My family and I spent a fantastic week and half exploring the Tabuk region and the Al Ula Governate in Saudi’s northwest from December 23 to January 2. The birding highlights were Chukar, Sand Partridge, Arabian Partridge, Cream-colored Courser, White-eyed Gull, Black-winged Kite, Common Buzzard, Steppe Eagle, Hen Harrier, Barn Owl, Little Owl, Desert Owl, Arabian Lark, Sardinian Warbler, Western Black Redstart, Hooded Wheatear, Kurdish Wheatear, Hypocolius, Palestine Sunbird, Sinai Rosefinch, Arabian Serin, and Syrian Serin.
Our first morning in Tabuk Province we met up with Ibrahim Al Shwamin, who took us to a couple of his favorite birding spots. We started at a local park on the edge of the provincial capital and saw the first of many Spur-winged Lapwings of the trip, a species that was conspicuously abundant around the outskirts of the city. We also got good views of an obliging Black Scrub-Robin and a small flock of Spanish Sparrows. Then, after a quick refueling of coffee and karak tea, we headed to some farms about 20 minutes outside the city. There are literally hundreds of farms and pivot fields around Tabuk; however, I was struck by how oddly productive the first field Ibrahim took us to was. In a short span, he pointed out two of three Black-winged Kites, which appear to be wintering in the area, a male Sardinian Warbler he discovered a couple of weeks prior, and a veritable convention of Bluethroat and European Stonechat all hanging about an overgrown scrubby patch just by the road. Scanning the adjacent pivot field I spied a male Hen Harrier, a Saudi first for me along with the Sardinian, cruising low over the low grass in search of breakfast.
On our way to the last spot of the morning—a line of olive trees where Ibrahim had seen some interesting warblers—Michelle called our attention to a raptor perched low in a tree just off the road. Initially I had expected it to be a Steppe Buzzard Buteo buteo vulpinus; however, putting the bird in the scope, I discovered it to be an adult Common Buzzard Buteo buteo buteo and not its more eastern subspecies. Its dark head lacked the paler brow of Steppe Buzzard, its upper breast was a dark, solid brown, and its lower breast and belly were barred—a perfect match to the illustration in Collins Bird Guide. According to the Birds of the Middle East, B. buteo is rare in the Middle East and unrecorded in Arabia but also mentioned that they’ve become a regular winter visitor to Israel. I’ve since queried Yoav Perlman, an Israeli ornithologist and birding blogger, about this and he confirmed that they’re in fact common in the winter and that Jordan recorded their first sightings just a few years ago. Yoav believes they’ve simply been overlooked, which is likely due in part to the challenge of distinguishing between them and Steppe Buzzard. Other species regularly occurring in Israel, Jordan, and Sinai but not yet recorded in Saudi might also occur in Tabuk Province—perhaps just a matter of getting more eyes out into the field. Indeed, we had another stellar first on the trip just a few days later while visiting Jebel Al Lawz.
After picking up a couple more raptors—Long-legged Buzzard and Steppe Eagle—at our next stop, we thanked Ibrahim for giving us a tour of his birding patch and then hit the road for Haql on the Gulf of Aqaba. Along the way we made a few interesting observations, including a huge gathering of Brown-necked Ravens and my first bonafide wild-type Rock Pigeons at a roadside dump in the remote mountains half way between Tabuk and Haql.
Haql and Magna – The Gulf of Aqaba (حفل ومقنا)
We spent three days in Haql, the northernmost town on the west coast before the Jordanian border, at the Hyatt Haql Hotel, a small, quiet, and inexpensive resort right on the Gulf of Aqaba with views of the rugged Sinai Peninsula across the way. While our main objective was enjoying the amazing sea life in the coastal waters, we did manage to find some interesting birds during our stay. An early morning on the north side of Haql produced a Steppe Gull and another male Sardinian Warbler in some roadside scrub. Further down the coast from Haql, my family and I found a large flock of Trumpeter Finch feeding in some flowering scrub as well as a flyby Caspian Gull and observed two Fan-tailed Ravens plucking something, perhaps ticks, off the backs of a couple of camels. From our hotel we saw our first White-eyed Gulls of the trip along with the only Common Kingfisher I saw all 2020. After our time in Haql we stayed at the Hasco Diving Resort just south of the village of Magna. Both the snorkeling and the birding were better here. A short hike with my daughter into a scrubby wadi just north of the village produced Arabian Green Bee-eater, Arabian Great Grey Shrike, Mourning Wheatear, Blackstart, Asian Desert Warbler along with our fourth male Sardinian Warbler of the trip. On the drive back to Magna we saw two Caspian Tern hunting just offshore and some interesting drama between a Mourning Wheatear and a pair of Hooded Wheatears. The remote stretches of coast south of Haql and around Magna were also good for wild-type Rock Pigeons—distant from any farms or towns and showing a pure plumage without any trace of feral stock.
Jebel Al Lawz (جبل اللوز)
During our stay along the coast of the Gulf of Aqaba we ventured back inland one morning to visit Jebel Al Lawz, a must for any visitor—birder and non-birder alike. The drive up the mountain is quite scenic and would be reason enough for most, but the draw for birders is that this mountain is the most reliable place in the Kingdom to see Chukar, which only occurs in Tabuk Province. Near the top of the mountain is a military installation, and we drove as far as the entrance gate and then began birding just down the road from there. After getting out of the car I made my way to the edge of a wide ravine just east of the road and scanned the area. In the distance I made out a largish flock of small passerines just as they rounded the hillside opposite. I could tell in that instant that they were finches and initially was thinking they were Sinai Rosefinches, which have been seen on the mountain. However, when I saw the flock again, still at a distance, they looked kind of greenish and quite small—I started to get even more excited as nothing regularly seen in Saudi fit that description. In fact, they almost looked like a tight flock of tiny parakeets given how yellowish-green they appeared when flying to together. I called Michelle and Isza over and we made our way down into the ravine. Just as we neared the point where the ravine narrowed between two steeper hillsides, we flushed four Chukar as they fed near a well. The birds quickly flew out of sight but their ID was clear. Not even cooled from the excitement of finding the Chukar, a Saudi first for me, the flock of finches settled on a rock up ahead. I put my bins on them and puzzled over their pretty forms for a moment or two and then realized what I was looking at. It was a flock of nearly 40 Syrian Serin, a range-restricted species from the Levant region with a global population of only around 4000 individuals. I knew then that this was likely a first record as I had never heard of any prior and indeed it was! Mike Jennings, who compiled the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Arabia, said there was an old record from 1975 but that it was insufficiently documented and wasn’t accepted. Fortunately, I was able to capture the first documentary shots of this species in Saudi before the flock, frenetic and flighty, took off again over more impassable terrain down slope. I also managed to record some distant calling, but the wind up on the mountain prevented getting anything better. On the way back up to the road another small flock rose out of the mountain scrub, flitted over our heads, and then promptly flew out of sight.
We then returned to spot a kilometer back down the road where we had brief glimpses of a male Western Black Redstart, distinctly different from its more commonly encountered eastern counterpart by its sooty underparts and bold, white wing panels. We relocated the redstart, but unfortunately he kept well clear of us and we weren’t able to get pictures. Later in the morning, on the drive home, we did randomly come upon a female in a small roadside village that was more cooperative. We then ventured up into a rocky ravine in which stood a few striking juniper trees. Here we discovered another well—this one with a large plastic tub full of water beside it—that attracted a small gathering of birds. A Scrub Warbler flew up from the ground and began singing from atop a boulder. A White-crowned Wheatear was perched nearby, singing as well but not as vigorously as the warbler. Tristram’s Starlings could be heard as well, calling from high up the canyon slope. My daughter then spotted another two Syrian Serin up further a short ways. They too had apparently come in to drink when we disturbed them. They were close and in good light, but before the camera could focus they were off. We clambered awkwardly in pursuit and found them again—more distant—perched on top of a boulder. I captured a few shots of the brightest of the two—a lovely male with an eye-poppingly yellow countenance. They took flight again and, as with the others we encountered, flew and flew and flew until they were clear out of sight. Returning to the car we headed back up the road toward the first stop. I was hoping to find the serin again and try for better pictures or audio recordings. Singing outside the window as we drove prompted me to stop just beside a small farm with a couple of structures across rows of young olive trees. Standing there scanning the rocky slope behind the largest structure, I heard a Chukar calling from the same direction. Scanning higher up the slope I soon made out the silhouette of the calling bird off the right flank of the hill with the blue sky behind it. It slipped behind a rock but further scanning revealed more birds resting quietly in different places on the slope opposite us. Soon the whole covey—ten birds in total—began making their way down the hill to a bare patch near the largest structure. Here we observed them at length through my scope while they foraged, undisturbed by or unaware of our presence. Given how shy and retiring most partridges are, some of my most thrilling birding experiences have been rare occasions like this when I’ve been able to get long, satisfying views instead of the usual blurry burst of a covey flushing and then quickly dropping out of sight. After failing to find the serins again, we returned to Haql feeling thrilled by a superb morning of mountain birding.
Duba and Wadi Disah (ضبا ووادي الديسة)
After Magna, we spent two nights in Duba, a larger town on the Red Sea coast about an hour and half south of Sharma and the expansive and ambitious Neom Project. Here we stayed at the Hamas Al Bahar Apartments in the nicest furnished apartment we’ve had yet during our travels. From the windows of apartment 205, we had views of both the mouth of the harbor, where White-eyed Gulls perched on rocky mounds just offshore, and the Red Sea, where on our last morning an adult Brown Booby flew by quite close to shore and an Osprey perched on a street light just outside. The gull, a near endemic found only in the Red Sea, was in fact the most common gull during our stay along the northwest coast. We also had a male Arabian Serin singing in a tree just 3 meters away—the furthest north and the lowest elevation I’ve observed this charming Arabian endemic.
From Duba we drove to Wadi Disah, dubbed the Grand Canyon of Saudi Arabia, for a morning hike. We parked at the end of the asphalt road leading up the wadi and then trekked up further in the shade of the towering canyon walls. At an early bend in the wadi we marveled at ancient inscriptions and petroglyphs dating back two millennia to the famed Nabatean civilization and the odd juxtaposition of modern Arabic graffiti spray-painted over them in places. The sound of a large flock of Tristram’s Starlings drew us to an area at the base of the canyon where many birds were feeding. The starlings littered a rocky scree sloping up to the sheer canyon wall and White-spectacled Bulbuls called agitatedly from a line of acacias. The sound of rapid wings shooting up from the canyon floor gave a sudden jolt of excitement—Sand Partridges! I jumped forward to get a better view of the boulder scree and began scanning for the partridges and soon found a small covey of four birds popping in and out of view as they moved up slope from us. Moments later a raucous clucking over my left shoulder spun me around just as a group of ten Arabian Partridges flew overhead and landed on top of the rocky scree. We watched as the covey snaked their way up the canyon wall, alternately flying and climbing from one rocky crag to another. Initially I thought this was the furthest north by a good 600 kilometers that this Arabian endemic has been observed; however, Mike Jennings informed me that one had been captured by a camera trap in the mountains east of Sharma, a further 200 kilometers northwest of Wadi Disah.
After trudging through sand most of the way in search of our main target of the morning—Sinai Rosefinch—we decided to check out one of the many small farms dotting the wadi bottom. Wandering through the date palms, my daughter soon called out that she had found a male rosefinch. I looked in the direction of a mature acacia near to where she was standing and there he was—a lovely male Sinai Rosefinch. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to observe the male for long before he and another flew off; however, we did find a female in an acacia in another farm on the return trek. Like the Chukar, this regional specialty can only be found in the Kingdom in the mountains and canyons of the northwest. While we failed to connect with the species further north, Wadi Disah broke the spell and in Al Ula we would see many more.
Al Ula (العلا)
The next stop of the trip was the historically significant and scenically beautiful town of Al Ula, home of Saudi Arabia’s key UNESCO heritage site, Mada’in Saleh. We enjoyed exploring the area so much that we ultimately spent our last four days of our trip there, and we were rewarded with some of the best birding of the trip. We stayed at the Naseem Al Atheeb Country House, a small, lovely resort nestled in the picturesque farms of the village of Al Atheeb. After arriving, we strolled around the grounds, which feature pens with different farm animals, and recorded a nice array of bird species in short order. We found a pair of Hypocolius, a Black Scrub-Robin, and Spanish Sparrows in a couple of acacia trees. Climbing along the edge of a hill on the back side of the property we were surprised to see a couple of Sand Partridges, which had likely just descended for a late afternoon feeding. After dark we ventured down the road from the resort and heard a male Barn Owl, which we soon spotlighted perched under the crown of a nearby date palm. The next morning we headed to a complex of sandstone canyons near the Sahari Resort, east of Al Ula. Here we found a flock of nine Sinai Rosefinch and stumbled upon a sizable roost of Egyptian Fruit Bats.
Later in the morning we headed to the open desert north of Mada’in Saleh. I intended to check out three spots where Gary Brown had seen Arabian Lark the previous year; however, when we arrived to the area we discovered crews installing barbed-wire fencing all along the south side of the road. It turns out the area south of the road will be part of an expansive new wildlife reserve. We explored a couple places north of the road until early afternoon. Bar-tailed, Temminck’s, and Greater Hoopoe Larks were in abundance. We were expecting the same for Arabian Lark, especially given all the rain the region had received in the weeks prior; however, we managed to find only two just as we were about to head back to Al Ula after several hours of driving and tromping about the desert. Thankfully Jem Babbington was birding around Al Ula the same morning and shared a spot to the northwest of where we were where he discovered a large flock of Arabian Larks. My daughter and I went there the next morning and after a bit of unsuccessful searching, which produced a Little Owl near the road, two Cream-colored Coursers, and low numbers of the lark species seen the day before, we finally found the flock foraging on a relatively barren slope studded with the clipped, woody stalks of desert shrubs. We had been exploring by foot patches of desert with significant more vegetation, particularly those areas showing the most fresh growth, so it was a surprise that these Arabian Larks in fact were favoring such a barren patch. The only thing I could think was that the recent rains had swept down that slope and likely uncovered or washed down a relative abundance of food items that we simply couldn’t perceive. Jem had said these birds were singing the morning before, so I made multiple recordings as we observed the flock; however, most of what I recorded were calls with the odd bit of whisper singing as the birds foraged along the gravelly terrain.
With a late morning start on our final day, we decided to drive up to the King Abdulaziz National Park, which is located at the edge of a mountain plateau overlooking the town of Al Ula and the surrounding area, in the hopes of adding different raptors and vultures to the trip list. The drive through the very rocky and barren terrain out to the national park was fairly uneventful. The first birds we recorded were a group of Desert Lark hanging around the parking lot near the public overlook. A few Fan-tailed Ravens flew past just below the summit. On the return, however, things picked up. In the distance we spied two Steppe Eagles rising on late morning thermals, other Desert Larks were browsing the few patches of green springing up in places, and an odd-looking Mourning Wheatear got us wondering aloud about rarer wheatear species we could turn up in the northwest. My daughter was flipping through the Birds of the Middle East app as I listed off their names—Cyprus Wheatear…Red-rumped Wheatear…Kurdish Wheatear. She commented on how striking the male Kurdish Wheatear looked as we proceeded slowly up the road, scanning the terrain for whatever else we might find. We then spotted another wheatear perched on a rock pile just off the road. Bins up and, coincidence of all coincidences, there he was—a handsome male Kurdish Wheatear! We couldn’t believe it. It seemed the birding gods had been listening! Just up the road we found a second male Kurdish as well, suggesting that this road might be a good place to look for this species in the winter.
In the late afternoon, my family and I went mountain biking in the canyons east of Al Ula. Our plan for our last evening was to try for owls and the mountain biking would allow us to cover a lot of terrain just before and after sunset. During the ride, we didn’t detect any owls; however, there were good numbers of White-crowned Wheatears, Hooded Wheatears, and Sinai Rosefinches. After the ride though, with the sky above glimmering with the brightest array of stars we’ve ever seen here, we headed to a promising-looking canyon near where we saw the rosefinches our first morning. Equipped with our bins, a flashlight, and my recording equipment, we marched up a sand dune into the canyon. Within 15 minutes we heard a Desert Owl calling further up the canyon. We continued on until we could hear the owl calling from the canyon wall above us and then after some searching with the flashlight we found it perched about two thirds the way up. This is a species I have been wanting to see for years, so I took my time to enjoy the views we were getting before setting up the audio recorder and capturing some of the best recordings of the species in Saudi to date. Our last day in the northwest—New Year’s Day in fact—and we found two stellar lifers. It was a great start to 2021!