Saturday, July 12, 2014

Last birding for a lark in Saudi Arabia

Yesterday was highly likely the last birding I will do in Saudi Arabia for a while.  My three year stint here is over this week and I will be in Salalah, Oman from September.

I thought it appropriate for several reasons to go birding for larks as my last event. One reason is that it is the name of the blog and a good second reason is that in the fierce heat of the central Arabian summer its one of the best options to actually see anything.

I visited the Buwaib escarpment, 100 kilometres north of Riyadh and birded both below it and on top of it in the early morning. There were just two stops and I walked around each for a long time. All birding was complete by 9.15 am when it was roasting.

thick billed lark

At the top, I came across two thick-billed lark, about 3 kilometres from where I had seen one in February. Lou Regenmorter and Brian James saw juveniles in spring. I haven't asked them the exact location but it is presumably in the same area. 

In February I had assumed the bird was wintering but evidence is piling up that at least some of these birds are resident.

thick billed lark with female trumpeter finch

My location was a grassy wadi within a stony terrain right next to the escarpment drop. The wadi was busy with birds. Most were trumpeter finch.

female and male trumpeter finch

I assume that the one non-adult male bird was an adult female as it has a slight rose colour to the bill not seen in juveniles. However I am not an expert with this bird.

trumpeter finch

The only other lark seen around the wadi was desert lark.

desert lark

The other species seen at the wadi were pale crag martin, little green bee-eater, house sparrow, blackstart, white crowned wheatear and a single namaqua dove.

blackstart 

The wadi at the top of the escarpment was actually the second stop. My first stop starting at about 5.45am was a flat extremely large field below the escarpment. This field is very green with lush but short grass in winter and spring and is a favourite picnic spot then. At the time of year it is a dried out plain but I could see hundreds of seeds.

the picnickers' plain in summer

Camels and cars are banned from going on the field but sadly the camel ban is ignored and was so even when I was there. Nevertheless I viewed the prospects for larks as high.

hoopoe lark

The lark density was indeed high. I came across hoopoe lark first.

second view of a hoopoe lark

Crested lark was not unexpected.

crested lark

The third species of lark was desert lark. the only one seen in both places. I was a little surprised at seeing it on the flat plain. I would have though the terrain was more accommodating for bar-tailed lark but it was not to be.

desert lark on the plain

The larks were sharing the plain with many tens of feral pigeon and a few laughing dove and collared dove. A single white crowned wheatear was also observed.

desert rat (gerbil)

There are several mounds in the plain. I suspect all have been created by gerbils.

I have enjoyed birding throughout Saudi Arabia and have seen 331 species even using the conservative Clements count. I will be back. There is still much to see.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Muhayil road, Abha

On Saturday, Bernard Bracken and I went out of Abha about 20 kilometres on the Muhayil road north west of the city. 

Here the wadis are flatter than Azizah which was visited on Friday. The terrain on average looks a little drier too. This was probably because the altitude was a little lower at around 2250 metres.

Many of the birds were the same. However the proportions were different and we did see four species not seen the day before.

We got better views of Arabian wheatear including a family group with two adults and two juveniles. The adults kept calling the juveniles which were venturing away. 

juvenile Arabian wheatear

Clements and e-bird database still counts this bird as a sub species of mourning wheatear though the sexes are dimorphic unlike mourning wheatear and the juveniles different too.

male Arabian wheatear

The density of Arabian babbler was the highest I have seen anywhere. 

Arabian babbler

White spectacled bulbul were also present.

white spectacled bulbul

Both bulbuls and babblers are nest-parasitised by pied cuckoo. Nevertheless I didn't expect to see any. However there were two in one of the farmed wadis.

pied cuckoo

Convention wisdom has it that they winter in Africa and fly to India just ahead of the monsoon season. The main regional guide shows that a few breed in a small part of Yemen not bothering to undertake the journey.

In the past two summers, observers in Saudi Arabia including me have seen them in the Jizan and Sabya areas throughout the summer. These are low lying areas (less than 1000 metres) which the guide says is where you can see them, implying on scarce passage.

However these birds were at 2250 metres  and its getting a little late for passage even to monsoonal India.  As we "join up the dots" it beginning to look like this bird is more widespread in south west Arabia and for longer than conventionally thought.


hoopoe

Hoopoe, like Arabian babbler was an at incredibly high density and in the same wadi. 

Arabian warbler

Arabian warbler was common too. We actually sat under a tree in the shade before realising the tree contained a nest with very young birds being fed.

This is another bird which the regional guide struggles with the altitude it can be found. I have commented before that I have seen very many above the "1500 metres where it is usual"

I am beginning to wonder if the issue on altitude is that the guide covers all Middle East and many species which are found in Asir, Saudi Arabia are also found in Dhofar, Oman but at lower altitude.

long billed pipit

More observations were made on long billed pipit which was also seen the day before. I can now conclude, despite being a ground user,  it perches on trees more than any other pipit I know other than tree pipit.


little green bee-eater

Two species seen on Saturday on the Muhayil road but not at Azizah were little green bee-eater and desert lark.

We spotted a row of about 12 bee-hives near-by where clearly commercial honey making is taking place. It looks like this is enough to entice little green bee-eater to the area.


desert lark

We spent a lot of time out of the wadis on the rocky hillsides looking for Blanford's lark. We failed. it's a true nemesis bird for me.  Indeed, all day we only saw one crested lark and one desert lark.

Palestine sunbird

We crossed over the main road late on to see if the terrain was any different.

It looks similar but the bird composition wasn't. We met our first palestine sunbird of the day.

female Yemen linnet

One small area was swarming with Yemen linnet. They were clearly very attracted to a filed of thistles and another of some sort of seeding herb.

Short toed eagle

Near the end of our birding time we spotted the only bird of prey seen all day. It was a short toed eagle. It was well worth waiting for.

Overall the trip to Abha was successful and pleasant. The Asir mountains are probably the only part of Saudi Arabia where you can bird all day at this time of year.

The species seen off the Muhayil road, Abha are listed below:

Short toed eagle
Arabian warbler
Feral pigeon
Arabian babbler
Dusky turtle dove
Gambaga flycatcher
Laughing dove
Pied cuckoo
Bruce’s green pigeon
Arabian wheatear
Eurasian hoopoe
Red breasted wheatear
Little green bee-eater
Yemen thrush
Crested lark
Palestine sunbird
Desert lark
Long billed pipit
Pale crag martin
Cinnamon breasted bunting
White spectacled bulbul
Yemen linnet
Brown woodland warbler
House sparrow
Graceful prinia
Rueppell’s weaver



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Near the hotel in central Abha

Even a walk round the block can produce good birds within urban Abha. Bernard Bracken and I went for such a walk just before dusk on Friday. Birds such as Yemen thrush, Graceful prinia and Ruepell's weaver were easily seen on a piece of wasteland near by.


Bruce's green pigeon

One tree had three Bruce's green pigeon in.

Shining sunbird

There were two birds we hadn't seen all day during 10 hours of birding. These were shining sunbird and black bush robin. Unfortunately the first bird was in heavy moult and wasn't looking its best.

Black bush robin

The black bush robin was of the local sub species only found in the Asir highlands. It's not really black but more of a dark brown.

If I have any regrets about our weekend at Abha it was not spending more time on the edge of the city. It has great potential.

In the next blog, I look in some depth at what we saw on Saturday outside Abha on the Muhayil road (north west of the city). 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Azizah after nine

Bernard Bracken and I continued downstream of the valley in Azizah until just past 9 a.m on Friday. It suddenly became lusher. We presumed that was because there is water extracted in the area around the village but not further downstream.

We rested for a while in this lusher area and watched. We were rewarded by the sighting some distance away of an African paradise flycatcher.

African paradise flycatcher

After resting, we decided the descent downstream was too difficult and elected to walk back upstream with the idea to go past our original dropping off point and to investigate the higher reaches of the valley.

Yemen thrush

On the way back we saw many of the same birds as on the way out. We got better looks at Yemen thrush which incidentally is not a timid bird.

Yemen linnet

I obtained this photo of a male Yemen linnet when we passed through the "linnet zone".

Hoopoe

Hoopoe is a very common bird in all the wadis near Abha that I have visited. Azizah is no exception.

Tristram's starling

As we went through the village area, Tristram's starling was its usual noisy self.

Crested lark

We saw very few larks all day and they were all crested lark. I had hoped to see Blandford's lark but this bird again escaped me. It is now on my nemesis bird list. That is to say I have spent so much time looking for it, I should have got it by now.

Abyssinian white eye

I finally managed a picture of an Abyssinian white eye which never keeps still.

As we headed upstream from the village past our drop off point, there were signs that the valley was becoming wetter. We had gone past the area where the villagers extract water. Soon we saw the start of a permanent stream.

The weather was also becoming over-cast as it does every day in the Abha area during the summer months. The cloudy sky resulted in the red-rumped swallow, little swift and pale crag martin that had been hawking the skies coming much lower.   

Red rumped swallow

As we headed further upstream, the water became more significant. We saw our first green sandpiper and hamerkop of the day. Both birds need wetland, pools or streams.

Hamerkop

We would have liked to have investigated this area more fully but the rain came down and wouldn't stop. Indeed it turned to hail at one point! We got so soaked we were shivering. This was in July in Saudi Arabia and when it was 46 C in Riyadh at the same moment.

We essentially had to abandon our birding an hour early.

yellow spotted agama

As is often the case, we spotted other interesting wildlife on this birding trip. Arguably the most interesting was this male yellow spotted agama.


The 35 species seen at Azizah

Hamerkop
Arabian babbler
Green sandpiper
Gambaga flycatcher
Feral pigeon
Little rock thrush
Dusky turtle dove
African stonechat
Laughing dove
Arabian wheatear
Bruce’s green pigeon
Red breasted wheatear
Little swift
Yemen thrush
Eurasian hoopoe
Violet backed starling
Eurasian kestrel
Tristram’s starling
African paradise flycatcher
Palestine sunbird
Crested lark
Long billed pipit
Pale crag martin
Cinnamon breasted bunting
Red rumped swallow
Striolated bunting
White spectacled bulbul
Yemen linnet
Brown woodland warbler
House sparrow
Graceful prinia
Rueppell’s weaver
Arabian warbler
African silverbill
Abyssinian white eye