Sunday, 29 April 2012

Searching for Crex crex!

It is Sunday and nearly 13.30 hrs. I am in the disabled washroom at ADCO HQ! Why do you ask? As those of you who know me, know, I am not disabled (well physically at least). Long experience of changing from business suit, to birding clothes, has taught me always to use the disabled bathroom. More space, that nice shelf at waist height to put all your stuff on. There are towels & soap. It's great!  I look at my watch, it is time to go. Today it is the death run up to Dubai. The Dubai birders have in the last week enjoyed an orgy of crake watching: first a Baillon's, then a Spotted and finally a Corncrake. It is the latter species that I need, the fabled Crex crex of my youth. When I started birding in 1962, this species had just vanished from its former haunts. I grew up hearing older birders recount in graphic detail their Corncrake sightings - but for me nothing! I was in my teens before my first sighting. It has always held a special appeal for me.
I drive, Neil phones, he will meet me at Safa Park. Then I receive a welcome call from Khalifa, the bird is still there! My foot subconciously presses harder to the floor. Neil takes me straight to the spot, but before we get there, he says "is that a Common Swift up there?" It is indeed and what's more it has a friend. In truth there could have been more but we press on. Within seconds we find the Corncrake creeping around the base of the hedge. I smile.

Crex crex

We look for the Wood Warbler that Neil saw the other day, but a few Common Redstarts, a Red backed Shrike and a lone Willow Warbler are all that we can find. I press on to Mushrif Park in the hope of a Eurasian Honey Buzzard. I stand on the hill, scanning, a pair of Shikra start to display. Then a pernis breaks the skyline. My hopes soar, but it turns out to be an Oriental Honey Buzzard.

Oriental Honey Buzzard

I drive home happy. Two very good species added to the tally.

As a little postscript to this tale, Jacky Judas from Al Ain, drove to see this Corncrake the next evening. He saw it and was very pleased with his efforts. However, the very next day, while birding before work, a Corncrake ran across the road in front of him! Such is life!

2 species added (284 species total): 360 kms travelled.

It is Monday, the last day of April. I skip out to Saadiyat Golf Course in the vain hope of adding yet more migrants to my list. It is the first really hot day of the year and it is slow going. 3 European Rollers; Lesser Grey Shrike; 6 Common Redstarts were the pick of the crop. A pair of Red wattled Lapwing have produced at least one chick.

Red wattled Lapwing
0 species added (284 species total): 120 kms travelled.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

A day of two controversial sightings!

It's 2.30 am again, so it must be Friday! This week it is Oscar & myself who are hammering it over to Fujairah National Dairy Farm. We arrive and start to rack up the migrants. First we work the road & see Masked; Woodchat, Turkestan and Lesser Grey Shrike.

Lesser Grey Shrike

A female White-throated Robin & 2 Rufous Bush Robins, skulked in cover and 16 Pale Rockfinch fed out in the open. The Goat Farm produced at least 130 Eurasian Turtle Doves and a host of migrants including 3 Whinchat; 4 Northern Wheatear; 32 Isabelline Wheatear, around 45 Turkestan Shrike; a Grasshopper Warbler and 2 Ortolan Buntings. Four Masked Shrikes was a particulary fine total.

Part of a flock of Eurasian Turtle Doves

Both Purple Heron and Little Bittern were in the long grass and a couple of Pallid Harriers cruised around, with at least 16 Lesser Kestrels overhead. Huw was around, trying to photograph more or less everything!

Huw getting ready for action!

Then a buteo flew over. For me, it was clearly a Steppe Buzzard, but others did not agree with the identification.

Steppe Buzzard

Look at the underwing & underbody patterning.
 Also look carefully at the tail.

A buteo like this can only be one of two things: either a Steppe Buzzard or a Long legged Buzzard. Steppe Buzzard, is an eastern race of the Common Buzzard complex. It is slightly smaller than the nominate race, with a rufous tail. Records of Long legged Buzzard in the UAE, fall into two groups:
the rufinus race which is widespread to the north of us and the cirtensis race of north Africa and parts of Arabia. This latter race is rare in the Middle East and is thought to be resident and only undertaking local movements. There are at least two pairs breeding the the southern UAE, but they are declining, with increased development of the virgin desert. The nominate race is widespread and some more northern populations move south to avoid the harsh winters and pass through the UAE, although they are uncommon.
Now, why did I identify this bird as a Steppe Buzzard instantly? It is all to do with the structure of the bird: Steppe Buzzard is a compact buteo, it is smaller than the nominate Common Buzzard. It has a samll head, with a short neck and crucially, the wings are not long for the size of the bird. The tail is of medium length. On the othe hand, Long legged Buzzard is a large bird. It may be confused with the smaller eagles. At no time could this bird be confused with an eagle! The nominate race, rufinus, is a brute of a bird (the females, in particular being huge). The have very long wings, so long infact that the front & hind wing edges appear parallel to each other. They soar on eagle-like bowed wings and broad splayed fingers. The tail is also quite long. This is a large bird, much larger and bulkier than a Common Buzzard. Now the situation here is complicated by the smaller race of Longlegged Buzzard, cirtensis. This race is smaller than the nomiate race, but is still a large bird, in compaison with Common Buzzard. And it still has the same proportions ie long wings and reasonably long tail. The size of cirtensis and Common Buzzard can overlap, because of differences in the size of the sexes. But Common Buzzard has never been recorded in the UAE. Steppe Buzzard is a smaller bird again than Common Buzzard. On this individual, the size could be gauged against nearby Lesser Kestrels. We are talking of a size difference of ten percent here, between cirtensis race of Long legged Buzzard and Steppe Buzzard. To conclude,structural differences between the species are: Long legged Buzzards are long winged and quite long tailed, they have parallel looking wing shape with very splayed primaries. The head is quite large, with a noticeable neck. Even in the smaller race the proportions do not change, cirtensis still looks a large bird. On a side note, I have never seen this race way from the deep desert. All Long legged Buzzards I have seen at migration sites have been of the nominate rufinus race. (The exception to this are birds within the city of Abu Dhabi which are escapes from captivity - you can walk up to some of them)!
Regarding plumages: these are variable and complex in both species. However, Steppe Buzzard is much less variable than the nominte Common Buzzard. Basically, there are three colour phase groupings in this race. Long legged Buzzard is also quite variable in colour, but there are plumage constants (see below). The cirtensis race is much less variable, being basically a mixture of rich rufous and cream with very contrasting black carpal spot on the underwing and very black primary tips (appearing as fingers).
If you look at the bird above, the underwing pattern is pure Steppe Buzzard. Then look at the head and underpart colouration: the head and throat are all dark. There is no cream or white headed effect and no rufous colouration so it can't be a rufous morph Long legged Buzzard. Then look at the underbody colouration. Can you see any combination of a white chest and darker belly? On nominate, the chest is very pale or bright rufous and the belly is dark sometimes black. The cirtensis race is even more strikingly rufous and cream and is much less variable. The underpart colouration seen here only fits Steppe Buzzard, there is not a race or age, or colour morph of Long legged Buzzard that this could fit. Finally, lets look at the tail colouration & patterning. Pretty bland, pale rufous with a multitude of small darker bars. Long legged of all races is much more rufous (apart from juvenile, which this bird isn't) and the rump should be much paler. In the smaller cirtensis race this feature is even more enhanced. Again the tail colouration & patterning are pure Steppe Buzzard. There are more features that I could discuss which separate these two species, but there seems little point in doing so. This bird is a second calendar year Steppe Buzzard (notice the moult in the primaries).

We then motored down to Kalba, to catch Abdullah's boat out to the great blue yonder. We had a quick stop off at Fujairah Port Beach and we  noted a Sooty Shearwater and 5 Arctic Skuas. Around 1450 Common Terns were also flying north.
The sea was calm as we left harbour and immediately we saw another Sooty Shearwater, a few Red-necked Phalaropes and a scattering of Persian Shearwaters. An Arctic Skua raced by. It was another quiet trip, with just a third Sooty Shearwater flying by. But then we saw a small skua sat on a buoy.

Sooty Gull & Long tailed Skua

Notice the general clouration of this bird.

Heavily thick barred rump; large underside wing flash.
Restricted wing flash on upper primaries.

Showing the extensve white underwing pattern very nicely.

The bird was small, with a small head & bill. The bill was quite stubby and for the size of the bird it had a deep chest. General clouration was a grey brown, with heavily barred rump. Wing pattern on upper & lower sides pure classic, Long-tailed Skua. This record is the earliest ever and the question asked must be wat is it doing here at this time of year? From our limited experience off the east coast of the UAE, it looks likely that first year birds of all three smaller skua species, just hang around in the northern Indian Ocean. Most probably don't undertake the full migrations that adults undertake each year. Certainly, when you record skuas in January/February, they are virtually all first summer birds. Several other predominantly pelagic species also do this: shortened migrations when immature, only undertaking the long migrations when adult. Common Tern is a classic example of this, with many juvenile/first winter birds hanging around the east coast beaches and only migrating relatively short distances.
Two very fine species for my year list in the bag!
2 species added (282 species total): 620 kms travelled.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

My cunning plan, Baldrick!

I now need to see 50 more species to attain my goal for 2012. It is not going to be easy, but this is what I plan to do!


Abdulla’s boat is the best bet to see the following species:

Jouanin’s Petrel; Flesh-footed Shearwater; Wedge-tailed Shearwater; Wilson’s Storm Petrel; Swinhoe’s Storm Petrel; Masked & Brown Boobies; Long-tailed Skua; Brown & Lesser Noddies and Sooty Tern.

11 species + a chance of a rarity or two, like Cory’s Shearwater etc.

The Mountains:

The Hajar Mountains from Shwaib, north to the Musundam, hold some scarce and difficult species. The raptors in particular, seem to be getting rarer and harder to see, with every passing year. I am going to have to put sometime in to have any chance of seeing the following species:

Lappet-faced Vulture; Short-toed Snake Eagle; Golden Eagle and Trumpeter Finch.

4 species.

Individual species:

Lesser Flamingo – Ras Al Khor & Al Wathba Lake.

Red billed Tropicbird – best chance is off Delma Island.

White Stork – FNDF.

European Honey Buzzard – on passage in late April early May and in September.

Lesser Spotted Eagle – on passage in April. Very rare in the fall.

Steppe Eagle – Al Ain area & FNDF.

Booted Eagle – on passage FNDF.

Amur Falcon – FNDF.

Sooty Falcon – far west & Delma Island.
Corncrake – Sila area &  FNDF.

Water Rail – Ruwais, Al Wathba Lake & Al Warsen Lakes.

Black-winged Pratincole – FNDF.

Spotted Sandgrouse – Sila area and around Al Ain.

Oriental Turtle Dove – FNDF.

Barn Owl – Al Bahia & Mushrif Park in Dubai.

Short-eared Owl – Al Dibbayah and the far west around Sila.

Common Swiftanywhere.

Wire-tailed Swallow – Al Wathba Lake.

Wood Warbler – Abu Dhabi Island sites; FNDF and Safa Park.

Green Warbler - Abu Dhabi Island sites; FNDF and Safa Park

Sedge Warbler- Abu Dhabi Island sites.

Blyth’s Reed Warbler - Abu Dhabi Island sites.

Marsh Warbler - Abu Dhabi Island sites.

River Warbler - Abu Dhabi Island sites and FNDF.

Thrush Nightingale - Abu Dhabi Island sites.

Red breasted Flycatcher - Abu Dhabi Island sites, Sila and Safa Park in Dubai.

Pied Stonechat – FNDF.

Black throated Thrush – Any migration site.

Olive-backed Pipit - Abu Dhabi Island sites; FNDF and Safa Park.

Forest Wagtail - Abu Dhabi Island sites and Safa Park, Dubai.

Common Rosefinch – Sila, Abu Dhabi Island sites and FNDF.

Spanish Sparrow – FNDF.

Streaked Weaver – Al Warsen Lakes and Dubai Pivot Fields.

33 species, which are more or less recorded, each year in the UAE.

Even if one sees all of the above, I am a little short of my target!

A small percentage of the following rarities may also be expected, their occurrence varying from year to year:

Black-winged Kite; Eurasian Griffon Vulture; Steppe Buzzard; White-breasted Waterhen; Little Crake; Spur-winged Lapwing; Eurasian Dotterel; Long-toed Stint; Great Snipe; Grey Phalarope; Oriental Pratincole; Little Gull; Black Tern; Common Woodpigeon; Asian Koel; Dusky Warbler; Yellow-browed Warbler; Taiga Flycatcher; Mistle Thrush; Eurasian Siskin.

So, 330 species in one year, is a tough ask. I plan to spend time in the mountains in July (when there are few, if any migrants around) and also go on as many boat trips as possible. I need a bit of luck! My next milestone is of course, 300 species, which I hope to achieve by the end of June (please note that I am in China & Tibet for the majority of the month). I also need a fine autumn, so let us see how I get on....

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Out & about on Abu Dhabi Island

It appears to be raining birds. Migrants are turning up in unexpected places, so I thought I would try my luck, birding around the Emirates Palace Hotel. I teamed up with Robin and we set off with high expectations.
Migrants were in good numbers and the birding was quite exciting: a Eurasian Turtle Dove was a good record for the island; 5 Daurian; 4 Turkestan; and singles of both Woodchat and Lesser Grey Shrikes. 9 Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush were noteworthy, as were the 43 Ortolan Buntings & 21 Common Redstart. 4 Red-throated and 3 Tree Pipits; with Yellow-headed; Sykes and Grey headed Wagtails also on show. 4 Barred Warblers; 2 Willow Warbler; a Chiffchaff; a Spotted Flycatcher and 2 Whinchats, with both Northern & Isabelline Wheatears also passing through. A fine male Golden-backed Weaver means that this species is still hanging on here and a young weaver sp. was also seen.
I then had to shoot off for the ADNOC HSE Awards ceremony being held in a nearby hotel. The hotel is new and spectacular! It was a very pleasant evening.

0 species added (total 277 species): 80 kms travelled.

Tuesday saw me tramping around the MPG's looking for Red whiskered Bulbul. Oscar had seen two birds recently in the Front Wood. This is a major surprise, as they haven't been recorded for quite a while now. I searched, but no joy. However, birding was excellent with a wide variety of migrants recorded:
Cuckoo; European Bee-eater; Masked Shrike; 7 Willow Warbler; 6 Eastern Olivaceous & 3 Upcher's Warblers; Barred Warbler; 2 Spotted Flycatcher; 3 Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin; a female White-throated Robin; 5 Common Nightingale; 8 Common Redstart; a fine adult male Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush; Pied Wheatear; 5 Tree Pipit and an Ortolan Bunting. But, the best, was a colourful Eurasian Golden Oriole - new for my year list!
Carol & I then rushed off to get changed for the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth 2 held at the British Embassy here in Abu Dhabi. And what a fine night it was! Great food and drink supplied by our Club (which is of course, The Club). They did a fantastic job, catering for 700 people!

1 species added (total 278 species): 80 kms travelled.

Robin joined me for our afternoon foray around the MPG's on Wednesday afternoon. At first, the going was slow, but we gradually picked up migrants, as we progressed around the circuit:
5 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters; European Roller; 2 Masked Shrike; both Daurian & Turkestan Shrikes; 8 Eastern Olivaceous; Upcher's warbler; 2 Eurasian Blackcap; a skulking Garden Warbler ( a scarce & difficult bird to get here in the UAE, with Abu Dhabi Island being the best site); 2 Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin; 5 Common Nightingale; Lesser Whitethroat; 6 Common Redstart and an Ortolan Bunting.

Ortolan Bunting

European Roller
Red-whiskered Bulbul!

Robin & I were very pleased to get 2 Red-whiskered Bulbuls. This is the only location for them in the UAE and I hadn't recorded them for over a year, so I feared the worst! A bit of a bonus bird for me!

2 species added (280 species total): 80 kms travelled.

Thursday was Robin's birthday! He has reached a mighty 56 summers! I bought a cake and we ate some of it in the office. The rest was taken home to be savoured by those with a more discerning palate!

Robin looking ready to eat! All of it?

Saturday, 21 April 2012

It's Cuckoo Mayhem!

It is Friday morning, at least I think it is Friday morning! There is a persistant ringing sound in my head. I turn it off. It is 2.30 am! This is what you have to do if you want to be a Fujairah National Dairy Farm for dawn these days. (If you live in Abu Dhabi of course; those lucky Dubai based birders, will be still a slumbering).
I am very hopeful for a big day. Migration is in full swing and I need to get a few of those really uncommon migrants. The FNDF is a good bet. The afternoon will be spent on a pelagic off Kalba. 100+ species are on the cards! Robin, Oscar & I set off into the night. This is how the day unfolded.
We had a straightforward and uneventful drive and arrived on pole, at around dawn. We walked the road first and a few migrants were logged immediately: 23 Pale Rockfinch; a Lesser Grey Shrike; plenty of Blue-cheeked & European Bee-eaters flying over; Upcher's Warbler and best of the bunch, a fine male White throated Robin (my first at this location).

White throated Robin

Around 19 Lesser Kestrel, adorned the skies above the fields. It is always great to see these little beauties.

Wonderfully aerial Lesser Kestrels!
Males are just superb!

We then take a decision to cover the Goat Farm first. It proves a good move, as it is alive with migrants:
200+ Eurasian Turtles Dove; a late Eurasian Sparrowhawk; Pallid Harrier; Collared Pratincole; 8 species of shrike! 300+ Barn Swallow; 5 Common House Martin; 3 Red rumped Swallow; 5 Whinchat; Northern, Pied & Isabelline Wheatears; 95 Red throated Pipits & a single Tree Pipit; 6 Ortolan Buntings.
After a brief breakfast, we then cover the cattle farm side of the road. Again lots of migrants: European Roller & Red backed Shrike, were both new for the year. Robin didn't see the shrike, so I offered to try & find it for him. It went down in a clump of long grass & so off we went to flush it. But, on the way I nearly trod  on an adult Baillon's Crake! It was almost under my boot, it was so close! Robin saw it as well, but Simon & Oscar were over 200m away & despite trying, we couldn't flush it again.
Along the road were 4 Common Cuckoos (2 of the hepatic phase), which showed quite well. Cuckoos are pretty scarce migrants in the UAE, so this was a bit of a treat.

Common Cuckoo
Hepatic phase
However, our day of cuckoos was not yet over. I found a singing male Yellow throated Sparrow, which eventually showed well to all. Robin & I decided to work a clump of trees near the entrance gate. While I was scanning ahead, Robin saw a large bird fly over being chased by 2 House Crows. Then Oscar behind us shouted Great Spotted Cuckoo! First, it gave us the runaround, but then gave itself up to all in the small trees alongside the main road. What a bird!
Great spotted Cuckoo
Star bird of the spring?
A very good mornings birding & all too soon we had to leave for the boat trip off Kalba. On the way we saw this guy driving down the highway. Take a close look at the photo!

Very UAE!

 In the harbour, a Common Kingfisher flashed by (very late). But the sea proved quiet 50+ Persian Shearwaters; 10 Red-necked Phalaropes and 7 Arctic Skuas were the highlights.

The boys, having a laugh!
 It looks a bit of a struggle with those lens!
 Khalifa doing his bit.
It's over here! No, it's over here!
6 species added (277 species): 625 kms travelled.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Migration is in full flow!

I am feeling a little smug, from yesterdays outing. Two species which are always hard to get on your year list: Bay backed Shrike and Savi's Warbler in the bag! But there is no time for complacency, I am missing several species which have been seen in the last few days with White throated Robin topping this most wanted list! Now, Abu Dhabi Island is as good as anywhere for scarce migrants. In previous years, I wouldn't have been so anxious, but with the destruction of Khalidiyah Spit and so many other vagrant hot spots. I have only seen 4 out of my 15 scarce spring migrants to date. So, plenty of scope for improvement here then! I guess I will just have to go birding!
Robin meets me down at the MPG's and just like Basil Faulty, we are going to give it a good thrashing! I get out of the car & immediately find a superb male Semi-collared Flycatcher! It's a cracker!

Great for the year list!
Semi-collared Flycatcher - a very scarce migrant in the UAE.

It was quite exciting walking around, as it was very apparent that a small arrival had taken place. 2 Rufous Bush Robin; 5 Common Redstart; Great Reed Warbler; 12 Willow Warbler; 2 Lesser Whitethroat; 9 Eastern Olivaceous Warblers; Upchers'Warbler; 2 Masked Shrikes and the Cuckoo was still present! Two Crested Honey Buzzards still present around the Palace.

This Common Cuckoo is an hepatic phase female.
Notice, the unbarred rump, which rules out rarer species.
However, the bird is two shades paler
than hepatic canorus race.

The quick route march around the AD Racecourse revealed suprisingly few migrants: 35 Red-throated Pipits and Northern Wheatear. A nice male Lesser Kestrel flew over at dusk.

1 species added (267 species total): 80 kms travelled.

Carol picked me up & we went to The Club. Carol to do a Zumba dance class & me to go to the gym. However, I wasn't feeling on top form, so while Carol was zumbering away, (is that a real word)? I stole off to Saadiyat Golf Club, which is a mere gull's wing length away. It was quiet, with a Northern Wheatear and 2 Common Redstarts being the best migrants.

0 species added (267 species total): 100 kms travelled.

Robin & I went to the Emirates Palace Hotel this afternoon. Migrants were few & far between, but we eventually got a decent tally: 4 Blue cheeked Bee-eaters; 7 Red throated & a Tree Pipit; a Rufous tailed Rock Thrush; a nice male Whinchat; 3 Common Redstart; 9 Willow Warbler; 2 Lesser Whitethroat; 1 Upcher's Warbler; 7 Ortolan Buntings.

1 species added (268 species total): 80 kms travelled.

Today, I had a great slice of fortune. The environmental awards cermony, which I was due to attend as a winner, was postponed until next Sunday. This meant I could twitch the goodies in Dubai & Sharjah! So, I fired up the chariot & off I went. I arrived at the Dubai Pivot Fields and saw the Caspian Plover in all its summer regalia. What a stunner!

It is just great to see this species in spring.
They really are, quite special!

Not top quality photos! But I spent less than
 five minutes at the Pivots!

There were also a nice group of 23 Collared Pratincoles nearby. Yet another year tick!

Collared Pratincole

I left in a hurry & negioated the traffic on my drive to Mamzar Park in Sharjah. It took me a few minutes to get my bearings & then it was there; a splendid male White-throated Robin!
White-throated Robin

An absolute gem of a bird!
It performed very nicely

This was a big target year bird for me. White-throated Robins are very scarce spring pasage migrants here, over a very narrow period of time. They are much rarer in autumn. So, it was a big relief to get this individual. 2 Wryneck; 9 Common Redsart and a Masked Shrike were also present.
A big thank you to both Simon & Neil, without whose help, I wouldn't have had such a great afternoon. Thanks guys, much appreciated.
 I drove home very happy & arrived for cocktails, around the pool at 18.05 hrs with Carol.  Not a bad ending to a good day!

3 species added (271 species total): 400 kms travelled.