Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Arabian Nights

You already read about my Kuwait birding adventures. Birding in Kuwait was a no-brainer since Kuwait was our work destination but I figured that I should also take advantage of the trip to spend another day in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) since my flight had a layover there anyway.

I hired another guide named Oscar in UAE. He is based in Abu Dhabi so that is where we met to spend a full day birding another area of the Persian Gulf. Oscar did his homework and mapped out a route for the day so that we would hit the areas where the specialty birds would be found. It is confusing to know which direction anything is in UAE. Here is a map of the region:

Persian Gulf
We started early and headed east toward the "mountains".  And by mountains, I mean a few high elevation areas of bare rock that stick up from the desert. We hit paydirt right off the bat with a few new birds including Desert Larks, Water Pipits and Gray Francolins that were in the public park at the bottom of the mountain. They didn't seem to mind the picnicking families.

Gray Francolin
And then I saw the Indian Roller - a bird that I have wanted to see since I first read about it in a magazine. They are colorful birds that command respect.

Indian Roller
The day was  overcast with light rain which is not ideal for finding birds (or lugging expensive cameras around) but we perservered and headed up a winding road to the top of the mountain where we found a few more target birds including this Sandgrouse sitting on a windy pinnacle.

Sand Grouse
And this stunning Blue Rock Thrush. It's a "wow" bird for sure.

Blue Rock Thrush
There is a hotel at the top of the mountain complete with a pool and water slide. We found a few more birds hanging around the pool area including Hume's Wheatear sitting on a post.

Hume's Wheatear
Our best desert find of the day was this Hoopoe Lark. A true desert specialty that reminds me of a thrasher or roadrunner  the way it scurries across the barren landscape. Oscar knew right where to go to find one and this guy put on a show.


We also looked for lakes which naturally attract birds. We found a few good ones at the lake near the horse race track. Clamorous Reed Warblers come by their name honestly - they are certainly clamorous. You often hear these loud birds but cannot see them hiding in the reeds right in front of you. It is maddening. Thankfully, this guy wasn't shy. He came right to the edge of the reeds and sang his heart out.

Clamorous Reed Warbler
Isabelline Wheatears are never shy. We saw many of these birds perched on top of posts or bushes in the desert.
Isabelline Wheatear
We often see other wildlife when birding but I never expected to see one of these! This is an Arabian Oryx. They were almost extinct from hunting. UAE has released some back into the desert after successful recovery program. I think the park people feed them to make sure of their success but it was still a pleasant surprise.

Arabian Oryx
We also caught a few glimpses of antelopes but they were too fast to catch with a photo. The only other desert animal that we found was this Desert Hare. He sat perfectly still as we walked by confident in his camouflage.

Desert Hare
We ended the day on a high note by finding an Egyptian Nightjar. Oscar knows where they like to nest and had heard one singing a few days earlier. We arrived before sunset in hopes of hearing the bird but got even luckier when we spotted him moving through the desert between bushes. I was able to sneak up on him and snap a few decent photos.

Egyptian Nightjar
Another great day of birding in Arabia. I highly recommend getting into the desert to see this amazing place. 




Monday, March 11, 2019

Oh Mike, You Take Me To All the Nicest Places

Birding in Kuwait is a sometimes like birding at home and then sometimes totally NOT like birding at home. Most of the "hotspots" are centered around water as you can imagine. We went out to a remote abandoned quarry to find true desert birds. The place was barren except for a few shrubby trees surrounding the quarry pit. The winds howl in the desert and blow sand and trash for miles. Every tree and fence line that we passed had at least one plastic bag tangled in the branches.

Along with the trash, the trees also hold birds. We were able to track down a few specialties. The trees also attract migrants that are passing through. In fact, here is a photo that shows both the migrant (Semi-collared Flycatcher) and the trash.

Semi-collared Flycatcher
We saw a group of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters which are really cool looking. Not the best photo but they barely stopped moving so I was happy to get any photo at all of these colorful birds. 

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Another really cool bird that blends into the desert is Crested Lark. 
Crested Lark
We headed back toward the city to hit some other birding locations. I have to admit that I was a little worried when Mike pulled the car into a back alley that looked like this:

Alley
Is this the part where I disappear and they only find pieces of my body years later? Gulp. Not to worry (of course). Would you believe that this is the entrance to Jahra Farms?  Once we went inside of the walls, we found the "farms" which is more like a community garden co-op than the farms that we are used to in the US. 

Jahra Farms
The farm/garden attracts birds due to the water and vegetation. Strange to see Kingfishers and Herons in a farm setting. 

Squacco Heron
This Squacco Heron is sitting in the middle of a patch of parsley which will eventually end up in one of the local markets or restaurants. The "farms" ended up being a great stop on our tour not only for the birds but also for the cultural experience. In fact, here it is on my plate in tabouli salad - yum! 



Back to more traditional birding locations after the farms including Sulaibikhat Bay . This spot is more like birding Delaware Bay in Cape May except that Sulaibikhat Bay has Greater Flamingos!

Greater Flamingo
Two Flamingo species in a month. Who would have thought? The bay also had multiple gull and tern species along with shorebirds. Unfortunately, the birds were pretty far out on the mudflats for photos. 

Our last stop was by far the most familiar to me. We headed to Jahra Pools which is a large wetland area where we found and photographed birds up close. One of my favorite bird groups is the Kingfisher group. We found 2 very cooperative species at the pools. White-throated Kingfisher indeed has a white throat.

White-throated Kingfisher
But the aqua color on the back is more impressive. 

White-throated Kingfisher

The other Kingfisher that uses the pools is the Pied Kingfisher. "Pied" means black and white and this bird exemplifies the pied name. This bird posed for us balancing on a reed in the wind. 

Pied Kingfisher
 Pied Kingfishers hover above the water looking for a fish.

Pied Kingfisher

It felt like home when we spotted an Osprey roosting in a dead tree. 

Osprey
But then, we found 6 Greater Spotted Eagles that use the marsh for night roost. We photographed a few soaring low over the marsh. 
Greater Spotted Eagle
As they were landing for the evening. Interesting to see that they like to roost low in dead trees. 
Greater Spotted Eagle
And even on the ground. 
Greater Spotted Eagle
We spent some time looking for marsh birds like rails which are called "crakes" in Europe and Asia. Our patience was rewarded with up close views of 2 species. We had a typical view of Little Crake.

Little Crake - typical view
Yup. That is about the best view that I usually get of rails and crakes. Barely visible through the thick reeds. Not so for the Spotted Crake. This bird really put on a show running out in the open water.

Spotted Crake
A nice way to end an amazing day of birding in an amazing new area of the world - Kuwait. 




Sunday, March 10, 2019

Where in the World?

If I gave you 100 guesses, you would never guess where I am this week. Hints: they love the US military, it's really hot, and the language is Arabic. Answer: Kuwait. Yup. Kuwait. A random work trip popped up and after some careful thought, I said yes. Of course you know that I don't go anywhere without the binoculars and camera. In most places, I am pretty comfortable going birding on my own using eBird hotspots as my guide. Not when I am in a very different culture though. Lucky for me, my friend George knows a birder who lives in Kuwait so I hired him as my guide.

Linda and Mike
Mike is originally from South Africa but transferred to Kuwait for his real job and is now an expert in Kuwait birding. Check out his blog at http://kuwaitbirding.blogspot.com/ for more info. We started the day early and headed north of Kuwait city into the desert to begin our day. Let me tell you, there is NOTHING out there for miles and miles except rocky, sandy desert. And, giant electric power lines.

There are more power lines running through this desert than  I've ever seen in my life. This photo is only one row of them.  The other very interesting thing that fills the desert are huge camping areas. Apparently, the Kuwaitis love to camp on the weekends in winter. Not my idea of camping but . . . 

Camping Kuwaiti Style
Oh, and if your going to be in the middle east in the desert, you gotta make friends with the locals. All I had to do was hold my hand up and this big fella walked right over looking for a handout.

Linda and friend
Kuwait is experiencing a very interesting natural phenomena in the desert. Can you see all of the vegetation in the camel photo? The entire desert is "green" due to rain of biblical proportions in November. The middle east was flooded and the desert came to life with grasses and flowers and - butterflies. We saw a million Painted Lady butterflies - not an exaggeration. They were literally covering the desert on every flower and little tree.

Painted Lady
It was very windy and much colder that I thought it would be in the desert. Glad I had my jacket with me. We finally got to our first birding destination which is a "farm" in the middle of the desert. Mike says that the farm is out here due to a natural spring that allows the farmer to have animals like cows and exotic pets plus trees and vegetables. Our first bird of the day was actually a shorebird - Green Sandpiper which was hanging out at the little man-made pond.

Green Sandpiper
Other birds used the pond for catching dragonflies. Here are 2 different types of wagtails with dragonflies. First is Gray Wagtail.

Gray Wagtail
This one is White Wagtail on the platform that the farmer uses to shoot ducks.

White Wagtail
I know, I know. It gets worse. Here is a Eurasian Kestral dead in a tree. The red flag is used to tether the Kestral to train the other falcons to kill it. Once it is caught, the Kestral is left to die in the tree. This is the trade-off with birding in other cultures. You can't be offended by the property owner's traditions if you want access to the land. Maybe the culture will change in the future. 

Dead Kestral
On a brighter note, one of my target species to photograph is the Eurasian Hoopoe. What a cool bird. We saw about a dozen during the day. I was able to capture a few photos.

Hoopoe
We saw many other birds at the desert farm including a few species of shrikes but the photos are not that great. The birds were pretty far away. I did manage to catch a shot of this Tawny Pipit. Talk about camouflage. We would never have seen the bird if it wasn't perched on a bush at first. Once it hopped onto the ground, it almost disappeared. 

Tawny Pipit
We spent a few hours at the farm and then headed back towards the city to explore other birding spots.



Monday, February 25, 2019

No Regrets?

My impromptu Florida trip started with that gorgeous Flamingo and got better when I headed across the state to Key Biscayne in hopes of seeing two rare birds that were reported at Crandon State Park. One of the birds is pretty rare in the US - Thick-billed Vireo. I arrived at the park at 7:30 AM and found the bird immediately. It was sitting in the bushes along the path to the Nature Center. Honestly, this is one of those birds that could easily be overlooked as just another White-eyed Vireo until you hear the song and look closely at the bird. Here is a photo of the Thick-billed Vireo.

Thick-billed Vireo
Now compare with a photo of White-eyed Vireo taken on the same day at the same park.

White-eyed Vireo
Tough right? You can notice a split eye ring and thicker bill on the Thick-billed Vireo but that is about it. The second rare bird is easier to identify but proved more difficult to find at the park. I looked and looked. Other birders showed up and searched too. Finally, I found the bird moving along in the trees with some other birds. Yay! Female Western Spindalis.

Western Spindalis
By 10 AM, I had found the 2 rare birds and headed back across the state feeling pretty satisfied with the trip. Of course some of the fun of birding is "bragging" about it to my friends. I sent the photos above to some friends. Later that evening, Steve emailed back asking if I had also seen the Bananaquit. What Bananaquit? I quickly looked online and read that a Bananaquit had been seen at the same park at 2:30 in the afternoon. THE SAME PARK where I was on THE SAME DAY.  AAARRRGGGGHHHH! I could have let that ruin a perfectly good day but I didn't. Bananaquits, like the Spindalis, show up in Florida almost every winter. I'll have another chance to see one. Right? Please say yes. . . . #noregrets.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Pretty in Pink

You might think that Flamingos are easy to see in Florida. Many residents have plastic pink flamingos in their yards which makes me think that the flamingo is the Florida state bird. They are not - the state bird or easy to see. American Flamingos are not common and where they are regular, they are difficult to see. Most of the Flamingos in Florida are seen at the bottom end of the Everglades by people who are kayaking in the back country. No roads can take you there. And most boats cannot access the area either. I've tried to see Flamingos in the Everglades in the past. I drove all the way to the end of the road and asked the people at the campground. They just giggled and told me that I needed a boat. I slinked away. That was years ago.

Fast forward 15 years and now there is a single Flamingo that has been hanging around in a wildlife refuge up on the Florida panhandle near Tallahassee. The bird has been there since December but I haven't been able to get there to see it. That all changed on Sunday when Connie agreed to make a quick road trip this week to see the bird. Truth be told, she really wanted to visit her sister who lives in Florida. A compromise seemed like the best solution. We left Pennsylvania at 6:30 PM on Tuesday and drove straight through arriving at St. Mark's NWR at 9:30 AM on Wednesday. 15 hours of straight driving.

I probably didn't do enough research because we arrived at the spot and found a vast area of impoundments to search. As we stood there wondering where to start, a Vermillion Flycatcher flew out to the road. WOW! Totally unexpected rare bird.  We have seen this bird in Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize. I saw one in another spot in Florida a few years ago but this guy put on a show searching for bugs along the road and perching on low sticks at the water's edge.


Here he is looking for a bug to pluck from the water.



Luckily, we found a birder who had seen the bird a few times. He was taking his friend/wife/? out to the impoundment to look for the bird. We walked ahead of the couple trying to cover a lot of ground quickly. Peanut LOVED the walk. We went about a mile out on the dike road. I heard someone yelling and looked back to see the couple frantically waving their arms. They found the Flamingo. We headed back to meet them with our spotting scope. Donna aimed the scope out into the marsh and viola, we had the bird!

In the scope
Happy dances ensued.

Flamingo! The bird is back there somewhere
Seeing the bird through the scope was great but I needed a better view so I headed out for another mile to get a closer look. It was quite a hike but totally worth it. The Flamingo was right there!  He/she didn't care a bit about me or Peanut.

Me and the Flamingo
I spent another 20 minutes watching and photographing the bird as he/she was feeding in the impoundment. Flamingos are much taller than I imagined.
Flamingo
He/she would stomp around in circles searching for food.

Flamingo
You can see how the bird uses his foot to search and stir up the water for food.


What a great experience.