Last year I visited Al Hayer south of Riyadh almost weekly and it became what we birders call my local patch. This year I vowed to make trips more widely within Saudi Arabia and I have been doing so. However last weekend I returned to Al Hayer for the first time in over 6 weeks. I went with Lou Regenmorter on Thursday and on my own on Friday.
There were the first hints of the spring passage. As last year, one of the first indications is the arrival of pied wheatear on their way through to the north. Isabelline wheatear numbers are also bulging at the moment with the few winterers being temporarily reinforced.
Incidentally although we saw hundreds of pied wheatear come through Al Hayer last spring and this spring looks to be the same pattern, very few were seen in the past two autumns.
A few wintering desert wheatear remain though they have already thinned out.
In among the many tens of white wagtail in the fields, two yellow wagtail were spotted. They don’t winter at Al Hayer so this is another sign of early passage.
The other signs of passage relate to herons. A large flock of squacco heron (14 strong) and black crowned night heron were seen.
The squacco heron were seen both days around the fields. I want to comment much more on the black crowned night heron in the next blog.
The reeds are very noisy at present mostly with a mix of the calls of reed warblers and graceful prinia.
I was extremely patience following the sounds of the reed warblers trying to catch a glimpse so I could identify them. I am on the look out for Basra reed warbler (a possible passage bird in these parts) which I have never seen and it would be a useful addition to my Saudi list. Unfortunately for me the twice I saw the warblers over the two days, both were European reed warbler.
The incessant calling makes me think the European reed warbler is ready to breed.
I noticed in my trip to Jizan that many resident birds breed in December/January and there is lots of evidence that some resident birds in the Riyadh area breed early too. The moorhen above had just shepherded her chicks to safety seconds before this photo was taken.
And I don’t know what has caused this male avadavat to moult. Certainly the males in December were all in breeding plumage the last time I visited Al Hayer. I think its probably a juvenile turning into an adult.
Graceful prinia are even more exposed than usual at the moment. These acts of foolhardy bravery are often associated with courtship.
I am seeing desert finch more regularly at Al Hayer than when I first arrived 18 months ago but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions from that. I might just be better at picking them up.
I also have trouble separating pallidirostris from aucheri grey shrikes. The former has been called steppe grey shrike and the later a sub species of southern grey shrike. Now DNA evidence shows they are closely related to each other than any other sub species. Dutch birding calls them collectively Asian grey shrike and I go with that. This bird has an ochre buff wash not pink wash on its front which suggests it is aucheri.
Red tailed shrikes are also often difficult to separate as well. This one is a Daurian shrike. The easiest way to tell with this one is the virtual lack of a supercilium as well having no contrast between the head colour and the back. .
There is no doubt that the number of bluethroat around was higher than all winter. I can only assume that some passage birds have reinforced the wintering ones before they both move off.
They are still some Siberian stonechat about in or next to the fodder fields. They are all in their breeding plumage now.
If I have one regret this winter it has been that I didn’t pay enough attention to the ducks at Al Hayer. This is partly because the effort involved is so large. They are secretive and very easily spooked. They have so many hiding places too. Luckily on Friday I came across some while in good cover and got good views of a mixed group of garganey and teal on the ground.I still don’t understand why I have never seen wigeon at al Hayer because historical recorders have said it is quite common in winter. Its a mystery.