Birding Saudi’s Southwest (October – December 2018)

Highlights:

  1. Philby’s Partridge

  2. Arabian Partridge

  3. African Olive Pigeon

  4. Hamerkop

  5. Black Kite

  6. Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owl

  7. Arabian Scops-Owl

  8. Little Owl

  9. Arabian Woodpecker

  10. Asir Magpie

  11. Yemen Warbler

  12. Arabian Wheatear

  13. Buff-breasted Wheatear

  14. Yemen Thrush

  15. Arabian Serin

  16. Arabian Waxbill

  17. Yemen Linnet

October 26 - 27, 2018—Abha

A weekend work trip to the Abha area in late October gave me an opportunity to follow up on species I missed during my visit in August. In particular, I was hoping to find African Olive Pigeon, a species infrequently encountered along the wooded slopes and ravines of the Asir escarpment. In the Abha area, the most recent sightings all came from the Raydah Preserve, so my plan was to get there super early and hike down to a small patch of remnant terracing among the junipers and acacias where they had been encountered before.


As noted in part one of my trip report, accessing the Raydah Preserve can be tricky as all but residents of the villages below are forbidden from passing through the gates. However, it’s “possible” to get in—and leave without incident—if you arrive before 4:30 AM. Well, on this particular morning, as I attempted to walk through the gate, the guard was awake and talking to two young men who apparently wanted to borrow a phone to call for a ride back to the city. Dogs barking betrayed my presence and he saw me. He called me over and, try as I might to persuade him to let me walk into the preserve, he refused my access, saying I’d need permission from the Saudi Wildlife Authority. With nothing else to do but walk away, I decided to explore along the escarpment for other points from which to descend. That’s how I discovered Jebel Al Muhareth.


I drove south along the escarpment road from the entrance to Raydah Preserve. I was heading to a place visible in Google Maps that appeared to show a dirt road descending the mountain through relatively dense woods. Sure enough, once I arrived, that’s exactly what I found. I parked just off the pavement and began hiking down the dirt road through mostly tall, wizened-looking junipers populating the steep slopes just below the escarpment edge. The track was rough and loose in places, but not nearly as steep as the paved road at Raydah. A 4WD vehicle would be a must, but at least one could visit at any time without hassle, which can’t be said for Raydah.


After the first switchback I had a quick flyby of a dark, long-winged, long-tailed pigeon, getting my heart pumping, but unfortunately it was too brief to say African Olive for sure. Still further down I flushed another from a treetop and again only caught a short glimpse in flight as it clapped off to the south. However, just where the track straightened, running a westward ridgeline, a bird flew up in the wooded ravine some distance below and perched out on a bare branch. I put my scope on it and sure enough it was an African Olive Pigeon. I watched it for a while through the scope before trying to digiscope some reasonable record shots.

Shortly after, that bird settled on the ground further down the ravine, and given how short on time I was I decided to begin the climb back up. On the way, I scared up another two birds from the ravine, immatures this time. Unlike the first, they weren’t as amenable to sticking around for a photo op and soon took off down the mountain. Still there isn’t anything quite like setting upon a target and then successfully tracking it down, especially given how unfamiliar I was with the area.


About a third of the way back up the mountain, a local farmer stopped and let me ride with him the rest of the way to the top. I was super grateful, as it would’ve been a slog, and even more so when he invited me to have breakfast with him and his neighbor. In the short time I spent with them I learned a lot of local names for places and the animals living there, the former abundance of birds in that area prior to a new paved road and the power lines running electricity to the villages below, as well as the local struggle against the roving hordes of Hamadryas Baboons, raiding their farms and eating their crops. I also learned that he had brought Rock Hyrax from Yemen to release near his farm at the base of the escarpment, which thrilled me with the prospect of finding Verreaux’s Eagle at some point in the future.

If time is short and hassle isn’t your thing, then Jebel Al Muhareth is a good alternative to birding Raydah Escarpment. Conceivably one could make it all the way to the wadi bottom below and you’re likely to encounter most, if not all, of the same species. I also turned up during that first visit Steppe Eagle, Steppe Buzzard, European Bee-eater, Fan-tailed Raven, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Yemen Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, African Stonechat, Arabian Wheatear, Yemen Thrush, Grey Wagtail, and Yemen Linnet.

The first morning was the most productive; however, a short stop at Abha Dam on the way back into Abha produced a handful of waterbirds, including Eurasian Coot, and a return visit to Wadi Reema the next day turned up some good raptors, including more Steppe Eagle and a Long-legged Buzzard, as well as two troops of Arabian Babbler, Little Rock-thrush, Blue Rock Thrush, Arabian Wheatear, Buff-breasted Wheatear, Tristram’s Starling, Palestine Sunbird, Long-billed Pipit, Arabian Serin, and Yemen Linnet.


November 30 – December 1, 2018—Tanomah and Abha

Arabian Wheatear in the Asir region

The following month I had the pleasure of guiding a friend from the UAE, Abraham Arias de la Torre, on his first birding tour of the Asir hotspots. As it was winter, we couldn’t track down all of his targets, but we did manage to find most of the endemics on his list, with the most productive birding around the town of Tanomah—the heart of Asir Magpie country!


First stop that Friday was at Dahna Waterfall before dawn. After adjusting to the noise of the baboons rousing on the cliff, we headed into the wadi bottom with our flashlights. Just at the bottom, there is a small, tight copse of trees from where we heard Arabian Scops-Owl. Prowling beneath the limbs, we soon found the bird, posing obligingly for both of us to get shots. Less than 30 minutes into his trip and my friend got his first target bird.


We made our way slowly further down the wadi as we waited for the sun to rise. Just as its light was striking the tops of the hills on the other side of the wadi, the distinctive call of Asir Magpie sounded from that direction and we caught sight of three flying down into the wadi and settling a short distance away. Second target down!

An Arabian Scops-Owl near the Dahna Waterfall in Tanoumah

Soon, with the sun warming the air and the birds becoming more active, we picked up several more species, including Steppe Eagle, Arabian Woodpecker, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Yemen Warbler, Arabian Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, Black Redstart, Arabian Wheatear, many Song and Yemen Thrush, as well as the Arabian Shining Sunbird.


We then headed to the dam above the Dahna Waterfall as I had never been there and the place looked promising as well. Here we picked up Hamerkop, Grey Heron and Eurasian Moorhen. Further up the wadi is a longer stretch of well-vegetated wadi than what is found at Dahna, which led us to explore the area the following morning in the hopes of turning up Arabian Waxbill. However, after the short stop at the dam, we headed west along the road and stopped at the village of Quraish at the very edge of the escarpment. From here we saw the first Eurasian Griffon Vultures of the trip, but the real highlight here was another group of Asir Magpie hanging around the village itself. The magpies in Saudi have been known to stay clear of human habitation; however, these didn’t seem fazed by proximity with this village. We saw them perching on trees inside villa walls, on the rooftops, and on utility lines. Later we found them nestled into some tall trees in the heart of the village carelessly pruning as we observed from the car a short distance away.

A small group of Asir Magpie in the village of Quraish

Next we headed to Wadi Al Ghathal, a hotspot recently proposed by a team from the Smithsonian researching the magpies of Saudi Arabia. The wooded wadi here extends from the main road through Tanomah to the edge of the escarpment, probably the most substantial and nearly uninterrupted woodland habitat in the area, which, no doubt, is crucial for supporting the numbers of the most threatened Saudi endemics, especially the magpie, which is listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List.


We ultimately only explored a short stretch of the wadi, starting about mid-way down its length, as well as the adjacent agricultural terraces and low rocky mounds, but there were a good number of birds about, including small feeding groups of Yemen and Song Thrush, a few more Asir Magpie to the day’s count, and our first brief glimpses of a covey of Philby’s Partridges. The terraces near the wadi also produced yet another target—the Arabian Buff-breasted Wheatear.

An Asir Magpie outside Tanoumah

After getting lunch in town (rice with chicken!) we headed over to Al Wahdah Woods, a spot I knew to be good for partridges. My friend was hoping for better views of Philby’s as the ones at Wadi Al Ghathal were mostly just a blur of wings and little gray shapes dropping out of view along a scrubby slope. Sure enough, once we entered into the area proper, there was another burst of commotion as a large mixed gathering of Philby’s and Arabian Partridge flew up from an open patch at the edge of the woods. Unfortunately, they too disappeared quite quickly with my friend unable to get on any of the Philby’s now hidden in a tree-shrouded and heavily rocky slope. Besides a nice flock of Yemen Linnet—another endemic target—in a nearby agricultural field, the birding was rather quiet. However, patience and persistence paid off on the partridge front as we picked up on a small group of Philby’s feeding on a vegetated ledge a distance up the steep rocky wall opposite us.


As the sun began to set, we wrapped up the day in Tanomah with some nocturnal birding at Al Mehfar Park. Yet again no nightjars—both Montane and Plain have been found in the area—but we did find the resident Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owl at its usual haunt atop the light poles near the hotel.

An Asir Magpie preening in a eucalyptus tree in a village near Tanomah

The following morning we set upon finding Arabian Waxbill, which I had encountered during my first visit to Dahna Waterfall. My friend wanted to check the area near the waterfall again, but I also wanted to explore further up the wadi from the dam we visited the day before, a place I suppose would be called Wadi Al Dahna. While we weren’t able to track down any waxbills, this latter spot proved very productive.


The highlight of the morning, for sure, were the large, vocal and, more importantly, visible coveys of Philby’s Partridge active along the ridgeline on the opposite side of the wadi, but also active in the wadi were Arabian Woodpecker, Asir Magpie, Yemen Warbler, Scrub Warbler, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Yemen Thrush, along with several other species. In addition, two Hamerkop were hanging out at the dam further down the wadi.

After a short return visit to Dahna Waterfall, which turned up much of the same from the previous day, we began driving back towards Abha with a mind to reaching Wadi Al Tale’a by high noon. On the way, just past Billahmar, where the road skirts the escarpment edge, we encountered a large group of Steppe Eagle aloft on the late morning thermals.


Wadi Reema was significantly quieter than my visits to the spot back in August and October. Arabian Serin, another of my friend’s targets and which I had seen during the previous visits, was nowhere to be found. Neither were African Pipit or Rufous-capped Lark. However, we did get a Short-toed Snake-Eagle sailing past along the ridge, a few Buff-breasted Wheatear foraging in the shade of the acacias in the wadi bottom, and a good-sized flock of Yemen Linnet.

It was the village of Sharma, a spot I had encountered them thrice before, that we managed to track down Arabian Serin.

A female African Stonechat in the Asir highlands

The last stop of the day, shortly before sunset, was at Soudah Waterfall, a well-vegetated wadi with ample water running down its narrow course. Time didn’t allow for a thorough exploration; however, in the short time we were there, we turned up Arabian Partridge, White-spectacled Bulbul, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Yemen Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, Arabian Babbler, African Stonechat, Yemen Thrush, Palestine Sunbird, as well as a few others. To my eye, the wadi looks like it could be good for one of the toughest Arabian endemics to find in Saudi—Golden-winged Grosbeak—a species I have seen, however, in Salalah, Oman (that trip report to come shortly!).


December 15, 2018—Atwad Dam, Abha

Another work visit to Abha provided me an opportunity to explore a new birding spot near the city—Atwad Dam. I set out for the dam well before sunrise with the hopes of tracking down two targets for my Saudi list—Little Owl and Black Kite. From Google Maps, the place looked good for both. Sure enough, just as the sun was rising, I found a Little Owl not far from the dam, and then just after sunrise three Black Kite began cruising around the shore of the reservoir and soon perched prominently in a tree by the water.

Around the reservoir was a decent collection of waterbirds, shorebirds, and gulls, including Squacco Heron and the impressive Pallas’s Gull.

An Arabian Waxbill at Atwad Dam

The trees, fields, and scrub around the reservoirs were active with resident and migrant passerines. Arabian Serin were abundant in this area and I managed to shoot a short video of one singing atop a low bush. Other resident charmers included Green Bee-eater, Abyssinian White-eye, Nile Valley Sunbird, Palestine Sunbird, Ruppell’s Weaver, and Arabian Wheatear. The migrant and winter visitors included Eurasian Hoopoe, Masked Shrike, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Lesser Whitethroat, Siberian Stonechat, as well as Citrine and White Wagtails.


On top of the three additions to my Saudi list—the owl, the kite, and the crag-martin—a tromp through some weedy scrub running down a shallow wadi to the reservoir’s edge kicked up a flock of 10+ Arabian Waxbill, marking the third time I’ve encountered this striking endemic beauty!

Stay tuned for future reports from Saudi’s southwest. Up next will be a report on birding Al Ahsa, the heart of Saudi’s Eastern Province!

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