satrip3

SW Saudi Arabia
December 1999

Introduction

Arabia boasts a number of endemic bird species, meaning that these birds exist only on the peninsula itself. Where to watch birds in Asia · by Nigel Wheatley, suggests that 11 such birds exist, while Michael Jennings, in his ABBA project, states that there are 10.

These are the Arabian Red-legged Partridge, Philby·s Partridge, the Arabian Woodpecker, Yemen Thrush, Yemen Warbler, Arabian Accentor; and the finches: Arabian Waxbill, Arabian Serin, Yemen Serin and Yemen Linnet. The 11th likely endemic is the South Arabian Wheatear, depending on its classification as a distinct species. The only area where all these species occur is in Yemen, but South West Saudi Arabia contains all except the Arabian Accentor.

The South West offers a diverse habitat for birds, as different types of terrain occur alongside each other. At the summit of the Asir there are juniper-covered mountains, best observed from the peak of Mount Soudah. These steep craggy mountains attract predatory birds, such as the rare Verreaux·s (or Black) Eagle.

Moving down from there, one can find a number of valleys and wadis · dried up water courses ·which can carry streams of water during the rainy season. Small passerine birds, such as the endemic finches will breed here along with partridges and doves. Because of its position the South West attracts a mix of bird species usually found in different continents. Palearctic birds of Europe and Northern Asia can be seen alongside Afro-tropical birds from Africa. The doves commonly found here are actually from the latter group, examples of which include the African Collared Dove, Bruce·s Green Pigeon and the Dusky Turtle Dove.

Permanent watercourses are attractive to herons and waders, sometimes ducks and the occasional Hammerkop and Stork, while raptors often hunt over looking for suitable prey. In the Asir Mountains there are several dams permanently holding water. One can be found on the edge of Abha itself, there is one in the Khamis Mushayt area, and a smaller one exists half way up from Abha to As Soudah. In the mountain foothills there are permanent streams where some birds particular to the altitude can be found with  herons, waders and storks. Such birds include the African Grey Hornbill and the Black-crowned Tchagra, or Bush-shrike. The globally threatened Northern Bald Ibis, or Waldrapp, has been known to occur around here.

A word of warning: when venturing away from your vehicle in the general mountain area, beware of groups of baboons, which can look cute from the comfort of your car. They are aggressive monkeys, which are prone to attack if they feel threatened, although they will usually keep their distance if not disturbed. Their fascinating behaviour is best observed from a distance of a few dozen metres, and be sure you are near enough to your vehicle incase they approach.

The stretch of plains between foothills and the coast is known as the Tihama. It is usually around 50 to 100km wide and exists all along the west coast of the Arabian peninsula. Driving through, a lot of the area can look barren, but acacia groves can be found and many plantations have cropped up near towns and villages. Many more afrotropical bird species prefer this habitat and some very rare palearctic birds are supposed to maintain a foothold, but they are very difficult to find. The Helmeted Guineafowl and Arabian Bustard have suffered from loss of suitable habitat as well as over-hunting, while the Little Button Quail is very secretive and rarely seen over its whole world range. Black Kites are abundant though, especially near built up areas. Colourful birds that breed here include the sky blue coloured Abyssinian Roller, which is resident, and the multi-coloured and long-tailed White-throated Bee-eater, which arrives on these shores in the summer to breed.

The coast is the place for those who like to study waders and gulls, as good numbers occur. Look out for the extraordinary Crab Plover, specific to Arabia, and the Pink-backed Pelican, which will stand out a mile away, either on the sea or in flight, due to its size, as it mixes with visiting ducks and resident gulls and terns.

The Asir (Mountains of South-west Saudi Arabia)

 The range of species to be seen in the South West is greater during the summer, when birds such as the White-throated Bee-eater and the Grey·headed Kingfisher arrive from Africa to breed. In winter though, there can be lots of wildfowl and gulls, which migrate south, away from the cold snap in their breeding territories.

We went on a five-day trip to the Abha · Khamis Mushayt area in December 1999, when to be fair, it was hardly winter, as we moved about in short-sleeves and kept the air-conditioning on most of the time.

Mount Soudah is 3000m above sea level and at such altitudes, there is much less oxygen in the air. On our first day we found that when venturing a short distance from our car we started gasping for air.

Our first stop was at the small dam towards the peak of As Soudah, and I immediately picked out my first new bird (lifer) of the trip: Little Rock Thrush. It·s a blue and red bird, about 14cm long, somewhat similar to a Redstart but with a longer bill and a more thrush-like head, which distinguishes it from similar sized chats. We soon picked out some White-breasted White-eyes with their characteristic yellow throats. We would later see birds with orange-red throats, a plumage not described in our literature.

 Raptors started flying over; a Long-legged Buzzard was followed by a Short-toed Eagle. The latter species was seen regularly throughout the trip and could be a breeding resident. Other birds here included Scrub Warbler, while a single Moorhen was on the water·s surface.

On our way up to the summit we could see baboons by the side of the road - a road-kill seen on the way back left a bitter taste in the mouth. At the summit I saw my first Fan-tailed Ravens, at long last. They were very common in the area and were easily separated from the Brown-necked Raven, thanks to their very short tail. The shiny blue nape of the Palestine Sunbird easily distinguished it from other sunbirds, and besides, it is the only one that normally occurs at this altitude. Small raptors proved difficult to identify for certain, as they didn·t stick around for confirmation. A possible Lesser Kestrel flew over our heads, while nearby, a probable Shikra flew down a cliff into rising clouds. The starling-like Tristram·s Grackle congregated near settlements and our first endemic appeared in a field. It was the Yemen Linnet. These were abundant. This field also contained many House Sparrows and Yellow-vented Bulbuls, and some thrushes caught the eye. The first two seen were definitely Song Thrush. And then a larger one appeared, much like a Blackbird, but brown. Yes, it was another endemic, the Yemen Thrush; and there was a good half dozen. Crested Lark was also present; proving that it can adapt to this altitude too, but the Red-capped Lark, perhaps more suited to the habitat, was nowhere to be seen.

The afternoon produced three more new birds for us. At the Raydah Escarpment Reserve we saw several of the endemic Yemen Warbler, a Brown Woodland Warbler and lower down at Jebel Kawthar there were many South Arabian Wheatears. These were joined by a Blue Rock Thrush and a Long-billed Pipit that came to within a metre of our car, crying out to be photographed; but, alas, we didn·t bring a camera. Before dusk we had a quick look at the Abha Dam, where wildfowl included Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon, Pochard, Ferruginous Duck and Tufted Duck.

Our second day·s birding was somewhat hampered by a flat car battery, but despite this, we had another successful day with several more lifers seen. In the Soudah area we saw a couple of waders: a Snipe in typical damp habitat and a Green Sandpiper scared away by a Pallid Harrier. The endemic Arabian Serin was seen drinking from a bucket with a flock of Yemen Linnet. Arabian Babbler, Grey Wagtail, Graceful Prinia and Pale Crag Martin were also seen. At Jebel Kawthar we saw our first Red-breasted (Botta·s) Wheatear, distinguished from the Isabelline by its black crown. At the Abha Dam I saw my first Hammerkop; a long-legged bird with a hammer-shaped head, whose closest relative is the larger stork.

We spent the afternoon in the Khamis area, and saw our first Ruppell·s Weavers at our compound, where there was also a Southern Grey Shrike and some wintering Chiffchaff. We then ventured to the nearby Etud Dam Lake, and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the birdlife there. The area around the dam was particularly attractive to passerines, including Shining Sunbird, African Silverbill and the endemic Arabian Waxbill · a bird we weren·t that confident of finding, as it is supposedly rather scarce. These were all lifers for us. These finches were joined by more Arabian Serin, while Masked and Isabelline Shrike were also present. A Hoopoe flew over, followed by a Black-crowned Night Heron, perhaps flushed by a hawking Marsh Harrier. Afro-tropical Doves were thin on the ground though, with only the abundant Laughing, or Palm Dove seen. The dam itself produced my first gulls for the kingdom. Black-headed Gull was common, but larger yellow-legged gulls were more problematic. Due to their rounded head, we deduced that they were Armenian Gulls. Three huge gulls then flew by: Great Black-headed Gulls, in winter plumage; always a delightful sight! Ducks included Shoveler, while two Great Cormorants found a small island to their liking.

 Our final day birding in the highlands was divided between a morning at the Raydah Escarpment Reserve and the afternoon at the Al Dahna Waterfall near Tanumah. We spent several hours driving down the difficult track at Raydah (4x4 a must!), and saw much the same birds as before, till another endemic appeared. It was the Arabian Red-legged Partridge, easily the biggest ·Alectoris· partridge I have seen, and there was at least a dozen of them. Three Short-toed Eagles were seen but, disappointingly, none of the rarer raptors we were hoping for were found. So Lammergeier and Black Eagle will perhaps oblige on a future visit! At the foot of the escarpment we could see Tawny Pipits and a possible Olive Pigeon, which I flushed, flew into deeper cover, so identification was not ascertained. Chats were abundant, particularly Redstart, but Black Redstart was also seen and all Stonechats seen were of the ·Siberian· subspecies.

On the way back up the escarpment we stopped at a hamlet within the reserve, which provided my highlight of the whole trip. As I walked passed a banana plantation, I spotted a large brown bird in the corner of my eye. It was clearly bigger than the abundant Yellow-vented Bulbuls around. I quickly scanned with my binoculars: White-browed Coucal! This extraordinary cuckoo like bird was sitting on some banana leaves, inconspicuously, and it suddenly raised its tail to release some droppings! It then must have become aware of the commotion we were causing and dropped to the ground out of sight. I was under the impression that this secretive afro-tropical bird only occurred in the flat Tihama region, and was therefore delighted with my find.

The drive to Tanumah provided good views of the isolated ·asirensis· subspecies of Black-billed Magpie, while the waterfall at Al Dahna, which incidentally, was dry, had the greatest number of Song Thrushes I have ever seen. We could easily study the differences between them and the larger Yemen Thrush as the birds flew down to the pool to drink and then back to their perch on the cliff ledges. Then a smaller bird joined them, finch-like and a tendency to remain on cliff ledges. It was our final endemic of the trip, the Yemen Serin. The views we got allowed us to see the clear facial and rump colour differences from the Arabian Serin. There were at least two present, while other birds there included three Hammerkop, a Long-billed Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Blue Rock Thrush and a couple more Magpies. Raptors constantly flew over, including Steppe Eagles and Black Kites, but the highlight was a good two dozen Griffon Vultures crossing over from the dam nearby. As dusk approached, baboons became more vocal and aggressive, but still kept a distance from us; as a result, we soon gave up on finding a Spotted Eagle Owl.

The Asir highlands are a birdwatcher·s paradise. I saw twenty new species here and  a spring / summer visit promises many more. The scenery is delightful, and the climate is more temperate than at lower altitudes. Hopefully those rare raptors will be more active next time around.

Logistics:

A 4x4 vehicle, and a good one at that, is absolutely necessary if you want to go to the Raydah Escarpment Reserve. You will also need to apply, perhaps a month in advance, for written permission to enter the reserve. Even with this permission, expect the guards (usually illiterate) to delay you, saying ·mafi· (effectively meaning ·not allowed· in this instance). It needs perseverance. The road is steep, very rocky and simply appalling. The Cherokee we used gave us ·check engine· warnings on the way down. Birds were quite in December here, but we found good numbers of passerines by stopping every now and then. In spring I expect Raydah to be superb.

However to bird anywhere else around As Soudah, a normal car will be fine, the road is very good up to the top, but a little steep, so those really small engined cars may struggle. Raydah is signposted, but not very clearly, off to the left, near the summit. There are several car parks to stop and have a look around as you approach the summit. Any of these can be good for birds, but we found our first endemics behind a few houses in fields a mile or two before the summit.

The Al Dahna waterfall is on the left, about a mile before you enter the town of Tanumah, coming from Abha. It is not signposted, so you may find yourself going up to the edge of town and turning back, like we did! There are one or two tracks of the road here, and you may have to try each to see which leads to the waterfall. Don·t worry, its not far, a few hundred metres, and trial and error here may discover other birds. Look here for Yemen Serin, Yemen Thrush and Spotted Eagle Owl.

For permits you·ll need to get in touch with the NCWCD (Dr. Iyad Nader), who can put you on the right track.

The Tihama (sea-level, barren terrain)

The road from Abha down to the Tihama descends quite sharply and there is little scope to birdwatch till the foothills are reached. The bird one is most likely to see on the way down in winter, is the Steppe Eagle, which winters here, as in Central Arabia, in large numbers. When in the foothills, there are several places you can stop and have a look, as there is a perennial stream running alongside the road, and a number of plantations and wadis, which are rich in birdlife.

Our first stop by such a plantation yielded three ·lifers· for me: Arabian Warbler, Nile Valley Sunbird and the secretive Black-crowned Tchagra (or Bush-shrike); while another two, the distinctive African Grey Hornbill and Cinnamon-breasted (or African) Rock Bunting, were seen by the road nearby. Also present were Ruppell·s Weaver, Black Bush Chat, Blackstart, Shining Sunbird, Tristram·s Grackle and a wintering Olivaceous Warbler, while the stream attracted Little Egret, Hamerkop, Greenshank and Common Sandpiper, amongst others. Not a bad start at all!

The rest of the day continued in much the same vein, with new birds coming thick and fast! Soon after leaving the foothills and entering the dry plain area known as the Tihama, I spotted something in the corner of my eye. ·Was that a Glossy Ibis?· suggested my friend. Ooh, could it be possible? My bogey bird at last? Yes indeed, a puddle, barely 20m long had attracted several wading birds, two Glossy Ibis, and another new bird that has eluded me in the past, Spur-winged Plover. Both were unexpected as they usually move on to pastures new by this time of year. Significantly, they were not present during our visit a couple of days later. Other birds here included Hamerkop, Cattle Egret, Common Snipe, White-tailed Plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Spotted Redshank and Hoopoe Lark, while nearby there were Steppe and Long-Legged Buzzard, Upcher·s Warbler and a further new bird, the Palm Swift. Oh, and the small matter of over 200 Black Kites!

We continued on the long drive to Jizan, stopping only a couple of times. Firstly, by the road, at Wadi Baysh, when we saw our first Abyssinian Roller, much longer-tailed than its European equivalent, along with a stonechat; and at Sabya, where a search for Arabian Golden Sparrow proved fruitless, yielding just the similar Ruppell·s Weaver, Arabian Babbler and African Silverbill.

Jizan Bay itself was exhilarating, in birding terms, but shocking otherwise. Miles and miles of rubbish, along the coast, ruined the scenery, but somehow the birds were not put off. I saw five new birds here including Pink-backed Pelican, White-eyed Gull, and about fifty Lesser Flamingos, which I didn·t think occurred here, particularly in winter. I have seen Lesser Flamingo before, but they were escaped birds. Here, the numbers caused us to believe that these were wild birds, and besides, they do occur regularly in nearby Yemen. The other lifers were a few Little Swift at altitude, and what we identified as an African Reed Warbler, singing away in its natural mangrove habitat.

Other highlights were the superb views of Crab Plover, 31 Spoonbill; a couple of dozen Greater Flamingo and Shelduck; Western Reef Heron, two Osprey, Avocet, Pacific Golden Plover, Whimbrel and Curlew; Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwit; Sooty, Siberian, Caspian and Armenian Gull. Not forgetting Gull-billed, Caspian, Lesser-crested and Saunder·s Tern; House Crow, Oystercatcher, and a Stone Curlew-type bird that we flushed and failed to identify before it flew down behind the mangrove. Spotted Thick-knee does breed here; Stone Curlew perhaps doesn·t occur, but I suppose we·ll never know.

We then drove inland to Malaki Dam, where the locals refuse us entry, so we birded the surrounding area, including Wadi Jawwah. We spotted a new bird in African Collared Dove, and flushed forty-plus Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse in the process. There was also Sparrowhawk, a couple more Abyssinian Rollers and Little (African) Grey Hornbills, Blue Rock Thrush, Isabelline Wheatear, Menetries· Warbler and half a dozen African Rock Bunting singing from the tops of Acacias. A rubbish dump in the distance was causing a commotion. Checking with my telescope revealed over a hundred White Storks, along with similar numbers of Black Kite, Cattle Egret and Fan-tailed Raven.

Fifteen new birds in one day, and much more besides. The White Storks, were impressive in numbers at a single site, Cattle Egret was also abundant, but I saw more Black Kites in one day than I have seen raptors in the rest of my life; literally thousands! However, the views obtained of Crab Plover were the icing on the cake, what a shame we hadn·t taken a camera.

Our second and final day birding through the foothills, Tihama and on the coast could never compete in terms of numbers, and one new bird for me by the end of the day was somewhat disappointing, albeit an impressive bird at that. The Bateleur (Eagle) flew over while we birded the foothills. It was an adult bird, with its distinctive black, white and red plumage, too. Three Black Storks by the stream delighted us · the second time either of us had seen one, and I saw another endemic Arabian Waxbill, but there was little else of note here.

The Tihama provided a similar range as before, with African Collared Dove, Menetries· Warbler and White-tailed Plover appearing again, while a Shoveler replaced the Glossy Ibis at the seasonal ·puddle·. The coast at Shuqaiq had good numbers of waders, but only Swift Tern was not seen at Jizan.

Logistics:

If driving from Abha to Jizan, bear in mind that the journey can take 5 or 6 hours with a few birding stops and up to 4 hours without. There are no ·reserves· or ·parks· to go to, we stopped a few times at places that looked birdy. The foothills will have several such places, look out for large plantations with tracks going towards them. In Jizan look for a road that heads toward the coast, this is where flamingos can be found, as the main road hits the coast.

The Crab Plovers were south of Jizan and it was not easy to find the main road that heads south. Again we stopped a couple of times at places that looked appealing.

Alex Kirschel