Yemen Trip Report 17 Oct - 7 Nov 1992
Birding trip report
From the home of friends in the capital Sana'a, we made several trips in this highly varied country. Birding was the main goal besides the many other interesting things to see (architecture, city and village life, mountains, deserts, etc.). We made daytrips as well as longer trips. Wherever possible, we focused on wadi's (areas around seasonal streams, mostly dry now) because of the more ample tree growth and hence richer bird life.
The field guide we used is Hollom et al., Birds of the Middle East and North Africa, Poyser 1988. This guide is to be used as supplementary to a european field guide. The drawings in Hollom are good but mostly a bit too pale.
For tourist information we used the Lonely Planet's book on Yemen, 2nd ed. (1991). Photo right is of high mountains on road to Hodeidah.
Note: The logistical information given below for several sites, may be outdated in some respects now (that is, at the time of putting this report on the Internet, Sept. 1997). Always use a recent travel book. And check the latest safety situation.
The weather was pleasant. October/November is generally regarded as the best time of the year for visitors. Most of the country is mountainous, so cooling off in winter. The coastal plains are hotter, and humid. The inland sand desert is hot and dry. During our stay, we had rain only once (1 hour only).
The number of bird species we identified is 96, half of this being lifers for us. In three weeks time, you can see more species than that in Yemen. We didn't bird all day long, nor really every day, and focused, as said before, on the wadi's. Especially along the coast, at city dumps (raptors), and at the inland desert fringes we could have added more species to the list if we had taken more time for those spots.
Below, we give impressions of the sites we visited. In the bird list you find a more complete reference of the species seen at the sites.
This lovely, green valley is situated some 15 km NW of Sana. Ask a city taxi to drive you to the Rock Palace of Wadi Dahr. Make clear that you need only one way - that is, if you like to stroll there for a few hours. Say e.g. 'Sana - Wadi Dahr, ma (= not) Wadi Dahr - Sana'. The arabic for the Rock Palace is Dar-al-Hajar. The ride cost us YR 120 one way.
For birding we preferred the area to the east of the main dust road passing by the Rock Palace. Take small roads and paths between the mud walls surrounding the gardens and orchards up to the rock wall that you see from the base of the Palace. Walk north along the rock wall, and from there cross the more open fields to the west. From several points you can see the towering Rock Palace, so that's where you have to go back at the end. Wait for a taxi on a stone bench under the big tree at the Rock Palace. There are two small shops for a drink.
Yellow-vented Bulbul is common here. Further we saw a.o. Red-breasted Wheatear, Little Green Bee-eater, Graceful Warbler, White-breasted White-eye (tit-like in behaviour and sound) and several Arabian Serins (endemic).
South of Sana, and nearly usurpated by its new quarters, is the village of Hadda. Here too are old orchards with several small roads and paths. We have been there three times and saw many of the species to be expected in a highland wadi, like Wadi Dahr is too.
Take a city taxi to Hadda. As the suburb that you must pass is called Hadda too, make clear somehow that you have to drive on to the real Hadda, all along the Hadda road (shara Had-da) that your driver will have taken already. From the centre of Sana, this should cost YR 40.
Get off where the orchards are abundant, look for a small road to the left, in a bend just north of an isolated restaurant (good food) on your right side. Or go on, up to the village of Hadda proper, and work your way through the orchards from there. There is also a dust road from Hadda along the rim of the hills to a nice village further to the east. This road overlooks the orchards (and Sana as well). From this eastern village you can also walk back through the orchards, ending e.g. at the Hadda road, at the limit of the Sana suburbs. Plenty of taxi's pass there to take you back.
One of the hot spots for tourists is a good birding area too. It is the one-hour climb from Shibam (some 40 km NW of Sana) to the fortress village of Kawkaban. The boulder-paved footpath has long been the only access to the village at the top. It winds mostly through a sort of gorge (photo) with many different trees and shrubs. Tristram's Grackle, Yemen Serin (the other endemic serin), African Rock Martin, South Arabian Wheatear and Yemen Linnet are some of the species you should see here. Of the Yemen Linnet we saw two completely white specimens. At the lower part you should see the Palestine Sunbird. At the top, we saw the Barbary Falcon several times, once with a prey. Walk a while on the plateau away from the village entrance.
From Sana, take a city taxi to Shibam (good asphalt road). Again make clear that you take one way only (we stayed there 3 or 4 hours), and pay about YR 250 one way. The road ends abruptly in Shibam. Look for the mosque in front of the hillside. The path starts behind it. Getting a taxi back from Shibam should be no problem.
This is a fortified village that you can see from the plateau of Kawkaban. It is situated at the base of an isolated part of the same plateau, some 8 km north of Shibam. To reach it, the same applies as for Shibam (good asphalt road also).
We went there in the hope of seeing a Lammergeyer, and for having a long walk (some 3 or 4 hours) through the more open fields. Both wishes were fulfilled. We slowly walked all around the mountain, counterclockwise. Starting in front of the village on a dust road, we were happy to pick up after a few km small footpaths bending around the backside of the mountain. There the Lammergeyer flew ahead, away from the mountain. We then kept as close to the mountain as possible (where there is some tree growth) and saw several of the species of Kawkaban again.
As this latter part was scenically the most interesting part of the walk, you might start from the village clockwise and return the same way.
We arranged a trip with a local expatriate through the mountains NW of Sada, to the west of the road to the border with Saoudi-Arabia. No tourists come here. The roads are very bad (stony tracks), and you get easily lost. Amidst the stony hills there are some greener areas and small wadi's. Apart from several birds seen already in the surroundings of Sana, we also identified the Arabian Warbler and the African Rock Bunting.
The highest mountain
Jabal (mountain) An-nabi Shu'ayb is really high - 3760 m (Sana is at 2400 m), and situated along the direct road from Sana to Hodeida, some 30 km West of Sana. This is a site where you can be sure of spotting the endemic Philby's Rock Partridge. Around the top, we saw some 20 altogether, mostly by 2 or 3. They are rather noisy, esp. when you walk away from the top on the grassy slope for a while.
We went there by private 4WD. If you go by city taxi, you will probably have to walk all the way from the asphalt road to the top. That might take some 2.5 hours one way. We walked from about halfway, near a village. You find the start of this dirt road to the top oppposite a big blue building (a factory or a shed or so) standing on the left of the road to Hodeida.
It is rather cool at the top, so take warmer clothes than usual with you.
The air is even thinner then in Sana, so don't go there too soon after your arrival in Yemen.
If you came by city taxi, make an appointment with the driver when to be taken back. Use a watch or draw a clock to point out the time, also to prevent misunderstandings caused by the old arabic way of counting the hours.
The damp and warm coastal plain of the Red Sea offers quite a different world, more like the savanna's of East Africa. This is a trip best done with a car with driver.
Descending from the impressive mountains (photo) the direct Sana-Hodeida road follows a river where we saw several Hamerkop. At Khamis Bani Sad look a while at the river. Some km before Bajil there is a huge dump to the right with swarms of kites and other raptors. Keep out of the smell - mind your driver.
Driving from Hodeida along the main road to the south you will cross nice flat wadi's. The first is Wadi Siham, some km after leaving the road back to Sana. Stop at the gas station to the right and walk a while in the cultivated bushy plot. At the other side of the road, as wel as further along the road we saw the Black-crowned Finch Lark.
Some 20 km and many desert dune fields further you will cross the large Wadi Rumman. After the lowest point (the small stream), drive on uphill and park at some houses and a clear dust road to the right. Walk around there between the acacia's and the shrubs. An Isabelline Shrike and a Dark Chanting Goshawk (in an electricity pole) were competing for our attention.
For the coast itself we took only a few hours. We went along the road between the sea and the mudflats, NW of Hodeida. Most birds we saw near a small hut of drift wood at the road side (the only hut I can remember), a.o. Pink-backed Pelican, Gull-billed Tern, and a Sand Plover (in winter plumage on 2 eggs!). This is the only place in Yemen where we were missing our telescope. Don't go much further - there would be military camps at the end of the road. Anywhere here, mind the Sooty and White-eyed Gulls (but they were easy to watch at the fishermen's harbour and market in the southern part of Hodeida).
Driving from Hodeida along the main road to the north you will first see some interesting pools on the right side (full of Black-necked Stilt, and some Palm Swift). Some 25 km further you cross the huge Wadi Surdud. At the lowest point, walk a while in the bushes and small fields near the (quiet) road: a.o. Namaqua Dove, Short-toed Lark, Black Bush Robin and again Black-crowned Finch Lark. Driving back late in the afternoon we saw twice flocks of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse passing by.
From Hodeida we drove back to Sana along the new southern road along the Wadi Siham. This is an impressive valley with enormous river terraces. The first part of the valley there are electricity poles along the road with several raptors (a.o. Egyptian Vulture). There we saw our only Abyssinian Roller too (at some trees near a sort of transformator building).
After entering the more mountainous part of the road, there was a nicely wooded narrow wadi (photo right) with Rüppell's Weaver and Shining Sunbird.
Not far before joining the Taiz-Sana road at Mabar there was a sort of dump with several Tawny Eagle and a Short-toed Eagle.
The limited time we had here we used mainly for a walk through a wadi in the foothills of the Jabal Samir mountain. The area here is in general greener than elsewhere in Yemen, with many different trees of reasonable heigth. Take the road to Al Qibli/At Turban at some km west of Taiz. After some 15 or 20 km, just at some sharp bends, you find the wadi as a clear sand and gravel road (the river bed) in a narrow valley to the left. A group of Arabian Waxbill hung around in the taller trees. A Lanner circled over our heads for a while.
In a wadi along the road from Taiz to the coast, some km further west than the bifurcation mentioned above, many raptors from a nearby dump were circling ahead, a.o. the Steppe Eagle (A. nipalensis). By chance, we discovered a Spotted Eagle Owl here, in the large trees bordering a small field some 300 m to the south of the road.
The little birding we did here resulted anyhow in several Western Reef Heron. They are easy to watch in the salt pans crossed by the road from Aden to Taiz/Sana.
The House Crow is common here.
The former South Yemen is a difficult country to travel leisurely around, because of its very limited number of hotels. We managed somehow to get into the Rub al Khali, the big desert passing into Saoudi Arabia (photo). We were in the border part of this desert, north of the shabby town of Atag. At the ruined small incense trade town of Shabwa several Purple Sunbird were buzzing around, much further south than indicated in Hollom's field guide of the Middle East. Halfway between this and Atag you enter a sort of steppe area, a flat desert with gradually more grass to the south. Along the road we saw several Hoopoe Lark. At a site with some shrubs (a wadi maybe) a Pallid Harrier was chased by flocks of Short-toed Lark.
Sukh of capital Sana'a
Species list of birds identified
Site references: (not complete for the more common birds)
WD = Wadi Dahr
KK = Kawkaban
SP = plateau's around Sanaa and further away
SD = Sada (hills NW of town)
TC = Tihama Coast
TW = Tihama wadi's
TF = Tihama Foothills + rivers in between
TH = Taiz Hills
SH = Shabwa steppe + flat desert
AD = Aden
Pink-backed Pelican - TC
Cattle Egret - TF, TC
Western Reef Heron - AD
Little Egret - TF
Grey Heron - TF
Hamerkop - TF
Black Stork - TW
Greater Flamingo - AD
Honey Buzzard - TW
Red Kite - everywhere
Black Kite - KK etc. (common)
Lammergeier - Thilla
Egyptian Vulture - TW, SP
Griffon Vulture - KK
Pallid Harrier - SH
Dark Chanting Goshawk - TW
Sparrowhawk - TF, TW. etc.
Buzzard - TF
Tawny Eagle - TW, TF, SP
Steppe Eagle - TH
Short-toed Eagle - TF/SP
Osprey - TC
Kestrel - TF, SP
Lanner - TH
Barbary Falcon - KK
Philby's Rock Partridge - E SP
Quail - TF
Oystercatcher - TC
Black-winged Stilt - TC
Lesser or Greater Sand Plover - TC
Curlew - TC
Green Sandpiper - TF
Common Sandpiper - AD
Sooty Gull - TC, AD
White-eyed Gull - TC
Lesser Black-backed Gull - TC,AD
Herring Gull - TC
Gull-billed Tern - TC
Sandwich Tern - TC
Little Tern or Saunders'Little Tern - TC
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse - TW
Rock Dove - KK, etc.
African Collared Pigeon - TW
Red-eyed Dove - TF
Palm (Laughing) Dove - WD etc.
Namaqua Dove - TW
Spotted Eagle Owl - TH
Little Swift - TF
Palm Swift - TC
Little Green Bee-eater - WD, TW, TF
Roller - SP
Abyssinian Roller - TF
Hoopoe - Hadda wadi, TW, etc.
Black-crowned Finch Lark - TW, SH
Hoopoe Lark - SH
Short-toed Lark - TW, SH
Crested Lark - WD
Barn Swallow - common on passage
African Rock Martin - KK, TF, SH
Tree Pipit - WD
White Wagtail - WD, Hadda
Yellow Wagtail - TF
Yellow-vented Bulbul - overal
Black Redstart subspec. arabica - Hadda
Black Bush Robin - TW
Blackstart - TF
Red-breasted Wheatear - WD etc.
Mourning Wheatear - SP
South Arabian Wheatear - KK, etc.
Little Rock Thrush - KK
Blue Rock Thrush - KK
Yemen Thrush - E SP
Graceful Warbler - WD
Scrub Warbler - TW
Arabian Warbler - SD
Desert Lesser Whitethroat - SD, WD
Arabian Babbler - TW, Hadda
Shining Sunbird - TF
Palestine Sunbird - KK
Purple Sunbird - SH
White-breasted White-eye - WD, Hadda, etc.
Isabelline Shrike - TW
Masked Shrike - TW
House Crow - TC, AD
Brown-necked Raven - WD, SP, etc.
Fan-tailed Raven - everywhere
Tristram's Grackle - KK, Hadda
Rüppell's Weaver - WD, TW
House Sparrow - common
Arabian Waxbill - E TH
Arabian Serin - E WD, Hadda
Yemen Serin - E KK, SP
Yemen Linnet - KK
African (Cinnamon-breasted) Rock Bunting - SD
For reactions, please mail John van der Woude, The Netherlands.
A hard copy of this report (a slightly different version) can be obtained at the DBTRS