This past weekend* my wife and I secreted ourselves away in the Ramada hotel in Bahrain for some very un-Saudi recreation. Can’t say more on that – what happens in Bahrain stays in Bahrain. That said, Saudi birding never fully shuts off, and while we were sleeping it off on Saturday morning, I was roused by the unmistakeable call of Grey Francolin, a handsome gamebird that was quite common during our time in the UAE. Given just how common they’ve become not only there, where their range has been expanding westward over the past 25 years or so, but also in Qatar and Bahrain, it got me wondering why we haven’t been seeing them in the Eastern Province of Saudi.
Surely there are enough parks, gardens, and agricultural areas around the Eastern Province that the species depends on for sustaining itself in the other Gulf countries, and according to the Birds of the Middle East, their range in the region extends along the Persian Gulf coast from the UAE and into the EP and Qatar. That’s all well and good, but I haven’t become privy to any sightings in the 2+ years I’ve been birding here, and it’s incredible to say that such an easily detectable bird hasn’t been reported once in eBird. While it’s true that not many eBirders have been reporting from the country overall, most who have over the years have been based around this area. Even Jem Babbington, who has very actively birded the EP over the past ten years, hasn’t encountered them.
Given the fact that Grey Francolin aren’t strong fliers and tend to run from threats after only short bursts of flight, Bahrain, while connected by a causeway to Saudi Arabia, is still probably too far for the francolins to wing their way across. The causeway itself would entail venturing down a long stretch of roadway over the water with fairly sustained traffic flow – much too intimidating I’d expect for a shy little gamebird. Yet Saudi shares land borders with Qatar and the UAE and the birds have been seen quite close to the border, particularly in the UAE, where eBirders have reported them several times from Al Sila'a, less than 20 kilometers from the crossing. Not far as the francolin strides! I mean I used to see them in the residential garden near the gas plant where I worked in the UAE, a good hour and a half out in the middle of the desert. The only difference that I can see is that while roadside ornamental plantings, which run nearly uninterrupted the whole distance from Abu Dhabi out to Al Sila’a, have been credited with their westward range expansion in the UAE and would certainly explain how they made their way out to the gardens at remote oil and gas sites in that country, there are virtually none such plantings on the Saudi side of the border that might lead the birds to farms and towns further inside the Kingdom – just barren, coastal desert with none of the shade trees the birds prefer for roosting.
Or it could be that they’re here and we just haven’t been looking in the right places. Salwa, a small border town some 20 kilometers from the nearest sighting in Qatar, would be a good place to start as would some of the more planted spots around Batha, near the UAE border. For sure, it’s only a matter of time before they reach the farms and gardens around Haradh, Al Ahsa, and Dammam.
It may seem strange to write a bog post for what is otherwise an introduced species in the region, but the mystery of its status in Saudi is yet another example of what Saudi birding ultimately holds out – the promise of shining a light on bird distribution, movements, and breeding status in one of the most under-birded places in the world.
If you’re currently based in the Eastern Province or visit at some point, keep an eye out for this species and please do comment on this post if you find them.
Updated March 21, 2020: My wife and I spent the morning down in Salwa yesterday looking for francolin. We started at a small farming town just to the west of Salwa called Al Mahdar. There were several farms here with stands of trees, perfect roosting spots for francolin. No joy! We did discover a large flock of Hypocolius, though, feeding on leftover dates in an overgrown, derelict compound. Next we ventured a little further south to a few other farms with the same lack of luck. An Egyptian farmer at one stop though did say that he had heard them when I played the call for him, but had they been there we surely would have heard them as well. We then wrapped up the outing prowling along the beach in Salwa proper, where there were a couple of spots that would be suitable for the francolin, but surprisingly we came up with nothing yet again. All this despite the fact that they were reported only 20 kilometers over the border in Qatar. We were consoled for our failure by two very striking Red-throated Pipits among a nice array of other interesting migrants at the park.
* Originally posted in February 2020