeding around the area but I am pretty sure they do and have spotted quite a few of what I believe are their nests.   
 laughing dove (Stigmatopelia senegalensis)
As always there were the resident Laughing Dove about the place in their dozens.  They are a pretty bird but a bit of a pain in the backside for the birder as they often spook easily but then make such a racket when making their escape that they scare everything else around too.
hoopoe (Upupa epops)
One bird we have not seen about a lot this year so far is the Hoopoe, there have been one or two about this past week or two but not very common.
black scrub robin (Cercotrichas podobe)

Our old friend the Black Scrub Robin was hopping around his dead bush.  I think this is the third year in a row I have been able to find this guy in this location.
ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana)
Another slightly unusual visitor to the little water hole was the Ortolan Bunting.  It only stopped for a short while but was a nice spot for me as I had never seen one before.  I'm not certain but I think its a first for me, although I think I have had the odd glimpse of one before this was the clearest view I have had to date.
crested lark (Galerida cristata)
Can Ya see me now?? A shot of a Crested Lark in the field.  They really do blend in well to the tilled earth, there were dozens about today but this is the only one I could get a focus on.  My camera does not like camouflage.
curlew sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea)
Right behind the Turnstone was this little group of Curlew Sandpipers (6 in all) which are another breed we don't see a lot of in Riyadh and another first for me.  It is funny that I was standing quite close to all of these birds and they did not spook.  It struck me that the Turnstone, which was closest, was very relaxed about my presence and seems to have transferred this to the others.  Who knows what goes on in a birds brain eh :).
European bee-eater (Merops apiaster)
Out in the fields were a good number of European Bee Eaters who stopped occasionally to rest on the dead branch of a tree before making way back out into the field.  There were a lot of bugs about at the moment so I guess they were stocking up before the trip north.
red-throated pipit (Anthus cervinus)
Yet another first for me is the Red Throated Pipit which was also pottering about beside the Turnstone and Curlew Sandpipers.  Not a bad day considering it had not looked very promising when I set out on the walk :).

Namaqua dove (Oena capensis) (F)

Namaqua dove (Oena capensis)
At the opposite end of the field were a pair of Namaqua Dove feeding on the ground.  There are usually about 8 or 10 of these around this area but today only this pair, I assume the others were away foraging somewhere else.

little green bee-eater (Merops orientalis)
A nice pair of Little Green Bee Eaters were spotted in a bush by the roadside but were very skittish and I could not get close enough to get a decent photo, yet another for the record shot box, kinda proves they were there but only just.

common kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
One bird that was very much in evidence today was the Common Kestrel there were 5 in a very small area, this one being literally feet away from another 2 all watching the field below for food.  At one point I disturbed a little lizard that scurried across the ground in front of me, in a flash this bird was airborne and heading my way.  The lizard spotted the oncoming danger and vanished beneath a bush but it was amazing how fast the bird reacted, faster at spotting the lizard at my feet than I was.

white-eared bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis)
As always the White Eared Bulbul were much in evidence around the area.  I have had some conversations recently with fellow birders about whether this is a white eared, white cheeked, or indeed Himalayan Bulbul and a quick review of the documentation reveals that i need to get some more information on this.  It sounds like a mix of reclassification with a touch of possible hybridisation and range expansion all mixed in but will be fun to track down.  I will keep you informed.
As ever there were a few Shrike about the area, this I think is a Turkestan Shrike but this is another of these birds where often the Daurian can look very similar.  Maybe another project in the offing.

Barn Swallow Update

I visited the site of my breeding Barn Swallows and found that the breeding season is not yet complete with a couple of nests still having maturing young and 2 of the nests having eggs.  I am pretty certain that whatever breeding there was last year it was definitely over well before May. 

barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
A photo of a couple of the little guys hiding in the nest.  I have taken a lot more photos and videos of the site but am only sharing a small amount here as I will be putting a proper report together in due course on the Barn Swallows.

All in all this was an amazing visit to Al Hayer.  It started pretty slowly and I thought with the burned out stubble and partially ploughed fields that there was not going to be a lot about.  At the start it appeared like my fears were about to be realised.  However, I decided to go in a different direction, just on a whim and ended up with 3 new species.  Listing is not one of the pursuits I bother with too much, I am quite happy with the usual suspects in an area, as all patch birders are.  But these three certainly did give me a bit of a lift :).




Monday, 4 May 2015

Bee-Eater Week

Yes you guessed it I was Al Hayer again last weekend, but just to mix things up a little I went to the Cricket Club on the way there.  My motivation was to take a look at a slightly different environment for a change while keeping with my schedule of watching the Swallow colony.  The Cricket Club is largely pure desert with a lot of construction work going on all around.  In the quarry there is a rapidly evaporating lake but is good for some Waders, Grebes and Coots while the surrounding area is dust.

A little scenic view of the area to the south east of the quarry close to the Cricket Club.

Eurasian coot (Fulica atra)
The lake has largely disappeared now but even a couple of hundreds square meters of water is home to a nice little collection of water birds including a small group of about 2 dozen Coots.  This time last year there were around 50 but there really is not the room for them any more.

black-winged stilt (Himantopus himantopus)
A small group of 8 or 9 Black Winged Stilt were busily combing the verges of the lake liking for food, again there are far fewer of these here this year but they are no less aggressive when it comes to tackling unwanted visitors.  While I was there they successfully saw a pair of Brown Necked Crows off in double quick time.
moorhen (Gallinula chloropus)
A small group of Moorhen are also still around though again not nearly as many as last year.  The nice thing is they are still breeding around the lake as can be seen from the photo as the middle one is a fairly recently fledged juvenile.
I am not sure about this one as its a bit blurred but possibly a Sanderling.

 little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
The Little Grebe are still the most numerous of the birds on the lake and there are signs that they are still breeding here.
 little grebe (Tachybaptus ruficollis)
That said the number of these are roughly half what they were last year at the same time of year.  I counted a little less than 100 on site last year while the number was down to 48 this time around.
spectacled bulbul (Pycnonotus erythropthalmos)
Not a very good shot but this was as close as I could get to the Spectacled Bulbul.  These have been around here for the past few years.  Never in anything like the numbers of their cousins the White Cheeked Bulbul but nice to see.
rock dove (Columba livia)
High on the quarry walls a small colony of Rock Dove have taken up residence, thee are also a good number of Pale Crag Martins in residence along the walls.
 crested lark (Galerida cristata)
and out in the drier areas surrounding the quarry the Crested Lark was singing away with great vigour.  After a couple of hours at the Cricket Club I decided to move to Al Hayer again primarily to see what was going on with the Barn Swallows but there is always something going on down there.
house sparrow (Passer domesticus)
We parked up near the farm and as always the House Sparrows were out in force all around the farm buildings. Later out in the fields I attempted to get photos of flocks of Spanish Sparrow which easily numbered in the hundreds, unfortunately the photos were largely a blur of wings and fast moving bodies, better luck next time.
White-cheeked Bulbul ( Pycnonotus leucogenys )
As I neared the farm itself this little guy popped up to see what this strange creature was walking along.  A very recently fledged White Cheeked Bulbul sat on the fence so some time observing his new world, confirming that they breed in the area, assuming there was any doubt given the huge numbers of them in the area all year round.

White-cheeked Bulbul ( Pycnonotus leucogenys )
Nearby was an adult, although I am not sure if they were realated.
barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
I entered the farm building to see what had been happening and found that a number of the nests were now on their second brood of the year, I have not worked out the exact number but I think this little colony of 11 active nests have produced upwards of 60 young birds this season so far.  These little guys have a coupe of days to go before they are out and about in the world.

 laughing dove (Stigmatopelia senegalensis)
Of course there was one pirate Laughing Dove which commandeered one of the corner nests for its own purposes.  This pair were also on their second brood of the year.
blue-cheeked bee-eater (Merops persicus)
A little further along the path I spotted this guy standing on a fence post.  In all there were 6 or 7 of these in the area today and this Blue Cheeked Bee-Eater waited patiently until I got a nice photo before heading off

European bee-eater (Merops apiaster)

on the cables a bit further along were 4 European Bee- Eaters resting for a while, however there were about a dozen in total feeding out in the fields.  I only saw one Little Green Bee Eater in the distance today which was quite unusual, they are normally all over the place.  Maybe the presence of so many larger cousins disturbed them.

Daurian shrike (Lanius isabellinus)
I only saw one Shrike today, this Daurian Shrike was feeding in the area for a while, there have been fewer of these in the area of late, or maybe they are just in a different part of the fields these days.
Namaqua dove (Oena capensis)
A pair of Namaqua Dove were also busily feeding in the area.  This pair seem to be around this spot a lot.

 graceful prinia (Prinia gracilis)
As ever the Graceful Prinia were out in numbers screeching in the trees.  Decided to go to two sites today to break up my usual Al Hayer pilgrimage and also to see what had been happening at the Cricket Club.  Had a wonderful day as always.