Saturday, 25 December 2010

Grey Hypocolius in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Riyadh (Google Earth ref; 24* 57' 002N 46* 41' 00"E) is home to approximately 5 million people and is the capital city of the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Wildlife photography is discouraged here as the image may be an attempt to imitate the perfection of God’s creation. To allay any such fears, I sent a few of my best photos with a request for permission. The authorities quickly realised that, given the evidence, the chance of a decent graven image was very unlikely and granted me a concession to use my camera discretely.
Laughing Dove

It was strange to leave the pre-Christmas frenzy in the USA and the UK and come to a country where the birth of Jesus holds no festive significance. Jesus is recognised as a prophet in The Koran, but his assumed position at the right hand of the Father is not accepted. The important status that he is accorded by the Christian faith is not recognised here and the lack of commercial driven madness to celebrate his anniversary is quite refreshing. In a culture with no Christmas and no images of living things or female skin, the advertisers find thin pickings and have taken their business to more hedonistic cultures.
White-eared (White-cheeked) Bulbul

But wait...., is that a snatch from ‘’Jingle Bells’’ coming from a date palm outside my hotel window? The accent is unfamiliar with a stress on the second syllable, ‘’JingGERRL Bells’’, a Collared Dove is doing its best to bring a little seasonal atmosphere, but cannot get past the first two lines.

For those of you reading this on Christmas morning, it must seem unlikely that on this web-connected world there is a country that could be ignoring the feast. The impression left by the Christmas promotion is so strong that in its absence, the brain teases itself by contorting any sound into something with a seasonal significance. Even the five syllable call of the Laughing Dove could be thought to be a cooed ‘’Walking in a Winter Wonderland’’. Contrived perhaps, but how much better than the sunken-eyed, teenaged carol singers trying to make a few quid to buy a value bottle of strong cider?
White-eyed (Yellow-vented) Bulbul

The grounds of the hotel had an early Christmas present for me. My colleague, G, had primed me to keep an eye out for Grey Hypocolius. The palms and bushes around the pool held about twenty of them among White-cheeked and Yellow-rumped Bulbuls and enough House Sparrows to start a re-stocking program for the UK if it should become necessary. The Saudi sparrows seemed a little paler than the British version.

I was as excited as a child at ...., well you know. Without even stopping to take my tie off, I rushed back outside to confirm the hypocolius with a good long look through the Bushnells and in doing so, cleaned up a whole genus with one stroke of the red crayon. Perhaps someone might like to comment on a couple of things. For example; in a genus with only one species, why does it need the ‘grey’ qualifier for the common name? And what is the plural form of hypocolius?
This female is showing the white primary tips which may have caused commentators to historically ally them with the waxwings. The black mask on the male makes it apparent why the description as a “slim Grey Shrike” is apt.
The minister in charge of the department that granted me permission to take photographs, would have been pleased to see that I was adhering to his proviso that I could use the camera as long as the images were of a ‘’sufficiently low quality’’.

I was feeling a little conspicuous by the swimming pool in my uniform with binoculars and camera trimmings, so I changed before setting out to explore the grounds. I was eager to seek G’s other suggestion. After having the hypocolius gift wrapped, the Black Bush Robin proved to be a little more elusive. There is a golf course attached to the hotel which would have been the perfect place to look, but Friday is the weekend and the course was very busy, so I was refused permission to walk there. Instead, I checked out the dry area that doubles as the golf practice ground. The trees were alive with House Sparrows. G had advised me to look out for warblers and the sparrows were becoming a little tiresome as they flitted through the acacias catching my eye.

A terrace overlooks the green practice area and a small clump of bushes. A palm tree was dropping tiny fruits which were attracting the birds.
On the lawns, a few White Wagtails were chasing insects and a Eurasian Hoopoe was probing with its long bill into the soft turf. In the shadows of the bushes, a dark shape skulked. Even in silhouette, it was clear that it was a Black Bush Robin. It has a long tail which it cocks to make a very characteristic profile. I was unable to see the markings on the underside until the bird turned away and flicked its tail high, revealing the striking white pattern beneath.
The minister contacted me personally to say how much he approved of this picture.

Eventually the professional, Anwar, allowed me to walk out onto the course, but don't tell anyone, 'coz the management have a policy not to let non-golfers on the course. To add to the list were a brace of Chiff Chaff, which I tried in vain to turn into a Dusky warbler without success. A couple of Red-vented Bulbuls were beyond their normal range and were probably escapees. They preferred the evergreen trees to the sparsely leaved winter acacias. The water hazards held a few domestic duck and a Little Egret. A Grey Heron that I had seen flying over had probably come from here. There were more House Sparrows and a snag just beyond the wall held 3 Little Green Bee-eaters.

I must assume that I am on the ‘nice’ list this year as naughty birders don’t get two lifers for Christmas do they? Unless of course, they have just read David’s post on 10000 Birds and have a hatrick of Troglodytes troglodytes wrens. My software has not yet updated, but I am looking forward to a glut of desktop lifers when it does.
Don’t feel sorry for me by the way (I know that you probably don’t, but just in case). If you pictured me holed up in an alcohol-free zone with no cards, presents, friends or family, fear not. I am scheduled to arrive home on Christmas morning, hopefully early enough to see my son wake and spend the whole day with my family dreading the knock that heralds the tipsy discordant youths.

I hope that today, wherever you are, whoever you are with and whatever your beliefs might be, that you can find peace and joy. The late Dave Allen, an old Irish comedian used to put it more succinctly,    ’‘Goodnight and may your God go with you’’.

Bird species; 15

Grey Heron 1, Little Egret 1, Eurasian Collared Dove 15, Laughing Dove 50, Rose-ringed Parakeet 50, Little Green Bee-eater 3, Eurasian Hoopoe 4, White Wagtail 3, White-eyed (yellow-vented) Bulbul 20, Red-vented (probably escapees) 2, White-eared Bulbul 40, Grey Hypocolius 40, Black Scrub (Bush) Robin 3, Common Chiff Chaff 2, House Sparrow 200