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Fall 2023 Arabian Endemics Tour

Tour Dates: October 6 - October 13, 2023

Participants: Clyde Blum, Jacob Bourgeois, Frank Clayton, Jon Gallagher, Jim Hein, Mark Houston, Nigel Marven, Joseph P, Fred Todt

Leader: Gregory Askew

Co-leader: James Conder

Avian Highlights:

  • Harlequin Quail

  • Arabian Partridge

  • Philby's Partridge

  • Rameron Pigeon

  • Nubian Nightjar

  • Red-knobbed Coot

  • Small Buttonquail

  • White-eyed Gull

  • Brown Noddy

  • Abdim's Stork

  • European Honey-Buzzard

  • Oriental Honey-Buzzard

  • Gabar Goshawk

  • Arabian Scops-Owl

  • Arabian Eagle-Owl

  • African Grey Hornbill

  • Grey-headed Kingfisher

  • Arabian Collared Kingfisher

  • Arabian Green Bee-eater

  • Abyssinian Roller

  • Arabian (Black-crowned) Tchagra

  • Arabian Woodpecker

  • Asir Magpie

  • Rufous-capped Lark

  • Horsfield's (Singing) Bushlark

  • "Mangrove" Reed Warbler

  • Brown Woodland-Warbler

  • Yemen Warbler

  • Arabian Warbler

  • Arabian Babbler

  • Tristram's Starling

  • Yemen Thrush

  • African Stonechat

  • Buff-breasted Wheatear

  • Arabian Wheatear

  • Arabian (Shining) Sunbird

  • Arabian Golden Sparrow

  • Arabian Waxbill

  • Arabian Grosbeak

  • Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin

  • Yemen Serin

  • Yemen Linnet

Other Wildlife Highlights:

  • Hamadryas Baboon

  • Arabian Chameleon

  • Anderson's Rock Agama

  • Arabian Tree Frog

What else can I say? A flight cancellation and a few other sundry mishaps notwithstanding, the October 2023 Arabian Endemics Tour was a complete success! Our seven-day tour of Saudi's southwest netted all 15 Arabian endemics currently recognized by the eBird taxonomy as well as all of the potential splits and near-endemics also found in the region. A small pre-tour contingent from our group even got Arabian Lark in Riyadh. The birding was hardcore as always, but the effort and all around high spirits paid off. By the end of the tour, we had tallied a total of 169 species with an additional 16 species during a post-tour jaunt around some of Jeddah's hotspots.

Day 1—Jeddah to Al Bahah

The long road to Al Bahah from Jeddah was broken up with a few nice stops along the way. We made our first at Wadi Dhahaya, a dry wadi bed lined with acacias west of Taif. Here we had an awesome daytime encounter with a pair of Arabian Scops-Owl and added a few other Arabian endemics and near-endemics—Arabian Green Bee-eater, Arabian Warbler, Arabian Babbler, Tristram's Starling, Arabian Wheatear, and Olive-rumped Serin. Passerine migration was relatively quiet during the tour with only a flock of European Bee-eater, a couple Common Redstart and singles of Red-tailed Shrike and Spotted Flycatcher recorded at this stop; however, we did have a nice flight of raptors overhead, predominantly the striking Long-legged Buzzard in addition to European Honey-Buzzard as well as Eurasian and Levant Sparrowhawk.

Calling in to Wadi Wuhait a short drive away, we picked up a nice female Arabian Shining Sunbird, still treated as an endemic subspecies in the eBird taxonomy but a likely future split based on morphological and vocal differences from its African counterpart. Here we also had our only Cinnamon-breasted Buntings of the trip—odd given its status as resident in the southwest. Generally the conditions were drier than expected, so it's possible that, like a few other species thinner on the ground than expected, the bunting undertook a partial migration to other regions with more favorable conditions. Here we also had Arabian Great Grey Shrike, possibly the buryi subspecies, which I suspect occurs in Saudi as well as Yemen, from where it was originally described, as well as a Little Rock-Thrush, another species that becomes far less abundant throughout the fall and winter. While still not a banner run on migrants, we did add several more species, including Bank Swallow, Eurasian Blackcap, Lesser Whitethroat, and Whinchat, as well as Eurasian Nightjar, my first from Saudi.

After lunch, we continued on our way to Al Bahah with a late day stop at Jebel Ibrahim, a stunning granite massif located in southern Makkah Province that rises up above the escarpment proper. At two spots on the western slope of the mountain, we had our first encounters with Fan-tailed Raven, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Scrub Warbler (S. i. inquieta), Abyssinian White-eye, Arabian Waxbill, and Yemen Linnet. There were a couple of interesting raptors about as well with solo records of Shikra and Sooty Falcon, the latter suggesting Jebel Ibrahim might be an inland breeding site of a species that predominantly nests on offshore islands in the Red Sea. Of non-avian interest, on the way back to the cars, we saw an Anderson's Rock Agama and Nigel Marven, who graced our tour before the start of his film production tour up in Madinah Province, uncovered an Arabian Chameleon basking in the late-day sun. Certainly snatching up one of these lovely beasts wasn't the formidable challenge of an anaconda's embrace in South America. You gotta check out that video of his on YouTube—it's wild!

Day 2—Al Bahah

We started the day well before sunrise in the Al Khairah Forest area at the spot where the July tour had incredible views of Plain Nightjar. As I suspected, these summer breeders had already left the region and weren't recorded at any of the other reliable sites throughout the rest of the tour.

Next up on our list of targets was Arabian Grosbeak. This was the sole endemic we dipped on back in July, so I was anxious to maximize our time at prime spots to ensure we got it this time. To that end we spent almost three hours birding a lovely wooded wadi in the forest park before we finally struck gold. It wasn't long before grosbeaks were detected but getting good views of them was a different matter. After several excruciatingly fleeting flybys, I picked up quiet singing from inside an acacia back near the start of the trail. What we were hearing was very similar to the recordings I made from nearby Wadi Shabraqah back in September 2021, with this bird frequently giving the almost catbird-like mew heard in those recordings. I positioned the crew a short distance away and, with the sun to our backs, we waited and watched. After about ten minutes, a stunning male grosbeak emerged and perched atop a bare juniper in clear view of everyone. We watched as he then flew to a live juniper, occasionally munching a juniper berry, of which there were plenty, quietly singing all the while. I was elated and relieved at our luck and glad also that we hadn't rushed to the next spot when it was clear that grosbeaks were present. These are fairly shy and unobtrusive birds, so patience and quiet attention are key. Meanwhile, Mark Houston, one of the photographers on the tour, had injured his leg at the start of the trail and was stuck exploring along the road by himself. Thankfully this lovely male below blessed him with stunning well-lit views as it munched contentedly just down slope.

There were quite a few other species present at this spot, including our first Yemen Thrushes of the trip, more Arabian Waxbills, and the Arabian subspecies of Black-crowned Tchagra. Not everyone in our group saw this potential split, so we would try for it again at Raidah Preserve on the last day of the tour.

Wadi Shabraqah, where we headed next, was significantly drier with far fewer fruiting junipers and so much quieter in comparison than the first stop. Besides a small flock of Philby's Partridge hurrying up the hillside as we entered the wadi from the village, our first of only two encounters, and a few Brown Woodland-Warblers further on, we couldn't find much else and decided call it a morning and head back to the hotel for check out. We were aiming to get to Tanomah to try for Arabian Eagle-Owl and Montane Nightjar just after sunset.

On our way to Tanomah, we made a stop for Little Owl in Al Namas. I was dumbfounded that, despite how numerous and ubiquitous this potential split (see "Lilith Owl") is around this area, we couldn't find any. I attributed this to how windy it was that afternoon, conditions which only worsened once we arrived to Tanomah. For that reason, we decided to settle in early and try for the nocturnal birds around dawn the next morning, rather than risk another dip.

Day 3—Tanomah to Billahmer

We expected the winds would have died down by morning, but that wasn't the case. It was just as windy as the evening before but we'd try anyway. The Arabian Eagle-Owls weren't to be found around the parking lot at the old Mehfar Resort. However, while making an unsuccessful attempt to call in Montane Nightjar, Jon saw a large owl fly over the road in front of us. I ran ahead in the direction he indicated and also saw one drop down near a rocky crag rising above juniper crowns. Spotlighting the area I picked up eye shine from a second bird up on the crag. Soon enough everyone was in position for their first views of this endemic Bubo.

The sky was brightening so we made our way to the nearby Wahdah Woods to see if we could locate Desert Owl somewhere up on the sheer cliffs that enclose the area on two sides. No luck there, but we soon added Yemen Warbler and the buryi subspecies of Scrub Warbler to the trip list.

Our next target for the woods was Arabian Woodpecker, the only species in its family to occur on the Arabian Peninsula. It didn't take long before we detected a male in the area and with some coaxing everyone eventually had cracking views of this intriguing bird and I was able to achieve one of my recording goals for the trip—capturing the male's contact call, which is given so unpredictably that I always missed it on previous recording trips.

With the woodpecker and the warbler in the bag, our next two targets were the magpie, of course, and Yemen Serin. On the way back to the car, I was thinking out loud about where we'd most likely see the latter, commenting on how they could even be seen at that location, when we neared our cars only to discover a flock of a dozen serin feeding along a rock wall right where we parked. The sheer luck of it had me gobsmacked! And rather than flitting off as we approached, the flock obliged with long satisfying views, allowing everyone to appreciate the differences in GISS, plumage, voice, and manner from Olive-rumped Serin.

That only left the Asir Magpie for Tanomah, so we headed off to the road out through the village of Quraysh to the edge of the escarpment. Making stops along the way, we soon found two magpies along the road. Also along the road we picked up our first of surprising few Buff-breasted Wheatear of the trip. Conditions were generally dry around Tanomah, which suggests this otherwise resident endemic undergoes seasonal movements based on rainfall.

We found Alpine and Little Swift wheeling out over the escarpment edge but unfortunately no raptors, and then before returning to our hotel to check out we made a short visit to Wadi Dahna, adding two more magpies and a large flock of Philby's Partridge, which had come down to a watering hole to drink.

The turn off of the main road for this area is a popular spot for feeding Hamadryas Baboons, which can be found congregating in large numbers where they can expect a handout. Unfortunately, this habit among visitors to the area as well as the baboons penchant for rifling through dumpsters and raiding nearby farms led to an unsustainable boom in their population. This then had a knock-on effect on other wildlife, particularly the endemic birds like the partridges as the baboons have been known to raid nests for eggs and chicks. On this visit, however, it was evident the National Center for Wildlife had moved ahead with a plan to cull the population. While I know this is a necessary measure and one arrived at after a long period of study, the scene before us was still quite upsetting: baboons of all ages were being trapped and then loaded onto a truck in packed cages to be, I presumed, euthanized at another location. This plan is ultimately part of a broader conservation agenda that will hopefully lead to the stabilization and restoration of a range of threatened species and habitats throughout the Kingdom. In fact, Jacky Judas informed me that there is discussion about reintroducing Lammergeier to the southwest mountains and perhaps using baboon carcasses to help sustain that population. It's grisly business that will hopefully have positive outcomes for Saudi's flora and fauna.

After lunch we began making our way south through the Bihan area, stopping along the way in the hopes of seeing more magpies and other highland endemics before descending to the Tihamah. Our first stop was at the Mattees Forest just north of Billasmer. Here we located a recently used magpie nest and eventually found four birds near the village. This was also the only other spot where we were able to find Buff-breasted Wheatears. New to the list were Dusky Turtle-Dove, which we found more of further on, and Long-billed Pipit.

A magpie nest in Mattees Forest

In the villages of Bihan, we found three more magpies at one spot and a single group of 12 at the next. The latter spot was where I had first seen nine birds back in 2019, a smaller group in March 2022, but none during the July tour. While the magpies could have certainly been foraging out of sight during the last visit, the absence of magpies where they once were recorded has been the most clear sign of the precipitous decline the population of this species has experienced. This was the reason I was keen on documenting as many individuals during our short visit as we could. To that end, by the time we began our descent to Muhayil, with a final stop just outside Billahmer where we added two more magpies and a mixed flock of Eurasian and Lesser Kestrel, we had recorded a total of 25 magpies. Depending on which population estimate you accept, this number could reflect anywhere from 6.25% to 12.5% of the entire population of this critically endangered corvid.

With the sun lost behind a towering cloud bank pushing up against the Sarawat Escarpment, casting an incredible orange glow as it moved lower in the sky, it was time for us to make our descent. Just a note that the escarpment road here turned out to be quite challenging and I advise other visitors to consider avoiding this particular road. Even with engine breaking in first gear, the steepness and length of the switchbacks midway down forced me to essentially ride my brakes to keep from accelerating out of control. This caused my brake pads to overheat to the point that they started smoking, forcing us to take a break to allow them to cool down before continuing on. Let's just say it made for a highly stressful situation.

A lovely little Yemen Linnet in the Bihan highlands

Day 4—Al Birk to Abu Arish

After a good night's rest in some decent hotel apartments in Muhayil, we drove to Al Birk for some coastal birding. It was hot and muggy even by 7:30, but we still managed to get our mangrove targets in fairly short order. We had two Arabian Collared Kingfishers, one of which in the forest just near where we accessed the mangroves, as well as the mangrove subspecies of Eurasian Reed Warbler and Clamorous Reed Warbler. We also began boosting our trip list with good numbers and variety of sea- and shorebirds.

Just north of Al Birk, we paid a visit to a series of seabird roosts where we were stunned to find large numbers of Brown Noddy, a pelagic tern species usually only found far from shore. Roosts of well over 100 noddies at three different spots were virtually only a stone's throw from the shore. With them were Sooty Gulls as well as large numbers of Lesser Crested Tern with smaller numbers of Great Crested (or Swift) and Caspian Terns mixed in. We also had Pink-backed Pelicans and our sole Eurasian Spoonbill of the trip.

On our way back through Al Birk towards the Jazan Province, we found our first White-eyed Gull and got great views of a Red Sea Osprey relishing its breakfast.

Next up on the birding agenda was a call into the area around Abu Rayyan Village, where the July tour and I had seen Arabian Golden Sparrow. Along the way we stopped at a series of pools alongside the road that had attracted a large number of waders, shorebirds, marsh terns, and thirsty passerines. Among them were three Red-necked Phalaropes, a large group of White-winged Terns, and our first of many Collared Pratincoles. There were even three duck species in the mix, always a welcome sight in Saudi where ducks tend to be scarce.

Just as we approached Abu Rayyan, we stopped briefly for a couple of rollers, one Abyssinian and the other possibly European, and a female Pallid Harrier. It was then that we noticed one of the vehicles had gotten a flat tire. We pulled into Abu Rayyan as the heat was all but unbearable and after determining the golden sparrows were no longer hanging around the village Clyde Blum and I set to changing the tire. We only had the donut spare, so unfortunately that meant we had to proceed to the nearest town to have a new tire put on in its place. This worked out well as the crew was in need of lunch and coffee, so little time was lost through our minor misadventure.

We resumed our aim of tracking down the golden sparrows and proceeded in the direction of the village of Fels, where are flock of 700 had been seen in late August. Passing through a couple other farming villages along the way, we added the African subspecies of Black-winged Kite to the trip list before coming across a large flock of passerines perched on a wire near the road still 10 minutes from Fels. I pulled over and put my bins on them. And here they were...what we eventually determined to be a flock of 600 Arabian Golden Sparrows foraging in a sorghum field along with smaller flocks of African Silverbills and Ruppell's Weavers. Smaller bands of the sparrows stayed active in the area the whole time we were stopped, allowing for a fun photography and sound recording session. Also seen at this spot were African Palm Swift, Small Buttonquail and Black Scrub-Robin.

With the sparrow in the bag, the plan from there was to get to Al Sadd Lake by sunset to try for Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse and then nightjars after dark. Two Abyssinian Rollers along the way prompted a stop that resulted in our only encounter with Helmeted Guineafowl. Once out of the car, I heard one call from the scrub a short distance away. One of my recording goals for the trip was to capture the very same call, but playback failed to elicit another round of vocalizing and I only managed to pick up a couple of nearby Graceful Prinia.

Out at the lake, there were quite a few waders and shorebirds in flight around the drinking spot for the sandgrouse, but Lichtenstein's failed to make an appearance. Once it was dark though, we soon heard Nubian Nightjar calling from the tamarisk scrub, a spotlit stroll through which netted us a total of 7 nightjar and one member of our group describing possible Egyptian Nightjar in the area as well.

Day 5—Sabya to Jazan

After such a challenging yet successful day of birding, the team had a well deserved sleep in before headed out to explore the fields near Sunbah. As with many of the agricultural hotspots, you never know what the situation will be from visit to visit. The pivot field in which we found all our targets back in July was now just a vast stretch of dry furrows. Another such field a little further down the road, which was showing faint stirrings of cultivation, produced a flock of around 100 Caspian Plovers along with a few Kentish and Common Ringed Plovers and both Collared and Black-winged Pratincoles. A slightly smaller flock of Caspian Plovers was reported from this area in late August, suggesting that the fields around Jazan might host a significant wintering population of this otherwise uncommon species.

As for our field targets, we found one pivot with enough growth worth exploring. We spread out in a line and began a slow march into the field, watching ruts and periodically pausing to listen for calls. It was some time before I finally heard both Harlequin Quail and Small Buttonquail and more time still before we finally flushed some, but hawking White-winged Terns and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters along with omnipresent Horsfield's Bushlarks and Zitting Cisticolas entertained in the interim.

Before returning to our hotel for breakfast, we made a brief stop at the Al Hajariah Farms. As I expected, we found Oriental Honey-Buzzard. This species, which was formerly considered an uncommon but regular winter visitor to the east, has proven reliable throughout the year at this site, suggesting they are expanding their range west across Arabia. On arrival we in fact had two adult honey-buzzards along with a dark phase Steppe Buzzard and a Greater Spotted Eagle, all circling low just over our heads. In addition to this stunning show, we also found Gray-headed Kingfisher and a few Nile Valley Sunbirds.

After breakfast, the crew worked the coast down through Jazan, adding more sea- and shorebirds to the trip list, including Broad-billed Sandpiper, Pacific Golden-Plover, White-eyed Gulls, White-cheeked Terns, and Greater Flamingo. A flock of Abdim's Storks was a nice surprise at one of our stops as well.

We then wrapped up the day at Al Sadd Lake, where we found more Pink-backed Pelicans, a Black-winged Kite, and a Gabar Goshawk. On the road to the lake, we took a route through the foothills just south of the lake, which led through a series of farming villages with a lot of nice habitat. We saw several Abyssinian Rollers, a few more Gray-headed Kingfisher and our first African Gray Hornbill.

Day 6—Habala to Abha

The next morning we returned to the highlands in pursuit of one of remaining targets. We arrived to the plateau near Habala at 9:20 AM and with the crew spread out to cover more ground it still took over an hour to finally locate a small flock of Rufous-capped Larks. Like in Tanomah, the conditions were quite dry and in addition to a relatively low number of larks we found no Buff-breasted Wheatears or Yemen Serin.

Prior to checking in to our hotel in Abha, we made a short stop to the west side of the Abha reservoir. In a reed-lined wadi that feeds the reservoir, we not only found one of the resident Red-knobbed Coots with a few Eurasian Coots; we also had a small flock of Arabian Waxbills and a nice male Arabian (Shining) Sunbird.

Before sunset we made our final stop of the day at Wadi Reema, which unfortunately outside of the summer months is much less birdy. Besides a few of the more common residents and a lone Whinchat, the only birds of note was a small group of Short-toed Snake-Eagles working a ridgeline above the wadi.

Day 7—Abha Area

We began the last day of the tour at Raidah Preserve with only one Arabian endemic left on our target list—Arabian Partridge. I was surprised we hadn't seen any at our previous stops in the highlands, but I was confident that we'd get them at Raidah, where I had seen them every visit prior. Sure enough, within five minutes of beginning our descent into preserve, Jacob spotted a covey feeding along the side of the escarpment road. We'd find a larger covey further on. Timing is key though. Had we come later in the morning we might have missed them. While I was thrilled that we had final endemic in the bag, the real treat was the number of African Olive Pigeons around that morning. This was only the second time I had encountered them at Raidah, but this time we saw a total of eleven birds, some of which had come in to drink at the pool besides the mosque, offering the best views I've had to date of these handsome birds.

Further down the escarpment we made my promised stop for Black-crowned Tchagra. With a little coaxing we soon had an individual emerge from the thick tangles uphill from us and perch in view of our photographers. The still morning gave me a chance to collect two more recordings of this potential split minus the incessant insect cadences from back in July.

Before breakfast and a tense ascent up the escarpment—two of our vehicles overheating half way up—we had a small group of African Gray Hornbill, White-browed Coucal, and a pair of Blackstart in the village near the wadi bottom.

The last stop of the tour was at Soudah Creek. We birded outside the preserve entrance, which was locked, but still saw many of the good birds that can be found here, including a handsome pair of African Stonechat. We also got our best views of Yemen Warbler and had calling Arabian Partridge and Arabian Scops-Owl. In addition to the birds, we were treated with a dainty Arabian Tree Frog courtesy Nigel.

Post-Tour Birding Around Jeddah

Jacob, Clyde, and I met up with resident friends Ute and Heiko Langner at a series of reed-fringed pools in Wadi Fatima. I was motivated by a distant hope of finding African Swamphen here. No luck on that front, but we did find White-throated Kingfisher, one of a few recent sightings near Jeddah, suggesting this species is now established out west. We also had a flyover by what I was certain was a Red-wattled Lapwing, a fairly common species in Eastern Arabia but one that had never been reported from western Saudi previously. Hopefully follow-up visits will produce further sightings.

At another spot along Wadi Fatima, where we found an abundance of interesting shorebirds and waders, we picked up four Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and a lone White-tailed Lapwing among the many Spur-winged Lapwings.

We wrapped up the morning along Jeddah's south corniche where we picked up species not seen during the tour, including Greater Sand-Plover, Crab-Plover, Slender-billed Gull, Little Tern, and Greater Hoopoe-Lark.

The October 2023 team at the Raidah Preserve in the Asir Province

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