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A Weekend of Winter Birding Around Riyadh (February 2020)

The weekend before last Adam Harris and I took the SRO train out to Riyadh for his first visit to the province. The train’s become my preferred method of getting out to the capital as it’s quick – 2 hours compared to 3.5 by car – and quite comfortable. Arriving just past 9:30 pm on Thursday night, we just needed to sort out the rental car for the weekend and then rest up for an early morning. Twice now I’ve used Yelo Rent a Car on King Fahad Road as they’re the only rental place near enough to the train station that’s open until 11. As it’s mostly gravel and stony desert around Riyadh, there isn’t really a need for 4WD, so we went with one of the cheaper options. 

The next morning we spun by my friends’ place to pick up Stefan Schilli, the Swiss birder who, with his family, had spent a couple days in Al Ahsa on the homeward stretch of their yearlong road trip around the Middle East. Our friends, Steve and Ana, opened their home to the adventurers during their stop in Riyadh, which gave me a chance to take them out for some proper birding.

The first stop was Rawdat Sajuwan, an area south of Rawdat Nourah that looked promising for larks, in particular the Arabian Dunn’s Lark, which has become a bit of a mild obsession for me since I started Saudi birding. The rains have been pretty good in Al Ahsa this winter, so I assumed the same for Riyadh and was thinking that this just might be the winter that we’d turn up Dunn’s. I asked our taxi driver the night before if they’d been getting good rain out that way. His response made it clear I had assumed wrong–apparently they had little all winter and nothing at all the past two months. Not promising.

In Google Maps, Rawdat Sajuwan appeared to offer the same extensive vegetation around a shallow depression as Rawdat Nourah, with the depression going green after rains, as shown in some social media posts from the spot. Arriving just after sunrise, I was excited by what looked to be some excellent larking habitat–meter-high shrubs dotting a flat gravel-sand desert interspersed with Sodom’s apple, the occasional acacia, and patches of ephemeral grasses and desert blooms. However, a short distance into the desert and it became clear how much drier everything was than I expected–the green about the depression itself was so desiccated it could’ve been from the previous spring. Dunn’s have to drop in to less ideal locales on their way to where there had been rain, so we gave it a good thrashing nevertheless.

The desert at Rawdat Sajuwan, about an hour north of Riyadh

Adam, Stefan, and I spread out a good 50 meters apart and then began slowly making our way out. Stefan soon called us over, having got on one of our other targets for the morning–Temminck’s Lark. This was a lifer for both of them and we were lucky to have a few other nice encounters with this species throughout the morning.

The breeding season on the Arabian peninsula starts earlier in the year than in temperate climes, so all around us could be heard the songs of Greater Hoopoe-Lark and Crested Lark as well as a male Desert Wheatear priming his vocal chords for the real deal further north. 

Stefan picked up another lifer at this spot and a Saudi first for me–a male Namaqua Dove calling from atop a Sodom’s apple. I had never heard them before despite having seen them countless times over the years. This fellow was a stunner. 

A Namaqua Dove at Rawdat Sajuwan. These are real stunners – definitely one of the most beautiful Saudi birds. Not only was he calling, which I never heard before, but this was the first time I really noticed the lovely purple feathers in the wings.

We wrapped up at Rawdat Sajuwan and headed to Rawdat Nourah, where I was confident we’d turn up Bar-tailed Lark and with luck have another chance for Dunn’s. As soon as we traded the road for the gravel desert, we picked up a pair of Bar-tailed and chalked up another tick for Stefan. By the end of the day we would encounter another 13 Bar-tailed, nearly always in pairs, one of which was clearing a nest beneath the most unlikely little sprig of vegetation and another which was giving what seemed to be a distraction display as it ran away from us. Nesting was clearly under way. 

A Bar-tailed Lark nest at Rawdat Nourah

Soon we came upon a pair of newly fledged Greater Hoopoe-Lark (above), still looking the odd ducks and puzzling us for a moment as to the species. Later we saw an adult Temminck’s Lark with a more developed fledgling in tow, equally the odd duck as juveniles look nothing like the adults. Given their stage of development these young birds would have hatched in late January. According to Cornell's Birds of the World, such an early date isn’t unusual for Greater Hoopoe-lark, whose breeding depends on the weather conditions in an area, but Temminck’s are said to mostly breed from mid-April. 

With all the activity, I thought for sure we’d turn up Dunn’s, which had been encountered in the area during the winter of 2015; however, their appearance then was likely tied to the heavy rains that hit the Riyadh area in late 2014. A YouTube search turned up several uploads from November 2014, when the capital was swamped by a series of rainstorms. These kinds of rains in the right areas are said to precipitate the arrival of Dunn’s Lark and so it seems to have been in January 2015, when Louis Regenmorter discovered five birds at Rawdat Nourah. Now, while Riyadh’s been dry this winter, the heavy rains throughout the Eastern Province, which in fact have attracted great swarms of locusts, just might have been ideal for Dunn’s as well. Perhaps I’ve been searching the wrong places this season.

Update (April 10, 2020): There have been several recent sightings in Israel, as discussed HERE by Yoav Perlman. It’s too bad we’re all under lockdown at the moment; otherwise, I’d be trying to get up to the northwest of Kingdom, where they’d also been seen recently. Looks like it’ll have to wait until next winter…

Unfortunately, the only other larks we saw at Rawdat Nourah that morning were a pair of Black-crowned Finch-Lark and the ever abundant Crested Lark, so after lunch it was off to Jebel Towki for some late afternoon exploring. Without much time before sundown, we spent most of the time on the mountain checking wadis north of the main road. No Thick-billed Larks this visit either, but common resident and wintering birds, such as White-crowned Wheatear, Mourning Wheatear and Desert Lark, gave a good showing. The real surprise on the mountain, however, was spotting a pair of Fan-tailed Raven feuding with a pair of Brown-necked Raven. Fan-tailed are abundant in the western highlands of the Kingdom, where they can be seen in the hundreds at times, but, while known from Riyadh province, occur much less frequently there. These constituted one of only four reports to eBird from the area in the past ten years.

We wrapped up the day scanning the edge of the escarpment for Sand Partridge, which occur around Riyadh but not nearly as in abundance as perhaps in the past. With the sun setting to the west, the last birds of the day were a frenetic flight of Pallid Swifts and Pale Crag Martins getting in a last-minute meal.

The view facing west towards the setting sun at Jebel Towki

The next morning, with Stefan and the family planning a late morning departure from Riyadh onward to Jeddah, Adam and I slipped out for a morning down in Al Ha'ir. The area never fails to strike me for its uncanny beauty – especially given it’s just a “river” of treated wastewater flowing through Saudi desert. Yet it’s been established for so long – since the 1970s – that it’s natural enough for nature. Checking out the new Al Ha'ir Lake National Park, we saw the first of several Blackstart and White-throated Kingfisher along with many of the more common birds. Further down the road, on our way to the main stop, we could hear Eurasian Reed Warbler singing from several spots along the way. These energetic songsters with such an incredible repertoire ruled the reeds on this visit; however, come May they won’t be the only reed warbler in town, with Basra Reed Warbler a possible breeder in the reed beds where the river spreads out over the edges of some adjacent agricultural fields.

This particular spot, where a rough dirt road runs between some large pivot fields and crosses the river, is usually good for Desert Finch in the winter, but Adam and I couldn’t find any unfortunately. We did, however, kick up a pair of Red Avadavat, a long-established introduced species to the area, a singing Corn Bunting out in one of the pivot fields as well as a smart-looking “Caspian” Stonechat. Also calling from the field were two Common Quail, which a quick thrash failed to flush. Adam also got to see his first – one of over a dozen that day – Arabian Green Bee-eater. Another interesting highlight of the morning was a huge roost (100+ birds) of Black-crowned Night-Heron, the most I’ve ever seen at one time.

Just a fraction of the super roost we encountered that morning in Al Ha’ir

Before heading back to the Eastern Province that morning, Adam and I trekked north up a lovely wadi popular with locals as a picnicking site. The road in stops after a time and then the wadi continues for perhaps a kilometer or two further with lots of tall, full acacias running the distance to attract birds. It was here that we found a nice array of resident birds and early migrants. Among the residents, we managed to find African Collared-Dove, Black Scrub-Robin, Blackstart, Desert Lark, a single White-spectacled Bulbul, and Indian Silverbill. On collared-doves, both Eurasian and African occur in this area and require some degree of care in separating them. Now while they will flock together, as a rule the Eurasian hang out mostly around the agricultural fields and wetland margins and the African prefer the acacia stands and wadis. All of the collared-doves we saw in the wadi were African.

The big surprise at this spot was the variety of migrant species we discovered, many of which were actually a bit earlier than expected and subsequently triggered my eBird review filters when I submitted our report. There were a couple handsome Turkestan Shrikes along with a single resident Arabian Great Grey Shrike. A few warbler species were moving through as well – Common Chiffchaff, Asian Desert, , Halimodendri Lesser Whitethroat and a singing male Menetries’s. We also found a couple male Blue Rock Thrush working the wadi rim along with four species of migrant wheatear – Desert, Mourning, Pied, and Persian (Red-tailed). On the latter, because the exact winter distribution of Kurdistan Wheatear in Saudi is not well-known and juvenile Kurdistan looking quite similar to Persian, I’m now at pains to get shots of putative Persians so as to rule out any possible confusion between the two species. Here’s one of the two we saw that morning.

A Persian (Red-tailed) Wheatear in Al Ha’ir

That will likely be my only visit out to Riyadh for the remainder of the winter, but the plan is to get back out in May and hopefully later in the summer to confirm the breeding of Basra Reed Warbler. Give a shout if you want to join!

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