African Gray Hornbill
Arabian Green Bee-eater
Little Rock Thrush
Arabian (Shining) Sunbird
April 12, 2019—Return to Raydah
My side work as an IELTS examiner recently brought me back to Abha for my first bit of spring birding in the Aseer Province of southwest Saudi Arabia. I was bent on getting back to the Raydah Preserve at the edge of the Aseer Escarpment, from where I was turned away by one of the preserve officers during my last visit to the area—no permission. This time I came armed with a permit I arranged through the Saudi Wildlife Authority’s eServices Portal and the same Nissan Nevara I rented from Best Rent A Car the last time I birded Raydah (200 SAR per day / 140 SAR with the FlyNas discount). Yet how different an experience at the gate this time around…
The first time I entered the Raydah Preserve I arrived just before 4 AM, when the gate is up and the guards are not. This time I rocked up to the gate at a fashionable 5:30, just after Fajr prayer, and was disappointed to see that, despite the presence of several new SWA vehicles, the gate was still up and there was no guard to present my permit to. A 4×4 in front proceeded through without stopping and I followed suit, but I couldn’t help wondering what the story was—all previous visits the guards were active at the gate and turning away folks who either didn’t have a permit or didn’t live in one of the villages below the escarpment. I suspected they might have gone back to sleep after the first prayer.
After negotiating several switchbacks on the initial descent into the preserve (≈9000 feet), I stopped at an area that I had not previously explored but that has been known to host African Olive Pigeons—a derelict terrace farm still in the upper juniper zone of the preserve. A short, rocky trail led to the old terraces and the low, dilapidated stone structures of the “Raydah farm”. The sun hadn’t yet risen over the escarpment edge but the preserve was already alive with the sounds of Hamadryas Baboon, Palestine Sunbird, White-spectacled Bulbul, Brown Woodland-Warbler, and Arabian Partridge off somewhere on the steep wooded slopes. Just as I reached the farm I noticed some movement in a dense, low tree just off the trail. Focusing my bins through the leaves and branches, I caught the bluish-white eye and muddy gray plumage of a Yemen Warbler hopping away from me. There were two together, suggesting a pair, and moments later both set to an agitated, harsh chattering from a nearby bush, perhaps an alarm call, having been disturbed. On this visit I aimed to collect audio from the endemic species I encountered as there are very few recordings available in popular databases of avian vocalization, such as AVoCet, Xeno-Canto, and the Internet Bird Collection (IBC). The recording below is only the third for Yemen Warbler in Xeno-Canto and the first in the site for this particular call.
Exploring around the terraces and ravines at the farm, I turned up a couple more Yemen Warbler in addition to two Yemen Thrush, a couple pairs of Palestine Sunbird, several Brown Woodland-Warbler and Abyssinian White-eye, a calling Arabian Woodpecker as well as a trio of Fan-tailed Raven flying circles over the area. I also had a brief flyby of what might have been an African Olive Pigeon, but I never got glass on it to be sure.
Next I made my way further down the escarpment, stopping in places to survey the wooded ravines running on either side of the road. It was in this manner that I flushed the first of three groups of Arabian Partridge feeding just off the road out of sight. At one point I encountered a harem of Hamadryas Baboons cleaning up the leftovers of rice with meat (a whole-cooked sheep!) from the night before. I then made a longer stop for a short trek through some fairly level scrub running south of the road. This area (≈5900 feet) is dominated by succulent plants, such as prickly pear cactus and aloe trees, which made for an otherworldly experience having just been surrounded by junipers and olive trees a short time before. Here I encountered a few more Arabian Partridge, scrambling out of view as I crested a slope, and Arabian Sunbird, which was recently separated from the Shining Sunbird of Africa based on differences in morphology, plumage, and song. I also found Black-crowned Tchagra, Little Rock Thrush and a couple nice migrants—Whinchat and Common Redstart.
Once I reached the wadi at the bottom of the escarpment (≈4200 feet), I was struck, but not surprised, by how much less vegetated it appeared. The monsoon season in southwest Arabia, what is known locally as “Al Khareef”, has not yet begun, so at lower elevations much of the terrain is still quite dry. As a result, bird density and diversity was quite reduced on this visit compared to my last. Some of the region’s afro-tropical breeders have returned to the highlands, with Dusky Turtle-Dove, Ruppell’s Weaver, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting showing in good numbers. However, I was only able to turn up singles of African Gray Hornbilland White-browed Coucal. Absent were Gray-headed Kingfisher, White-throated Bee-eater, African Paradise Flycatcher, and Bruce’s Green Pigeon. Actually, I’ve heard that May is really the best time to catch all of the afro-tropical specialties of the region back at Raydah. There were decent numbers of migrant warblers working the trees though, which livened an otherwise quiet late morning in the wadi bottom.
I wrapped things up a little after 10 AM so I could get back to Abha in time for work. Two Yemeni laborers hitched a ride with me to the top of the escarpment and waited patiently in a places as I made a few more stops, one of which was to record the strange movements of a brilliantly green Arabian Chameleon making its way across the road. Its back-and-forth swaying is clearly meant to fool predators, like the Eurasian Kestrels hunting nearby. I was amazed to witness a split-second darkening of its colors once it reached the dark brown dirt on the opposite side of the road. Unfortunately, the video below didn’t capture the moment…
The only true downside of the morning was the amount of plastic trash I encountered along the road, trails, and wadi at Raydah Preserve. It was the kind of trash typically left behind by local tourists when they picnic in an area, but, as I mentioned, those kinds of visitors are typically kept out by the preserve officers, and I’ve never witnessed villagers from the area behaving like this. During my visit, I collected, perhaps futilely, as many of the plastic bottles, cups, and foodware as I could, tossing them into the back of the pickup. I was dismayed when my two Yemeni hitchhikers, despite seeing that I was collecting trash, casually tossed their water bottles out the window. I felt it was beyond me in the moment to try and educate them on the matter. This is clearly something the authorities need to take more seriously. Only then will more people in Saudi change their behavior, but that starts with those in charge not shirking their duties. When we arrived back to the gatehouse, I discovered what I suspect was the reason for the increased trash in the preserve. Just before 11 AM, the gate was still up and no guards were in sight. So much for obtaining a permit when anyone can get in and trash the place…
April 13, 2019—Soudah Waterfall and Wadi Reema
The next morning I arrived just before sunrise to the Soudah Waterfall, a spot Abraham Arias de la Torre and I explored only briefly during his visit to the southwest. At the time, we turned up a good mix of birds in a relatively small area and the mix of vegetation, including succulents, and permanent water found in the wadi suggested it might be a good spot to watch for Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak. I was determined to get back and give it a proper survey.
While I didn’t turn up any grosbeaks, the early spring birding in the area was fantastic! There was a lot of singing and courtship on display among most of the resident species and those summer breeders that had already returned. In the terraced area due east of the entrance to the wadi, I encountered singing Yemen Thrush, Yemen Linnet, Little Rock Thrush, Dusky Turtle-Dove, Palestine Sunbird, African Stonechat, Arabian Serin, Ruppell’s Weaver, and Graceful Prinia.
I also saw in this area White-spectacled Bulbul, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, Violet-backed Starling, Arabian Warbler as well as a pair of very vocal Hamerkop. One of the coolest moments of the morning, however, was when I came upon two male . One of the coolest moments of the morning, however, was when I came upon two male Arabian Woodpeckers seemingly taking turns chasing each other around the trunks and branches of a small copse of acacia trees. At one point while I was quietly watching them, a Little Rock Thrush burst into song in the branches overhead and then was chased off by another male of his kind. Spring was clearly in the air!
The birding in the wadi leading to the Soudah “waterfall” was a bit quieter than out on the terraces, but Arabian Partridge could be heard moving about on the scrubby slopes above, and somewhere up there a lone Long-billed Pipit made its presence known in song. I also turned up more Yemen Linnet and Arabian Serin along with a thirsty Eurasian Sparrowhawk, which I twice disturbed from the water’s edge.
Getting to the heart of the wadi required a little scrambling up an over a rocky slope where the wadi pinches into a slight chute, down which the water flows into a narrow cattail-filled basin (i.e. the “waterfall”). This was worth the effort as the vegetation here grew much thicker and there was far less litter as most visitors clearly opt to stay downstream of the waterfall. While I was hoping this stretch of the wadi would hold Golden-winged Grosbeak, I was rewarded with my fourth encounter with Arabian Waxbill, two of which were vocalizing down in the cattails only a meter away. When they emerged, they were too close even to focus on with my bins!
With time to spare before needing to head back to Abha, I decided to head to Wadi Reema to try for Rufous-capped Lark and African Pipit, both of which I had seen there previously but I was hoping for better views of each.
The area of the wadi most often birded was just upstream from a dam, which during much of the year has some water accumulated at its base. This time, however, the wadi was totally dry and clumps of a meter-high, leafy plant grew up where this past December there had been a small muddy pool. This was the place for Rufous-capped Lark I’d been told, as it offered a ready source of water, especially during the warmer months. Having missed them last December and the pool having dried up, I thought perhaps they wouldn’t be about this morning. Indeed the wadi was still much quieter than it had been the first time I visited and succeeded in catching the larks coming in for a drink. So, as I headed toward the base of the dam, I wasn’t expecting much.
A group of camels were grazing in the area as I approached the new green growth in the wadi bottom. Shortly a few Crested Lark flew up and it was clear that, despite the lack of water, the dry but rich sediment still offered good foraging for ground birds. Just a minute after flushing the Crested Larks, three smaller birds flew up from the ground and then settled a little ways up the slope. Thinking they might have been, I slowly made my way to where I had seen them go down. Sure enough, they were three Rufous-capped Larks and they thankfully stuck about, foraging along the stony ground and low scrub, long enough for me to shoot a short video, the first footage uploaded to Cornell's Macaulay Library for this near-endemic species, which was recently separated from Blanford’s Lark.
Shortly after, I got on to two brownish pipits making their way along the dam wall and I thought this was too good to be true—first I find the larks and then within minutes I find African Pipit! Turns out it was to good to be true. I was fooled once again by the local subspecies of Long-billed Pipit. I hope to write a post (perhaps entitled “Another Saudi Birding Fail”?) with advice to help those birders unfamiliar with both species avoid making the same mistake. The differences can be subtle but unambiguous if you take the time to parse them in the field. It was only after watching the videos on the plane back to Dammam that I realized I’d been mistaken once again.
Just a note on the name of this Aseer hotspot. While I was trying to relocate the larks, the Sudani herder who was minding the camels grazing nearby greeted me and came over to see what I was doing. This was an opportunity to get some local knowledge on the area. The place has generally been known among Western birders as Wadi Tale’a, and, in support of this naming, I’ve encountered two signs, one at the start of route 2520 about 14 kilometers to the south and one a kilometer to the west near the village of Tabab (طبب), pointing in that direction that say “Al Wadi Al Tale’a” (الوادي الطالع).
However, in Google Maps, the exact area where we have been finding the larks is called Wadi Reema (وادي ريمة). Well, I asked the herder, who has been at a nearby farm for over four years, and he informed me the name was indeed Wadi Reema. Yet when I asked him then where Wadi Al Tale’a was he gestured broadly upstream towards the south. I queried him a little further and understand now that the whole area, including the smaller wadis that feed into it, is known as Al Wadi Al Tale’a, but the main wadi starting about 5 kilometers south of the village of Al Amsudami (آل امصدامي) and running past the dam is called Wadi Reema. The dam itself is called Reema Dam (سد ريمة). I also took the opportunity to ask him about possible Asir Magpies in the area. If he’s seen them, I’d expect that he’d remember given how striking they are, but he added further confirmation of what most avian researchers in the Kingdom now believe—that they’re no longer found in this part of their former range.