Arabian Scops Owl
African Paradise Flycatcher
In the pandemic-era quiet of the domestic terminal I was excited for my first opportunity to travel outside of the Eastern Province since the end of the lockdown here in Saudi. The government advised folks against non-essential travel, but after over three months of lockdown and curfews I was chafing at the bit. Don’t judge. It had to be done.
After sorting out the rental in Abha, I hit the road for Tanomah, a town about 175 kilometers to the north beautifully situated at the edge of the Asir escarpment and ringed by craggy peaks. The plan was to get there for a couple of hours of birding before sundown. The first stop in Tanomah was After sorting out the rental in Abha, I hit the road for Tanomah, a town about 175 kilometers north of Abha beautifully situated at the edge of the Asir escarpment and ringed by craggy peaks. The plan was to get there for a couple of hours of birding before sundown. The first stop in Tanomah was Al Wahdah Woods. Upon arrival I was dismayed to find that a large compound was being built quite close to the woods and land where I once observed Philby’s and Arabian Partridges feeding had been bulldozed and converted into an agricultural field. Another patch had been graded flat, perhaps for the start of a foundation, a bit further into the natural area. Who knows what the owner of the property is ultimately intending but the loss of the woods would be significant, not just for the wildlife that live there but also for overall appeal of the town, which is quite popular with Saudi tourists. Development along the escarpment, much of which is driven by the tourism industry, is in fact one of the biggest threats to the birds of the highlands. The immediacy of the threat would become even starker the morning after, when I visited Dahna Waterfall. Enough of the depressing stuff though. Back to the birds!
On my way into the woods I was greeted by an energetic flock of Olive-rumped Serin. Abyssinian White-eyes and Palestine Sunbirds were flitting about the top of an acacia nearby and from the lower branches a Gambaga Flycatcher sallied forth for prey. The flycatchers are quite abundant in the highlands during the summer months (May – August) and can be encountered in the thicker juniper forests as well as the drier acacia-dominated wadis. A little further on, I came upon a pair of Arabian Wheatear, this time capturing a short video of the male before getting drawn away by a singing Yemen Thrush at the edge of the woods proper. Along the cliff face overhead, Tristram’s Starlings could be heard whistling loudly. Just beyond I heard the raucous and slightly comical call of an African Paradise Flycatcher. Like the Gambaga Flycatcher, these are summer residents; however, they appear to leave the region earlier than the former. On my first visit to Asir in late August 2018, they had all already cleared out while the Gambaga were still actively tending to recently fledged juveniles.
I followed the call to the thickest part of the woods and began peering through the branches looking for the flycatcher. Despite the racket they make and their striking plumage, paradise flycatchers can sometimes be difficult to locate as they often perch in the center of trees, lost among the leaves and branches. However, a little pishing brought a stunning male bursting out of the trees, its long, white tail plumes, almost twice the length of its body, twisting and whipping about. He perched a short distance away, staying long enough for me to shoot some video before returning to the knot of trees from which he came. I also managed to add a recording of the species to my growing audio collection.
The sun dropped lower and a towering crag standing sentinel cast its shadow over the whole area. It was time to head to Al Mehfar Park where I was hoping to find owls and nightjars after sunset, which are some of the highlights of this Tanomah hotspot. I arrived less than an hour before sunset and wandered out around the open areas to the north of the park. There were several Saudi families picnicking at the time and the area was quite noisy; however, there were still plenty of birds to see and hear. In short order I added Brown Woodland-Warbler, Yemen Warbler, Little Rock Thrush, Long-billed Pipit, and Ruppell’s Weaver to the trip list. After noting an Olive-rumped Serin singing from atop a nearby acacia, their preferred perch, a good-sized flock of serin landed on the ground in front of me, foraging at the base of a seeding plant. Once I put my bins on them, the browner tone and streakier plumage revealed them to be Yemen Serin, the population of which is estimated to be 25,000 pairs compared to much the more common Olive-rumped at 260,000 pairs. Indeed this was the first time I had encountered them in all my visits to the region. I suspect that these are an altitudinal migrant in Saudi that become more concentrated in the highlands during the summer months when temperatures at the lower elevations of the Tihama shoot up over 40° celsius (105° fahrenheit). There were about 20 birds in this flock and in the fading light I shot video and made the first audio recordings for the species in the Kingdom. Just before sundown, I also got my first audio recording of Red-rumped Swallow with a low-flying group passing close overhead.
At sunset I strolled up and down the road and back into the fields again playing a recording of Montane Nightjar while a muadhin recited the call to maghreb prayer from a nearby mosque. No luck. No nightjars. They’d been seen and heard in the area in the past, yet this was the third time I’d dipped on them. When it became fully dark, I switched into owling mode and tried for Arabian Scops Owl and Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owl, both of which I have seen at Al Mehfar Park. Same thing. Nothing. I attribute their lack of response that evening to the horde of tourists who were still reveling about the park.
Before heading back to the Al Nahdi Furnished Apartments to sleep up for the next morning of birding, I stopped at Dahna Waterfall and tried for Arabian Scops Owl. Just like my first nocturnal visit to the hotspot, the air cannon, meant to scare Hamadryas Babboons away from the fruit trees in the wadi bottom, scared the piss out of me instead. This time I wasn’t overcome with urge to bolt. Standing at the edge of the dirt parking area overlooking the wadi, I had two scops owls replying within a minute of imitating their call. Having seen this endemic owl last year with Abraham Arias de la Torre, a friend visiting from the UAE, I let my lack of nerve to descend by myself into the wadi in the dark coax me back to the car. I was satisfied. Time for bed.
At dawn the next morning I did a quick recce by car of Al Heefah National Park, a nice but perhaps too park-like park, situated at the edge of the escarpment. New additions to the trip list here were Bruce’s Green-Pigeon, Little Swift, Pale Crag-Martin, Scrub Warbler, Violet-backed Starling, Arabian Babbler, Red-breasted Wheatear, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting.
Next I went to Wadi Dahna, which is reached by driving through a tiny village just south of the Dahna waterfall. This is the best spot I’ve discovered for getting good views of Philby’s Partridge and sure enough, standing on an uncannily situated concrete platform overlooking the wadi below (as if it was built just for partridge viewing!), I observed two making their way up the opposite slope from the wadi bottom, giving the opportunity to shoot my best video footage yet of this lovely endemic. Before descending into the wadi, I picked up Gray-headed Kingfisher and heard an Asir Magpie calling from the distance. Down in the wadi, I was excited to discover a pair of nesting Hamerkop, getting my first opportunity to examine their massive dome nest from a respectful distance. One of the Hamerkop flew off and landed on top of the ridge, attracting the attention of an Asir Magpie, which came by to check out this comical-looking relative of pelicans.
Before heading back to Abha for an afternoon of IELTS testing, I called in at Dahna Waterfall to see by day what had become of the place. During the previous evening, I could just make out the concrete forms of a series of low chalets at the wadi edge. What I found in the morning was much worse. Below the chalets a large swath of juniper and acacia trees had been bulldozed and the ground scraped clear of vegetation. Elsewhere it appeared that some acacia trees had been selectively felled, their trunks and thorny branches piled up here and there. This might be the reason that on this visit I failed to detect any Arabian Woodpeckers, which I had seen on two previous visits in the exact same area, habitat loss being one of the key suspected factors in the decline of the Arabian Peninsula’s only woodpecker species. Just a short distance from the scrape, I discovered an active magpie nest and my heart sank at thought of losing the magpies here. Dahna Waterfall has been the most reliable place to see them over the years. Not to mention, the Asir Magpie is endangered. Its population has been estimated at only 100 pairs and evidence indicates that their range has shrunk significantly in the past few decades. Perhaps the biggest contributing factor has been the fragmentation and loss of the mature juniper woodlands in the southwest highlands due to climate change and deforestation by locals for different purposes. I informed Abdullah Al Suhaibany, the deputy CEO of the National Center for Wildlife, of the situation at Dahna Waterfall and he informed me that the Ministry of the Environment, Water, and Agriculture had already been notified and were investigating. I really hope something comes of it and the remaining woodlands around Tanomah and elsewhere in the magpie’s range will be protected. The loss of this wonderful species will be a huge black mark on Saudi’s already poor environmental record. Hopefully with an increase in international visitors and, among them, foreign birders, the Saudi authorities and locals in the Asir region will better appreciate the importance of protecting the natural areas that the magpies and woodpeckers depend on for their long-term survival.
So, despite the damage done and the absence of woodpeckers, the wadi was as birdy as ever with an array of other species. A small family group of Asir Magpie were watching me from a distance as I turned my back on the destruction and explored what was left, while overhead Fan-tailed Raven were calling. Then, as I made my way past the waterfall back towards the car, I came upon a flock of Arabian Waxbill perched at the top of a juniper tree and recorded audio of their calls as they flew down to forage on the ground. I’ve encountered this endemic gem on every visit to the Asir region; however, they’re much more abundant in the highlands during the summer months. After getting a few shots and audio recordings, I called it a day and drove south to Abha for work.
The following morning I drove south from Abha to check out a forested area that I pinpointed in Google Maps. When I arrived I was pleased to discover that in fact the area is the Al Jarrah National Park and looked quite promising. My hope was to discover magpies in an area south of Abha, where they haven’t been reported in a few decades. From the fence near the entrance to the park, I could see tall junipers in the distance, looking good for magpies.
Unfortunately, I found the gate locked and a sign indicating that the park was closed due to the pandemic. Curse you, COVID-19! Luckily, the area around the gate turned out to be quite birdy and I spent nearly an hour taking stock of what was around. Flying in the distance were a pair of Short-toed Snake-Eagles and a little while later a small group of Brown-necked Ravens passed by. A steady stream of Yemen Linnet kept flying past as well on their way to an overgrown field in Al Jarrah village. Feeding on the ground on both sides of the fence were Dusky Turtle-Doves. The highlight at this spot was an adult and two juvenile African Pipits that did me the honor of flying over the fence and landing less than 10 meters away. I had only seen a single individual of this species once before at Wadi Reema, north of Abha, but the views were more distant. These birds offered incredible views and this time there was no agonizing over the ID as before. The research I had done prior helped me pin it down almost on sight. Check out my blogpost on distinguishing between African and Lon-billed Pipits.
From there I drove a short distance to the Tihama road out of Al Jarrah, which descends through the Al Quroon Forest. I was hoping for African Olive Pigeon here, which favors juniper forests along the escarpment, but no luck with this species as well. I did, however, flush an Arabian Partridge and get shots of a very handsome male African Paradise Flycatcher. Had I not rented a Nissan Sunny, I might have ventured down to some lower elevations and the opportunity to pick up more of the awesome Afrotropical species that call southwest Saudi home, such as White-throated Bee-eater, African Gray Hornbill, and White-browed Coucal, but the ascent on the way back would’ve likely killed the engine.
Never the mind, I was off to the cliffs near the Al Habala Hanging Village in the hopes of seeing some raptors. I thought the area might be good for Verreaux’s Eagle, but, alas, the only bird of prey about was a lone Eurasian Kestrel. The big surprise here were more Yemen Serin, which were surely breeding along the cliff face as there were several recently fledged birds among the adults. I expect Al Habala to be my go-to place during guiding trips as a stop there combines a good chance of finding the serin, which, as I mentioned above, are far less frequent than Olive-rumped Serin, as well as awesome views from the cliff’s edge.
Checking the time, I determined there was time enough to bird one more stop before having to head to the airport, so I jumped back into the car, got on Google Maps, and looked about for places that seemed to have a good amount of trees. After having failed to find Arabian Woodpecker the two previous days I was determined to find one before I left. I pinpointed what appeared to be a wooded wadi about 20 minutes away, set the directions, and headed off. While driving across a stony plateau not far from Al Habala, I caught a glimpse of what I was sure was a lark flying off the side of the road. I pulled over and was psyched to hear a song that I only just got familiar with during my last visit to Abha. There were several male Rufous-capped Larks in flight song in the area. I missed a chance of recording the flight song the last time, but this time not only did I get the audio recording but I also got some video footage. It was incredible and so gratifying when these are the first multimedia of their kind in Xeno-canto and the Cornell’s Macaulay Library. Exploring the area further I counted nearly 30 larks and had a brief glimpse of another African Pipit. I also came upon a Long-billed Pipit carrying food, and it stood stock still and watched me intently until I had moved on, concerned for sure about betraying the location of its nest.
A male Rufous-capped Lark giving its flight song near Habala
Last stop. Al Muruba'a National Park. Much of the park was pretty overrun with local picnickers; however, I made my way over to the far side where the dry, open wadi grew thicker with the dominant acacias and hoped for the best. I played a recording of Arabian Woodpecker at several locations, but, unfortunately, none responded despite ample evidence of their past presence. This was to be a decidedly woodpecker-less visit. To be honest, I found their uncanny absence to be very concerning. Where had they all gone? There will still a lot of other good birds around to console me though. I found a Black Scrub Robin strutting about, tail raised high, in the shade of an acacia and had yet another encounter with African Pipit, the fifth of the day, as it browsed the wadi bottom for food, giving a little hop here and there to glean a fly overhead. The best find in the wadi, the one that punctuated what had already been a phenomenal visit, was a roosting Arabian Scops Owl. My wife and I found one by day outside of Salalah, Oman, back in 2015, but that bird was wet and bedraggled from a recent rain storm, muting the finer details of its plumage, but this bird’s plumage was in pristine condition. At one point it fluffed out its brow feathers, giving it a comically severe look. I didn’t linger too long, however, as I was concerned that some nearby locals might grow curious as to what I was gawking at and possibly harass the owl.
On the way out of the park, a quick flyby from a pair of Namaqua Doves set the count for three days of mid-summer birding in Asir Province at a total of 47 species, 11 of which are endemic to the Arabian Peninsula and one of which is endemic to Saudi Arabia alone. All I can say is for those in the Kingdom, get out to the highlands and enjoy the beautiful weather and incredible bird life. It’s got to be done.