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A Major Saudi Birding Fail (March 2019)

A short time back I received a message from Louis Regenmorter, who had seen a recent eBird report of mine, which led him to Saudi Birding on Facebook. Louis worked in Saudi from 2012 to 2015 and had managed to rack up an impressive list of sightings—340 species in just three years! Once you get up around 300 for a country like Saudi, it takes way more than luck to add species to that list—at the very least an insane amount of driving. Therefore, I figured he’d be a good source of intel on finding the trickier Saudi species, and top of my target list this winter, the one that would literally keep me up at night, has been the Arabian Dunn's Lark, now considered by some to be a distinct species from the very similar African Dunn’s Lark, which ranges across the Sahel zone of North Africa. These authorities have determined there’s enough evidence to support full-species status for the larks on the Arabian Peninsula, making Arabian Lark yet another near-endemic to the region. Despite the fact they’re pretty much restricted to Saudi Arabia, which comprises over 90% of their range, they’re actually rather difficult to find. All in all there are currently a little over a dozen sightings recorded in eBird for Saudi Arabia and half of those are from over 20 to 30 years ago!

Sure enough, Louis shared details of a spot where he had seen them twice during his time. This was the most promising lead that has come my way yet—an area of flat, gravel desert north of Riyadh called Rawdat Nourah. I contacted Frank Thierfelder, a new birder based in Riyadh whom I was looking forward to meeting, and let him know I intended on exploring the area and welcomed him to join me. He was game. Unfortunately, though, car issues scuttled the first weekend I planned on getting out there, but I was relieved of the fact after a dust storm started blowing through the area early that Friday morning. It would’ve made for pretty wretched birding, but I wouldn’t be put off a second time. I’ve never been the most patient of people, so after sorting out the car and despite the sneezy beginnings of a cold I reconfirmed with Frank for the following weekend and prepared to set out Thursday afternoon direct from work. 

Compacted sand around the bases of herbaceous plants, such as this species, which predominates at Rawdat Nourah, attracts Arabian Dunn’s Lark

I intended to spend the night in a small city 30 minutes further down the road from Rawdat Nourah, which meant a 4.5 hour haul from Al Ahsa at the end of the work week and feeling more bleary-eyed and runny-nosed by the minute. Concerned I might lose focus on the road between exhaustion and the cold—a dangerous proposition during any long trip but trebly so on Saudi roads—I popped a Clarinase tablet and loaded up my travel mug with coffee and then hit the road. Dumb move. After rolling in to Hautat Sudair and checking into my hotel, I settled in for seven sleepless hours, tortured by my insomniac senses—ticking clock, scratchy sheets, droning AC, the murmur of a distant conversation outside, light penetrating beneath the door… It was one of the worst bouts of sleeplessness I’ve ever dealt with. Only thoughts of exploring at sunup tempered my angst as I literally counted down the minutes until it was time to rally and head off for our dawn meet-up.

Greater Hoopoe-Lark at Rawdat Nourah

Just as the sun was cresting the horizon I pulled up to the spot indicated by Louis Regenmorter and began to survey the area. Flat, gravel desert with large patches of scrub extended far into the distance, and in my mind this was it. Every other spot I had explored in the hopes of tracking down an Arabian Lark lacked this key feature—the vegetation. I then noted the bird song rising somewhere out in it all—larks for sure and getting noisier as the sun rose. By the time Frank arrived I was itching to get out there, so after a brief greeting we jumped in my Jeep and ventured down a track and out about a half mile before working our way to the northeast, running roughly parallel to the road.

Before long we added a few wheatear and lark species to the day’s list, including several handsome Northern and Isabelline WheatearGreater Hoopoe-Lark—abundant in this area, as well as both Short-toed Lark species, the Greater in greater numbers than the Lesser. A single Asian Desert Warbler gave some good views and a short distance away we came upon the only Desert Wheatear of the visit—these two species often hang in close association out in the desert scrub but I’ve yet to discover just why that is.

A rustier plumaged Greater Short-toed Lark at Rawdat Nourah

Then, just as we were passing through the heart of where Louis Regenmorter said he had seen the Arabian Lark back in 2015, we picked up a small group of larks in flight. I got my bins on them just long enough to pick out one Temminck’s Lark and then watch them drop out of sight a little ways off. We got out and made our way over to see if we could relocate them. Further to the left of where we saw them go down we picked up another new lark species for the day—a pair of Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks. The males are really smart-looking birds with a bold black-and-white head pattern and solid black underparts, including the underwings, and contrastingly light sandy-grey plumage above. Bringing my attention back around to where the other larks had been, I noticed a nondescript light brown lark feeding at the edge of a patch of scrub. At first glance I thought maybe Bar-tailed Lark, but this bird wasn’t as mobile as all the other Bar-tailed I’d seen. Not to mention the beak appeared longer than I’d expect on one. Bar-tailed also were also grayer above than this bird. After a little more consideration, I determined it wasn’t a Bar-tailed and began going through other possibilities. Definitely not Desert Lark, which wouldn’t be found in such habitat and has a large yellowish beak and, again, grayer plumage. The only other rather plain brownish lark that came to mind was Arabian, but even at that thought I began running through those features that didn’t quite add up. First off, the beak didn’t appear large or pink enough, but hadn’t I seen Bar-tailed with beaks that seemed longer if the contour feathers about their heads were smoothed down from the heat? This bird lacked the slightly darker streaks on its head and back as found on Arabian, but it did have faint paler spots typical of maybe an immature bird. Maybe that was it, I started to consider—an immature Arabian Lark. This might explain a beak that wasn’t quite big enough and a lack of streaking above, right? I then noticed a faint dark streak running just below the eyes similar to the distinctive moustachial stripe of the Arabian. That’s when the tail came into view—black-and-white outer tail feathers. That, I convinced myself, was the clincher, and that was the point I announced to Frank that we had struck birder’s gold. This was an Arabian Lark!

Our attention then turned to documenting this, and a second identical bird that showed up—me shooting video with my Nikon Coolpix P610 and Frank getting shots with his DSLR. We must’ve spent a good 20 minutes or so with these birds, watching them preen and fan their distinctive tails, amused by the reappearance of the lone Temminck’s Lark I had caught sight of earlier, which was foraging a short distance away from these young Arabian Larks. There were a couple instances even when the Arabians seemed to chase the Temminck’s, beaks opened threateningly, as it appeared, but the latter seemed unfazed. One even threw its weight at a Tawny Pipit, which too had begun to forage nearby but drew up peevishly at the aggression before moving off. I was pleased I was getting it all on video and couldn’t wait to add it to the Cornell's Macaulay Library slim gallery of Arabian Lark photos, not to mention what would be the first recordings of vocalizations for this newly minted species in Xeno-Canto's collection. This was an under-researched, under-documented species after all and I was excited to have now joined the equally slim ranks of birders and ornithologists who have seen them in the wild. All the previous failed attempts around Jebel Towki and Jebel Hamra further east—hours and hours of trekking and driving about spots they had been seen before—had now been redeemed.

Once Frank was satisfied with the number and quality of the shots he had managed, we made our way to Rawdat Nourah proper, an expansive shallow depression further to the northeast that fills with water after heavier rains. It’s become a local park of sorts with lots of Saudis from the capital picnicking and setting up camp for the weekend along the perimeter of the rawdah, around which, I was happy to see, the authorities erected heavy, concrete-based poles as a barrier to prevent 4×4 access. Beyond this the vegetation became thicker and lusher, with a vivid green field at the center, evidence of some quite good rains in the area this past winter. We wandered out towards the center, picking up several new species for the visit, including stunning male Yellow Wagtails of the Feldegg subspecies,a large flock of European Starling, and a handful of Bimaculated Lark among a huge flock of Greater Short-toed Lark.

A Bimaculated Lark at Rawdat Nourah

By this time, the previous night’s insomnia had caught up with me and I was finding it difficult to keep up human communication, catching myself trailing off mid-thought as my brain felt as if it was running on vapors. Anxious about the long ride back, feeling as I did, we headed towards Riyadh, making a quick stop-off at Jebel Towki so I could introduce Frank to the place where I’d seen Thick-billed Lark. Soon after I was on the road proper and hustling to get back and begin processing the video footage I had shot of the Arabian Larks, but there was one problem. They weren’t Arabian Larks!

Sure enough once I popped the SD card into my laptop and began watching the footage I shot, it all came clear—mortifyingly so. What I had embarrassingly dubbed in a drowsy voiceover in one of the videos as “strange interspecies interactions” between the lone Temminck’s Larks and the two “Arabian Larks” turned out, when viewed on fullscreen, to be begging and feeding behavior between an adult Temminck’s and what I then realized were juvenile birds of the same species! But here’s the thing, unlike the closely related Shore Lark, what we call the Horned Lark in North America, the young of which show an obvious if faint precursor to the adult’s distinctive head pattern—dark cheek patch and light throat and supercilium. Not to mention the cryptic, scaly pattern to its upperparts that almost universally screams a young bird. Juvenile Temminck’s, on the other hand, look totally different from young Shore Larks, let alone adult Temminck’s, almost as if they were a species unto themselves. Besides their slender build and relatively long, brown-black-and-white tail, both of which I commented on in the field as a mismatch for Arabian but neither of which ultimately swayed me from my overly eager ID, very little else about them suggests Temminck’s Lark, especially the adults with their almost harlequin-like head pattern and comical horns. 

“Strange interspecies interactions” turned out to be an adult Temminck’s Lark feeding a juvenile…facepalm!
Black-eared Wheatear at Rawdat Nourah

As embarrassed as I was by my mistake, I immediately let Frank know how far down the rabbit hole of self-delusion I had slipped and apologized for dragging him down with me. In retrospect I kept thinking about how I had verbally noted everything about the birds that pointed away from Arabian Lark—the warmer brown plumage, the relatively stationary foraging, the less hefty beak, the lack of streaks on the upperparts, the slimmer build, the longer tail—and yet by the black and white in the outer tail feathers and the absolute ignorance of what young Temminck’s looked like I was left concluding that despite all of this these must have been Arabian Larks. Well, maybe he didn’t let on, but Frank took my error in stride and I publically owned my mistakein our local Whatsapp group after having foolishly done a victory lap only a short time earlier. It’s not the first time I’ve done it—there was that “African” Spoonbill in Salalah just last year that turned out to be the common Eurasian Spoonbill—but I guess the ultimate takeaway is that even with my years of experience birding in the Middle East, constantly learning from others way more skilled and knowledgeable than I, I can still get carried away in the moment and make sloppy calls. It wasn’t my first birding fail and surely won’t be my last, but I’d rather fail in pursuit of what I love than not put myself out there at all. The lesson then to novice birders, who may have suffered similar pangs of embarrassment when corrected by those more experienced than they, take it in stride—it’s all part of the learning process and we’ve all been there at one point or another

Good birding!

A male “Caspian” Siberian Stonechat at Rawdat Nourah

Postscript: So I spent the following workweek conferring with the three birders I knew who had seen Arabian Lark most recently in Saudi to see what else I could learn from them about how best to find them. Upon further reflection, Louis Regenmorter was able to add more detail about the slight differences in terrain at the spots where he had turned them up—patches of scrub growing in compacted sandy substrate adjacent to more open stretches, areas like which I noticed out at Rawdat Nourah in the very shallow wadis and depressions out on the otherwise flat gravelly plains. This more nuanced habitat selection by the larks was confirmed by Mansour Al Fahad and Omar Al Shaheen, both of whom, between them, have had the most luck locating Arabian Larks in Saudi. With everything else I learned, I was convinced that Frank and I had simply overlooked them, so I was determined to get back out for one more try. The following weekend I made the drive again, stayed in the same hotel (sans stimulants), and was back out in the same area by dawn. This time I drove about a mile out into the desert from the road before tacking north, targeting spots that seemed the best match to what Louis, Mansour, and Omar described. Unlike last time, I kept a running count of everything I saw, which ensured that even the largest flocks of Short-toed Larks got thoroughly observed, IDed, and counted just in case an Arabian might have been tucked in with them. What resulted were big numbers of most of the species encountered, and conspicuously absent, but not for a lack of trying (or sleep for that matter), were Arabian Larks. 

The highlights and counts were as follows: 

  1. Cream-colored Courser 2 (new to my Saudi list)

  2. Steppe Eagle 1

  3. Pallid Harrier 2

  4. Greater Hoopoe-Lark 26!

  5. Bar-tailed Lark 9 (not my highest count in Saudi)

  6. Temminck’s Lark 26! (most of which were those pesky juveniles!)

  7. Greater Short-toed Lark 300 (a conservative estimate…I actually lost count of these guys as they were moving about too much)

  8. Lesser Short-toed Lark 10 

  9. Crested Lark 75! (an almost exact count but it might have been higher given the numbers in the rawdah)

  10. Asian Desert Warbler 4

  11. Caspian Stonechat 1 (my first of this subspecies of the Siberian Stonechat)

  12. Northern Wheatear 25!

  13. Mourning Wheatear 1

  14. Pied Wheatear 5

  15. Black-eared Wheatear 3

  16. Desert Wheatear 10

  17. Isabelline Wheatear 46! 

  18. Yellow Wagtail (feldegg) 15

  19. Spanish Sparrow 10

A first-winter male Pied Wheatear at Rawdat Nourah

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