Irkhaya Farm is another of Qatar’s wildlife secrets. It sits unpromisingly on the perimeter of a sand processing factory and you approach it down an unmade road. A guard sits in a cabin beside the locked gate and by means of a mime involving binoculars and a bird watching book, you establish you’re here for the birds.
From the desolation of the surrounding landscape you immediately become aware of a cacophony of bird song emanating from the trees that shade the guard post. In front of you lie vast open fields of green. It is a stunning scene, with immense automated gantries slowly inching over the ground spraying water onto the fields.
Sprinkled around the farm are large water containers made from concrete, each twenty five metres across. The air is suddenly full of insects, and butterflies throng the nodding flower heads.
Then you notice the birds. A large, low, slowly flapping bird skims oner the grass. It takes a moment to register, but it’s a harrier. Flicking through the Middle East birding app, you narrow down the options. It’s either a marsh harrier, or possibly a Montague or a Pallid.
Golden Eagle (Juvenile)
Your eye is drawn to shapes circling on the thermals rising from the sunlit fields. Another double take. Eagles, four or five of them. Cue more frantic app swiping and then a tingling feeling in the back of the neck. These birds floating imperiously overhead might just be Golden Eagles.
Moving further into the farm, the fields appear to stretch to the horizon on all sides. It’s like what I imaging a steppe might be. There are pipits and larks, and standing stock still on one water container sill, a red-wattled lapwing.
A fluttering catches my eye and I notice a very odd looking bird. It is sitting low down on the gritty soil and looks like a dove that’s dipped its head in a bottle of black ink. Its dark eyes are almost invisible against the black face, but a bright red-orange bill slices through the black as it stares back at me.
It is possibly even smaller than the Laughing Dove — a common resident but has a very long tail. It is a Namaqua Dove.
Southern Grey Shrikes
As a boy, I owned the Observer Book of Birds. I loved to flick through it, marvelling at the sheer variety of birds represented. One species in particular was particularly fascinating to me.
Shrikes are unique. They are songbirds with lethal instincts, possessing sharp talons and hooked bill. Some of the species will impale their victims on thorns as they dismember them — hence their nickname ‘butcher bird’. I longed for glimpse of this rare British migrant visitor.
Southern Grey Shrikes Everywhere!
As I made my way round the farm, I noticed a small grey coloured bird sitting prominently at the top of a scrubby bush. I picked up my binoculars, more in hope than expectation.
There it was a bird that looked remarkably like a Grey Backed Shrike (I later realised it was a Southern Grey Shrike). Soon I was noticing them everywhere. From zero to plenty in one afternoon and a lifetime ambition realised.
The farm is an important landmark for migrating birds, which helps explain the unexpectedly large number of species you can easily spot. This being January, I’m excited to note that there are several more months of this exceptional activity to come, with the peak months being March and April.
The Southern Grey Shrike is very hard to distinguished from its northern cousin the Great Grey Shrike, and identification relies on spotting the flash of white of the Great Grey’s wing bar which extends into the secondaries.
The Southern Grey is also similar to the Lesser Grey, which is smaller and who’s face mask extends above the eye in the male and which is less prominent in the female.
The Steppe Grey is by comparison easily distinguished.
There are several other non-grey species of shrike which I will certainly be on the lookout for.
Bird List January 25-1-20
Namaqua Dove, Golden Eagle (tentative), Marsh Harrier, Pallid Harrier (tentative), Crested Lark, Wheatear, Rock Pipit, Red Wattled Lapwing, Kestrel, Southern Grey Shrike.