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Saudi Birding in Abha: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly! (January 2020)

The highland mountains of Asir on my flight in from Dammam on FlyNas

So I spent the morning yesterday doing recces in three wooded wadis around Jebel Soudah in the Asir Province. Both had the tall(ish?) juniper trees favored by Asir Magpie further north, but there were no magpies to be found. There’s a question now if they’ve ultimately been extirpated in this area of the Asir Province, what would be the southernmost end of their known range. Given my experience with the species further north, I’m not sure a more extensive exploration here is necessary. Two of the three wadis I explored, however, ran further into relatively quieter interiors, so who knows – maybe there’s a pocket or two yet to be discovered. On this visit I also brought a hand recorder to get more recordings of Asir birds, particularly the endemics, to help make up for the lack on sites such as the Macaulay Library and Xeno-Canto. Winter is the least productive time in the highlands as several of the endemic species decamp to lower elevations when the temperatures are a little more forgiving. I did, however, manage to record Yemen Warbler, the buryi race of the Streaked Scrub Warbler, Brown Woodland Warbler, White-spectacled Bulbul, Palestine Sunbird, and Yemen Linnet.

“A thousand welcomes to Asir!”

Just after arriving to the airport and being greeted by the slogan for the recent Soudah Season – مرحبا الف في عسير (a thousand welcomes to Asir) – I had to rush off to Abha city for my PT gig. The flight in got me salivating for the time when I would be free to do as I like, which every visit to Abha means waking up well before dawn and heading off birding! The next morning, true to form, I woke before my alarm at 4:45 AM and quickly got ready to hit the road to Soudah.

It was chilly in the wadis on Soudah Mountain, about 3,000 meters ASL and the highest point in Saudi, and before the sun had a chance to penetrate the hollows I saw my first Arabian frost!

I prowled the roads around Soudah in the dark, considering where I might stop to try for Arabian Scops-Owl, until the sun started to rise. I then made my way over to Wadi Tahalel (وادي تهلل), which in Google Maps seemed to allow access to the interior of the King Abdullah National Park, which has been closed and all access points barricaded since my first visit to the area. As mentioned above, Asir Magpie had been recorded from this area in the past, but it’s been some time they’ve been seen since.

One of the most common Arabian endemics in the Saudi highlands – the Yemen Linnet. Unlike its widespread Eurasian cousin, this stunner reveals bold white flashes in its wings as it flies!

Winter is quieter in the highlands, but the good numbers of the commoner endemic species made for an interesting morning. Especially abundant and obliging were the many Yemen Linnet I encountered, which could be heard revving up their songs even before fully rousing from their roosts at dawn. It’s hard not to be energized in the field with these cuties carrying on around you. I even caught a covey of Arabian Partridge still hunkered down to roost in a tall acacia – for a split second I mean – before they exploded off in a scatter fire of wings.

A less disturbed branch of Wadi Tahalel, which runs east of the terrace farms indicated in the eBird map. This wadi runs for a good distance and could potentially be a holdout for rarer species in the area.

At Wadi Tahalel, there’s in fact two wadis, one which leads from a farming village into the national park and another that leads into a seemingly wilder, remoter area on Soudah Mountain. The branch that leads to the park was quieter in the early morning as the sun hadn’t yet penetrated and revealed what is depressingly all too common on Soudah Mountain – heaps of litter from the scores of clearly thoughtless visitors. The other branch, happily, was nearly litter free, which I attribute to its remoteness. The only way in is by foot down a rough dirt road and through some terrace farms – the reach of a vehicle appears to be the limit of the havoc most such people can wreak on the environment. The opening to this wadi runs west to east and so was being warmed by the sun sooner than the one I had just left, so it was birdier! It was here that I encountered the most variety of the morning, including two Yemen Warbler, which had come out from hiding to feed on the heads of some seeding weed in the wadi bottom.

Shakshookah with cheese, Yemeni foul, freshly baked flat bread, and chai karak

I made my way back to the rental – a frail but willing Nissan Sunny that I left hissing with steam after a series of steep climbs to the wadi – and then headed for Ayn Al Dheebah (عين الذيبة), another promising wadi further south. On the way I stopped for breakfast at a little hole-in-the-wall Yemeni restaurant in the village of Baha Rabiya (باحة ربيعة). It’s cheap local food and never fails to satisfy, yet I might take for granted how someone new to the region might feel sitting down for a meal on their cheap (and broken) plastic chairs! ‘It’s part of the adventure’ is all I’d say, but honestly it’s super tasty!

An immature Steppe Eagle at the edge of the Soudah escarpment

After breakfast I headed in the direction of Ayn Al Dheebah. On the way I passed the road that descends the Asir escarpment to Rijal Al Ma’a (رجال المع). Here you can always find a clan or two of Hamadryas Baboons raiding dumpsters and receiving handouts from passersby. However, as I was coming up on the area, I could see several large birds riding the stiff updraft as a steady cloud bank hit the crest of the mountain. They turned out to be nearly twenty young raiding dumpsters and receiving handouts from passersby. However, as I was coming up on the area, I could see several large birds riding the stiff updraft as a steady cloud bank hit the crest of the mountain. They turned out to be nearly twenty young Steppe Eagles along with an equal number of Fan-tailed Raven, getting lost occasionally in thick twists of cloud whipping over the top of the mountain. What drew them was an open dump truck inexplicably parked in an open area off the road, in which several of the baboons were adventuring for tasty scraps. Steppe Eagle can be encountered in numbers along a couple corridors through Saudi on their way south through the Arabian peninsula, mostly where food is most abundant, which is pretty much dumps. During the right time of year, good numbers make their way down the edge of the Asir escarpment. Some will even spend the winter in the area.

A male Hamadryas Baboon and one of his mates at the edge of the Soudah Escarpment. She’s got a cheek-full of flat bread. 🙂

Further down the road I came upon a clan of baboons who had just received a blessing in the form of a heap of flat bread. The short video below gives a slight sense of the free-for-all that ensued! Despite that fact that these “commensal” baboons (existing in proximity with humans) are considered pests by most in the region, I find their distinct and easily observable social behaviors super intriguing. I mean is it a coincidence that the smallest unit among the baboons is called a ‘harem’?!

On the road to Ayn Al Dheebah, just south of Soudah Mountain

The road to Ayn Al Dheebah was beautiful with the typical landscape found throughout the Asir region – wooded wadis, terrace farms, and scrubby hillsides. To my eye the junipers – the bushiest trees in the image – should be ideal for Asir Magpie, but apparently it’s been a long time since any were seen in the area.

A narrow gorge at Ayn Al Dheebah. Beyond the wadi continues on – likely much freer of litter due to its inaccessibility – for another couple of kilometers.

While Ayn Al Dheebah promises to be at least as good for birds as any of the wadis in the area, at 11:00 AM yesterday, with the sun at almost its zenith, I found it rather quiet. Shy vocalizations from hidden birds – and perhaps the odd amphibian, like the Arabian Tree Frog – followed my quick steps as I made a recce of the area. All of the common endemics should be found there, but all I noted were singles of Arabian Partridge, Yemen Thrush, and Arabian Wheatear as well as a couple Yemen Linnet. Most abundant were the piles of trash left behind by people whose appreciation of the beauty of the place allows them, stunningly, to see past the crap left by others. I’ve got an ongoing debate with my wife about why some people act like this and the question still remains – does one really need to be “taught” not to behave like this in such an objectively beautiful place?

Winter being the dry season in Asir, only in a few of the highland wadi can you find a trickle, such as this one at Ayn Al Dheebah.

The beauty of the Asir region has been a boon to Saudi’s domestic tourism for years and, of course, will be a signature feature of the country’s initiative to attract foreign visitors. What I’m sure will be the biggest blight in the efforts to attract any moderately self-aware eco-tourist is the mindless disregard towards littering in public spaces. While the region does employ foreign cleaners to prowl the roads picking up trash, this will do little to extract the heaps left behind down wadi trails and on wooded hilltops. This will be a shock to the sensibility of the average Western tourist, and if the government’s serious about promoting ecotourism then they’d better get to the task of “educating” people. As it’s become clear, signs without enforcement aren’t doing the job.

The Ugly…

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