This blog was written by James Conder practical volunteer at RSPB West Sedgemoor, Greylake and Swell Wood

From West Sedgemoor to Saudi Arabia

Marsh harrier 

The first bird I saw at Al Asfar Lake was a Western yellow wagtail. Then it was a Western marsh harrier. And then a little egret. Then I heard piggy squeal of a water rail. I could have fooled myself I was still at RSPB Greylake were it not for the view – a vast blue lake bordered by thick green reedbeds, but beyond that sand, sand and more sand. Oh, and the temperature. By 9am it was pushing 40 C and the hot wind was blowing that sand in our faces.

This is a story of human (rather than bird) migration. After a rewarding nine months volunteering with the RSPB team managing West Sedgemoor, Greylake and Swell Wood I find myself in the very different environs of Saudi Arabia, where I am teaching at university. But of course, there is still time for birds.

The carefully watered sward and gardens of the campus provide an oasis for a surprising variety of creatures, from fat desert locusts as long as your finger to the skinny Arabian subspecies of our red fox, plus many kinds of birds. The laughing doves and hoopoes are particularly lovely, as are the wheatears and shrikes passing through on their autumn migration to Africa. Like many urban areas, a fair few invasive species have found a foothold – common mynas, house crows and the noisy ring-necked parakeets that also carouse through London’s parks. Some of the commonest birds are also familiar ones – house sparrows and collared doves.

Laughing doves amid the rubble of a nearby building site

At the weekends I have had the opportunity to roam further afield, often in the company of Gregory Askew, a local American birder who is working hard to promote Saudi Arabia as a birding destination. I have helped Greg with shorebird surveys and on the 9th October we celebrated World Migratory Bird Day by participating in the Global ‘Big Day’. Starting at 4.50am and finishing at 7.30pm, Greg and I covered desert wadis, parkland, the aforementioned Al Asfar lake and a stretch of shoreline along the placid Persian Gulf, where once again I came across many recognisable species – sanderling, turnstone, grey heron and even my old friend the Eurasian curlew – on the hot, rubbish-strewn stretch of beach. But there were also fascinating birds you wouldn’t hope to see at home – desert larks, desert wheatears, greater spotted eagle, black scrub robins and sooty falcons. All in all we counted 61 species, while our fellow teams across the country totted up a grand total of 221 to add to the global tally of 7,269.

A Eurasian curlew on the beach at Al Uqair

Not bad for a day’s work. My students had guffawed when I told them I was going out to the desert to look for birds. “There are no birds in Saudi Arabia” they told me. I was happy to prove them wrong, and delighted at the interest they showed when I started showing them some of the photos I had taken in their backyard. Hopefully I can turn some into birdwatchers by the end of the course! Wherever you go there is wildlife to delight in, even in a big sand box.

's James Conder

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