Jizan to Al Namas: A Saudi Birding Epic

Jizan to Al Namas: A Saudi Birding Epic

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Total Avian Species: 151
Total Endemics and Near-Endemics: 17
Highlights:
  • Helmeted Guineafowl Numida meleagris mitratus
  • Harlequin Quail Coturnix delegorguei arabica
  • Philby’s Partridge Alectoris philbyi
  • Arabian Partridge Alectoris melanocephala
  • Lesser Flamingo Phoeniconaias minor
  • Dusky Turtle-Dove Streptopelia lugens
  • African Collared-Dove Streptopelia roseogrisea
  • Red-eyed Dove Streptopelia semitorquata
  • Bruce’s Green-Pigeon Treron waalia
  • Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse Pterocles lichtensteinii
  • White-browed Coucal Centropus superciliosus
  • Pied Cuckoo Clamator jacobinus
  • Dideric Cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius
  • Nubian Nightjar Caprimulgus nubicus
  • Plain Nightjar Caprimulgus inornatus
  • Little Swift Apus affinis
  • African Palm-Swift Cypsiurus parvus
  • Broad-billed Sandpiper Calidris falcinellus
  • Terek Sandpiper Xenus cinereus
  • Small Buttonquail Turnix sylvaticus
  • Crab-Plover Dromas ardeola
  • White-eyed Gull Ichthyaetus leucophthalmus
  • Abdim’s Stork Ciconia abdimii
  • Pink-backed Pelican Pelecanus rufescens
  • Hamerkop Scopus umbretta
  • Verreaux’s Eagle Aquila verreauxii
  • Gabar Goshawk Micronisus gabar
  • Shikra Accipiter badius
  • Yellow-billed Kite Milvus migrans aegyptius
  • Arabian Scops-Owl Otus pamelae
  • Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owl Bubo africanus milesi
  • Little Owl Athene noctua
  • African Gray Hornbill Lophoceros nasutus
  • Gray-headed Kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala
  • White-throated Bee-eater Merops albicollis
  • Arabian Green Bee-eater Merops orientalis cyanophrys
  • Abyssinian Roller Coracias abyssinicus
  • Arabian Woodpecker Dendrocoptes dorae
  • Black-crowned Tchagra Tchagra senegalus
  • African Paradise-Flycatcher Terpsiphone viridis
  • Asir Magpie Pica asirensis
  • Fan-tailed Raven Corvus rhipidurus
  • Singing Bushlark Mirafra cantillans
  • Rufous-capped Lark Calandrella eremica
  • Mangrove Reed Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus avicenniae
  • Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis
  • Brown Woodland-Warbler Phylloscopus umbrovirens
  • Yemen Warbler Sylvia buryi
  • Arabian Warbler Sylvia leucomelaena
  • Abyssinian White-eye Zosterops abyssinicus
  • Arabian Babbler Turdoides squamiceps
  • Violet-backed Starling Cinnyricinclus leucogaster
  • Tristram’s Starling Onychognathus tristramii
  • Yemen Thrush Turdus menachensis
  • Gambaga Flycatcher Muscicapa gambagae
  • Black Scrub-Robin Cercotrichas podobe
  • African Stonechat Saxicola torquatus
  • Buff-breasted Wheatear Oenanthe bottae
  • Blackstart Oenanthe melanura
  • Arabian Wheatear Oenanthe lugentoides
  • Nile Valley Sunbird Hedydipna metallica
  • Palestine Sunbird Cinnyris osea
  • Arabian Shining Sunbird Cinnyris habessinicus kinneari/hellmayri
  • Rüppell’s Weaver Ploceus galbula
  • Arabian Waxbill Estrilda rufibarba
  • African Silverbill Euodice cantans
  • Arabian Golden Sparrow Passer euchlorus
  • Yemen African Pipit Anthus cinnamomeus eximius
  • Arabian Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis arabicus
  • Olive-rumped Serin Crithagra rothschildi
  • Yemen Serin Crithagra menachensis
  • Yemen Linnet Linaria yemenensis
  • Cinnamon-breasted Bunting Emberiza tahapisi
Non-Avian Vertebrate Highlights:
  • Hamadryas Babboon Papio hamadryas
  • African Wildcat Felis lybica (possible)
  • Cape Hare Lepus capensis
  • Indian Porcupine Hystrix indica
  • African Straw-colored Fruitbat Eidolon helvum sabaeum
  • Yemen Carpet Viper Echis borkini
  • Arabian Tree Frog Hyla felixarabica
  • Dhofar Toad Duttaphrynus dhufarensis
  • Arabian Toad Sclerophrys arabica
  • Anderson’s Rock Agama Acanthocercus adramitanus
My wife, Michelle, Adam Harris, and I arrived to Jizan from Dammam in the early evening on July 23, 2020. After sorting out the booking with Al Wefaq Rent a Car, we stepped out of the airport terminal into the hot and humid air of the Tihamah (التهامة), the coastal plain running nearly the entire west side of the Arabian Peninsula. Adam called our attention to several large fruitbats rousing from their roosts in some palm trees just outside. Before being transported over to the rental lot, I made a quick recording of these megabat’s vocalizations to help us pin down the ID—both Egyptian Fruitbat and African Straw-colored Fruitbat occur in the southwest—and later confirmed they were in fact the latter. Then it was off to our hotel, Al Borg Al Watheer, right across from the Red Sea on the south side of the city, to sleep up for our first full day of birding.
White-throated Bee-eater, a common summer breeder in the lowlands and foothills of southwest Saudi

Day 1: Sabya, Either, and the coast of Jizan

As we were expecting nigh intolerable weather the next day—a “real feel” of 42° C (108° F)—we decided to bird Sabya early for the best chance at our first target, Harlequin Quail in the agricultural fields around the area. We arrived just before sunrise to the spot where Jem Babbington, Brian James, and others had seen them in the past. To the east we could see the dark shape of Jebel Ekuwah (جبل عكوة), an ancient volcanic crater, one of many scattered around . Around us the morning came alive with the sound of birdsong and we were enveloped in a veritable din of Singing Bushlark, Zitting Cisticola, and African Silverbill. Soon White-throated Bee-eater, Arabian Babbler, White-spectacled Bulbul, Ruppell’s Weaver, and Common Myna joined the chorus. We started walking down the dirt access road, taking stock of the surge of birdlife around us, all the while African Palm-Swift careened overhead. Soon we added Black Scrub-Robin, Pied Cuckoo, a feldegg Western Yellow Wagtail, and Abdim’s Stork to the morning’s count, a small group of the latter having flown in just after sunrise to forage in a newly mown field to the right of the road. Through the din, just across an overgrown field we were skirting I heard the rhythmic, cow-like lowing of a female Small Buttonquail and then it was on! Buttonquail are notoriously difficult birds to see, but having heard one fired us up for the hour’s worth of productive tromping that followed. We moved off the road and into the field, following a rut made by one of the wheels of the pivot irrigation arm used to water the field. After just a few minutes, Adam kicked up our first Small Buttonquail of the morning, told from the similarly small, fast, and fleeting Harlequin Quail by its stiff-winged flight and pale, contrasting upper wing coverts. After failing to relocate it, we continued on through the field and then I began to hear something different—not one but three Harlequin Quail calling not far from our position. We stalked closer until I was able to capture some decent audio in case we weren’t able to actually see them, these recordings representing the first of this species in Saudi Arabia.

 

The Arabian Harlequin Quail, a subspecies of the widespread African species, occurring in extreme southwest Saudi. Listen here past the noisy Zitting Cisticolas for the “wit-wit wit” of a Harlequin Quail in Sabya.

 

As we neared closer still, the quail suddenly went quiet and we began zigzagging around the area in the hopes of flushing one. Eventually what appeared to be a younger, duller male put up, flying away from us but thankfully quartering back towards us before dropping out of sight, allowing us to note the harlequin head pattern and rich coloring on the breast and flanks. We were psyched to have successfully tracked down the two biggest skulkers on the target list and in such short order. Then while reveling in our quail encounter, I heard another female Small Buttonquail calling from beside a plantation of fig trees, so we headed in that direction. We couldn’t find the buttonquail but here we did add Nile Valley Sunbird and Arabian Green Bee-eater. Rounding the pivot field back towards the car, we kicked up another five Harlequin Quail, each time one or two birds bursting out from nearly under foot, and at virtually every point on our trek through the field we were surrounded by incessantly zitting Zitting Cisticola and huge twittering flocks of African Silverbill, the largest by far I’ve ever seen.
On our way back to the car, our attention was drawn to the mown field across the road by six Pied Cuckoo feeding on the ground. It was then we realized just how active the field actually was. Before long Adam got on what he thought was a Small Buttonquail and walked off to relocate it. A short time later he called out to me and I caught sight of a buttonquail flying past from his direction and then settling in the field a short distance away. I set up the spotting scope and started scanning the area where it landed. Before long, I found a richly colored female, brighter than the males, crouching low and making her way towards the center of the field. She would pop into view every few seconds or so as she clambered over the ridges of piled mowing. While I was watching her, Adam called out another possible quail not too far beyond the buttonquail, so we made our way in that direction. The quail, in fact, was yet another buttonquail, and as we moved further into the field, by and by, we either flushed or had a flyby of another six buttonquails, making the final count for the morning an astonishing 11 birds, the most ever seen at one location in Saudi as far as I know.
From here we set off to the Sabya Outfall, an area that has received treated wastewater over the years and played host to such rarities as breeding Greater Painted-Snipe and Black-headed Heron. When we arrived we found the place to be in stark contrast to where we had just been birding—aside from a few new additions to the trip list, including Spur-winged Plover and Little Ringed Plover, as well as a good number of Black-crowned Sparrow-larks, the area was quite unproductive. A few of the pools were devoid of water, the largest of them were quite low and bright with algae, and the weather had turned unbearably hot and muggy. We didn’t waste much time calling it and headed back to the comfort of the car’s AC. It was getting on into the morning and I had promised my wife to be back at the hotel for lunch, so we set a course for the mangrove forest near Either and the possibility of picking up the “Mangrove” Abyssinian White-eye. On the way, we had our second of two encounters with honey-buzzard; this one, however, allowed for a couple photographs, helping us pin the ID down as Oriental Honey-buzzard, my first for Saudi.
“Mangrove” Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus scirpaceus avicenniae) at the Either mangroves

When we arrived to the Either mangroves, we had just an hour to spare and were disappointed to discover that the spot at which I had hoped to access the main stretch of mangroves was being monitored by the Saudi Coast Guard. They emerged from their office as we drove past and called us back, telling us that that area was off-limits but that we could explore the mangroves at the nearby park. They also warned us about going off road as we could get stuck in the mud flat around the perimeter of the mangroves. The possibility of getting stuck dampened my enthusiasm for trying to access a spot further north where the white-eyes had been seen in the past and we resigned ourselves to checking a few of the openings along the stretch of mangroves near the park just south of the coast guard building. Here we encountered the “mangrove” subspecies of the Eurasian Reed Warbler, Clamorous Reed Warbler, as well as our first Crab-plover, Pink-backed Pelican, Sooty Gull, and Osprey of the trip.

White-eyed Gulls, a Red Sea specialty, on the corniche in Jizan city

On the way back to the hotel and then until sunset after we had lunched and freshened up, we explored the coastline from the north corniche all the way south to the Jazan Wastewater Treatment Plant. The highlights along the north corniche were the good mix of shorebird species, including a large count of Crab-plover, more Pink-backed Pelican, and another top target of the trip, White-eyed Gull. This near-endemic, only found along the coasts and islands of the Red Sea, apparently has a penchant for Saudi’s version of KFC. In the parking lot of the local Al Baik restaurant, adjacent to the corniche park, we had approximately 20 birds, young and adult, allowing for close consideration of the distinguishing field marks of this intriguing regional specialty. After lunch at the hotel, my wife joined Adam and I as we explored the coast south of the city. Jem Babbington had seen Lesser Flamingo down towards the heritage village, so I was hoping we too might find them. This was a life bird I had missed in the Upper Rift Valley of Ethiopia and catching up with it in Saudi would also put me closer to my goal of surpassing 300 birds before the end of my third year here. We didn’t see any flamingoes near the heritage village; however, besides the mangroves opposite the Jazan Wastewater Treatment Plant we came upon a flock, nearly 400 to 500 strong, along with a mix of several other shore- and waterbird species. I set up the spotting scope and began scanning the flock and instantly I realized that perhaps more than half were Lesser Flamingoes. Additionally, several were sitting on nest mounds. Jem Babbington had observed this nesting behavior last year, but apparently breeding has yet to be confirmed as no eggs or hatchlings have been observed. From there we explored the park just to the south and saw more flamingoes, mostly Greater, as well as a few Saunder’s Terns, and added to our shorebird count of the day, with a Broad-billed Sandpiper representing a Saudi tick for me. We then went back to the hotel for dinner and an early bedtime as we would be off well before dawn to head for Al Sadd Lake, considered one of the best birding spots in all the Kingdom.

Greater and Lesser Flamingoes near the Jazan Wastewater Treatment Plant, south of Jizan city

 

Day 2: Al Sadd Lake and Abu Arish

We set off from Jizan city early enough to ensure that we reached Al Sadd Lake by sunup. First stop was a spot south of the small lake where Khalifa Al Dhaheri, a birding friend from the UAE, had seen Helmeted Guineafowl. A short dirt road ran through the acacia scrub, an area used, unfortunately, as a local rubbish dump, to the shore of the lake. Leaving Michelle to snooze in the back of the car, Adam and I quietly made our way down the road. Our first White-browed Coucal could be heard bubbling away out of sight in the scrub as could Dideric Cuckoo, another species we heard more often than saw. This spot turned out to be fairly quiet; however, on the way back to the car we took a slight detour along some agricultural fields, divvied up with meter-high berms, and spooked a lone Helmeted Guineafowl, which the Birds of the Middle East inaccurately describes as “the size of a domestic chicken”. They’re in fact quite large and striking, particularly in flight. Adam suggested viewing the area from atop the berms and sure enough five more guineafowl, previously obscured by the opposite berm, burst into view.
Abdim’s Stork, a local summer breeder and winter visitor to southwest Saudi
The heat rose quickly that morning and we spent the rest of it driving around the area looking for places to scan the lake for waterfowl and other waterbirds as well as some of the less retiring targets of the trip. On the east side of the small lake, we came upon a flock of twenty Abdim’s Storks and shortly after spotted six Red-eyed Doves perched on a wire along with a single African Collared-Dove and a couple Laughing Doves. I thought this latter target might be a little trickier to find, but they were actually fairly common in Jazan province away from the coast. Trying to negotiate our way to the east side of the big lake, we picked up a Gabar Goshawk just off the side of the road, less than three meters from the car, and further on an Abyssinian Roller feeding out over a cornfield. African Palm-swift were quite abundant around the lake, where we observed several substantial stands of their favored palms.
A Gabar Goshawk, an African accipiter species that only occurs in extreme southwest Saudi, perched in an acacia on the side of the road near Al Sadd Lake
Before heading into Abu Arish for lunch and freshening up at the hotel apartment, we decided to drive around agricultural areas near where Arabian Golden Sparrow had been observed before. We missed them around Sabya the prior day despite the abundance of acacia trees near the many fields in the area. We had no luck until we reached the city of Abu Arish itself. We’d been following the directions to a pin indicated by Mansur Al Fahad, a Saudi birder from Al Zulfi, when he messaged saying the pin was just for the general area, not the specific location where he’d seen the sparrows. He mentioned though that they were common in the city, upon which we began looking about for stands of acacia trees. A few minutes later we were peering over the wall of a local cemetery at a flock of about 30 Arabian Golden Sparrows in the shade of an acacia. This near-endemic can pretty much only be seen on the Tihamah of extreme southwest Saudi and western Yemen as well as Djibouti, making Saudi perhaps the easiest place to see them. As there were no audio recordings for this species in Xeno-Canto or Cornell’s Macaulay Library, I was determined to come back in the morning when they’d likely be more vocal; however, when we did make it back to this spot, we found only a single male, which did vocalize but only quietly and briefly before flying off. I uploaded the recording of the species’ signature disyllabic chirps; however, the quality is not as good as I had been hoping. Listen to it HERE.

A flock of Arabian Golden Sparrows retreating from the heat of the Tihamah in the shade of an acacia.

 

We took a long siesta at perhaps the least worst option for accommodation in Abu Arish—Qasr al Mosaidya Furnished Apartments. This was the crummiest place we stayed during the whole trip, but, as a place to escape the midday heat and sleep up for another day of birding, it was perfectly serviceable. Then just past 4:00 PM Adam and I headed back out for some late afternoon and nocturnal birding back out near the lake. We made a quick stop at the Abu Arish Wastewater Ponds, where Jem Babbington encountered both Nubian and Plain Nightjars. I wanted to get a sense of the area by day before coming back in the dark. The wastewater ponds looked very promising, particularly as they were ringed by thick vegetation, but we saw nothing new for the trip. The highlight of this stop though was a Helmeted Guineafowl walking along the dirt access road and giving us our only opportunity to photograph this Jazan Province specialty.
Helmeted Guineafowl, a denizen of the scrublands and wadis in the foothills of extreme southwest Saudi
With time to kill before sundown and our first attempt at locating the regional nightjar species, we headed north along the west side of Al Sadd Lake to a volcanic crater we saw in Google Maps. After a short, rugged hike up a narrow wadi, we found ourselves in the center of the crater, one of the coolest moments of the trip. The terrain revealed a few of the more desert-friendly species in Saudi, including our first Blackstarts, Desert Larks, and Arabian Great Gray Shrike of the trip. Before dark we made a quick stop at the Al Sadd Lake Park, which was noisy with African Palm-swifts and Zitting Cisticolas.
Nubian Nightjar, a common species along the Tihamah from near Jeddah south to Jazan Province

With the sun setting, it was time to kick into nocturnal mode. We went to a spot that Khalifa Al Dhaheri recommended for nightjars. Within a couple minutes of switching on the flashlight and stepping off the road just south of the small lake, we had two Nubian Nightjars fly into view. One stayed put long enough for us to take a few pictures and leave him to his business. Khalifa had seen Plain Nightjar here as well, so we continued exploring the area by flashlight. At one point we were crouching through some patches of scrub on our way back towards the car when I looked down to see a viper just a meter before me. I took some pictures and video to help us ID later and it turned out to be a Yemen Carpet Viper, a highly venomous endemic snake. As you might imagine, we were much more mindful of where we were stepping after that.

Yemen Carpet Viper (Echis borkini), an extremely poisonous endemic snake in southwest Saudi. Watch your step!

 

Day 3: Abu Arish and Jebel Fayfa

Adam and I headed back the access road for the Abu Arish Wastewater Ponds before dawn to try for nightjars. At one spot near a quarry, we heard a Nubian Nightjar, but a rough dirt track to the north of the access road a kilometer or so before the wastewater ponds proved to be the most productive. Here we saw several nightjars flying about before dawn, identified one as a Nubian, and heard two Plain Nightjar. Unfortunately, it quickly became too light out and the nightjars retreated to their daytime roosts. Before leaving though, we twice flushed what was likely a female of Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, which gave its telltale call each time it took to wing.
A female Plain Nightjar found dead along a road in Jazan Province
After trying to catch up again with the golden sparrows, we grabbed breakfast at a local Yemeni restaurant and then hit the road for Jebel Fayfa. White-throated Bee-eater and Grey-headed Kingfisher were conspicuously abundant on the drive up through the foothills, and we saw our first African Gray Hornbill as well. A wrong turn at the base of Jebel Fayfa sent us along a well-paved road along the eastern side of the mountain. On our way back in the correct direction we retrieved the remains of three Plain Nightjar, the feathers of which will be featured in an atlas of feathers for the birds of the Western Palearctic. While investigating the remains of an Arabian Spotted Eagle Owl, also struck along that stretch of road, the call of a nearby Black-crowned Tchagra drew my attention to a small covey of Arabian Partridge making their way up the slope opposite us.
Before ascending to the top of Jebel Fayfa, where we were staying that evening, we hiked up a nice wooded wadi called Wadi Muhaleb. Here were picked up several new additions to the trip list: Bruce’s Green-pigeon, Black-crowned Tchagra, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Abyssinian White-eye, as well as Palestine and Shining Sunbirds.
We stayed at the Crown of Fayfa Furnished Apartments near the the summit of Jebel Fayfa, less than 10 kilometers from the Yemen border. Little Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, and Tristram’s Starling were fairly abundant around the mountain. Also present were Red-eyed Doves and Grey-headed Kingfishers as well as our first encounters with Brown Woodland-warbler and Olive-rumped Serin.
Red-eyed Dove, another widespread African species whose range extends into extreme southwest Saudi

Day 4: Jebel Al Aswad

The drive from Jebel Fayfa to Jebel Al Aswad was quite productive with some stellar encounters and stunning scenery. After grabbing breakfast, we pulled over just above Wadi Al Hasher to eat, where down in the wadi I could hear African Gray Hornbill calling. We finished breakfast and then made our way down to the wadi for a short hike. As we descended a narrow, rocky crevice into the wadi bottom, I spooked what I believe was an African Wildcat, which bolted from a shaded overhang and then disappeared around the corner. The coloring and markings looked good for wildcat and the remote terrain was suitable for a wildcat versus a feral domestic cat. Making our way up the wadi proper, large geckoes and a striking Yemen Rock Agama were hanging out on larger boulders. Eventually we reached a stand of mature trees near to where I had heard the hornbills. Here there were two Red-eyed Doves giving their surprisingly danceable call.

A wooden bee hive up in the top of one of the trees in the bottom of Wadi Al Hasher

In the branches of the trees were two structures comprised of sections of thick branches and strung up to encourage honey bees to build hives in them, similar to what has been used traditionally in Ethiopian apiculture. I’m not sure if this is a tradition shared in Yemen or not, or perhaps they were put up by Ethiopian migrants from the nearby villages. Soon the African Gray Hornbills flew in, a pair, and from the tops of the trees were calling—tossing their heads back and pumping their wings in time—and hawking some flying insects that were blooming in the area. Several pairs of Violet-backed Starling were in the area as well as all three south Arabian sunbird species, a first for me.

It was such a thrill to capture this species calling in Wadi Al Hasher

 

African Gray Hornbill is a resident Afrotropical species in the foothills and wadis of Asir and Jazan Provinces in the southwest

 

Both the male and female were calling in Wadi Al Hasher, each throwing their heads back and pumping their wings in time with the call

 

We continued on toward Jebel Al Aswad and at the junction in Wadi Amoud I spied two large raptors circling low. As soon as I set my bins on them, their ID was obvious—a pair of Verreaux’s Eagles! These are stunning birds of prey that have adapted a specialized hunting strategy for capturing their preferred prey—the Rock Hyrax. Adam and I surely made for an odd sight standing as we were in the center of the junction, perhaps the only Westerners to have passed through there in ages, pointing our bins and cameras to the sky. We couldn’t be bothered though. The moment was just too perfect! Then, just as we were settling down from the excitement of seeing the eagles, Michelle declared that there was another just out the window. We looked out to find a Yellow-billed Kite sailing by quite close. Once again, we’re back out of the car, bins and cameras in hand, for our first kite of the trip. We followed the kite as it flew parallel to the road for about a kilometer before turning back to resume our journey to Jebel Al Aswad.
Verreaux’s Eagle, an uncommon and local resident in western Saudi, where they hunt in tandem with their mates for their preferred prey, Rock Hyrax
After Wadi Amoud, the road up to Jebel Al Aswad passes through what looked to be excellent habitat for Desert Owl, including the so-called “Grand Canyon” of Saudi Arabia, Wadi Lajab. We stopped at the wadi and began driving in to get a sense of where would be best to try for the owl, but gradually running water appeared on the wadi bottom, growing deeper and faster, and some young Saudis hiking their way out of the wadi told us that the local police were telling people to leave as they were expecting a flood from nearby rains the previous evening. We heeded the warning and headed back to the road, deciding to come back before dawn, when they had said it would be safer.
The views from Jebel Al Aswad, a ridge running north and south, were incredible, that is, when there wasn’t an intense bank of cloud strafing up over the ridgeline and enveloping the area in fog. Here Adam saw his first Little Rock Thrush and Dideric Cuckoo as well as a second Arabian Wheatear for the day.
A Dhofar Toad in the wadi near the Khatwat Al Ain Dam
Once a heavy rainstorm passed and the skies began to clear again, we made our way back down into the wadi east of Jebel Al Aswad for some late afternoon exploring. We stopped at the Khatwat Al Ain Dam to see what might be hanging out around the pool of water that had collected behind the dam. In the light we found a Hamerkop, Green Sandpiper, and Common Sandpiper feeding along the water’s edge. We also had our first encounter with Arabian Waxbill here. As it was getting close to sundown, we decided to wait for dark in the hopes of seeing Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse coming in to drink. Past sundown we thought we heard sandgrouse further up the wadi but they never appeared. Perhaps they were deterred by flashlight beams as we spotlighted a nightjar that fluttered over the surface of the water and dropped down with a light splash for a sip. We followed the glowing eyes of the nightjar off to the side of the dam and then eventually found a nice gray morph Plain Nightjar resting briefly on the ground. Another nightjar was heard calling from the opposite side of the wadi. Before making our way back to Jebel Al Aswad, we found a Dhofar Toad, making us realize the tiny amphibians we saw earlier were actually toads and not frogs as we’d originally thought.
We stopped several times at promising spots along the road and played a recording for Desert Owl, but unfortunately we didn’t get any replies, despite how promising the area seemed to be for them. Indeed, Mike Jennings’ team, which had surveyed the area for magpies back in 2010, heard from some locals that the owls were actually common in the area. Apparently they’re quieter this time of year, so maybe a late winter visit would be more successful. We didn’t go empty-handed in the owl department however. Back atop Jebel Al Aswad, as we were nearing our accommodation, the Jebel Al Aswad Hotel, I spotted a large owl fly low over the road through the light of one of the street lamps. Michelle then picked it up through the surrounding gloom perched on a utility pole—it was our first Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owl of the trip.

Day 5: Al Habala and Al Soudah Waterfall

A massive thunderstorm in the middle of the night caused major rock slides and washouts all along the route from Jebel Al Aswad out of Jazan Province, preventing us from visiting Wadi Lajab, the rough track entering the canyon now strewn with heaps of rocks and small boulders washed down from the surrounding slopes. The next two hours were rough going as not only did we get a puncture from a rock shard that we had to deal with, but some of the wadi bottoms were nearly washed out with rocks and other debris and some we crossed still were rushing with the remains of the previous night’s storm. Besides the eventful driving out of Jazan, there weren’t any bird observations of note. Thankfully once we entered the the driving improved, as the roads are more developed and better maintained and we seemed to have moved out of the area worst hit by the storm. Soon we were snaking up a beautifully constructed mountain road, tunnels shooting through some of the steeper mountain flanks rather than around, to the highland plateau near Al Habala, our first birding stop of the day. On the way I determined to stop wherever there were sufficient stands of acacias to hopefully find Arabian Woodpecker. Before long I was swinging off to the side of the road and leading Adam down into a shallow wadi with mature acacias favored by the woodpecker. This turned out to be a branch of Wadi Bishah, which I didn’t realize at the time was just over a low hill to the north. Never the mind, we made our way through the trees, playing a recording of the woodpecker here and there, and eventually heard one respond. We zeroed in on what turned out to be a female Arabian Woodpecker feeding at the center of an acacia crown, quietly at work in the smaller branches. She flew off when we tried to get closer and we eventually lost her after she spooked from the next tree. Also in this wadi were our first Arabian Warbler, Gambaga Flycatcher, African Pipit, and Yemen Linnet.
Not as common as Olive-rumped Serin in Saudi, Yemen Serin appears to be locally common around Al Habala. I’m curious to see if birds can be found here during the winter months, when many regional species descend to lower elevations.
After a brief detour through Al Muraba’a National Park, hoping to relocate the Arabian Scops Owl I had discovered two weeks prior, where we picked up our first Cinnamon-breasted Bunting and another encounter with Arabian Waxbill, we made our way towards where I had seen Rufous-capped Lark on my last visit to Asir. Despite stopping 100 meters shy of where I had seen them, Adam looked out at the spot on the stony plateau where we parked and spotted a couple of larks a short distance away. We wandered about no more than a 100 meters from the car and counted about twenty Rufous-capped Larks and a single Crested Lark before heading back to the car. Given how big an area that terrain covers there’s quite possibly a significantly larger population in the area. Once Adam was satisfied with his views of the larks, we continued on to Al Habala, or the cliff’s edge more precisely, to look for Yemen Serin. Within just a few minutes of parking and walking to the edge of the overlook, we were on a small flock of adults and juveniles, the birds presumably having nested just over the edge along the cliff’s face. Given that I was able to relocate them here and not in Tanomah where I had also seen them on my last visit suggests that this might become the best known location for the species in Saudi. Before leaving we checked out an area where I had also seen Buff-breasted Wheatear and sure enough found three. Since we’d already seen Rufous-capped Lark, African Pipit, and basically everything else that could be expected at a spot like Wadi Reema/Talea, we decided to make a quick stop at Al Soudah Waterfall for African Stonechat and then continue straight to Tanomah, which would be a lot of driving for the day but allow us to get out early the next morning for Philby’s Partridge at my go-to spot.

Not as common as Olive-rumped Serin in Saudi, Yemen Serin appears to be locally common around Al Habala. I’m curious to see if birds can be found here during the winter months, when many regional species descend to lower elevations.

 

There was a brief hailstorm when we first arrived at Al Soudah Waterfall, keeping us in the car from where we observed the first Yemen Warbler of the trip; however, after the storm passed the weather was glorious and the lush highland meadow running away from the opening of the narrow wadi left my wife enchanted. As usual, the place was bursting with bird song. Yemen Thrush were countering each other with elaborate calls and songs that I had never heard before, a further performance of the wonder of this sturdy endemic thrush.

Two Yemen Thrush calling back and forth. It sounded almost as if there were conversing about something.

 

On the slopes above, Arabian Partridge made their presence known. Further on we picked up our first Arabian Long-billed Pipit of the trip and discussed the key field marks to help distinguish between it and the not-so-similar African Pipit. Besides the beauty and bounty of this lush wadi in the village of Al Azizah, the reason for the stop was, as I described it to Adam, the surest spot for African Stonechat I’ve discovered yet. Sure enough we counted four stonechat—two males, one female, and one juvenile. During the summer months, these resident breeders are not to be confused with any migrant stonechat, such as the European or Siberian Stonechats, but care should be taken during the winter months, particularly with female and immature birds. This spot also produced yet another encounter with Arabian Waxbill, which seems to be especially ubiquitous in the highlands this summer.

An adult Abyssinian White-eye on nest at Al Soudah Waterfall

 

Day 6: Tanomah and Al Namas

Sunup in Tanomah and we found ourselves on my “partridge-viewing platform” above Wadi Dahna, eyes and ears out for this stunning and local endemic. Before long we heard a Philby’s Partridge calling, a second foraging close by, from the ridge just opposite. The concrete platform is just large and level enough to set up the spotting scope to accommodate anyone’s views and at just enough distance to ensure the birds won’t spook. This species is quite skittish and will often flush at the sound of someone approaching. When stalking the wadi bottom, we could hear them taking off on the other side of the tree line, a good 50 meters away, perhaps an expected response from being one of the local hunters’ prime quarries.

One of the best recordings I’ve gotten of this wonderful endemic yet!

 

Of course, Philby’s Partridge isn’t the only endemic attraction from this spot. Shortly after arriving, as we made our way along the backside of the village to view the partridges, Adam spotted two Asir Magpies perched on one of the villas and we could hear one calling a short time later. Down in the wadi proper, we could hear Yemen Thrush and Yemen Warbler calling from the thicker tangles, and we encountered a couple more Arabian Waxbill. Particularly abundant here were Olive-rumped Serin, which were singing from the treetops ringing the open areas. We checked out the local Hamerkop nest but unfortunately the pair didn’t make their presence known; however, an early White-throated Robin showed up in their stead. Another interesting addition to the trip list at this site was an early flock of European Bee-eaters feeding over the wadi when we arrived.
After a short run down the road through the village of Al Quraish, where we saw four more magpies, two Yemen Linnet, as well as a stunning male Violet-backed Starling, we headed to Wadi Al Ghathal, just below the ridge where we just were. The village and fields in the wadi were very productive that morning. We got good views of Dusky Turtle-Dove, Bruce’s Green-pigeon, and singing African Pipit, the latter of which I uploaded the first audio recordings for the Arabian Peninsula on Xeno-Canto. Down amongst the tall junipers of Wadi Al Ghathal, we encountered two more Asir Magpies, played hide-and-seek with an Arabian Woodpecker, and found a pair of Shikra, my first for Saudi. On the way back to the car, I made the first recording of a singing Gambaga Flycatcher in Saudi to be uploaded on Xeno-Canto as well.
 

This represents the first audio recording of the Yemen subspecies of African Pipit uploaded to Xeno-Canto and Cornell’s Macaulay Library

 

Al Namas might just be the best place in Saudi to find Little Owl, which are locally common in the boulder fields and stone walls around the area.

From there we grabbed some breakfast takeaway and headed to Al Namas. Making our way along the escarpment towards to the Prince Sultan bin Salman Park to eat our breakfast, we added Common Swift to our trip list. After breakfast, we headed to a spot where the Smithsonian Team that had been in Saudi to study the Asir Magpie had seen a pair of magpies and a Little Owl. The area looked great for the owls, less so for the magpies. Much of Al Namas appeared quite underwhelming in terms of viable magpie habitat and sure enough we encountered none. Among the stacks of natural rock formations and the manmade stone walls throughout the area, the Little Owls turned out to be rather common. We played a recording in a few places and at one point received responses from three different locations. Despite knowing that they were present, it took still more time to spot them. The first two were a pair seen from a hillside above. As there was no trail to take us to their level, we decided to go back to the car and then drive over to that spot. On the way Michelle spotted a third bird quite close to the side of the track, which flew a short distance away and perched obligingly atop a boulder until we carried on our way.

Al Namas might just be the best place in Saudi to find Little Owl, which are locally common in the boulder fields and stone walls around the area.

 

We headed back to Tanomah for some siesta time at the Nahdi Furnished Apartments before going to the Al Mehfar Tourist Park for some late afternoon birding. In the light the park wasn’t nearly as birdy as during my last visit and even after sundown the place was decidedly nightjar-less, despite the fact that both Plain and Montane Nightjar had been seen here in the past. However, while playing a recording for Montane along the entrance road, Michelle caught site of something big flying out of view behind some trees. Just up the road we found it perched, still visible in the twilight—an Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owl. This second encounter with the species during the trip was the best I’ve had of them yet. Not only were we able to get some decent shots of the bird but as the area became enveloped in a thick cloud bank, I was able to record two spotted eagle-owls giving a quiet, raspy call back and forth through the fog. This type of call has been described as a begging call by some recordists in Xeno-Canto, so perhaps these, in fact, were young birds.

Likely a begging call from two young but fully fledged Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owls at Al Mehfar Tourist Park in Tanomah

 

The park failed to produce Arabian Scops-Owl, so we headed over to the Dahna Waterfall and climbed down into the wadi to try for them. The racket made by the baboons on the cliff face overhead coupled with barking dogs made the whole scene a little unnerving. Thankfully the air cannon in the area appeared to have been disabled, so we’d hear the warning click but not the deafening boom that should’ve followed. We did get two scops-owl responding to the audio recording but we were feeling too spooked to venture deeper into the wadi with baboons to the right of us and dogs to the left. It was time to wrap it up for the day.

Arabian Spotted Eagle-Owl at Al Mehfar Tourist Park in Tanomah

Day 7: A Magpie Run before Flying Home

On the way back to Abha for our flight home we checked out a couple spots where I had seen magpies in the villages to the northwest of Billahmer. In a wadi near the northernmost village, we found four birds—a family group presumably—with a newish nest in the wadi fairly close to the road. We made our way along the escarpment towards the other village where I had seen them. Along the way we spotted a Cape Hare, large and long-eared and the last thing I expected to see above 2700 meters. Down in the village, however, the largish family group of magpies I saw in January were nowhere to be seen. It was a properly brisk morning, the coldest of the entire trip, and Adam wanted to savor it a little longer before returning to the 45°C (113°F) plus weather in the Eastern Province. Yemen Linnet and Dusky Turtle-Dove were conspicuously abundant in the area, but the magpies, alas, were alarmingly absent. I hope they were simply foraging quietly elsewhere. The loss of the Billahmer birds would be a substantial loss to the overall population of this critically endangered endemic. The Tanomah birds seem to represent the most significant population and even there they’re not being seen in the places they had been in the past, such as Al Wahdah Woods and Al Mehfar Tourist Park. Increasing development is sure to lead to further losses if the government and local authorities don’t do more to protect the juniper woods they depend on.
This species, Saudi’s sole endemic, is critically endangered and in need of immediate protection.

 

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Saudi Birding

Gregory Askew

Hello! My name is Gregory Askew. I've been living and working in the Middle East for going on 10 years now. I love exploring Saudi Arabia, particularly the wadis and mountains, and am now looking forward to more birders visiting the country in the hopes of tracking down some of Arabia's wonderful endemic species. While now essentially rootless expats, we do have a foothold back home in the state of Texas, where I make it back for family and US birding time about once a year. If you're interested in the , check out my blog, , on Facebook. You can find Saudi Birding on YouTube and Instagram as well. Good birding!

Saudi Birding

Saudi Birding

Hello! My name is Gregory Askew. I've been living and working in the Middle East for going on 10 years now. I love exploring Saudi Arabia, particularly the wadis and mountains, and am now looking forward to more birders visiting the country in the hopes of tracking down some of Arabia's wonderful endemic species. While now essentially rootless expats, we do have a foothold back home in the state of Texas, where I make it back for family and US birding time about once a year. If you're interested in the birds of Saudi Arabia, check out my blog, Saudi Birding, on Facebook. You can find Saudi Birding on YouTube and Instagram as well. Good birding!

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