Bahrain Bird Report

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Hypocolius ampelinus
Grey Hypocolius


NIGHTINGALE and HILL "BIRDS OF BAHRAIN" 1993 Immel London ISBN 0-907151-79-5

ERIC HIRSCHFELD "BIRDS IN BAHRAIN" 1995 Hobby Dubai ISBN 1-872839-03-7



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I wrote the following Article in 1997

Grey Hypocolius - a Bahrain Experience

When ever I take someone along to the Hypocolius roost close to Saar I always insist on punctuality. I'm certain many visitors are bemused at my insistence but to enjoy the spectacle of the evening display, it is always best to be in place before the days first arrivals. The time varies in a season by up to half an hour according to the length of the day but I always try to arrive at the site around 3.30pm.The first birds too arrive at the roost are incredibly punctual from day to day, almost to the second. However they are likely to drop down into any bush within the area. One good reason for being punctual oneself particularly at the extremes of the species temporary residence. For viewing the best place to wait is on the road to the south of the roost. With the majority of birds arriving from the west or north west they are easily spotted as they circle the area before dive bombing to disappear into their selected bush.

The birds generally arrive in small groups of around twenty to forty but it is not unusual to see a hundred or just one or two arrive at the same time. It is possible that the larger groups are an amalgam of smaller parties that have joined forces en route. The arriving parties look almost black against the bright blue sky and always appear to be flying past the roost before turning to drop almost vertically back into the roosting area. Although arriving together most groups fragment as they descend with some birds moving horizontally over the roost at a lower level before their final dip and plunge into their selected thicket or tree. It is always a spectacular entry and never fails to thrill me. From November to February birds continue to arrive right up to dusk. On arrival the majority of birds simply disappear into the dense thickets but some will remain in view for throughout the roost there is always a considerable amount of movement from thicket to thicket. Parties will often emerge from one area of the roost, reassemble and plunge head long into another more favoured part. The two thorn trees on the road side at the southern edge of the roost is a favourite display area and is used by many birds before they themselves move down into these trees or adjacent palm thickets. During the peak months it is not necessary to chase the few first arrivals around for good views, a patient wait on the road near these trees will be rewarded. The birds which are quite tame, will come to you and provided the situation at the roost remains the same, in terms of human encroachment, this should apply in future years.

The Hypocolius was first recorded in Bahrain in 1980 by Tom Nightingale but it was not until 1986 that the habit of communal roosting was discovered. Since then the number of known roosts has slowly declined mainly as a result of habitat destruction. Saar is currently the only known major site. I have found several minor roosts in and around the date gardens along the west coast but these were short lived. The Hypocolius select only a certain type of habitat for their roosts. Primarily it has to be dense and must provide an element of natural protection from possible disturbance. In areas where date groves have been abandoned, in Bahrain normally brought about by the increase in the salinity of the underlying aquifer, water table (too much water having been taken out allowing sea water to penetrate ) the large palms die. About the remaining stump of each dead palm there is however a legacy of suckling growth. which despite the problems of salinity develops into a dense circular thicket. Competition, for both space and sweet water, prevents a new full size tree from developing. Over time these abandoned plantations develop into the perfect roosts for Grey Hypocolius. Such habitats are however useless for anything else and subsequently are prone to redevelopment. The individual thickets are well spaced and seldom more than 12 feet high and 20 feet around. However a single bush could hold several hundred birds, the only clue to their presence, the persistent whispering murmur from within. I have heard several other calls but unfortunately I do not have an ear for music and although I can recognise them when heard I cannot describe the calls. One day maybe I'll get a sound man (I prefer a women actually but that could be regarded as sexist) to visit and be able to add the sound track to future articles.

For readers not familiar with the species, I have found that the field guides that do include the species, are not always as well illustrated as might be expected. I am deeply indebted to Dr Mike Hill for allowing me to use this photograph of a male to illustrate this article, However the Birds when seen in the field are quite a bit darker than those illustrated in the field guides. The most striking feature of the species both male and female is the soft satin like plumage.The male is a strong slaty grey with only a slight bluish tint, darkest on the back and towards the black that tips the long tail. The breast flanks and belly are a browner grey with a pinkish hue. When at rest the contrast with the wings and back is highlighted along the breast sides by the barely discernible black of the primaries. The primaries have white tips which form quite large wing panels that are very prominent in flight The males when seen in Bahrain have a much shorter primary projection than the females. Some juvenile do actually show white tips to their primaries but no mask these are presumably males. Overall females and juveniles have less contrasting colours but are a deeper brownish grey on their under parts. The species is much heavier in the ventral area of the tail than is normally illustrated. This gives the impression of a much shorter tail when the bird is perched. The tail is rounded, with the back tips being quite extensive on the males, females and juveniles have a much fainter band. The mask, only found on adult males, is in fact two tone, black through the lores around and above the eye and the nape of the neck but a pale blue grey on the ear coverts down to the ring of the neck. The forehead on the male is pale often a brownish cream colour blending into the grey crown which curves down and around the back of the head. The chin and throat are grey but the area of the sub and moustacial stripe are a creamy white that finally blends into the grey of the throat. It is this pale area that sets off the eye mask, the line of demarcation being quite distinct. On females and juveniles the entire area including the throat is a creamy colour but females do show a moustacial stripe and the hint of a submoustacial stripe. The line of demarcation with the grey of the head is less striking. The ear coverts are much paler than the rest of the head but do not have any stripes through the eye as is some times illustrated. The black bill is strong and stout with the lower mandible being considerably lighter in colour blending in with the creamy colours of the throat or head. Legs are a reddish colour and the eyes appear black .

My own observations would seem to indicate an earlier arrival and much later departure date than has been previously reported. Nightingale and Hill - Birds of Bahrain Mid October Mid February. While in his book - Birds in Bahrain Eric Hirschfeld suggests that most have departed by early January. Both I and Paul Castle (Oct-8th 1996) (Oct. 7th 1994) found that Birds arrive as early as the first week in October. Numbers build very quickly so that by early November the roost at Saar can contain over 500 individuals. The peak month would seem to remain as December, this last year (1996) numbers seem to have approached several thousand. A number confirmed by expat residents of nearby houses who although not birders keep a constant watch. Numbers start to rapidly decline from Mid February however good numbers can still be found well into March. On March 2nd 1997 I was informed that 50 plus birds were feeding in a compound garden near Janubiyah while over 200 still remain at the Saar roost as of this date March 25 1997. The incidence of birds being seen in compound gardens is also increasing I have received several requests this year from casual observers to identify a silky grey and brown bird seen in compounds around the west coast. One individual - a male - has been a frequent visitor to a garden in Budaiya since early January, feeding in fruit trees, it remains till dusk returning early the next day.

In 1996 at the Saar Roost 17 were observed on 7th of April but on the 11th of April I received the following Email from my spies at the roost.... Tonight is a very sad night. We looked hard but could not find any of our friends, the Grey Hypocolius, in the scrub opposite our house. We shall have to wait until next October to hear their soft mewing again. They will be missed. John and Maeve Kelynack Skinner

Howard King

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© Howard King