The ID of some poorly known Western Palearctic birds – Hume’s Whitethroat (sylvia althaea)

Considered by some authorities to be a separate species and by some to be a sub species of Lesser Whitethroat (sylvia curruca) the Hume’s Whitethroat is one of those species that occurs in the far southeast of the Western Palearctic as a scarce passage migrant and very occasional winterer. It is treated as a full species by Clements.
This article is based on our experiences of the species from several spring tours to Kuwait. Although not a regular migrant even here it is undoubtedly overlooked to some extent due to poor observer coverage and confusion with Lesser Whitethroat which is a very common spring migrant through the state.
Range – The breeding range of Hume’s and Lesser Whitethroat do not overlap.  Hume's Whitethroat is an upland breeding species with its range extending  from eastern Iran eastwards to the Tian Shan mountains of central Asia and the western fringes of the Himalayas. It breeds at altitudes of 2,000–3,600 m in open scrub, often with juniper, and also in cultivated areas such as almond orchards. It migrates south to southern Pakistan and India in the winter with wintering also having been noted in south Iran. Clearly its spring passage includes Kuwait on the very western edge of its migration route.
Voice – Although unlikely to be heard from a migrating bird this is very different from Lesser Whitethroat being an almost Blackcap-like warble with a slight scratchy quality. The migrant birds we have observed tend to be silent unlike the very vocal Lesser Whitethroats.
Size – When seen alongside a Lesser Whitethroat at Al Abraq in western Kuwait it is clearly a larger more bulky bird with a correspondingly heavier bill. Its movement was also noted to be more ponderous.
Plumage – In comparison with Lesser Whitethroat, Hume’s gives an overall darker impression. The mantle is much greyer (especially in 1w birds) as is the nape and crown which means there is no real contrast between head and mantle colour. The crown itself is darker grey than Lesser and the ear coverts are very dark (sometimes appearing almost black) but due to the darkness of the crown the contrast is very much less than in Lesser. 1w birds and some spring birds show a dusky wash on the breast and flanks contrasting with a white throat.
Habits – being a bird of low mountain scrub migrants tend to shun larger bushes and trees, preferring low vegetation. They are also often seen on the ground and in this tend to closely match the behaviour of Menetries’s Warbler (sylvia mystacea) which often shares the same areas.     
Hume's Whitethroat, Kuwait, 2008 (copyright P Fagel) Note the concolourous crown/mantle and heavy bill

Hume's Whitethroat, Al Abraq, Kuwait, 2012

Hume's Whitethroat, Al Abraq, Kuwait, 2012 (same bird as above)

Hume's Whitethroat, Saudi Arabia, 2011 (copyright M Pope)

Hume's Whitethroat, trapped. Note the mantle and head are the same colour.

Peak District, 20 - 22 April 2012

A long weekend of walking in the northern Peak District and the odd bird en-route. A male Ring Ouzel on Curbar Edge, loads of Red Grouse and displaying Curlew. Ravens and Common Buzzards a plenty. Swallows and Willow Warblers have arrived in good numbers up there in sharp contrast to Norfolk at the moment. Grey Wagtail, a couple of Northern Wheatears and a singing Lesser Whitethroat also seen. Followed up with 2 Red Kites by the A1 near Peterborough on the drive home.

Kuwait Day 6, 8 April 2012 - Jahra East Outfall, Jahra Pools, Fahaheel & Zour Port

The main aim for our last day was to head to the far south but as our access to Zour Port had been arranged for 14.00 we had time to head out west of the city to the Jahra area first.

First up was a 2nd visit to Jahra East Outfall where we found the conditions calm and extremely hot for so early in the morning. There was a lot of warbler activity along the reed edges by the channel and within a short space of time between us we'd clocked up a couple of Sedge Warblers, several Reed Warblers, c5 Great Reed Warblers, c3 Blackcaps, numerous Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers, Savi's Warbler and the resident Graceful Prinias. Yellow Wagtails (beema and feldegg) were ever present.

Blackcap, Jahra East Outfall

Yellow Wagtail (beema), Jahra East Outfall

Yellow Wagtail (feldegg), Jahra East Outfall

Graceful Prinia, Jahra East Outfall

No visit to the area would have been complete without one final pop in to Jahra Pools. Wader numbers here were slightly down on yesterday. Mostly the same species were present but this time we added Temminck's Stint and Ringed Plover to the triplist . Both Little and Spotted Crakes were seen again and a drive along the back track gave us 2 White-throated Robins, Siberian Stonechat and 2 Eastern Black-eared Wheatears from the car. As we left 2 Purple Herons rose up from the reeds (the only ones of the trip) and a Southern Grey Shrike perched up close to the entrance track.

Little Crake, Jahra Pools

Southern Grey Shrike, Jahra Pools

Marsh Sandpiper, Jahra Pools

It was time to head south to Zour Port but on the way we had 30 minutes to stop and check the harbour/marina/shopping mall at Fahaheel. Using our regular viewing tower we quickly found up to 25 Lesser Crested Terns on the offshore platforms and while scanning to the left I picked up a single White-cheeked Tern sitting on a post which was gratefully received by all! All the cormorants here proved to be Great Cormorants.

And so, to our final site on our final day - Zour Port. Gaining access proved straightforward due to Pekka's preparations and we were escorted to the end of the point and left to our own devices. Walking around the corner I immediately called our 1st Socotra Cormorant! We went on to enjoy unprecedented numbers of these, 20 - 25! Eventually we also picked up up to half a dozen distant Bridled Terns too so the final piece of the jigsaw was in place. Also here were c40 Lesser Crested Terns, 18 Whimbrel moving north, 5 Oystercatchers and 4 Sanderling on the small beach.

Socotra Cormorant, Zour Port

Socotra Cormorant, Zour Port

We bade our farewells to Colin and Joe as Pekka drive them back to the airport. For the rest of us it was one final evening in Kuwait City and flights home in the morning.

The triplist stood at a creditable 156 with everyone more than happy with their own personal tallys.

Kuwait Day 5, 7 April 2012 - Mutla'a Ranch, Abdali Bottling Plant, Abdali Farms, Maghasil (Bubiyan Island), Subriya Farm & Jahra Pools

Having enjoyed our visit to Mutla'a Ranch yesterday we thought a return visit in the early morning would be a good idea for maximum bird activity. For these last 2 days we were joined by a small Finnish group in their own vehicle. Numbers of common migrants such as Lesser Whitethroats, Redstarts and Willow-chiffs seemed to be down on yesterday but things livened up a bit when 2 Black-crowned Night Herons flew over and we went on to locate Turkestan Shrike, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and then I found another nice male Menetries's Warbler which went on to show well to everyone. Generally things were quite disappointing so we continued our drive north towards Abdali near the Iraq border.

Menetries's Warbler, Mutla'a Ranch

Blackcap, Mutla'a Ranch

A stop at our traditional cafe en-route was followed by a walk around the trees surrounding the nearly Abdali Bottling Plant. The best thing here was an Asian Desert Warbler which was atypically flitting around high in trees. A White-throated Robin was a welcome find for the Finns, followed by a brief Daurian Shrike while we had a Hoopoe for company throughout our walk.

We moved onto Abdali Farms next and after parking up split into 3 groups to work the area thoroughly to find our target bird - Afghan Babbler. This is undoubtedly one of the rarest breeding birds in the WP as the one here are literally the only ones. I took Brian, Dave and Todd with me, we spread out in a line and began walking through the area of small palms. We hadn't walked more than 30 meters when Brian shouts 'Babblers!', legging it to him quickly we were in time to see 2 birds around some corrugated iron sheds before they melted away. That had to be the quickest we've ever located them! Several texts later the whole group had assembled and we bagan the search again. Reaching the far fence with no luck things didn't look good but as we walked back Gary found them again when we were nearly back to the cars! Interestingly an adult bird was seen carrying food to what looked very much like a nest tree. Good news indeed! Other birds seen as we worked the area included 2 Rufous Bush Robins, Isabelline Wheatear, Graceful Prinia and Daurian Shrike.  

Afghan Babbler, Abdali Farms

Leaving Abdali we made a detour on the way back south which we have done before, to Maghasil and  spot overlooking the distant Bubiyan Island. Having already filled our boots with good views of Crab Plover we didn't need to rely on the distant views of c50 birds here but what was very welcome were 3-4 Swift Terns flying in the channel amongst c6 Lesser Crested Terns.  2 flocks totalling about 25 European Bee-eaters moved through noisily and a couple of dark Western Reef Herons were picked out on the sandbar.

As we had to drive past it a return visit to Subriya Farm was made next but to the chagrin of the Finns we couldn't relocate the Radde's Accentor despite our best efforts. There were migrants here through and we spent an enjoyable hour notching up some notable new birds. Almost as soon as we left the car a Namaqua Dove flew past, a male Semi-collared Flycatcher was strangely elusive but eventually gave itself up, another Menetries's Warbler, 5 Hypocolious and a stunning rufous phase Common Cuckoo

To finish the day we returned once more to Jahra Pools and pulling up by the first platform the 1st car load had a very welcome Red-wattled Lapwing which flew away over the reedbed before anyone else got to see it. Driving around the back track it was immediately apparant that wader numbers had increased alot. Stopping on the track it eventually turned out that the 1st car load had another bird, this time a lovely White-tailed Plover stood right on the track. As you can imagine this prompted some dicussion about the id of the earlier lapwing but the mystery was solved when the Red-wattled Lapwing duly flew in. Who'd have thought it?! After the excitement we settled in to scanning the waders finding c30 Black-winged Stilts, c8 Avocet, Common, Wood and Marsh Sandpipers, 3 Green Sandpipers, c20 Ruff, Little Stints, Dunlin, 2 Curlew Sandpipers, 3 Common Snipe, 1 Black-tailed Godwit and c60 Red-necked Phalaropes. Things had really livened up here! Into the bargain we also added the regular 6 Glossy Ibis, Baltic Gull, Sand Martins, White Wagtail, Water Pipit and Osprey.

White-tailed Plover, Jahra Pools

White-tailed Plover, Jahra Pools

Kuwait Day 4, 6 April 2012 - Subriya Farm, SAANR, Mutla'a Ranch & Kuwait City University

Our main aim today was to bird the Sabal al Ahmed Natural Reserve (SAANR) to which access had been pre-arranged. En-route a perched Long-legged Buzzard showed nicely beside the main road. On the spur of the moment we decided to call in at the nearby Subriya Farm before heading to the desert - and what an good idea it proved to be!
Initially we walked around the edge of the small farm hoping for a Shikra (but failing). 2 Cattle Egrets were flushed and we also had Daurian Shrike, a nice showy male Menetries's Warbler in some low brush but little else other than the common migrants. Entering the centre section of the farm Todd then called 'what's this?', Pekka shouted 'stay still everyone it's a rarity' and I shouted 'Raddes Accentor' all in the matter of a few seconds! The bird had been in a small concrete gulley but quickly hopped out and went to ground for a while. We relocated it a few minutes later in bushes nearby and then had some more views of it feeding very unobtrusively under bushes beside the path. Throughout the 30 minutes or so we watched it for it remained shy and elusive. If accepted by KORC this will constitute only the 3rd record for Kuwait. We left for the desert a very happy group!

Radde's Accentor, Subriya Farm

Radde's Accentor, Subriya Farm

Access was gained to SAANR without a hitch and headed off along the desert tracks. En-route to the Tulha Oasis we found White-throated Robin, Steppe Grey Shrike and several scattered Isabelline Wheatears before we parked up and began a search of the trees and bushes at the oasis. Another White-throated Robin was quickly found and 2 Ortolan Buntings, c4 Spanish Sparrows, Red-throated Pipits, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Little Egret and 3 fly-through European Bee-eaters followed. A couple of the guys had Pale Rock Sparrow briefly and a juv Pallid Harrier, a Marsh Harrier and 2 Sparrowhawks also passed through. Next we moved on to an area where a dried up lake used to be and the lush grass here was absolutely full of birds. Another Pallid Harrier was busy hunting the numerous Yellow Wagtails (beema, feldegg, lutea and even a single thunbergi), Red-throated Pipits, Tawny Pipits, Crested and Short-toed Larks. With some work we also found some Pale Rock Sparrows for the whole group with up to 40 of this nomadic species counted. A group of 6 Squacco Herons flew through looking very out of place and when returning to the vehicles we found a Common Redstart sheltering in the shade under one of the cars!

Pallid Harrier, SAANR

Pallid Harrier, SAANR

Squacco Herons, SAANR

Yellow Wagtail (thunbergi), SAANR

Yellow Wagtail (mixed race!), SAANR

Yellow Wagtail (lutea), SAANR

Common Redstart, SAANR
Moving on to the lake proper we saw out first wildfowl of the trip - c60 Shoveler and c10 Garganey and scanning the waters edge we also picked up a solitary Collared Pratincole, 2 Grey Wagtails, 3 Black-winged Stilts, several Common Sandpipers and a Kentish Plover while a Steppe Eagle loafed on the shore. Continuing our tour of the desert we had 2 nice Asian Desert Warblers and then a couple of trackside Hoopoe Larks but other than the odd wheatear the open desert was quiet (and sadly Caspian Plover free despite much searching).

Leaving the reserve I suggested we check Mutla'a Ranch, a site we'd visted for the first time on our winter tour back in January. After driving in to the ranch and parking up we were approached by the owner on his quadbike and when we explained what we were doing he welcomed us with warm handshakes and then even returned a few minutes later with a bag of food and drinks to share! The extensive area of date palms and scattered broadleaf bushes and trees here has great potentail for the future and on this visit we had a few goodies despite it being in the mid afternoon heat. 2 Black-crowned Night Herons flew over soon after we left the car and Common Redstarts, Willow Warblers and Chiffchaffs were everywhere. Along the back perimeter fence I picked up a nice Eastern Black Redstart (semirufus) and then the boys spotted a European Roller on distant telegraph wires. Eastern Olivaceous Warbler and Daurian Shrike were added, a single Hypocolious followed and then a female Bluethroat as we neared the car.

Eastern Black Redstart, Mutla'a Ranch

European Roller, Mutla'a Ranch  

European Roller, Mutla'a Ranch

Heading back towards the city we decided to finish the day at the Kuwait City University campus where we duly clocked up the regular House Crows, Ring-necked Parakeet, a single Common Swift, several Ortolan Buntings on the lawns and loads of Common Mynas. Best of all was a pair of Red-vented Bulbuls, the first time I'd ever seen them away from Green Island.

Common Myna, Kuwait City University

Kuwait Day 3, 5 April 2012 - Al Abraq, Jahra Farms & Jahra Pools

We were up with the lark today and off on a drive westwards into the desert - to the isolated farm of Al Abraq. This has always been a favourite site, mainly because it is so far 'out there' that it give the feeling it could turn up anything! It has one downside, the prevalence of shooting which turned out to be quite bad on this visit. We saw several raptors here and luckily all escaped the guns - 1 Montagu's Harrier, 1-2 Pallid Harriers, 1 Marsh Harrier, 1 Osprey and 2 Sparrowhawks. c4 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and a couple of Hoopoes added some colour as we gave the area a thorough working. Almost the first bird we saw after leving the car was a splendid male White-throated Robin! Shrikes were plentiful with 2 Steppe Grey Shrikes, Turkestan and Daurian Shrikes, 1-2 Masked Shrikes and c4 Woodchats. A nice showy Wryneck was called by Gary as I began a search of the more sparse cover towards the back of the farms. Within a short space of time I'd located the bird I was looking for - a nice male Menetries's Warbler, a species which has graced this area on several of our previous visits. Within a few minutes most of the group had gathered for some really good views. A Rufous Bush Robin was found in the same area before I got onto an interesting sylvia warbler low down in the sparse bushes. Closer inspection clinched it as a Hume's Whitethroat, a little known species which we've now connected with 3 times with in Kuwait. We hope to publish an article on the ID within these pages very soon. Other migrants seen on our walk included Eastern Orphean Warbler, 2 Eastern Olivaceous Warblers, Red-rumped Swallow, Spanish Sparrow, c10 Common Redstarts, numerous Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers, 1 Wood Sandpiper and a Squacco Heron. We then embarked on our usual drive around the outer cultivated fields and one of the first birds found was a very welcome Upcher's Warbler which everyone got onto. Lucky really as it was the only one all week! The fields also yielded loads of Yellow Wagtails, Red-throated and Tree Pipits and several Isabelline, Pied and Northern Wheatears.

White-throated Robin, Al Abraq

White-throated Robin, Al Abraq

Wryneck, Al Abraq

Steppe Grey Shrike, Al Abraq

Hume's Whitethroat, Al Abraq

Hume's Whitethroat, Al Abraq

Woodchat, Al Abraq

Siberian Stonechat, Al Abraq

Osprey, Al Abraq

Masked Shrike, Al Abraq

Pallid Harrier, Al Abraq

Tawny Pipit, Al Abraq

Heading back towards the city we decided on a return visit to Jahra Farms next. Things were quiet there with Hoopoe and c10 Bank Mynas amongst a few of the commoner migrants. Suddenly 6 Hypocolious shattered the calm and we also added a Quail seen by everyone thanks to a coordinated flush.

Hypocolious, Jahra Farms

Hypocolious, Jahra Farms

After the traditional afternoon refreshments (coffee in McDs!) we headed for Jahra Pools once more as a fitting place to spend the late afternoon. And we found it had livened up considerably. Concentrating on the reeds we'd noticed several rather brown looking phylloscs and close inspection proved then to be Mountain Chiffchaffs. In all we had about 5 or 6 of this rather unexpected species which was obviously on the move with this small influx. Crakes were again much in evidence with c3 Little Crakes, a couple of Spotted Crakes and then I found and managed to photograph a Baillon's Crake from the track which quickly melted away. A Great Reed Warbler and several Graceful Prinia's showed well and a Moustached Warbler sang from deep cover but failed to show. Waderwise things were still quiet with only Greenshank, Common Sandpiper and Black-winged Stilt noted. From the 2nd viewing tower we finally nailed the elusive Grey-headed Swamphen as one did a fly past in front of us before battling our way through the traffic back to the hotel.

Baillon's Crake, Jahra Pools

Baillon's Crake, Jahra Pools


Kuwait Day 2, 4 April 2012 - Green Island, Shuwaikh Free Zone, Manchester Club, Qasr Farm, Jahra East Outfall, Jahra Pools & Pivot Fields area

Following some much needed sleep we were able to have a comparatively lazy start today. Our first site was Green Island which doesn't open until 07.00!
Our 1st target bird Red-vented Bulbul was quickly located and we went on to enjoy about 4 of these birds amongst the more numerous White-eared Bulbuls. 3 Crag Martins moved quickly through overhead and turned out to be the only ones of the trip. Lesser Whitethroats were numerous, especially around a reliable bottlebrush tree which also held several Blackcaps. Gary then called he'd got some Hypocolious and within a few minutes the whole group were getting some nice views of a trio of these beauties, 1 male and 2 females. Shortly afterwards I got onto a nice male Eastern Orphean Warbler and we went onto find one more of these in the usual bottlebrush tree a little later. Other species around the island included Chiffchaff, Common Redstart, Turkestan Shrike and the resident male Ruppell's Weaver.

Red-vented Bulbul, Green Island

Red-vented Bulbul, Green Island

Turkestan Shrike, Green Island

Laughing Dove, Green Island

Lesser Whitethroat, Green Island

Next up we called in for a brief stop at Shuwaikh Free Zone close to the port where despite the tide being rather too high for any waders we did manage flocks of Slender-billed Gulls, Greater Flamingoes, 4 Kentish Plovers (including a nesting bird on the low roof of the carpark opposite!), a single Little Stint, Siberian Stonechat and what appeared to be small fall of c6 Willow Warblers in low scrub on the 'beach'

Slender-billed Gulls, Shuwaikh Free Zone

Greater Flamingoes, Shuwaikh Free Zone

Greater Flamingo, Shuwaikh Free Zone

Greater Flamingoes, Shuwaikh Free Zone

Kentish Plover, Shuwaikh Free Zone 

Slender-billed Gull, Shuwaikh Free Zone

Being just around the corner and with the tide up we called in at Manchester Club again next. Upon  arrival the tide wasn't in very far at all so we didn't stay long. Just long enough to clock 2 Western Reef Herons and a few Terek Sandpipers without leaving the car.

A newly opened site in Jahra was out 4th port of call of the day. In the district of Qasr a large area of farms/small holdings is now accessible and has good potential for migrants. Despite the heat of the day really building we winkled out White-breasted Kingfisher and were suprised when a total of 9 Bank Mynas emerged from a well. Although Pekka had noted 2 here in the past this is very good news for the species. Presumably both they and the kingfisher have found new territories following the demise of nearby Jahra Farms. Migrants fund on the site included Turkestan Shrike, Daurian Shrike, Southern Grey Shrike, Red-rumped Swallow, Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, Isabelline Wheatear and Northern Wheatear but best of all was a fine juv Pallid Harrier which caused much excitement in the group as it circled over allowing close scrutiny to clinch the id. Shortly afterwards a Sparrowhawk caused far lees of a stir once Shikra had been ruled out! It was time to retreat to the cool at the sign of the 'Golden Arches' for an afternoon coffee to perk up some flagging birders!   

Pallid Harrier, Qasr Farm

Bank Mynas, Qasr Farm

Daurian Shrike, Qasr Farm

Feeling somewhat revived we then drove to the nearby Jahra East Outfall. Despite the access here being ever changing because of the encroaching building work we found our way in OK. The windy conditions meant birding the reeds was rather unproductive with just a singing Moustached Warbler and Graceful Prinia noted. Along the edge of the open area 2 Siberian Stonechats including a lovely male 'variegatus' showed nicely but a brief Black-eared Wheatear was less obliging. We also had 2 Squacco Herons, a flushed Little Bittern, c10 Little Egrets and Marsh Harrier, On the edge of the bay 6+ Little Terns were fishing and various members of the group flushed up to 4 Quail from the saltmarsh which held several Water Pipits and Crested Larks. As we walked back to the car a circlign raptor proved to be a welcome Steppe Eagle.

'Caspian' Stonechat, Jahra East Outfall

Siberian Stonechat, Jahra East Outfall

At nearby Jahra Pools 7 Squacco Herons flew through, Pallid Swifts hawked over the main pool and a distant Black Kite was picked up. Waders were still thin on the ground but we did manage 2 Black-winged Stilts, 2 Wood Sandpipers and Little Stint. A quick look at the 'crake pool' revealed a single Little and 2 Spotted Crakes before we moved on to our final stop of a busy day.

Spotted Crake, Jahra Pools

That final stop was the area surrounding Pivot Fields. Access to the fields was not possible this tear due to some typical local infighting but we were still able to get to the perimeter fence at a couple of spots.  At some newly discovered pools we found rather little but a fly-over Lesser Kestel and 3 European Bee-eaters made it worthwhile nonetheless. At the fence 8 Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters were lingering over the crops and on the ground where we also had Hoopoe before we moved to another spot to finish the day. By the fence here we wrapped the day up in fine style with 3-4 Pallid Harriers including a lovely male, Osprey, 2 Siberian Stonechats, Daurian Shrike and Tawny Pipit but despite checking the camel enclosures carefull we couldn't find any Namaqua Doves.