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A Late Summer Visit to Makkah Province (August 2020)

After getting back from our week-long birding adventure in the southwest of the Kingdom, Michelle and I were looking at two more weeks of forced staycation. Not relishing the thought of spending all that time in Al Ahsa, where the 45 C (115 F) temps were already putting a heavy strain on our ACs as well as our capacity to deal, we decided head back out west for our final week off. The plan was to spend a few days exploring around Taif in the highlands of Makkah Province, the only area where Arabian (Golden-winged) Grosbeak has been seen in recent years, and then wrap up the week lounging around Jeddah, Saudi’s famed coastal metropolis. Overall, the birding wasn’t nearly as productive as our run down in Jazan and Asir Provinces; however, some interesting non-avian encounters, including a few of the human kind, made for an exciting trip.

Michelle helping us try to relocate a Striolated Bunting in Wadi Al Wuhait, west of Taif

The first morning after our arrival we met up early with Frank Rietkerk, a Dutch veterinarian working out at the National Wildlife Research Center. Frank and I had been corresponding online for some time already, so it was a pleasure to finally meet him in person and get out for some birding on his turf. The plan for the first morning was to explore some wadis to the west and southwest of Taif where Arabian Grosbeak had been seen before and hope we get lucky. Before heading off, Frank and I inspected a dead Diadem Snake, which had been struck by a car near where we parked. The first stop was at Wadi Al Wuhait (وادي الوهيط), which hosts what was described by other birders as a euphorbia “forest”. Euphorbia ammak is a tall succulent plant that grows on steep slopes in the western highlands of Saudi and appears to be more abundant in the wadis near Taif. Euphorbias in general are known to be a popular food source for the grosbeak. However, the issue with this visit was that this sought-after Arabian endemic is also known to wander to where food may be more abundant and with the fruiting season for these euphorbias not until November, as told to me by a local botanist, there was a good chance we wouldn’t find them. Despite the poor chances, I figured we had to at least give the area a proper thrashing and see what we turned up.

Euphorbia ammak and prickly pear cactus in Wadi Al Wuhait

Frank had already visited the spot a few times and hadn’t any luck himself with the grosbeaks, further dampening my hopes for our prospects. After meeting up at the entrance to the wadi, Frank led us to the spot at the far end, situated in the village of Al Sinah (السنح). Sure enough there they were four to five meter tall euphorbias running up the south-facing slope of the wadi. We stood on the road below them and carefully scanned the branches for grosbeaks, but, alas, none were to be found on this visit. To be honest, this was a thinner stand than I was expecting. Certainly calling this scattering of perhaps two dozen trees a “forest” was a bit of a stretch. Perhaps we weren’t in the right place after all. The thought helped a new plan to take shape. In the few days we had we should try to survey some of the other wadis nearby for more of these interesting plants so that come November at least Frank will have more prospective sites to check for the birds.

A female Arabian Wheatear at Wadi Al Wuhait

Despite the lack of grosbeaks, Wadi Al Wuhait still offered some nice birding. Of particular interest was the nice smattering of early migrants, such as Upcher’s Warbler, Marsh Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, and White-throated Robin. The resident highlights were one of the darker subspecies of Desert Lark, Arabian Warbler, Arabian Babbler, Tristram’s Starling, Arabian Wheatear, all three sunbird species, including the Arabian Shining Sunbird (Xeno-Canto), Olive-rumped Serin, and the two resident bunting species of western Saudi–Cinnamon-breasted and my first Saudi Striolated Bunting.

Buff-breasted Wheatear at Wadi Khomas

Next we headed over to Wadi Khomas (وادي خماس), another of Frank’s favorite birding spots in the area. At a higher elevation than the previous wadi, Wadi Khomas contains stands of juniper along with abundant acacias, the latter which in bloom were drawing lots of insects and those that love to eat them, such as Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, my first Icterine Warbler in Saudi, and a lovely male Masked Shrike. The higher elevation also meant the addition of species like Abyssinian White-eye, Gambaga Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Wheatear, and Yemen Linnet. We also made two grim discoveries in this wadi as well. We met an older Afghani man who was trapping serins and linnets to be sold as caged birds in the city for 50 Saudi riyals each. He’d already had about twenty caged up and seemed to have set a few forlorn songsters up near his nets to draw in others. The illegal songbird trade is just one of the many significant threats birds face on the Arabian Peninsula. This not only threatens a decline in their numbers, particularly those not quite as numerous as perhaps the Olive-rumped Serin, such as the grosbeaks themselves, but when these species are transported beyond the limits of their natural range and are released or escape, the introduction of these non-natives can then in turn threaten natives species in those areas, infamously so with birds such as the European Starling and Common Myna. Then, on the opposite side of the wadi, Michelle made the grimmest discovery of the trip–the remains of a Striped Hyena, which had its forelimbs bound with wire and so presumably tormented before it was killed. Apparently hyena is popular among some Saudis as food–its consumption even considered halal by some. However, any animal to be consumed must be bled out first, which entails slicing its throat and stringing it up by its hind legs. This was not halal.

Yemen Linnet and a single Olive-rumped Serin in a trapper’s cage

The last stop before heading back towards Taif was at Wadi Thee Ghazal (وادي ذي غزال), where we added our first Arabian Waxbills of the trip. Before calling it, Frank took us out to Saiysad National Park (منتزه سيسد الوطني), east of Taif, for a last ditch attempt at finding Sand Partridge, another on my short target list for the visit. No partridges, which was to be expected so late in the day and with so many families out picnicking, but we did add Arabian Great Gray Shrike, Black Scrub-robin, and Blackstart to our trip list.

Red-rumped Swallows at the Wadi Al Atta Dam

The next morning Michelle and I headed off early out into the desert east of Taif towards the Mahazat Al Sayd Preserve (محمية محازة الصيد). There was a one report of a single Arabian (Dunn’s) Lark from there back in 2012–promising, right?! However, the mapped range in the Birds of the Middle East of this, my nemesis bird, extended into this very desert in Makkah Province. Michelle knew that I had to at least try or I’d be forever plagued by thoughts of the one that might’ve been. Well, turns out it was the bird that still wasn’t… Grrr! With all the rain the region received just a couple of weeks before, a short distance east of Taif we found a lot of promising desert, with emphasis on A LOT. With too little time to spare, too much suitable habitat, and too few leads to go by, finding the lark would be like finding the proverbial needle. We made a few incursions into the desert, focusing on shallow washes where rainwater had recently passed, which were often lined with Sodom's Apple (Calotropis procera), the clearest sign in an otherwise inscrutable terrain. Again, each stop looked good but ultimately it would be a lark-less endeavor aside from the two (!) Crested Larks to show for over four hours of exploring. By the time we reached Mahazat Al Sayd I was mostly deflated, especially as the desert out there, some two hours from Taif, was much drier and more devoid of vegetation. With half the day almost gone, we booked it back towards Taif and then south to two other spots where the grosbeaks have been seen.

One of the darker subspecies of the widespread Desert Lark out at the Wadi Al Atta Dam

First we stopped for a short hike inFirst we stopped for a short hike in Al Haraa' (الحراء), a lovely highland village specializing in the cultivation of roses and grapes. While we were there a thick cloud bank came in from the west and spilled over the ridge above us, adding a cooling blast of mist as we descended into the cultivated wadi just below the village. This was only spot where we encountered Yemen Thrush as well as our first Brown Woodland-warbler of the trip. Next we headed to the Wadi Al Atta Dam (سد وادي العطى). We didn’t venture far from the dam proper, but the spot seems very promising and will surely produce more sightings than we could record during our short visit. Of interest were a lone Gray-headed Kingfisher, the only one of the trip, and a large flock of Red-rumped Swallow gleaning flies off the vertical surface of the dam.

The last stop before heading back to Taif was Bani Al Hareth (بني الحارث), following one final lead for the grosbeak. As we had plans to meet back up with Frank as well as Musaiffer Al Otaibi and Ahmed Al Huwmailan–a pair of Saudi tour guides from Taif–for dinner at a rose factory in Al Hada, we had just fifteen minutes to spare before needing to get back on the road. In that time though we spooked a flock of around ten Philby’s Partridge on the back side of the ridge, this sighting representing the furthest north in eBird by about 150 kilometers, and a few more Brown Woodland-warbler and Abyssinian White-eye.

A female Masked Shrike at Wadi Al Dhahaya

On our final morning in Taif, Michelle and I drove a short distance to Wadi Al Dhahaya (وادي الضحياء), a long wadi just north of where we had been exploring on our first morning with Frank. A quick drive up the wadi and we pinpointed three new stands of euphorbia trees up on the slopes. There were a few other narrower, wooded wadis running west and south of the main wadi as well. On top of that, the area didn’t appear to be popular with local tourists, as evidenced by the relative lack of litter and the hands to toss it. Michelle and I set off on foot down a rough track through one of the narrower wadis to the south for what would be a lovely and very birdy hike. Arabian Warbler and Arabian Babbler were quite numerous. We counted a total of sixteen of the former and thirty of the latter on the outbound leg. There were several more early migrants working the blooms and branches of the tall acacias running the length of the wadi, very suitable digs for Arabian Woodpecker. In addition to a second Icterine Warbler for the trip, we saw a handsome Red-backed Shrike, a male and female Masked Shrike, Garden Warbler, Rufous-tailed Scrub-robin, and a half dozen White-throated Robins. Again Michelle spied the coolest non-avian encounters of the morning. An electric-blue Anderson’s Rock Agama and an Arabian Chameleon sunning itself out on the track in front of us. The boy in me always reemerges when there’s something cool to catch and I gently reached out and snatched up the chameleon, its comically rounded grip and chisel-shaped claws, perfect for climbing among narrow branches, gripping my fingers. Frank has subsequently visited the wadi and has already added several additions to this budding Makkah province hotspot. After getting lunch from some Saudi ladies on the side of the road in the tourist town of Al Shafa, Michelle and I began our journey off the escarpment, taking a more scenic and rugged route towards Jeddah.

An Anderson’s Rock Agama in Wadi Al Dhahaya

As my wife had been a major trooper during our recent birding adventures, I owed her some quiet time at a resort on the Red Sea. The Sheraton Red Sea Beach Club turned out to be just what we were looking for. Four days of snorkeling just off shore gave us our exciting first experiences with the fish-rich coastal waters of this jewel of Arabia. The dizzying array of species and sheer abundance of life around the ledge just offshore were just astounding. There had to have been at least a half dozen species for each fish family present–parrotfish, triggerfish, filefish, surgeonfish, tangs, wrasses, angelfish, cardinalfish, goatfish, butterflyfish, damselfish, pufferfish, blennies, gobies, and so many more. Now for most of these, jaw-dropping colors notwithstanding, we’re talking about generic fish. The real standouts for us were the oddballs we encountered. The first afternoon at high tide the bottom step of concrete stairs to the water’s edge was being grazed by a group of crabs. Moving closer to observe them, all of a sudden I noticed a bunch of skinny, little fish wiggling around on the wet but exposed surface of the step. The first thing that came to mind was mudskippers, but of course that couldn’t be right. Turns out these were Rippled Rockskippers (Istiblennius edentulus), a type of amphibious blenny. Excitement building at the other cool species to discover out in the water, I got my gear on and jumped in. With the sun dropping nearer towards the horizon, I spied three cool species that become more active closer towards dusk–Tiger Snake-Eel (Myrichthys maculosus), looking all the world like a moray eel but on closer inspection revealing tiny little pectoral fins and a distinctly un-moray looking head, Common Lionfish (Pterois miles) and its wild but deadly array of long rays and spines, and some coy species of octopus that never showed me more than its bulbous head and part of one tentacle. On our final afternoon of snorkeling, after Michelle built up the nerve to join me in the deeper water, we had some more awesome encounters. Lionfish turned out to be rather common here, and I saw a total of six our last swim. However, those are not the only venomous fish in those waters. Indeed scorpionfish and stonefish are also present and arguably more dangerous, given their effective camouflaging, rendering them nigh invisible to the careless eye, and their habit of resting motionless on the bottom, spines up! Let’s just say that I nearly lost my mind when I actually picked out a False Stonefish (Scorpaenopsis diabolus), looking as diabolical as its scientific name would suggest. I floated over it for fifteen minutes, hoping I’d see it a predation, but despite how incredibly well it blended in with the colors and textures of the coral pile upon which it was resting it was as if all the little fish knew it was there, always staying just out of reach of its terrible maw. Before getting out to catch the sunset, Michelle tapped me and pointed to an odd little flap of a thing moving about on a patch of sand. Moving closer I could tell that it was a small sole, but what struck me as odd was how this one was moving; it used the elongated dorsal and anal fins running either side of its laterally flattened body to pivot from left to right, moving the rays of one fin or the other in sequence almost like a centipede. This was a , looking as diabolical as its scientific name would suggest. I floated over it for fifteen minutes, hoping I’d see it a predation, but despite how incredibly well it blended in with the colors and textures of the coral pile upon which it was resting it was as if all the little fish knew it was there, always staying just out of reach of its terrible maw. Before getting out to catch the sunset, Michelle tapped me and pointed to an odd little flap of a thing moving about on a patch of sand. Moving closer I could tell that it was a small sole, but what struck me as odd was how this one was moving; it used the elongated dorsal and anal fins running either side of its laterally flattened body to pivot from left to right, moving the rays of one fin or the other in sequence almost like a centipede. This was a Finless Sole (Pardachirus marmoratus).

I did manage to get out for a little birding during our stay in Jeddah. Richard Goffin, an English teacher with a long tenure in the city, and I visited the South Corniche (الكورنيش الجنوبي) together. He and I connected through the blog and I was happy to have the chance to meet in person. Some of the highlights of our time exploring the shoreline and coastal waterways here were Greater Flamingo, Pink-backed Pelican, Crab-plover, four Bridled Tern making their way out to sea, a lone Brown Booby perched on a distant piling, in addition to the nice mix of other terns, gulls, and shorebirds. The next morning I met up with Dr. Duha Al Hashimi, whom I interviewed for this blog awhile back, to look for migrants around Jeddah’s Eastern Forest (الغابة الشرقية) and nearby farms. I was super impressed by how knowledgeable Dr. Duha was of the region’s birds, particularly the seasonal timings of the interesting migrant species that pass through the Kingdom. With folks like Frank, Richard, and Duha out that way, it makes me wish we lived a little closer. Birding, for me, is always more enjoyable when part of a community. Hopefully soon we’ll see more Saudis, like Dr. Duha, joining our small but growing ranks as well.

A Saunder’s Tern north of Jeddah

Now, to be honest, our days were full with enjoying the sea and exploring Jeddah that I was perfectly happy dialing back the birding and taking it a little easier. Yet there were two birds I was keen on tracking down, and those were White-eyed Gull and Saunder’s Tern. Just like down in Jazan, I had spent time scrutinizing Sooty Gulls up and down the coast but hadn’t yet found any, and just like in Jazan apparently I only had to think like a gull to find them. Go to where the handouts are! The parking lot of Al Baik along the corniche near the center of Jizan City turned up twenty adult and immature birds. Before going to the Red Sea Mall to catch a movie, Michelle and I cruised slowly down along the North Corniche (الكورنيش الشمالي) in Jeddah and eventually found five White-eyed Gulls hanging out where a family was feeding a large flock of pigeons. I honestly can’t get enough of these gulls. They have such an interesting look, especially that long, thin beak of theirs, so different from the average gull. Saunder’s Tern were all over the place, but the trick is getting decent enough views to satisfactorily separate them from Little Tern, particularly in late summer when Little Terns have left their inland breeding grounds and both species have begun to transition into non-breeding plumage. I happened upon a small flock just north of our resort and managed to digiscope a shot that features two of the key field marks–the white forehead not extending up over the bird’s eye and more extensive black in the primaries than found on a Little. I had observed the bird through my scope for awhile and also made out its gray rump, compared to the Little Tern’s white rump.

A White-eyed Gull, a Red Sea specialty, along the North Corniche in Jeddah

Summertime, while phenomenal in the highlands, turned out to be not as productive down in Jeddah. The best time to visit would be peak spring and fall migration. A few targets for our next visit are Demoiselle Crane, which pass by Jeddah in good numbers annually, Olive-Tree Warbler, a stunningly large hippolais species, and Cretzschmar’s Bunting, another migrant much more common out west than anywhere else in the Kingdom.

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