Friday 24 August 2012

SW Saudi Arabia trip report part 2 - North of Baha

The continued report on the trip from Taif to Baha and south looking at the area north of Baha on or near route 205.

Brian James and I travelled south through this area towards Baha on the afternoon of Saturday 18th August and again when heading north from Baha back towards Taif on the morning of Monday 20th.

Route 205 in this area is typically about 1900 metres above sea level. It is traversed by several wadis, some shallow and some steep. 

Much of the area is within the juniper zone or in a mixed acacia and juniper zone depending on altitude.  

It was in this area on the way down that we spotted our first arabian babbler, eastern olivaceous warbler (the first of several on the trip)  african silverbill,  palestine sunbird, arabian wheatear, kestrel and fan-tailed raven. These were all seen either from the car or on stops very close to the road.

Fan-tailed raven proved to be extremely common in this area. More about this later.

gambaga flycatcher

From the road (about 100 kilometres north of Baha) we spotted a  cluster of  juniper and acacia on the edge of a small village. We took a small detour to explore it. This was fortuitous. This small spot provided us with gambaga flycatcher. This was a lifer for me although by the end of the trip it seemed like  I had known it for ever. It is very common in almost all the areas visited but especially as we went south.

However this small cluster of trees and their surrounds had more to offer. Here I saw my first semi-collared flycatcher in Saudi Arabia (first of several seen) and my first thrush nightingale in Saudi Arabia too (the only one seen!). 

These were two more passage birds helping to impress in my mind just how important the western highlands must be for passage.

Also in the same place were southern grey shrike, steppe grey shrike, hoopoe, rufous bush robin, crested lark, desert lark, african crag martin, pallid swift, and white crowned wheatear,  alpine swift, swift, blackstart and white throated robin.  

This last bird was one of the surprises of the trip. We encountered over 100. They  were in almost every place we stopped which had any cover!

collared pratincole

We tried to find varied habitat on our stops. On one we chose some fields on the edge of another small village with several bushes as make-shift hedgerows. Here we saw two more collared pratincole to match the two seen near al Fatat water course earlier on in the day.

male cinnamon-breasted bunting 

An hour and a half later and much nearer to Baha (50 kilometres north) we pulled off the road and entered a valley with some scattered juniper. This proved productive too. There were more white throated robin but also yemen linnet, lesser whitethroat, short toed lark, Arabian woodpecker and yemen serin. The woodpecker was a lifer for Brian and the serin was a lifer for me.

On the grassland near-by were a small number of cinnamon-breasted  bunting. Although I have seen this species in Africa this was a first for me in Saudi Arabia.

female cinnamon-breasted bunting

The male is easy to identify with its deep cinnamon underparts and its black throat. the female looks quite similar to a striolated bunting. However the striolated bunting has rufous,  mostly unpatterned sides.

Closer to Baha we saw our first brown necked raven of the trip who were in the process of trying to mob a long legged buzzard as we drove by.

At our last stop on Monday before the fog closed in we added masked shrike, Ruepells weaver, European bee-eater, African collared dove, grey wagtail and Abyssinian white-eye to the trip list.

Ruepell's weaver

On the return journey to Taif out of Baha on Monday we initially stopped at a different set of places from those on the journey out.  These included the wadi valley at Doos and later at four roads off right once we had entered Mecca province (leaving Baha province).

The first three roads off were chosen because they rose upwards to mountain top villages. I am sorry I can't give you the names which we only saw in Arabic!  This is unusual because in many parts of the country, both English and Arabic names are presented.

The Ruepells weaver above was photographed at Doos where the extensive woodland and farming areas also had Tristram's starling,  little rock thrush, common whitethroat, eastern olivaceous warbler and upcher's warbler as well as the ubiquitous white throated robin.

European bee-eater

On the upland side roads, new additions to the trip list were red rumped swallow, tawny pipit, daurian shrike, shining sunbird (a lifer for me), Arabian partridge (a lifer for Brian), house martin, turkestan shrike (only one seen on the trip), whinchat and chiffchaff.  

Hoopoe in a very high mountain village

Other notable birds were hoopoe, rufous bush robin and one of only three Isabelline wheatear seen on the trip.

rufous bush robin

Indeed only two types of wheatear were seen over the four days. These were Arabian wheatear and Isabelline wheatear. I was disappointed that despite extensive efforts no red-breasted wheatear were seen.

Isabelline wheatear

We had some trouble identifying some of the daurian shrike. It appears that the female in breeding plumage has a dark brown, almost black tail which belies the fact it is one of the two so called "red-tailed shrikes". I have seen many of them in winter in the Riyadh area. Having arrived in Saudi Arabia only 11 months ago, I have presumably missed seeing this particularly plumage feature before.

female daurian shrike

One bird we had no such trouble with was fan-tailed raven and we got a lot of practice seeing it. In one place with a very steep escarpment dropping down directly to the coastal plain, there were vast numbers in the air.

some of well over 100 fan-tailed raven in the same area

We also got a lot of practice at seeing and differentiating between eastern olivaceous warbler and upcher's warbler. I was pleased to catch an Upcher's warbler on camera making its characteristic circular tail-pumping action. This is one of the ways to differentiate these birds.

Upcher's warbler pumping tail

The next blog will look at the birds seen close to the city of Baha itself.  There was a lifer among them!

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