Yesterday Adam Harris and I visited the Salwa (سلوى) area on a return expedition to see if we could find Grey Francolin, a non-native species of unknown provenance from south Asia that's become quite common in the Gulf countries but has been oddly absent here in the Eastern Province. I visited last year with my wife and explored a few promising spots (read the species profile HERE), all of which were within 20 kilometers of the nearest sightings over the border in Qatar, but had no luck. This time I pinpointed a few other spots outside of Salwa to search.
We left Al Ahsa at 4:15 AM to make the hour and a half drive south to Salwa and arrived just after sunrise. Initially we were considering driving as far as Al Batha (البطحاء), close to where francolin have been reported in the UAE, but that would've added another hour to the drive and we were eager to stretch a leg and do some birding. We decided then to try a large farm my wife and I searched last spring. Once again, though, despite listening intently while we birded the perimeter of the farm, no francolins were detected. However, it was here that we got the first signs that there was a good movement of migrating birds in the area. Along the outer perimeter of the tree line, we saw our first Turkestan (Red-tailed) Shrikes, Willow Warblers, and Great Whitethroat of the morning. As we were leaving the farm, a small group of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters passed overhead. Down the road, next to the village of Al Jiban, we scanned a pivot field and added Tawny and Red-throated Pipit along with a quartet of wheatear species--Pied, Desert, Northern, and Isabelline.
Next we headed to some farms nearby I thought looked promising in Google Maps. We stopped on the road with a farm to either side of us to take stock of the area and consider where best to start. There was quite a bit of moving sand in the area and the access road was nearly blocked in a couple of spots. One farm had sand piled up so high on its north side that we initially thought it was derelict. However, as it was nearest the road we decided we'd just foot it over the sand and explore that one first. Just then, though, I heard it--the unmistakeable call of a Grey Francolin--coming from the other farm. We jumped back into the car and drove down the dirt track leading there. Sticking to the perimeter of the farm to avoid having any issues with the farm workers, we were struck by the abundance of birds within view just inside. There were good numbers of a range of migrants, including more wheatears and shrikes. On the east side of the farm, we saw a handsome male White-throated Robin, a single Corn Bunting, and I had brief views of what I thought could be a Yellow-throated Sparrow. All the while we could hear Grey Francolin calling from a few different places inside.
On the west side of the farm, however, things really began heating up. Here there was a large scrubby corner dominated by a few large mesquite trees and tamarisks. We were first drawn to the spot by the sounds of warblers foraging in a cluster of tamarisks. All told, we recorded six warbler species here: Lesser Whitethroat (S. c. curruca), Eurasian Blackcap along with Willow, Olivaceous, Eastern Orphean, and Barred Warblers. We then noticed a couple of sparrow-type birds in the top of one of the mesquite trees and though backlit I was pretty sure these were Yellow-throated Sparrow. We repositioned ourselves on the other side of the mesquite, with the sun to our backs, and soon I noted the quiet, syrupy chirping and twittering of a male Yellow-throated. Sure enough, there he was singing quietly near the top of the mesquite. We could here a second male singing from the opposite side of the tree as well. This species is an uncommon passage migrant through the Eastern Province in spring. The window for their passage must be fairly narrow as these sightings represent only the seventh record for the Kingdom and the second to be entered into eBird. Chances are they've simply been missed over the years.
Rufous-tailed Scrub Robins were abundant, active, and quite vocal here as well. I managed to record what I believe to be an alarm call of theirs, one that I hadn't heard before, as well as some singing. We were surprised to discover that they sing in flight as well, a couple males cruising low overground from perch to perch as they belted it out.
As for the Grey Francolin, we noted a total of four birds calling from different locations around the farm, allowing me to capture a few audio recordings, with two positive sightings in the scrubby corner on the west side. Both sightings were fly-bys as we flushed the birds from their hiding places up in the trees. They struck us as especially skittish here and no wonder--we saw shotgun shells littering the ground here. Surely a francolin bursting into flight from under cover would get any hunter's blood pumping, so as not to tip off any tech-savvy individuals among their ranks, we've decided to keep the name and exact location of these farms secret. It may seem odd for a non-native species that very well may have been introduced to the area, but I'd like to ensure that at least this population remains viable for future visits, especially when, to date, no other such population has been discovered.
After calling it quits at the first farm, we headed back to the second farm and found the entrance on its south side, away from the encroaching sands. There were a couple of farm workers within view when we arrived so we asked if they would allow us to walk around inside for a little. They waved us in with a "no problem no problem". This farm was even more active with migrants than the first one. The alfalfa fields running on either side of the entrance track were alive with several Pied, Northern, and Isabelline Wheatears. Among them was a stunning male Whinchat, the brightest and boldest I think I've ever seen. Further on we uncovered an equally striking male flava Yellow Wagtail and three Eurasian Skylarks. Along the edges of the fields we picked up singles of a few other interesting migrants--Common Redstart (P. p. phoenicurus), Eastern Black Redstart, Common Nightingale, and Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush. In the top of the tree line, we heard then saw several male Spanish Sparrows--their calls distinctly different from the similar and ubiquitous House Sparrow, less chirpy and more "plinky".
We actually detected more Grey Francolin here than at the first farm. By and by we tallied a total of 11 birds. Mostly fly-bys and flushed birds; however, we did get short glimpses of three birds on the ground near the edge of the tree line that quickly hurried out of sight when they saw us. On our way back to the car, we flushed one francolin that flew past quite close, giving us awesome views. Shortly thereafter we flushed a Common Quail, a little flying football of a bird I can never seem to find on the ground. We wrapped it up here with a handsome male Masked Shrike, the first of the morning.
Before heading back north, we checked out a few spots around Salwa proper. A derelict neighborhood on the coast near the border crossing, in which all of the residences had been bulldozed and only the debris and scrubby overgrowth remained, didn't turn up much of anything besides a couple more Pied Wheatears and Graceful Prinias. We then drove along the shoreline at the park and added some shore- and seabirds to the day's list--Lesser Sand, Black-bellied, and Kentish Plovers, Eurasian Oystercatchers, a Eurasian Curlew, a Common Redshank, Curlew Sandpipers, Dunlin, Ruddy Turnstones, a Caspian Tern, and Socotra Cormorants offshore. The park proper, like the farms, was also quite busy with migrants. Before escaping the late morning heat and heading home, we added Woodchat Shrike, Caspian Stonechat, and Tree Pipit among good numbers of other species encountered earlier in the morning.
Now that the embargo against Qatar has been lifted and diplomatic relations between the two kingdoms have resumed, I look forward to continuing past Salwa next time for some Qatar birding, that is, once the latest setback to visiting there is finally past us.