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Birding Billahmer (January 2020)

I arrived an hour before sunup to a small village northwest of Billahmer in the Asir highlands. At about 2,700 meters (8,858 feet) above sea level, the early hour coupled with stiff winds up over the edge of the Sarawat Escarpment meant that, for the first time, I was properly cold in the Kingdom. I had a few layers on but unfortunately forgot my gloves back in Al Ahsa, forcing my hands to retreat into the sleeves of my pullover for warmth. As it was still dark, I figured I’d try for Arabian Scops-Owl and imitating its call as I made my way up into a wooded wadi south of the village and hoping for a reply. Sunlight began to invade from the east and I tried one last time for the owl. This time I got the attention of some small diurnal birds nearby, rousing in agitation from a stand of African juniper trees closeby at the sound of a mortal enemy, and then appeared, out of the gloam, four magpies winging their way past me towards the village. These were the object of my morning’s foray—the Asir Magpie, a striking black-and-white corvid, endemic solely to Saudi Arabia, and, numbering perhaps no more than 100 breeding pairs, currently considered one of the rarest birds in the world.

The pins in this eBird map represent the locations where Asir Magpies have been reported over the past ten years. This reflects not just how alarmingly restricted the range of species has become, but also how few birders and ornithologists have visited the region.

After some good but decidedly magpie-less birding the previous weekend on Jebel Al Soudah, where birds had formerly occurred but from where they may have already disappeared, I went to eBird to check out the nearest sightings to Abha, as I’d only have one morning free during this visit and Tanumah, where I’d seen them before, was too far a drive. An hour north of Abha is the town of Billahmer, poised at the edge of the Sarawat Escarpment half way between Abha and Tanumah, and this is where the Smithsonian team, during their study of the magpies in collaboration with Saudi Aramco, encountered birds in two locations. I decided I’d spend the morning exploring this area, which, unfortunately, just might stand as the new southern limit of their alarmingly receding range.

The remains of an old magpie nest in a dead juniper. Another threat to the magpies is dieback of the mature junipers in which they nest, a loss that is being attributed to climate change.

The wooded wadi in which I found myself that morning was ideal nesting habitat for magpies. Mature African junipers populated the wadi bottom, growing thick in places. Somewhere in the dense branches the four birds I disturbed before dawn had been roosting, but now I could hear them in the distance, back towards the village. I headed in that direction, meandering through the trees as the rest of the wood’s denizens gradually became more active. Some quiet calls drew me to a stand where I saw my first Yemen Thrush of the morning, followed by a small flock of Abyssinian White-eyes, which set to trilling peevishly at my presence. A little further on I heard a Brown Woodland Warbler and attempted to pish it into view, producing a generic alarm call by pushing air through clenched teeth and pursed lips. This not only attracted it but also a noisy pair of Yemen Warbler, offering the best views I’ve had of this Arabian endemic yet. Both birds set to scolding me for my intrusion, which drew in a curious Yemen Thrush and another Brown Woodland Warbler. All the while I was getting audio recordings of a species that until recently only had two in Xeno-Canto. On hearing the magpies call again in the distance, I looked back towards where I parked only to see them perched above the car. I moved off with my audio recorder in hand.

An irate yet handsome Yemen Warbler scolding me at Billahmer

By the time I got back to the car, the magpies had gone, so I started driving back to the village proper to try and relocate them. I didn’t have to go far as, once I reached the main road and turned, there appeared a magpie foraging along the edge, and a couple others from the group were vocalizing not far off. I stopped and began filming the single bird on the road and switched on the audio recorder to capture the vocalizations. It was only on watching the footage at home that I realized that the bird I was filming was also vocalizing, giving a soft call as it walked up the road in my direction. This bird or perhaps another was giving the same call as the group foraged in a recently furrowed terrace field a short time later, getting more insistent as it seemed to wait attentively on another individual as it flipped clods with its sturdy beak and poked at the soft dirt. I suspected then that, given the call and this behavior, these might be young birds learning how to forage from more experienced adults, perhaps their parents.

Two or three birds appeared to observe the others while they foraged in the furrowed field, flipping over dirt clods and rocks in search of food
The ones seemingly observing may have been young birds learning foraging strategy from older birds, perhaps the parents.

This group didn’t seem too fazed by my presence and carried on searching for food for the nearly half an hour I spent with them before heading to the second location. They’ve been described in the scant literature out there about this species as being particularly shy; however, I’ve had mixed experiences with them. Those I’ve encountered away from human habitation were indeed shy and required a bit of chase to get pictures, yet those I’ve seen in and around villages, such as in the village of Al Quraish last winter as well as these, allowed a much closer approach. This speaks to the fact that this species has been desperately under studied. There is still a lot to be learned about the ecology of Asir Magpies, and even casual observations and documentation by birders and bird photographers can help reveal more about the lives of these wonderful and critically endangered birds.

An Asir Magpie using its strong beak to flip over a rock in search of food

On my way out of the village I heard more magpies, very close, and pulled over to record them. They were perhaps a half kilometer from the group I had just left only moments before, so I added them to the day’s count. These were making quite a ruckus around one of the houses and the fact that one of the birds was relishing a chicken leg on a nearby telephone pole hinted to the reason—the remains of a platter of rice with chicken. One theory about why the species appears to be in precipitous decline is its penchant for human food, of which there’s often a good supply on account of some folks’ unsightly habit of leaving behind picnic trash. A testament to a veritable addiction—the Smithsonian team lured birds to their traps with Crunchy Cheetos!

An Asir Magpie feeding on a chicken leg left over from a recent picnic

I continued on towards the second spot, which brought me along the very edge of the towering escarpment. I made a brief stop to take in the views, which were stunningly clear. Here I flushed a large covey of Arabian Partridge and spied two Steppe Buzzards hunting over the steep mountain slope below me. The area looked like it would be excellent for migrant raptors during passage as well.

Time was running short by the time I had arrived to the next wadi—I had but an hour before I had to head back to Abha for the flight home. In that time I did locate another four magpie, bringing the day’s total 14, the most I’d seen up to that point. I’d like to think there were many more tucked away in wadis more removed from the villages than the two I explored that morning. Also present at the second stop were another covey of Arabian Partridges, Arabian Babblers, Tristram’s Starlings, an African Stonechat, and a handsome Buff-breasted Wheatear, an endemic subspecies of the Red-breasted Wheatear of the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. There were also a few more Yemen Thrush along with some wintering Song Thrush as well as a single Ruppell’s Weaver, a species, like several in Asir, that retreats to lower elevations during winter. They’ll be back, as will Arabian Woodpecker and Little Rock Thrush, in the spring.

A "yemensis" Arabian Babbler with its telltale ‘moth-eaten’ plumage
The Buff-breasted Wheatear is one of Saudi’s handsomest wheatears and fairly common around agricultural areas and open wadis in the Asir Highlands
Help raise awareness about the critical need to protect the Asir Magpie, an endangered species only found in Saudi Arabia, by sharing this and other posts. Don’t forget to use the hashtags! #savetheasirmagpie #حمايةالعقعقالعسيري
Another Asir Magpie using its beak to flip over a dirt clod

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