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Birding Saudi’s Southwest (August 2018)

Trip Total: 146 species

Arabian Endemics Total: 12 / 14

Arabian Endemics Seen:

  1. Philby’s Partridge

  2. Arabian Partridge

  3. Arabian Scops-Owl

  4. Arabian Woodpecker

  5. Asir Magpie (KSA only)

  6. Yemen Thrush

  7. Arabian Wheatear

  8. Yemen Warbler

  9. Arabian Waxbill

  10. Arabian Serin

  11. Yemen Serin

  12. Yemen Linnet

Monday, August 20—Abha

I took a morning flight from Dammam in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where I work, and arrived at Abha International Airport a little after 9:00 AM. I arranged a Nissan Navara, a semi-powerful 2WD pickup with decent clearance, with a local rental car agency. Local agencies will only rent to Saudi citizens and those with residency cards; however, several of the international agencies have offices in Abha and will rent to international visitors. I chose Best Rental Cars because they offer a discount if you book your flights with Flynas, a low-cost Saudi carrier. The cost of the rental worked out to around $40 a day (150 SAR).

An Arabian Chameleon at Wadi Reema

Once the pickup was sorted, I hit the road to my first stop—Wadi Reema—about 30 minutes to the north of Abha. This area is a wide valley surrounded by grassy, rock-strewed hills and populated with clusters of acacia trees in the wadi bottom. As it’s a little inland from the edge of the Asir escarpment, the area doesn’t receive as much precipitation as the slope of the escarpment itself, so the conditions are generally a little drier and hotter.

Further to the north of the hotspot pin, down the main wadi, is a small dam at the base of which a large pool of water can be found. This pool is a magnet for thirsty birds in the area, especially during the hotter months, and should be visited in the early afternoon for the best chance of catching some of the harder to find species, such as Rufous-capped Lark and African Pipit.

On this, my first visit to the area, Wadi Reema was teeming with bird activity with most species congregated, as could be expected, in the acacias stands in the wadi bottom and around the pool of water at the base of the dam. There were good numbers of young and adult birds about—particularly numerous were Gambaga Flycatcher—as well as early migrants, such as White-throated Robin, Common and Thrush Nightingale, and Semi-collared Flycatcher.

Needless to say, with all the birds about, my birder antennae were twitching overtime as soon as I stepped out of the pickup. Within a couple of hours I saw 37 species in the wadi, including 9 of my targets.

The highlights of this spot were Dusky Turtle-Dove, Little Swift, Rufous-capped Lark, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Arabian Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, Gambaga Flycatcher, Thrush Nightingale, Little Rock-Thrush, Red-breasted Wheatear, Tristram’s Starling, Palestine Sunbird, Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin, Yemen Linnet, Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, and Ruppell’s Weaver.

I returned the next day around the same time and managed to track down African Pipit as well as get some nice video of a female Arabian Woodpecker.

A female Arabian Woodpecker at Wadi Reema

Two subsequent visits to the wadi, in October and again late November, proved much less productive, so, as with most of the highland birding in Saudi’s southwest, the best time to visit is in the hotter months, late spring and late summer, when summer breeders are present and resident birds are more concentrated at the higher elevations.

After Wadi Al Tale’a, I headed in the direction of Jebel Soudah and the Asir escarpment, stopping at a few of the picturesque villages along the way. Some of these villages were quite birdy, such as Sharma and Tabab, and by the time I made it to the escarpment I added Long-billed Pipit, Tristram’s Starling, Bruce’s Green-Pigeon, and Violet-backed Starling to my trip list.

The last stop during my first day in Abha was at Al Sahab Park at the very edge of the Asir escarpment. At over 3000 meters, the views from the parking area at the end of the road into the park are breathtaking.

As it was already late afternoon and the peak season for domestic tourism to the area, the park was packed with visitors, making a full exploration of the area pointless. However, from the park entrance to the parking area I was able to add a few species to the trip list, including a flyby of a group of Eurasian Griffon Vulture and Fan-tailed Raven.

That evening I stayed at Al Narjis Suites, a cheap hotel on the southwest side of the city. I chose this place for the price and the relatively short drive to the next hotspot—the Raydah Preserve. The room was comfortable enough, but I recommend getting one away from the ground floor as the noise in the lobby woke me up several times late into the night.

Tuesday, August 21—Abha

A super early start the next morning (3:30 AM!) and I was off with some bird photographers from Dammam to bird the Raydah Preserve, Abha’s premier birding hotspot. Because Raydah is technically off-limits to all but those who live in the village below the escarpment, to bird the area you have to pass through the preserve’s gates and start descending well before first light (4:00 – 4:30 AM), when the gates are up and the guards are not. Otherwise you are likely to be turned away, as I was on a subsequent visit.

A “harem” of Hamadryas Baboons at Raydah Preserve, August 2018

My companions and I arrived at the guard station at 4:30 AM and had no issue, as the gates were up. We immediately began negotiating the steep descent and narrow switchbacks under the cover of darkness. Driving down and up the escarpment is not a challenge to be attempted with anything but a more powerful vehicle. While the Nissan Navara I rented wasn’t 4WD, the engine was just strong enough to make it back up, but there were moments I was afraid it couldn’t keep going.

So after about the fifth or sixth switchback, we decided to stop and wait for the sun to rise. During the wait, I heard my first African Scops-Owl of the trip and as the light began to improve the sounds of White-spectacled Bulbuls and Hamadryas Baboons rousing could be heard nearby.

What makes Raydah a great—albeit challenging—spot to bird is the swift change in elevation as you descend, as different elevations are favored by a different array of bird species. Closer to the top of the escarpment, Philby’s Partridge, Arabian Partridge, Arabian Woodpecker, and African Olive (Rameron) Pigeon can be found. These, however, I missed during this visit as we spent most of our time exploring the lower stretches of the road down as well as the village and large wadi at the very bottom. It was here ultimately that I encountered many more of my targets.

Immature Grey-headed Kingfisher at Raydah Preserve

In the village, just where the road dead ends at the wadi, in short order I saw my first Grey-headed Kingfisher, African Grey Hornbill, White-throated Bee-eater, White-browed Coucal, Black-crowned Tchagra, African Silverbill, Alpine Swift, and Shining Sunbird of the trip. There were further encounters with Bruce’s Green-Pigeon, Little Rock-Thrush, Violet-backed Starling, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, and several early migrants were about as well, including Pied and Common Cuckoo, Eurasian Hoopoe, Common Swift, European Bee-eater, Great Reed Warbler, and (more) White-throated Robin.

On my way back to the car to begin the ascent back to the top of the escarpment, I encountered a further endemic target—Arabian Waxbill! There was a small group foraging in fairly dense vegetation along the wadi wall. From what I had read, I was expecting these to be one of the harder species to track down, but this turned out not to be the only encounter. The other was to come the next day in Tanomah.

A Black-crowned Tchagra at Raydah Preserve

After a long, nerve-wrenching ascent back to the top of the escarpment, I said goodbye to my companions and headed back to Wadi ,Reema to try for better views of Rufous-capped Lark and African Pipit. No larks but, as mentioned above, I did locate possibly two African Pipits and had long, satisfying views of a female Arabian Woodpecker as she casually moved tree to tree a few meters away, searching for food.

I then headed north towards the road to Tanomah where I settled into my accommodation as the sun was setting. I stayed at Abu Turki’s Hotel Apartments on the road to Tanomah, the next stop. These cheap ($50) but decent two-bed apartments are an hour’s drive from Tanomah and just off the road. There is a restaurant on the ground floor of the commercial complex for a big plate of rice with chicken if you’re hungry, but unfortunately it was the first day of Eid Al Adha when I arrived and everything was closed.

An Abyssinian White-eye near the village of Sharma, August 2018

Wednesday, August 22—Tanomah

Another early start put me into my first stop in Tanomah before sunrise. I arrived to the Al Dahna Waterfall on the east side of Tanomah at dark with the intention of doing a little owling. But knowing nothing about the area besides the birds I was hoping to encounter, I wasn’t expecting the unnerving racket of Hamadryas Baboons screeching and bellowing on the cliff face above me, rocks tumbling down the slope as they moved about, nor the sudden deafening boom of the air cannon that had been set up to scare them away from the farm plot in the wadi bottom. The shock of the latter sent me scrambling to the pickup and tearing off back down the road, content to return later when it was light.

A Yemen Warbler at the Al Wahdah Woods in Tanomah, August 2018

So I got my first real birding on in Tanomah in a spot that my companions from the previous day turned me on to. A beautiful place called, as I subsequently found out, Al Wahdah Woods. Prowling open areas at the base of the steep rocky slopes early that morning produced my first, painfully brief, views of Philby’s and Arabian Partridge, both having flown or run for cover as soon as they saw me coming. Also in the more open areas were Yemen Linnet, Yemen Serin, and the handsomely plumaged buryi subspecies of Scrub Warbler. Then a walk through the more densely wooded area at the heart of Al Wahdah turned up my first encounters with Yemen Warbler and Yemen Thrush. My companions had had African Paradise Flycatcher there earlier in the summer, but they appeared to have had cleared out of the area by then.

A Yemen Thrush preening at the Al Wahdah Woods in Tanomah

Next I visited one of the more popular birding spots in Tanomah—Al Mehfar Park. It’s a nice area to explore but can get a little busy with picnickers, and while the park proper is easily birded it’s a little more difficult to explore beyond it, particularly south of the park as the vegetation gets a little too dense and the slopes too rocky to venture easily. I did explore the old terraces to the north of the park and flushed a few more small groups of Philby’s Partridge and the park itself produced the only Dideric Cuckoo of the trip.

Not having seen magpie yet—as Tanomah is perhaps the heart of their range—I decided it was time to return to Al Dahna Waterfall, one of the most reliable spots to find them. Most of the baboons had cleared out, but a large flock of Fan-tailed Raven had taken their place on the cliff face above the parking area and the air cannon was still booming in the wadi below. From the waterfall proper, I began hiking down the wadi and discovered a small flock of Arabian Waxbill feeding on tall, seeding grass. Shortly after, I disturbed a small group of Asir Magpie from one of the larger trees on the far side of the wadi and began climbing up the slope in the hopes of getting better views. They soon relaxed and became easier to observe. A group of about 10 Philby’s Partridge were making their way up the slope also at that moment, offering the best, if distant, views of the trip. The last gem of this stop revealed itself on my way back to the car. A handsome male Arabian Woodpecker obligingly perched out in the open in the bare top of a juniper, allowing for super satisfying views.

After an early dinner, I made a brief stop at Al Sharaf Park, where I found more Yemen Thrush and Yemen Warbler as well as Dusky Turtle-Dove, Common Cuckoo, Brown Woodland-Warbler, and Abyssinian White-eye. Then I rounded out the day with a hunt for nocturnal birds back Al Mehfar Park. While I had no luck with nightjars or the resident Spotted Eagle-Owl, I did manage to track down two Arabian Scops-Owls.

A male Arabian Woodpecker at Al Dahna Waterfall in Tanomah

That night I stayed at Al Nahdi Apartments right on the main road near the center of town, which I came to find out was popular with a couple of other birders who’ve visited the area. I got a 2 bedroom apartment for only a little over $50 for the night.

Thursday, August 23—Wadi Baqarah and Muhayil

The next morning I left Tanomah and descended to the Tihama, the foothills and coastal plain running from the base of Asir escarpment to the Red Sea. Less than an hour from Tanomah I stopped at Wadi Baqarah, a very wide wadi in which, at the point where the road and the wadi meet, there is an extensive swathe of vegetation. I saw the place in Google Maps and was sure by the size of the vegetated area that the birding would be good. Turns out my intuition was correct.

A Pied Cuckoo at Wadi Baqarah

In a short time and covering only perhaps a square mile patch of the wadi, I saw nearly 50 species and good numbers of many of them. I was greeted straightaway by no less than three calling White-browed Coucals, and large mixed flocks of swifts and bee-eaters began filling the air as the sun rose over the escarpment edge to the east. New for the trip were African Collared-Dove, Namaqua Dove, Black Scrub-Robin, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, Blackstart, and Nile Valley Sunbird as well as several migrant species.

Further down the wadi, on the way to Muhayil, I picked up my first flyby Hamerkops, a bird I fantasized about ever since I was a kid watching Nat Geo programs about African wildlife.

A short exploration around Muhayil before heading to Al Birk for the evening and I had another great encounter with White-browed Coucal, got awesome views of a Hamerkop preening, and added a couple more new species to the trip list, including Little Bittern.

That night I stayed at the Mangrove Resort, a rather crummy motel just north of the coastal town but one that’s relatively cheap and quite close to probably some of the best mangrove birding in Saudi. In the two hours before sundown I had made it out to a few spots and managed to find a couple of my coastal targets in short order—Goliath Heron and Pink-backed Pelican. The beaches and mudflats offered up lots of terns and waders to my trip list, including Eurasian Spoonbill, Lesser Crested Tern, Crab Plover, and Terek Sandpiper.

Friday, August 24—Al Birk to Al Darb

Early the next morning I headed to a short trail through the mangroves to the edge of one of the coves. From Google Maps this looked to be the best spot to get into the mangroves without being knee-deep in mud. Most other areas of thicker mangrove stands can only be explored by working the outer or inner edges. I failed to turn up African (Mangrove) Reed Warbler the day before, so that was my target for the morning.

Even just past dawn the heat and humidity along the coast was nearly unbearable, the one downside to exploring the Tihama during the summer. No sooner than I took out my bins and scope, all the lenses promptly fogged up and even after repeated wipes I couldn’t get the image clear. This became all the more frustrating when I encountered a few Mangrove Reed Warbler actively flitting about just off the trail and my lenses kept fogging up. I only managed a couple shots and a short foggy video of one of the birds before they moved off.

At the edge of the cove, I picked up some new species for the trip, including Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Saunders’s Tern, Purple Heron, Striated Heron, and two Collared Kingfisher tucked into a channel to the north.

Two adult and one immature Crab Plover at Al Birk

Before heading south out of Al Birk, I stopped at the tip of a peninsula in the town proper that seemed elevated enough to be worth trying a little seawatching. Close to shore were a lone Goliath Heron, a couple of Pink-backed Pelican, a Crab Plover, Sooty Gulls, and the occasional Lesser Crested Tern. Nothing much was passing further from shore but I did get brief views of what might have been young Sooty Terns heading north.

I then set off south in the direction of Al Darb, stopping along the way where the mangrove stands or seawatching looked promising. Two stops with mangroves produced similar birds as in Al Birk, including one more encounter with Goliath Heron, Pink-backed Pelicans, and Mangrove Reed Warbler.

A Pink-backed Pelican at Al Birk

Last stop along the coast before heading inland toward Al Darb was at Al Shuqaiq. On the beaches and sand spits was a good mix of terns, gulls, and shorebirds, and scoping offshore I picked up Brown Booby and Greater Crested Tern. This was also the only spot where I saw House Crow–an invasive species from the Indian subcontinent that occurs in pockets along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula.

Once in Al Darb, I had some time to explore before sundown. At Marabah Dam to the north—with no reservoir but just a marshy meadow and the odd pool or two—I added Collared Pratincole, Whiskered Tern, Black-winged Stilt and my first view of African Palm-Swift, one of my targets. Also present were singles of Terek Sandpiper and Hamerkop.

Back in Al Darb I stopped at a stretch of Wadi A’atood, where there were some sizeable pools of water near the road. This was the spot where under the hot afternoon sun I caught a flock of African Palm-Swifts and four Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse coming in to drink. Also new for the trip were Little Grebe and Squacco Heron.

That night I stayed in the Abahi Aparthotels, another cheap but serviceable accommodation, near the north side of the city.

Saturday, August 25—Al Darb to Jebel Soudah

On my last morning I drove north from Al Darb by way of Habeel for a few hours of exploring around Jebel Soudah before heading to the airport for my 1:40 PM flight. I’m really glad I chose to take that route as it was quite scenic and ran past lots of wooded and cultivated wadis and interesting foothill villages. One stop just before the village of Al Batilah produced my closest encounter with African Grey Hornbill of the trip.

Once back on top of the Asir escarpment, I explored around the campground on top of Jebel Soudah, one of the tallest mountains in Saudi Arabia at a little over 3000 meters, in the hopes of tracking down African Stonechat. Sure enough at the top of a large wooded wadi running north from the peak I found an obliging female. Shortly after, I wrapped up my trip list with three final additions—Northern Wheatear, Whinchat, and Eurasian Golden Oriole.

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