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Out and about around Al Ahsa (December 2019)

The past two weeks since we got back from Texas the weather in Al Ahsa has been incredible. Nice, cool temps by day and a few substantial rain showers, freshening the air and teasing the prospect of good desert birding in the weeks to come. After all, the Arabian (Dunn’s) Lark is said to wander the Arabian peninsula for areas that received enough rainfall to produce their ideal habitat requirements. The weather alone during a Saudi winter though is enough to get me outdoors. That said, I am still dying to track down a Dunn’s!

Al Asfar Lake

Since the rains, the waters of Al Asfar Lake are higher than they were the previous two winters. My first weekend back, Adam Harris and I headed out there just after a recent rain, which made for a lot of mud and a few anxious moments when it seemed the car just might slide off the road into the sabkha. Resident species were in abundance with the vocalizations of Water Rail, Eurasian Moorhen, Grey-headed Swamphen, Graceful Prinia, Clamorous Reed and Moustached Warblers sounding from the reeds. Newly arrived White Wagtail, Water Pipit, Bluethroat, and Spanish Sparrow added to the excited chorus. The lake proper, also known as “the summer lake”, was devoid of ducks as usual, but large flocks of Great Cormorant, Black-headed and Slender-billed Gulls, as well as the odd Whiskered Tern or two were out feeding over the water. We also spied good numbers of Great-crested and Black-necked Grebe–over 20 of the latter in fact–in a cove just west of the large dune from which “Yellow Lake” gets its name.

Two of the Northern Lapwing out on the winter lake

Bird variety and density picked up as we drove along a muddy utility road, following a line of pylons eastward towards the “winter lakes”, into which the main lake flows when bursting from winter rains and the reduced evaporation rate. It’s here that the extensive reed beds give way to a grassy marsh and a shallow saline lake edged with mudflats and spits. Scanning from the road, I picked up a Saudi tick with a group of nine Common Shelduck (#285) out on some open water. Further on we added Cattle Egrets and European Starling, both new to the site, and then shortly came upon a huge gathering of shorebirds, waterbirds, gulls, and terns, surveyed here and there by a few stately eagles–Great Spotted and Steppe. Adam picked up two Saudi ticks with Northern Lapwings, which we reckoned numbered around 70, and a small group of Ruff. Strutting out over the saline lake were a line of around 20 Great Egret–a first at the lake for me–among the ubiquitous Little Egret and a lone adult Greater Flamingo.

A male ‘thunbergi’ Yellow Wagtail

With rain showers catching us twice out footing it through the mud and feeling anxious about negotiating the muddy track back to drier ground, Adam and I didn’t venture any further down the utility way, so I headed back to the lake this weekend to see what else I might turn up. I was particularly interested in getting better views of the gull flocks as Adam and I also had distant views of a Baltic Gull, a near solid black back out among the various shades of grey. While I couldn’t relocate the gull, I did have a flock of nearly 40 Whiskered Tern foraging together over the channel that feeds the winter lakes and a few Yellow Wagtail among a veritable swarm of White Wagtail, one of which was a handsome ‘thunbergi’ male.

My eBird track from this weekend: The utility way was marginally less mucky than last weekend, but rather than mucking it up on the return I cut out into the desert where the terrain was a little drier.

Al Ahsa National Park

One of the resident Black Scrub Robins at Al Ahsa National Park

As this has been shaping up to be a good winter for rare winter thrushes, with recent sightings of Black-throated Thrush in the Eastern Province, Qatar, and the UAE, the past two weekends I’ve prowled along the stands of tamarisk, eucalyptus, and caper trees in Al Ahsa National Park for thrushes, warblers, and whatever else I might find. There’s nice shade about the park and the recent rains have pushed up fresh ground cover in places, yet I couldn’t even turn up a single Song Thrush, a fairly common winter visitor to Saudi. Without fail, however, I did see and hear several Black Scrub Robin, the park appearing to be the most reliable place to find this species in the Eastern Province. It’s also proven good for Eastern Black Redstart with several fine-looking males clicking from the quieter stands at the backside of the park.

An ‘abietinus’ Common Chiffchaff, one of many at the park the past two weeks

As for warblers, the horde of ‘halimodendri’ Lesser Whitethroats of a month and a half ago were now being rivaled by gangs of a newer arrival, ’abietinus’ Common Chiffchaff, the most common subspecies in Arabia during the winter. Their plaintive calls were ringing throughout the trees just as the frenetic chattering of the ‘halimodendri’ had been during that previous visit. At first I mistook these birds for Siberian Chiffchaff as I played Siberian’s call from my Collins Bird Guide and not only was it identical to the call these were making but it also drew in four birds flitting about above our heards. That said, I’ve come to learn that ‘abietinus’ can make similar calls to Siberian and that the latter is actually rather rare in the region and requires a lot of care to separate from the abundant ‘abietinus’, which can run greyer still than the bird in the image above, adding to the confusion between the two taxa.

Jebel Hamra

Judah Thumb, a landmark on the track to Jebel Hamra

This morning my wife and I headed out early for Jebel Hamra near the village of Judah for some desert hiking. With all the rain we received the past few weeks I was hoping (yet again in vain) that this desert hotspot would once again produce Arabian (Dunn’s) Lark, and that’s only going to happen (eventually!) if I get out into the areas they’d been seen before. What makes the hunt all the more enjoyable is getting out into some truly striking desert. I particularly love exploring the wadis and mountains of Arabia, and Jebel Hamra I’ve found to offer the nicest, least degraded terrain near Al Ahsa, the bulk of the rest having been significantly scarred by the oil and gas industry over the years.

Our eBird track from this morning’s hike. After nearly three hours, our step counter indicated we’d hit our 10,000 steps and it wasn’t even past noon!
Desert Gourd on top of Jebel Hamra

After driving a ways up a large wadi, picking up the morning’s first White-crowned and Mourning Wheatears, we trekked up the mountain and began searching the shallow wadi beds in a couple of large depressions up top. On top of the mountain, I was a little disappointed to see that the rain hadn’t yet produced any great surge of new vegetation; most of the “green” was dominated by patches of Desert Gourd, which is a favorite among the larks as they’re known to lay on its leaves and gourds to help cool themselves in the extreme heat. Here and there we spied some new growth, mostly tiny, seemingly delicate, plants but surely of the hardiest stock to thrive out in that intense environment. Even in the winter, by 10:00 AM the sun’s rays are punishing and we were feeling a bit battered.

My wife scanning the wadi bottom for larks and wheatears and whatever else was existing out on that moonscape!

After encountering nothing but Crested and Desert Larks, the most abundant species on the mountain, we eventually found a stretch of flat, vegetated ground along which a few other species were feeding. We picked up a couple of small, loose groups of Bar-tailed Lark, making for a three-lark day. They’re such charming little birds of such subtle beauty that I’m always happy to see them. We also added Desert and Isabelline Wheatear to our list for the day along with Tawny Pipit and a couple handsome Trumpeter Finch. Just over our heads the resident Pale Crag Martin and Pallid Swifts wheeled about–like most of the other desert birds they seemed drawn to us, but for what reason I’m not sure, perhaps simple curiosity?

Depressions like the one behind my wife are ideal spots for finding an array of larks, wheatears, and pipits in the winter

The most surprising encounter came as we were making our way back to the wadi where we ascended. I had just noticed a few Bar-tailed Lark feeding on the ground a short distance ahead of us and was trying to point them out to my wife, when she asked what the larger birds were running away from us further off. I put my bins on them and was pleased to find they were a small group of Cream-colored Coursers. I was extra pleased as this was a new addition to the hotspot list and only the third time I’ve encountered them in Saudi. They’re such cool looking birds I set up the scope to give my wife a chance to enjoy a closer view.

After making our way off the mountain, as has become customary with every visit to the area, we headed over to the neighboring village of Urayarah for a big plate of chicken with rice at the local Bukhari restaurant. Had to refuel after almost 10,000 steps of trekking on the surface of the moon!

Places like these are all over Saudi and just might be the only place to get a bite in most rural towns and villages around the Kingdom. The food’s always good and the atmosphere in these places adds to the sense of adventure!

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