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Beating the Heat: The Saudi Birding June Tour

Tour Dates: June 14 - 21, 2024

Participants: Keith Betton, Franz and Henk Hendriks, Raphael Jordan, Wiel Poelmans, Peter de Rouw, and David Ward

Leader: Gregory Askew

Co-leader: James Conder


Avian Highlights:

  • Helmeted Guineafowl

  • Harlequin Quail

  • Arabian Partridge

  • Philby's Partridge

  • Rameron Pigeon

  • Dusky Turtle-Dove

  • Red-eyed Dove

  • Bruce's Green-Pigeon

  • White-browed Coucal

  • Pied Cuckoo

  • Dideric Cuckoo

  • Nubian Nightjar

  • Montane Nightjar

  • Plain Nightjar

  • Alpine Swift

  • African Palm Swift

  • Red-knobbed Coot

  • Small Buttonquail

  • Crab-Plover

  • White-eyed Gull

  • African Openbill

  • Abdim's Stork

  • Pink-backed Pelican

  • Hamerkop

  • European Honey-Buzzard

  • Dark Chanting-Goshawk

  • Gabar Goshawk

  • Shikra

  • Arabian Scops-Owl

  • Arabian Eagle-Owl

  • Little Owl

  • African Grey Hornbill

  • White-throated Kingfisher

  • Grey-headed Kingfisher

  • Arabian Collared Kingfisher

  • White-throated Bee-eater

  • Arabian Green Bee-eater

  • Abyssinian Roller

  • Arabian Woodpecker

  • Black-crowned Tchagra (Arabian)

  • African Paradise Flycatcher

  • Asir Magpie

  • Rufous-capped Lark

  • Horsfield's Bushlark

  • Arabian Lark

  • Common Reed Warbler (Mangrove)

  • Brown Woodland Warbler

  • Yemen Warbler

  • Arabian Warbler

  • Abyssinian White-eye (Mangrove)

  • Arabian Babbler

  • Violet-backed Starling

  • Tristram's Starling

  • Yemen Thrush

  • Gambaga Flycatcher

  • Little Rock-Thrush

  • African Stonechat

  • Buff-breasted Wheatear

  • Blackstart

  • White-crowned Wheatear

  • Arabian Wheatear

  • Nile Valley Sunbird

  • Palestine Sunbird

  • Shining Sunbird (Arabian)

  • African Silverbill

  • Arabian Waxbill

  • Spanish Sparrow

  • Arabian Golden Sparrow

  • African Pipit

  • Desert Finch

  • Olive-rumped Serin

  • Yemen Serin

  • Yemen Linnet

  • Cinnamon-breasted Bunting


Other Wildlife Highlights:

  • Hamadryas Baboon

  • Yellow Fan-fingered Gecko

  • Yemen Rock Agama

  • Anderson's Rock Agama

  • Arabian Toad

  • Arabian Tree Frog

  • Eurasian Marsh Frog

  • Asir Garra (endemic freshwater fish)

While at times it felt as if the universe was conspiring against me—what between a slew of minor disasters, the hotter than usual temperatures, persistent sleep deprivation, and the Covid infection I'm still recovering from—the birding during the June tour and the easy-going crew I had the pleasure of guiding were on point. We saw a total of 167 species in eight days, only two less than October's tour and there were no migrants this time! We came so close to the full sweep of Arabian endemics, but after a really strong start we struggled and failed to connect with Arabian Grosbeak but not for a lack of trying. Not a one-for-one consolation but several other interesting and often hit-or-miss species, like Arabian Lark and Arabian Golden Sparrow, went a long way towards making up for the grosbeak. In fact, ours was the only group tour to record Arabian Lark this year. Here's a summary of our day-to-day effort and tour highlights.


Day 1—Riyadh

The Dutch contingent and I did a little pre-tour birding down around Al Hair in hopes that we might find Basra Reed Warbler. When we arrived, I was disappointed to discover that a vast section of the reedbeds along the Riyadh River, encompassing both locations where I had seen the warbler back in 2018 and 2019, had been burned, leaving soft ash under foot and an acrid stench in the air as we went to check the remaining beds around the margins of the area. The disappoinment was mitigated by some otherwise good birding at other points along the river. Not to mention, I got to collect audio of the Graceful Prinias there. It is suspected that this population is of the P. g. palaestinae subspecies, having colonized from the northwest and not P. g. hufufae advancing westward from the Eastern Region as proposed by Jennings (2010).

The next morning, all the participants having arrived, we headed off at 3:45 AM to reach Rawdat Nourah by sunrise. It's possible to bird the Riyadh area in the summer, but really only in about a five-hour window during the morning. Any later and the heat and solar radiation start to become unbearable. Those first few hours after sunup though are quite tolerable. Thankfully we didn't need all but a half hour to find an Arabian Lark. Mischa Keijmel, who has been checking for them periodically since he and I first saw the lark there back in 2020, had found one there the week before, the first he had after an absence of over eight months. We didn't even have to weave our way by car across that flat sand-gravel desert in our search. Just parked along the road and then marched out into and along the vegetated patches, prime habitat for this often elusive lark. Like other "desert" larks, though, Arabian Lark can be quite confiding once found. The bird we saw foraged near to foot for several minutes, allowing everyone long, satisfying views of the ID features—heavy pink beak for busting up compacted sand in search of hidden morsels, streaking on the head and mantle the color of the iron-rich sands pushed up under the woody herbaceous plants this lark favors, and the mostly black outer tail feathers that further help distinguish it from the similar Bar-tailed Lark. Besides the Arabian Lark, we saw few other birds, but displaying Greater Hoopoe-Lark never fails to impress.

Having succeeded so early meant we could have a leisurely field breakfast before heading off for our next target. One of the participants had never seen Desert Finch, so we birded near the Huraymila Dam, where there were still standing pools of water from the substantial winter and spring rains that visited the area. Not only did we find a few Desert Finch coming in to drink, but we also got wonderful up-close views of two Alpine Swift swooping down to the surface as well as Arabian Green Bee-eaters, Brown-necked Raven, Black Scrub-robin, and White-crowned Wheatear.

It started getting a little too warm to keep it up much longer, so after a short and relatively unproductive stop at Shaib Ghayanah, where we mainly gawked at large Yellow Fan-fingered Geckos hiding out in a derelict building, we drove back to Riyadh for lunch at Najd Village, a quaint heritage-style restaurant near our hotel.


Day 2—Abha

We started our first full day in the southwest before dawn at the Raidah Preserve, situated at around 2,800 meters ASL in the highlands of the Asir Region. Stalking down a long foot path near the entrance of the preserve, we were blessed by the birding gods with views of a Montane Nightjar sitting in the middle of the path. Montane is resident in the mountains of southwest Saudi and might represent an Arabian subspecies. Observations, however, have been few and far between over the past 20 years. Remarkably, though, this wasn't our only encounter during the tour.

The Montane Nightjar we found at Raidah Preserve. Note the darkish plumage with light spotting on the wing coverts and the buff-golden collar. These features most easily separate Montane from Plain, which also occurs in the highlands. Photo by Raphael Jordan.

As the sun rose over the escarpment, we had already begun adding endemics and other highland specialists with sightings of Yemen Warbler, Yemen Thrush, Yemen Linnet, as well as Brown Woodland Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, and Palestine Sunbird.

We then descended the escarpment into the preserve for our main target of the morning—Arabian Partridge. On the way to our first encounters, we stopped to enjoy close views of Yemen Linnets at what appeared to be a mineral lick just beside the road, nearly eye-level views of Rameron Pigeon at the little mosque, as well as a handsome male African Paradise-Flycatcher a little further on. Before long we found the first of three coveys of Arabian Partridge seen on our descent. In the lower third of the road through the preserve, we found our first Dusky Turtle-Doves, Black-crowned Tchagra, and Arabian Sunbird. At the bottom, near the village, we added Bruce's Green-Pigeon, White-browed Coucal, our first Dideric Cuckoo, African Gray Hornbill, and Gray-headed Kingfisher. We also saw a lone female Nile Valley Sunbird, a very common species in the lowlands, but this marked the first time I'd seen all three species at Raidah.


From Raidah we headed to Soudah Creek, which was as birdy as ever. On the way we saw an African Pipit along the road and then another at the creek. We observed more of what I'd describe as a summer breeder this tour than on previous tours. In the literature, it's said to be a resident subspecies; however, I know of no confirmed records from Saudi outside of the breeding season. Could they be a short-distance migrant rather, spending the winters in East Africa? Besides the pipit, we picked up three more endemicsArabian Wheatear, Arabian Waxbill, and Olive-rumped Serin—and saw our first Gambaga Flycatchers, Arabian Warbler, and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings. Of course, Soudah Creek is also the go-to place for African Stonechat.


The morning had been so full, but the day's effort wasn't done yet. After lunch we visited Wadi Reema. While I knew we'd find Rufous-capped Lark and Buff-breasted Wheatear, the young of which had already fledged but were still busy harrassing their parents for food, it was an unexpected treat to find two adult male and three immature Arabian Woodpeckers all within the same area. The photographers in the group had a good session in the late afternoon light with this iconic endemic.


From there we made a quick stop at Dhaboo'y Dam, where we found 12 Red-knobbed Coot, several of which were young birds. It's clear that this African species is now well established in southwest Saudi.

We wrapped up our first day in the southwest at Jebel Zuhary. Here we got great views of a light-morph Long-legged Buzzard and heard a Philby's Partridge.


Day 3—Habala to Sabya

Given how well we did the day before, I was already revising the itinerary to get us to our next targets that much quicker. The rufous-capped larks the day before meant we only needed Yemen Serin on our visit to Habala. I spotted a small flock perched on the barbed wire fencing at the edge of the cliff with a few minutes of arriving and we were soon enjoying more just over the edge, perching on the sheer cliff face or foraging on grassy ledges. We then took breakfast at my Buff-breasted Wheatear spot, where the resident pair treated us to stellar views in excellent light. They were perched on a powerline just above the road. I even managed to elicit a further vocalization to add to my collection.


A further revision, the Afrotropicals the day before meant skipping Marabah Dam and bee-lining straight to the village of Abu Rayyan on the Tihamah. This was the last place Arabian Golden Sparrow had been reported from Jazan. We made a thorough search of the village under a high heat index but failed to find any sparrows, so it was off to the hotel in Sabya for a rest before resuming the effort in the afternoon.

In Sabya, we added the only Abdim's Stork of the trip as well as our first White-throated Bee-eaters of the trip. We then called in at the Either Mangroves. Several visits to this site made previously this year reported the long-staying Wattled Starlings and Red Sea Collared Kingfisher, but only a few included observations of the mangrove population of Abyssinian White-eye found here. These birds are an unlikely split based on the current DNA analysis; however, they do appear brighter and with a larger eyering than the highland birds. That and the mystery around their origin make them worthy of attention, so we spent some time along the mangrove edge trying to find some without luck. Only the "Mangrove" race of Eurasian Reed Warbler and Clamorous Reed Warbler were present. We would make a second attempt on our way out of the Jazan region a couple days later and succeeded in seeing two birds. Curiously, that's exactly how many I've seen on all previous occasions, suggesting the population density here must be quite low.

"Mangrove" White-eye from Either Mangroves. This is an isolated and range-restricted population of Abyssinian White-eye found only in this tract of mangroves north of Jizan. While genetically identical to the highland birds, this mangrove population is brighter in plumage and has a more pronounced eye ring. Photo by Raphael Jordan.

Before sunset we were back at Abu Rayyan village to try again for the golden sparrows, and while the birding was much nicer with the sun getting lower and the heat dropping off, we still didn't manage to find any sparrows. In the desert west of the village we found a few good birds in our hunt for the sparrowsArabian Babbler, Pied Cuckoo, Black-winged Kite, and nice views of Arabian Great Gray Shrike.

The sun setting on our first full day in Jazan. No golden sparrows, but the next day we had much better luck.

Day 4—Sabya to Abu Arish

The next morning found us at the Sunbah pivot fields just before sunrise. Along the roadside we added two Abyssinian Rollers to the trip list. With the sun still below the mountains to the east, the fields were quieter than I expected. No Horsfield's Bushlark, no Zitting Cisticola, but then I heard the distinctive call of Harlequin Quail, not from the field in front of us but from the desert scrub between the fields. A quick scan and we found the male sitting out in the open for a minute or two more before it flew to the opposite field. Before long we could hear another calling from the nearest field, so we spread out and began to slowly advance into the grass. Positioning myself with a view down rut, I spotted two Small Buttonquail. Keeping our distance and stalking foward only when they went out of sight allowed everyone to get satisfying scope views of these shy ground birds as they shuffled mouselike down the rut, pausing only to forage in spots along the way. Soon we found a second handsome male Harlequin Quail calling from the edge of another rut. By now the sun was up and the morning sky was energized once again with African Palm Swift, Horsfield's Bushlark, and Zitting Cisticola.

After breakfast at Sunbah, we headed to the village of Gamri, where the October tour found a flock of 700 Arabian Golden Sparrow. As the fields didn't appear to be in crop, I figured our best bet was to target areas at the edge of the village proper, so I pinpointed a spot in Google Maps that looked promising and then we set off. When we arrived, I noticed sparrows flying up from a stubble field just off the road, so we got out to investigate. Just then Raphael spotted a flock of golden sparrows flying into the field. Score! We positioned ourselves for everyone to get wonderful views as the sparrows foraged, bathed, and preened in the company of White-spectacled Bulbuls, Ruppell's Weavers, and House Sparrows. This field was quite active with other species as well on account of a pool of water bubbling up in the center. There were Pied Cuckoos and a lone White-browed Coucal actively calling around us, a few White-throated Bee-eaters working the airspace directly above, and bright and beautiful African Collared-Doves coming in to drink.

Given how early it was still, to celebrate a successful morning I took us to a popular Yemeni restaurant in Abu Arish for breakfast—I was dying for shakshookah with cheese and chai karak. Satiated, we rested at the hotel through the peak heat—and it was hot in Jazan!—before heading back out for our afternoon and evening birding out around Al Sadd Lake.


It was quite warm when we got out to the lake but the crew was undaunted. We made stops to scan to northern and southern sections and hopefully find some of the interesting vagrants that have been seen over the past year. In the northern section, we spotted the lone, long-staying African Openbill out among the countless other waders and shorebirds, perhaps a holdover from the large flock that stayed at the lake from late 2021 through late spring 2022. We also had a few Red-eyed Doves, hanging out in the mesquite trees near the water's edge. At the southern section, we had Pink-backed Pelican and Hamerkop as well.

Desert Rose (Adenium arabicum) in Wadi Jawah.

While we waited for sunset, James proposed visiting Wadi Jawah, an interesting wadi with strong Afrotropical influences through which we drove in October. I thought this would be a great place to try for Helmeted Guineafowl, so I led us to a wilder, scrubbier stretch of the wadi that looked good for guineafowl. Sure enough we were able to find nine birds in four different encounters, one which we observed at a distance for a few minutes as it foraged on the opposite side of the wadi. All of my previous encounters with these shy birds has been them racing off on the ground or bursting into flight and then disappearing into the scrub. This time we could study those features distinguishing this population from others throughout its native range that some ornithologists suggest may indicate these birds are a heretofore undescribed Arabian subspecies.

On the way back to the car in Wadi Jawah, Keith most helpfully flushed a Nubian Nightjar, one of only a few targets for Wiel, who had visited both Oman and Yemen before. This was only the second time I had seen a Nubian during the day. So stellar luck for the tour.

With the sun dropping behind the ridge, it was time to head back to the lake for another nightjar target. As we'd seen Nubian, we could skip my usual spot. Instead, we headed directly to an area north of the lake where an Arabian Eagle-Owl pair has been seen. We still had time to kill before dark so we birded the road briefly, at which point I heard an unfamiliar call being given by two birds, one distant and the other in the dense crown of a tree just beside the road. I began recording before I could work out the ID, just in case we didn't get a good chance to see the bird in the darkening light. A moment later, however, it revealed itself to be a Gabar Goshawk, an Afrotropical raptor we've seen on every tour since my first in 2022.

We then tried for Plain Nightjar on the stony crest of a hill near the eagle-owl spot. Shortly, we had three singing males making passes around just over our heads. As suspected, these turned out to be gray-morph birds, their coloring matching the basalt rock dominating this region.

A slaty-gray Plain Nightjar from the Tihamah in Jazan, grayer and colder plumaged than the birds we saw in the highlands. Photo by Raphael Jordan.

From the crest, David spotted the resident eagle-owls perched on a powerline in the distance. We were able to observe them there for quite awhile but weren't able to relocate them for better views after they had flown.


Day 5—Abu Arish to Muhayil

Having found the guineafowl ahead of my planned stop in the itinerary meant there was no need to return to the lake the following morning, so we headed to Jizan earlier than planned to bird the coast as we made our way north to Al Birk before returning to the mountains. This was key to making a second and, this time, successful attempt at the Either Mangroves for the "mangrove" white-eyes. Before leaving Jazan we also added Crab-Plover, Brown Booby, White-eyed Gull, among several other sea- and shorebird species.

Further up the coast we saw many Great and Lesser Crested Terns and a smattering of other terns, but unfortunately we couldn't turn any into Saunders's or White-cheeked.

While the shade was forgiving, the stench was not. That didn't bother the crew any now that they had an adult White-eyed Gull in view at the fish market.

We capped off our time in the lowlands, thanks again to Raphael's keen eyes, with a Dark Chanting Goshawk on the way to Muhayil, where we'd rest up for another round of highland birding.


Day 6—Muhayil to Al Namas

After yet another minor setback with one of the rentals—this time a flat tire—we were on our way to Tanomah and a hoped-for meeting with magpies. On the way up the escarpment, we had a chance to check one of the few known nesting colonies of Eurasian Griffon in Saudi Arabia. The site can be viewed comfortably from the edge of a village, one of the residents of which kindly led us to the place.

No vultures were present at the time—just dozens of Alpine Swift, Little Swift, and Tristram's Starlings—but we did eventually see them climbing a thermal once we continued up the mountain towards Tanomah. In this village, we also had the first of two over-summering European Honey-Buzzards we saw on the trip. David spotted it perched close to the road as we reached the village.

Once in Tanomah it was straight to the magpies. On the way, I noticed a complete absence of Hamadryas Baboons, having witnessed active culling back in October. The National Center for Wildlife's efforts appear to have been successful as have been the government's ban on people feeding them. With one exception, the baboons we saw were not the types that hang around the roadways looking for handouts. All were in wilder, more remote areas and acted warier of humans than before and all the better for it.

What we did have the good fortune of finding from the road was a small family group of Asir Magpies, what appeared to be an adult and four immature birds. The young birds had shorter tails, a faint remnant of the yellow gape of a nestling, and higher pitched, faster, and more irregular contact calls. I was pleased to have a chance to record these birds. The difference in calls between the adults and immatures, I imagine, suggests one of two things: 1) young magpies learn from adults how to reproduce the typical contact call, or 2) the vocal organ on young birds undergo further development before they're able to produce the typical sounds.


After having a nice session with the magpies, we went for a hike into Wadi Ghathal to try for our final diurnal target—Philby's Partridge. No partridges but many woodland passerine species showed well, including Yemen Warbler and Yemen Thrush, and we added Violet-backed Starling to the trip list. There was a large vernal pool at this site, which was full of the tadpoles and hoppers of Arabian Toad and interesting invertebrates, like Eurasian Water Scorpion (Nepa cinerea), which in flight shows a bright red abdomen.


After a birding break to check in to our hotel and rest up for the evening effort, we found ourselves at the Wahdah Woods. Here, an hour before sunset, we finally connected with Philby's Partridge, a male of which called from atop a boulder high above the woods. Arabian Partridge could be heard as well in the more wooded slopes. While worrying over a couple of American rock climbers working one of the cliffs at the site, we also spotted a Barbary Falcon soaring high above.

James taking a photograph at Wahdah Woods while we waited for it to get dark.

At dark we found our first Arabian Scops-Owls of the trip, one of which we got great views of, and around thirty minutes after sunset we were surprised to hear two Montane Nightjars. Previously this species had only been heard in the late fall through late winter. I had tried multiple times during summer visits with no luck, but this June visit disproved the rule, first, with our observation in Abha and, now, with two calling nightjars in Tanomah in the second week of June.

After Wahdah Woods, we visited Al Mehfar Park. Despite several groups of holiday picnickers, we still managed to find two more scops-owls and get better views of Arabian Eagle-Owl for the tour participants. Only owl target missed was Desert Owl.


Days 7 and 8—Al Bahah

With only one endemic remaining, we had a leisurely start to the morning. After picking up Yemeni breakfast, we headed to an area in Al Namas where I felt confident we'd find Little Owl. We enjoyed our breakfast in the shade with Scrub Warblers and Palestine Sunbirds feeding around us. Soon we also had a calling Little Owl and found the owl getting mobbed by Arabian Wheatears, Long-billed Pipits, and a gang of smaller birds.

Two subspecies of Little Owl, A. n. saharae and A. n. lilith, are said to occur in Saudi. With the palest birds occurring in the east, the Little Owls around Al Namas are likely A. n. saharae. Photo by Keith Betton.

From there we made quick time to Al Bahah to try for the last endemic—Arabian Grosbeak. The team spent several hours on the penultimate and final day searching the wadi where all of the recent sightings had been. Three of the Dutch contingent had seen the grosbeak in Oman so went with James to search Wadi Shabraqah while the rest of us kept up a stake out of multiple positions along the wadi, maintaining radio contact throughout. All to no avail. The grosbeaks are known to be nomadic; however, there still seemed to be a decent crop of juniper berries as well as an abundant water supply. What is clear though is the population density of this, the most challenging, endemic must be quite low, with virtually all of the dozen or so observations in the past 20 years from this region.


Lack of grosbeaks notwithstanding, there was good birding those last two days. We found another over-summering European Honey-Buzzards, which at one point was getting harassed by a pair of African Shikra. We also had good numbers of the other endemics, including Arabian Woodpecker and Arabian Waxbill and Yemen Linnet. On our last evening we also got better views of Plain Nightjar—these highland birds were redder in plumage than the lowland birds we saw in Jazan.

Plain Nightjar from Al Bahah. Photos by Keith Betton and Raphael Jordan (respectively).


 

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