Saturday, 9 March 2013

Birding the desert, SW of Tabuk

Last weekend I was the guest of Viv Wilson up in Tabuk, north west Saudi Arabia.

On Thursday we went out with three of his friends into the desert. While they were more interested in rock art and other flora and fauna, I was, as ever, more interested in the birds.

Sinai rosefinch

It was a cool day with a sharp wind, not what I expect for Saudi Arabia in March. Nevertheless this didn't affect the birding or my luck.

Last time I visited Tabuk, I failed to find Sinai rosefinch. This time going off road with the group I saw it in at least 6 different places!  It seems to like rocky outcrops in sandy desert. This is just the place rock art is found and indeed almost every time we stopped to look at the ancient rock art we also saw these birds.  

Ruppell's warbler 

Viv and I only saw 12 species. Yet two of them were additions to my Saudi list and both of them were lifers. The Sinai rosefinch was one of them and I knew this was a highly probable sighting this time round. However the second one, Ruppells warbler was a long shot.

Most of these birds winter in Chad and Sudan and then return to Greece and Turkey. Indeed some authorities say all the birds winter in Chad and Sudan. However my friend and birder Brian has reported one north of Jeddah in November and Viv and I saw two on Thursday.

Ours were seen in low bushes in a remote fertile wadi surrounded by sandy desert.

Pale rock martin

Our almost constant companions on the trip were pale rock martin hawking the sky incessantly for insects. Sometimes they would come within one metre of us. Another inquisitive bird was brown necked raven which followed the cars on a couple of occasions.


The only bird of prey seen were kestrel. We came across two nesting sites and at one clear and loud begging noises were heard.

Streaked scrub warbler

Apart from the Ruppells warbler the only other warblers seen were the numerous streaked scrub warbler and two chiffchaff.

Eastern mourning wheatear

For a long time we didn't see any wheatears. The only place we saw them was in the same fertile remote wadi as the Ruppell's warbler.

desert lark

Larks don't really like sandy desert. In the few areas with rocky ground and on the rock faces we picked up desert lark. Crested lark was conspicuous by its absence.

Rock art

Alongside the birding, the rock art was fascinating and I was very surprised how common it was. Though one of our group was a real expert and directed us to several spots. Its hard to imagine that these are several thousand years old.

Lizard in the desert

Lizards were common too and different types which I don't profess to know the names of. I suspect that make up a large amount of the kestrel's diet!

Mushroom in the desert

Finally we happened upon a single mushroom in the desert. Was its growth triggered by the very rare massive rainfall which struck the Tabuk area over a  3 day period in January?

In the next blog, I look at birding the Tabuk waste water wetland where the species count was much higher and I managed to add another elusive bird to my Saudi list.

Sincere thanks are due to Viv Wilson for putting up with me all weekend, his company and for the bird photographs which I have cropped. 

List of birds seen in the desert

Rock dove
Collared dove
Laughing dove
Sinai rosefinch
Ruppells warbler
Streaked scrub warbler
Brown necked raven
Desert lark
Eastern mourning wheatear
Pale rock martin

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