Birding the Al Baha Region

Highlights:

  • Arabian Partridge

  • Philby's Partridge

  • Bruce's Green-Pigeon

  • Alpine Swift

  • African Palm-Swift

  • European Honey-Buzzard

  • African Gray Hornbill

  • Arabian Green Bee-eater

  • Arabian Woodpecker

  • Eurasian Crag-Martin

  • Brown Woodland-Warbler

  • Arabian Warbler

  • Abyssinian White-eye

  • Arabian Babbler

  • Violet-backed Starling

  • Tristram's Starling

  • Yemen Thrush

  • Arabian Wheatear

  • Arabian (Shining) Sunbird

  • Arabian Waxbill

  • Arabian Grosbeak

  • Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin

  • Yemen Serin

  • Yemen Linnet

Over the long National Day weekend, my wife and I headed off to the mountains of the Al Baha region for three days of exploring. The weekend's birding mission had two main objectives: 1) given a 1989 record of Asir Magpie from the region, I wanted to survey the area in the event magpies might still occur there, some 130 kilometers north of the nearest sightings in Al Namas, but have simply been overlooked over the past 30+ years; and 2) the stretch of the escarpment running from Taif to Al Baha is the only place the Arabian (Golden-winged) Grosbeak has been recorded in Saudi Arabia in nearly 20 years. My wife and I tried for the grosbeaks near Taif summer 2020 and failed to find what has proven to be the most difficult Arabian endemic to track down in the Kingdom.


September 23, 2021—Al Mandaq Province and Thee Ain Heritage Village

Few eBirders have visited the Al Baha region over the years and those that did apparently didn't cover that much ground as there were few checklists and trip reports from the area and fewer still eBird hotspots by which to plan our birding itinerary. There was, though, Olivier Langrand's checklist from June 1989, which included a single Asir Magpie among other expected highland specialists. That was a start, so I began studying Google Maps to pinpoint areas in the region that looked promising for both the magpies and the grosbeaks. Langrand saw the magpie in the Al Mandaq Province, close to the town of Bani Hassan, a spot about 30 kilometers to the northwest of the city of Al Baha, and Google Maps revealed spots along the escarpment that appeared sufficiently wooded and removed from human habitation to still support magpies. That then would be our plan for the first dayexplore promising sites around Al Mandaq Province in the morning, return to Al Baha for lunch and a quick rest, and then wrap up the day with an obligatory visit to Thee Ain Heritage Village, the main tourist hotspot in Al Baha.

Range map for the Asir Magpie in eBird with Langrand's 1989 observation showing near Al Baha

Just at sunrise my wife and I pulled up to the first spot and walked to the edge of the escarpment to survey what turned out to be a narrow triangular plateau at about 2100 meters jutting out of the side of the mountain. The plateau has one building under construction and a couple smaller structures to support the limited farming done there. Besides those and the few terrace fields carved into the terrain, the area contained decent tree cover consisting mostly of mature African Junipers. Given it was private land, it seemed all the better for some northern holdout population of magpies. Unfortunately, that didn't appear to be the case. Quick spoiler in case you're expecting this trip to have a happy turn like our May visit to Jazan Province: we turned up zero magpies despite visiting a half dozen of the most promising woodlands and wadis in the region. As for why, the evidence before our eyes pointed more squarely at climate changewhile the tree cover, especially in wadis, seemed reasonably healthy, especially compared to the catastrophe that occurred on Jebel Al Qahar in Jazan Province, the whole region struck me as acutely dry as if suffering an extended draught. Very few farm fields were actively being cultivated and most terrace farms appeared utterly derelict. Besides that, yes, Al Baha surprised me by the level of development throughout the regionmuch more developed in the outskirts than Abha—but it's not clear to me that the magpies cannot adapt to the presence of people as I've encountered them on a few occasions foraging in the center of villages with farm laborers and residents passing nearby on foot and by car. This trip, more than any, drove home the realization that the Asir Magpie has been a climate refugee since prehistoric times, when its ancestors fled the ancient Arabian savannah for the highlands to escape the advancing desertification of their former territory. As with countless species around the globe that have evolved to exist only above certain elevations, eventually it will be impossible to retreat any higher, like island tips about to be lost beneath the surface of the rising seas forever... Sorry, had to get the gloom-and-doom out of the way before getting into what we actually did see on this visit.

A panoramic shot of the wooded plateau at the edge of the escarpment near Bani Hassan

Some of the endemics' abundance around Al Mandaq was a conspicuous counterpoint to the absence of others, like Yemen Warbler, which had also been reported from the area by Langrand but whose presence we didn't detect anywhere. Throughout the morning we had several encounters with Yemen Thrush, Arabian Waxbill, Arabian Serin, and Yemen Linnet, all of which could be found in the villages as well. On top of these, we also had a small group of Arabian Partridge at the very edge of the escarpment. Later in the morning we found our first Arabian Wheatears.


Several Afrotropical species range as far north as Al Bahah and Taif. On the first morning we had good numbers of Little Rock Thrush, Abyssinian White-eye, and Brown Woodland-Warbler as well as well as singles of Bruce's Green-Pigeon and Violet-backed Starling. There were also a few Ruppell's Weaver still in the area, but in another month or so most will have descended to lower elevations.

Finally, with fall migration revving up in the Kingdom, there was also a nice array of migrants, including several Masked, Woodchat, and Red-backed Shrikes, a few striking male Ehrenberg's Common Redstarts (ssp. samamisicus) and a couple large flocks of Alpine Swifts.


In the early afternoon, we descended the escarpment to visit Thee Ain Heritage Village. My wife and I aren't generally much interested in the "touristy" sites; however, I noticed in Google Maps that there was a sizable farm at the base of the restored village and figured it would be a nice migrant trap, especially in the late day heat at that lower elevation. I wasn't wrong. We strolled through the backside of the farm and up into wadi feeding it by a small stream and were rewarded with Eurasian Golden Orioles, Eurasian Blackcap, Grey Wagtail (one wagging a tail he didn't have!), and awesome views of a very obliging Common Cuckoo.

Also present were species typically not typically found at the top of the escarpment, like Arabian (Shining) Sunbird, Blackstart, and Black Scrub Robin. The two biggest surprises at this site were a large and noisy roost of Arabian Straw-colored Fruit Bats tucked out of sight under the overhanging fronds of some palm trees in the farm as well as a small squadron of African Palm Swifts swooping low over the area. Both are Afrotropical species more commonly encountered in the lowlands further south. Even if, like me, you aren't much interested in the tourist hotspots and the crowds they can attract, Thee Ain Village is worth a visit—a quiet Friday morning would be ideal though.

September 24, 2021—Khairah Forest Park, Wadi Shabraqa, and Wadi Shora

The plan for the next morning was to meet Ute Langner and her husband, Heiko, at a promising wadi in the Khairah Forest Park. Since I had never visited the area before, I was anxious about choosing birding spots for the morning outing that would be productive, especially as some of the potential species would be new for Ute and Heiko. That first wadi, while steeper than I anticipated, which required a bit of rock climbing to access further, proved quite productive and within a little over two hours we had seen both Arabian and Philby's Partridge, Arabian Woodpecker, Brown Woodland-Warbler, Scrub Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, Arabian Babbler, Yemen Thrush, both male and female Arabian Wheatear—the mates are usually never far away—Arabian Waxbill, Arabian Serin, and Yemen Linnet. While standing quietly near a watering spot up inside the wadi, hoping a covey of Philby's Partridge that just flew in would come into view, we were graced by an appearance by a lovely Arabian Red Fox, who came down for a drink but ran off at the sight of us. Later, at a farm a few kilometers from here, we picked up Arabian Warbler, but it was our last stop of the morning that iced my cake.





Continuing north, following a wider wadi out of the forest park, which I've subsequently came to know is called Wadi Shabraqa, I led us to a small, rather ramshackle village tucked in at the wadi's edge where there were a number of trees. I expected the spot to be good for migrants, particularly buntings, and Cretzschmar's was up there on my target list. We didn't turn up any buntings here, but we did see another Arabian Warbler as well as our first Arabian Green Bee-eater and Long-billed Pipit (arabicus ssp.) of the trip. Arabian Serin were in abundance here, feeding on what looked like raspberries, and we had more Arabian Babbler, Yemen Thrush, Yemen Linnet, Arabian Waxbill, and Yemen Linnet as well. There were a half dozen Ehrenberg's Common Redstart, five of which were striking males with large white triangles in their wings.

At one point shortly after arriving, Ute told us she thought see had just seen an Arabian Grosbeak but wasn't positive as the head pattern appeared all black to her. She did insist though that it had the gold streak in the wings, which quickened my pulse and sent my birding antennae twitching. We had begun searching the area when Ute and Heiko said they saw something fly into a tall tree nearby. All the while I was listening intently to the vocalizations around me and indeed I started hearing some unfamiliar calls and singing from deep inside the tree, which I captured in the first recording below. There were a couple of Yemen Linnet in the tree as well, but I'd never heard them give these sorts of vocalizations—their singing is higher pitched, more frenetic, and usually revving up after a few rising prreet-prreet-prreet. I stared hard at the tree but no grosbeak-form emerged out of the chaos of leaves and twigs. The other birds in the tree soon spooked and flew off, no grosbeak among them, so we continued up the wadi a short distance.


A small flock of Yemen Linnet flew into a tall stand of junipers nearby and began preening, so we moved closer to get better views of them. Once they had flow off, we decided we'd better start heading to town if we wanted to get lunch before the noon prayer, but just as we reached the end of juniper stand heading back to the cars, I looked up, raised my bins, and exclaimed in a hush "there it is"—a handsome male Arabian Grosbeak perched near the top of a dead juniper. Ute, Heiko, and my wife all got on the bird in quick order and I heard Ute give a quiet gasp of awe at the sight of this handsome bird. That's how I felt as well—I didn't dare go for my camera and risk cutting the moment too short and just stood there savoring it until the grosbeak eventually disappeared into the stand of live junipers. A minute later though I began to hear those same unfamiliar vocalizations again but was sure this time that they had to be coming from the grosbeak, leading to the second recording below.

Regretting not having attempted to get shots, I creeped under the junipers hoping to catch the grosbeak on his perch, but just a quick glimpse of bright yellow flashes and he was off again—this time into the distance. Arabian Grosbeak proved to be the most difficult endemic to track down in Saudi, despite nearly a dozen visits to the southwest, owing largely to a small population and unpredictable movements. There's an area near Taif where a few observations were made prior to 2015 but none has been made since. Our sighting, in fact, represents the first in six years, and that's with an increasing number of birders and bird photographers visiting the southwest each year. To be honest, anyone considering a birding trip to Saudi should also consider a short stop in the Dhofar region of Oman, where there's a more concentrated and more easily encountered population of Arabian Grosbeak. There are a few well known stakeouts where folks have got amazing photos, videos, and audio recordings of them.

After lunch back in Al Baha, my wife and I said good bye to Ute and Heiko, who were on their way back down the escarpment, and headed for a short recce of an interesting looking wooded area near Wadi Shora, 55 kilometers south of Al Baha. In Google maps, the place is labeled Matwa Park in Arabic, but I'm not sure that's the actual name as it didn't appear to be a park at all. Accessing the area required a little light trekking as the track in was quite rough—rough enough to dissuade most casual visitors, which might have been why the spot wasn't totally littered with trash—but once in it was clear how much potential the place held. On either side of a series of wide terrace fields were thick wooded margins, dark (and spooky!) in places, that would likely be excellent for Arabian Scops-Owl and Arabian (Spotted) Eagle-Owl. We didn't stay late enough to try for them (the spooky factor!), but while we were there we did have several Scrub Warblers (buryi ssp.), an Arabian Woodpecker, and a huge pre-roosting flock of Yemen Linnet that poured out of a tree for a good minute as we walked past. On the way out I heard a familiar cry in the distance and soon we added our only African Gray Hornbills of the trip, another of the incredible Afrotropical species that call southwest Saudi Arabia home. There's a dam just outside the entrance to Matwa Park, which when containing water would be a good stakeout for birds coming in to drink.



September 25, 2021—Al Na'amah, Jebel Ibrahim, and Wadi Al Wuhait

On our last morning my wife and I left Al Baha and headed north back towards Taif, where we had flown in. I had two spots I wanted to bird on the way back and then time willing we were going to visit Wadi Al Wuhait, an area near Taif where grosbeaks had been seen in the past.


Just as we were passing through Al Mandaq again, we had our first evidence that the day would be favorable for raptor migration, picking up an adult Booted Eagle and what turned out to be around 20 European Honey-Buzzards cruising down the spine of a ridge just off the side of the road. A short time later we came up a column of over 50 Fan-tailed Ravens wheeling about over the edge of the escarpment. Then we arrived to the first stop—a small cluster of homes on a stunning stretch of the escarpment with a view down into a nice wooded wadi where I had hoped we might find magpies unobtrusively persisting. This was near the town of An Na'amah, which is almost 60 kilometers north of Al Baha. Again, no magpies, but the area was well worth the stop. We had six European Honey-Buzzard fly over fairly close above our heads—much closer than the 20 we had seen earlier, making their ID much easier—as well as our first Eurasian Crag-Martins and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting of the trip. We then continued up the road another 40 kilometers to Jebel Ibrahim, an area I pinpointed in Google Maps as possibly a good place for grosbeaks only to have Mansur Fahad suggest we visit there for that very reason.

Indeed, Jebel Ibrahim, a massive mountain of granite domes, slabs, and boulder-strewn slopes that rises 1000 meters above the immediate surrounding area, turned out to be a very promising spot, so promising that BirdLife International already contains a report proposing the mountain as an IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area). We had only enough time to explore what turned out to be a popular spot for tourists on the mountain's southern flank—an open area ringed by trees and punctuated by huge boulders and interesting rock formations where once there was a sort of plantation whose structures, now derelict, added another level of interest and excitement to the place as we navigated our way around, looking for what surprises the area might have in store for us. There were two large groups of people on the mountain as well; however, the area was big and varied enough that they didn't disturb our birding efforts.

Just as we crested the slope onto the open plateau where the derelict plantation structures lay scattered about, I heard a familiar call and noticed a small flock of Yemen Serin flitting off away from us. Here we also had brief views of our only Striolated Buntings of the trip, a species that denied me satisfying views the last time I saw it up near Taif. As for other Arabian endemics, we had a likely pair of Arabian Woodpeckers here as well as more Arabian Serins, Yemen Linnets, and the endemic subspecies of Long-billed Pipit. The area around the plantation turned out to be excellent for migrants with Rufous-tailed Rock-Thrush and Whinchat being new for the trip.



Given how nice Jebel Ibrahim turned out to be, we wound up spending more time than I had initially planned, so we settled into the car for the rest of the drive and booked it up to Wadi Al Wuhait for an hour's worth of birding before grabbing dinner and heading to the airport. As mentioned, Sinah's one of the places where Arabian Grosbeak had been seen in 2015. My wife and I visited the area with Frank Rietkerk in August 2020 and didn't have any luck. Frank, who'd been working in Taif, made repeat visits throughout his recent stint in Saudi and he too failed to locate grosbeaks. One feature of the place that is believed to have attracted the grosbeaks are several patches of tall Euphorbia ammak trees, whose fruit the birds particularly favor. As we were visiting in late September, I was hoping that the euphorbias might be fruiting and that the birds would be present. The euphorbias did appear to be fruiting but no grosbeaks were present yet again.

Before the skies opened with a heavy downpour that chased us out of the wadi and towards the city of Taif, we did manage to add some nice birds to the trip list. There was a big flock of European Honey-Buzzards circling far far above us at one point—so high that I could only capture fuzzy broad-winged, small-headed, and narrowed-tailed silhouettes. We had an obliging Arabian Great Gray Shrike preening in the light drizzle that presaged the mini-deluge that was about to hit. However, we found the greatest concentration of birds on a field of fruiting prickly pear cactus. Most were White-spectacled Bulbuls, but we did find Black Scrub-Robin as well as three migrant warbler species staining their faces on the sweet cactus pulp—Eurasian Blackcap, Garden Warbler, and Barred Warbler. Wadi Al Wuhait is a great place for Arabian (Shining) Sunbirds, and we had five gorgeous males putting on a show for us as one point. We also had a single Palestine Sunbird as well. I've only seen both in the same area on two previous occasions. The sunbirds in Saudi occupy different elevational ranges though those ranges do overlap—Palestine occurs at the highest elevations in the highlands, Shining generally occurs at the mid-elevations but can be seen up around 2200 meters, and Nile Valley occurs in the lowlands and arid foothills

With the rain coming down hard and water starting to cross the road in places, we beat our retreat to the shelter of Al Shahrani Restaurant in Taif for a hearty mixed grill. On the drive in we had another large flock of European Honey-Buzzards passing over the road. I had read in the Birds of the Western Palearctic that during the fall migration the whole European population moves quickly along their migratory routes without any real stopovers. The north wind that day was stiff and quite favorable for their swift passage. While in Al Na'amah though, we noted one of the perils threatening large migratory birds like the honey-buzzards when they pass through Middle Eastern countries—someone was shooting from the edge of the escarpment just as six honey-buzzards passed over us. If you'd like to help stop the illegal killing of migratory birds, I recommend donating to BirdLife International, the largest NGO fighting on several fronts against the threats faced by birdlife around the world. Support BirdLife International HERE.


Good birding!

A panoramic shot of Jebel Ibrahim









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