Monday 7 November 2011

A taste of Taif

Taif (1700 metres above sea level) is at the extreme northern end of a mountain range. The range runs from south west Saudi Arabia broadening as it goes into west Yemen. This highland area is populated by a mix of African species and endemics. And its not just the birds that are African. Baboons are very common in the Taif area and throughout the highlands. 

baboons on the road to Taif

I visited the Taif area yesterday but it wasn't really a birding trip. The primary reason was to celebrate a friend's birthday. Nevertheless I was kindly allowed to snatch a few moments to bird this very different eco-system.

We travelled from Jeddah, via Mecca's non-Muslim by-pass, up the escarpment to Taif. From there we toured and picnicked around villages off the Shafa tourism road.

Yemen linnet

I had to adapt my usual timeless approach to photography so many of my pictures are distance shots taken quite hurriedly. However some of the sightings were very exciting. I saw three "lifers". Two of which very few people  get to see these days. One was a Yemen linnet sitting in a tree some 20 metres away from our main picnic spot. Unfortunately there were several boulders between me and the tree so closer viewing wasn't possible.

To emphasise the scope of birding here,I can tell you in the village near-by I saw a wintering black redstart and a resident Nile valley sunbird. The three birds make up one African species, one endemic and one Palearctic migrant.

South Arabian wheatear

Another lifer was seen at the very top of the escapement at the entry to Taif. The bird is a south Arabian wheatear. The male looks like a mourning wheatear with a grey crown on top of a wider white crown. The female is quite different.

second look at South Arabian wheatear

I think from this second photo you can see a hint of its yellow vent which it has in common with a mourning wheatear. In fact 20 years ago the two birds were still seen as co-specific.

Long distance shot of Tristam's starling

Also near the picnic spot I was privileged to see wave after wave of Tristam's starling fly over. There must have been 300 birds in total in about 6 waves.

part of flying flock of Tristram's starling

They didn't behave themselves by landing close though.

fan tailed raven

I have only seen Tristam's starling once before at wadi Dana in Jordan but the numbers made the spectacle. Likewise I saw the largest group of fan tailed raven in my life yesterday. I think they were attracted to a rubbish tip! but it was too far away to be sure.

two yellow vented bulbul

Not all the birds were different from the those two and a half hours away on the coast at Jeddah. These preening yellow vented bulbul can be seen at both places.

blue lizard near Taif

On leaving Taif for the return to Jeddah, the fun wasn't over. We stopped for a short while at a tourist walk up a scenic wadi, part way down the escarpment, at about 1000 metres. Here I was lucky enough to see a flock of very tame Arabian babbler.

Arabian babbler on escarpment to Taif

This was my third and last lifer of the day. This babbler had eluded me both in Jordan and near Riyadh but just walked onto the scene when I wasn't looking for it. 

Yesterday was a taste of Taif. It has got to be the most accessible area for the South West Arabian endemics. I wonder why more birders don't go there?

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