Saturday, 12 May 2012

Inside Arar, northern Saudi Arabia

On Thursday and Friday, I visited the north of Saudi Arabia for the first time for a birding trip. I chose Arar as the base for the trip. It's the capital of the northern borders region which has been only very poorly birded. I have however, found one reference to some auditing of species in the desert where various estimates of lark and wheatear populations have been made.

I flew out from Riyadh last Wednesday night heading 1200 kilometres north. I transferred and stayed in the 4 star Al Bustan hotel in Arar without any real information about where to bird and what I might see. It really felt like birding the unknown.  

Incidentally I thoroughly recommend the al Bustan hotel and particularly its restaurant.

I am very happy with the results of my trip. I gambled and got lucky. I visited three areas:

  • public open spaces within walking distance of the hotel
  • wadi Arar, 4 kilometres north of the town,  where a new waste water treatment works for the city now pumps clean water into 4 cascading lakes running down the wadi.
  • The al Jouf farming region, 150 kilometres to the west 
All three areas were rich in birds. Over the two days I saw 39 species. Five are new for my Saudi list and one was a lifer.

This blog looks at area within 5 minutes walk of the hotel. I never expected to find much here but I was up earlier than my drivers on both days so I just explored the immediate surroundings.

There were 19 species seen alive and one species  (rook) which was dead but photographed as proof than rook makes its way as far south as Arar in winter. I didn't count rook on my list even though I know it was there. Should I?

common whitethroat

Returning to writing about the public open space: one of the most obvious birds was common whitethroat, almost certainly only a passage bird. Two other warblers were also seen. One was a new addition to my Saudi list and that was great reed warbler.

great reed warbler 

It was there two days running and gave me some good displays. It came as a big surprise but the area was a logically place for it on passage. It has good shade and there was waterlogged patch very close caused by over spill from the watering of a grassed area.  

second view of great reed warbler

The other warbler here was willow warbler. Indeed it was common at all three places I visited over the two days.

willow warbler

As is the case much further south, there are passage common redstart although they are all through in Riyadh for this spring. 

common redstart

The watered grass was thick with yellow wagtail early in the two mornings I visited it.

yellow wagtail

Being much further north than my local patch in Riyadh, I saw some passage birds I hadn't seen for a month. These included tree pipit.  

Tree pipit

Three types of shrike were found there. These were Turkestan shrike, red-backed shrike and masked shrike (I saw two more types elsewhere which willbe written about in future blogs). 

red-backed shrike 

Red-backed shrike was extremely common. It is a late but numerous migrant.

masked shrike

Another surprising sighting was a squacco heron at the site on both days. This is clearly a passage bird as  waterlogged ground under a road fly-over is not a permanent place for it!

The final passage bird there was whinchat. Indeed I saw more in the two days in the north than all my time in the rest of Saudi Arabia. I am pretty confident I know why: Arar is so far north that it is on two passage routes for whinchat. The minor one is the one through Arabia for birds wintering in Yemen, Oman and those in east Africa which cross the Red Sea. However it is also on a more major route for birds which come up the Nile and head north east. Indeed this must be true for some several other passage bird species

rufous bush robin

The seven other species seen near the hotel were spotted flycatcherbarn swallow, rufous bush robin, laughing dove, collared dove, rock pigeon and of course house sparrow. Rufous bush robin was common.

collared dove

In the city collared dove was more common than laughing dove. One bird is noticeable by its absence: there were no white cheeked bulbul!

The next blog looks at Wadi Arar where the birding was excellent and where three of the additions to my Saudi list took place.

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