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Stalking the Sublime: Target Acquired in Asir Province! (June 2020)

Why do we bird? The standing theory is that our passion is a sublimation of primal predatory instincts. To be sure, birders employ their senses and a similar set of skills as hunters in pursuit of their quarry, particularly those of us who’ve become “target birders”, focusing our efforts on tracking down and documenting a particular species. This entails understanding the habits, habitat preferences, and seasonal movements of our target bird as well as boning up on the species’ vocalizations and plumage variations. Then there’s the sheer exhilaration of being out in the field–senses tuned to the sights, sounds, smells as well as the physicality of the moment, our quiet presence in the midst of nature’s beauty and wonder. That experience alone for birders and hunters alike can be deeply fulfilling, the proverbial “thrill of the hunt”, even when the vagaries of the natural world send us on our way empty-handed. Yet when we succeed…every birder and hunter knows that feeling! The difference, of course, is that for a birder our lasting memory of that moment when we first set our bins on our target bird, when we make our first observations, when we capture our first images, is of an encounter with the sublime–a wild thing driven by the same mysterious life force that drives us all. Hunters surely experience this as well but what then remains after the shot’s been taken or the quill’s been released? The vacant husk of a once dynamic expression of beauty, energy, and motion. I’ll never understand the desire to destroy life except when it’s essential for survival. That’s the essence of sublimation–elevating the primal impulse to a higher order of expression, elevating what is all too human to the level of the humane. For me, being a birder means stalking the sublime!

After three months of lockdown due to COVID-19, the Saudi government finally declared that from June 1st onward domestic travel would be permitted once again outside the curfew hours (8 PM to 6 AM). Despite the fact that infections have jumped up since the government began gradually lifting the lockdown orders–over 4,000 new just today–provided it’s allowed then, as far as I’m concerned, I’ll take my chances and the necessary precautions, of course! So when I was asked if I was available for IELTS testing in Abha this past weekend, I agreed without hesitation.

Gregory Askew, aka Saudi Birding, in the wadi near Soudah Waterfall

This would be my first visit to Asir Province in June–peak season in the highlands. My prime target was African Paradise Flycatcher, which isn’t particularly uncommon during the summer, but timing is key. During my first visit to the region in August 2018, the paradise flycatchers had already left the highlands, and then during my visit in April 2019, they had yet to return–May being the month that the bulk of the Afrotropical species return to their summer haunts.

Before the trip, I went to eBird to get a sense of where the paradise flycatchers had been seen in the past. There were less than a half of dozen sightings from near Abha, and the pins only indicated the general area in which one was seen. Not an issue, I’m familiar with their habitat preferences from my encounters in Salalah, Oman, and Ethiopia–wooded areas near water, of which wadi bottoms in the highlands would be the most ideal place to look. Soudah Waterfall, which is located in the village of Al Azizah, fit the bill quite well and is only a 25-minute drive from where I was staying in Abha. With the curfew lifting at 6 AM, nearly an hour past first light, and only a few hours to spare before I’d have to start making my way back to the city to catch my flight home, it was critical to spend more time birding and less time negotiating maniac drivers on Asir’s infamous mountain roads. This didn’t turn out to be an issue during the early hours as I found the roads to Al Azizah nearly empty aside from a ‘harem’ of Hamadryas Baboons making their way to a choice dumpster raid no doubt.

As I was winding my way along the narrow mountain roads towards the village, I came upon a bird that had been hit by a car. At that moment, I thought of Gabriel Hartmann, who is compiling the forthcoming Atlas of Feathers for Western Palearctic Birds. He contacted me not long ago about using some of my images of Asir Magpie and Yemen Thrush in the atlas and asked me to be on the lookout for car strikes and raptor plucks involving any of the endemic species when I was out west. I decided to stop, thinking it might be a Yemen Thrush and that I might collect some of its feathers. However, the splayed brown puff on the road turned out, in fact, to be a female Plain Nightjar, a nocturnal species which is considered a summer visitor occurring from the foothills to above 2,000 meters in the rocky southwest highlands. This would have been a life bird had it been alive, but now I know exactly where to go during an evening on my next visit to listen for their rattling call. But that would have to wait because at the moment I was faced with the question of what to do with her squashed little body.

A deceased female Plain Nightjar on the road to Al Azizah

I considered bringing her back with me but the freshness of the gore–clinging as it did to the asphalt as I tugged at her wings–started grossing me out and the thought of stuffing her in a ziplock bag, the only thing I had with me, and taking it on the plane back to Al Ahsa struck me as off. I mean what would my wife say when she found out I used our snack bag to spirit the poor dead nightjar, nevermore, back to our freezer? Meanwhile a car zipped around the bend–probably just how she met her end–and shuffling out of the way I decided to just take a picture and be on my way. Later I’d feel like an idiot when I emailed the picture of the spread wings to Gabriel Hartmann to see if he could confirm the ID only to have him respond that he hadn’t yet obtained any feather scans of that species and would I be willing to send him the bird…facepalm!

A Little Rock Thrush at Wadi Reema

When I arrived just outside the wadi leading to Soudah Waterfall, I discovered that recent rains had flooded the entrance. Two large 4x4s were crossing the massive pool that had accumulated there. There would be no chance of that in my rented Hyundai Accent and I had no intention to wade through muddy, knee-deep water when the area outside the wadi was bursting with bird life. In a nearby acacia, a Little Rock Thrush kickstarted its frenetic song and revved it at full throttle for a good minute. Just then a pair of Hamerkop, whose massive dome-shaped nest must’ve been close by, came flying past and headed up into the wadi, after a breakfast of frogs to be sure, of which there were many on account of the rains. Still just standing beside the car, I heard Arabian Partridge from up the wadi slope and was surprised to find a male standing sentinel on an exposed overlook. This species is quite shy, so this was a treat to get to observe one at length as it issued its call into the morning air. I made a couple of recordings of the partridge but found its clucking drowned out by the songs and calls of the hordes of smaller birds about the area–Gambaga Flycatcher, African Stonechat, Brown Woodland Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, Palestine Sunbird and Yemen Linnet were all conspicuously abundant as were Laughing Dove, White-spectacled Bulbul, and Yemen Thrush. I observed birds cautiously making their way back to nests with food and could hear the begging of young birds around the wadi as well. Some young were fully fledged and already exploring the new world around them, such as this adorable juvenile stonechat.

Juvenile African Stonechat at Soudah Waterfall near Al Azizah
Gambaga Flycatcher at Soudah Waterfall near Al Azizah

As I was hoping to make my rounds of a few spots in the time that I had, I snapped into predator mode and stalked my way into the thicker vegetation in the wadi bottom to find my quarry. Creeping along I spied a pair of Gambaga Flycatcher hawking insects from the lower branches of an acacia up the opposite slope. Further up in the backside of the tree I made out the shape of a pudgy Bruce’s Green Pigeon eyeing me silently from its perch. This, like the paradise flycatcher, is an Afrotropical species that is generally only found on the Arabian peninsula during the summer though some have been overwintering in Salalah, Oman. I snapped a couple of poor shots and then followed the wadi further. While watching a male African Stonechat attending to a juvenile–Soudah Waterfall being perhaps the most reliable place to find this resident breeder–I heard the harsh call of the African Paradise Flycatcher. Sure enough, back up the way I had just come a female flew into view, marking number 288 in my Saudi list, putting me within 12 of my goal of seeing 300 species in the country by the end of my third year. With any luck (inshallah!) my trip to Jizan in August should help me reach my goal! A little pishing coaxed her closer still along with an agitated swarm of Abyssinain White-eyes, Graceful Prinias, and Brown Woodland Warblers. Unfortunately, she didn’t stay put long enough for a better shot but so it goes. There were more pressing concerns to attend to than the impertinence of this scruffy human.

Cinnamon-breasted Bunting singing at Wadi Reema

With all the recent rains I was curious as to what was happening at Wadi Reema, where I had seen Rufous-capped Lark and African Pipit during my first visit. That was in August 2018, and the place then was incredibly birdy. Subsequent visits in the winter and early spring were less productive, more proof of the theory that the summer heat drives resident species to congregate at higher elevations. This particular morning punctuated that fact as the rains appeared to have created ideal conditions for many of the resident breeders. Cinnamon-breasted Buntings were the most conspicuous, their songs managing to dominate the foreground of virtually every video I shot.

Ruppell’s Weavers were back in force as well as were their primary nemesis, Dideric Cuckoo, which I could hear calling in two places along the wadi. The cuckoos parasitize the weavers’ nests, effectively forcing them to raise the cuckoos’ chicks. Playing the recording of the cuckoo before leaving didn’t lure any in, but the weavers and other smaller birds became quite agitated. It’s strange how the weavers know that the cuckoo’s a threat but often when the cuckoos succeed in laying an egg in a weaver’s nest the host bird seemingly doesn’t realize that it’s feeding an impostor. Brood parasites, like the cuckoos, are the hackers of the bird world!

Rufous-capped Lark at Wadi Reema in Asir Province

Making my way up the opposite slope of the wadi, where the stony ground is mostly covered with low tufts of vegetation and thorny bushes, I spotted a Rufous-capped Lark foraging ahead of me. Just as it was coming into focus in my camera, it took to the air where I lost it for a moment. Then I heard singing. Looking up, there was the lark about 50 meters above me in a slow undulating song flight. Again, just as the bird was coming into focus against the blue of the sky, I lost him, certain now that I was looking at a male. I noted the song again a short distance away, but this time he was clearly singing at ground level. I crept in the direction of the song and soon relocated the lark foraging again further up the slope. I observed him for the next fifteen minutes as he alternated between foraging, singing, and preening, offering the best views I’ve had yet of the species and the chance to capture the very first audio of the Rufous-capped Lark’s song uploaded to Xeno-Canto and Cornell's Macaulay Library. It’s moments like these that can make Saudi birding so gratifying!

A male Rufous-capped Lark preening at Wadi Reema
An Arabian Warbler at Wadi Reema

The Rufous-capped Lark (Calandrella eremica) was formerly considered conspecific with Blanford’s Lark (C. blanfordi) but recently received full-species status on the basis of size, plumage, and genetic differences. There are two subspecies of Rufous-capped Lark, C. eremica eremica, which occurs in southwest Saudi and western Yemen, and C. eremica daaroodensis, which occurs in northern Somalia and extreme northeastern Ethiopia. Blanford’s and the similar Erlanger’s Lark, considered by some a subspecies of Blanford’s, range throughout the highlands of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Given how much less tourist-friendly Yemen and Somalia are at the moment (a massive understatement of course), that makes Saudi perhaps the easiest country in which to see the Rufous-capped Lark, and Wadi Reema, just 35 minutes north of Abha, is perhaps the most reliable hotspot to see them.

An Arabian Waxbill at Wadi Reema

After leaving the lark to his business, I began heading north in the direction of the Reema Dam. Along the way I encountered two breeding pairs of Arabian Warbler, which set to scolding as I drew closer to where surely they had a nest tucked away. I also noticed a Buff-breasted Wheatear standing near the base of an acacia as if waiting for me to pass before slipping into its nesting cavity. Near the dam I came upon a large mixed gathering of smaller birds that I initially thought were only a flock of House Sparrows. There were in fact a small flock of Arabian Waxbill along with Ruppell’s Weavers, Cinnamon-breasted Buntings, and Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin. The waxbills, I have to say, are the cutest of the Arabian endemics. I love the way they snap their tails from side to side as they’re feeding. All the while, Little Swift were swooping in for a drink from the pool at the base of the dam along with another Rufous-capped Lark. Despite how bonkers the bird numbers were in the wadi, I didn’t manage to find African Pipit, which also breeds in the area. I’ve seen the species once before, but I’m looking forward to recording its song at some point.

I might have stayed out a little longer but discussion in our Saudi Birding WhatsApp group about the nightjar from earlier convinced me to go back and retrieve it, so I set the course back in Google Maps and hoped I’d be able to relocate it. Unfortunately, though, there were a few narrow mountain roads transecting the area and Google Maps led me back on a different route. Before I knew it, I was approaching Abha again and didn’t have time to backtrack. Next time I suppose…

Be safe, everyone!

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