1 Nov 2012

Looking for Arabian Regional Endemics at Mount Soudah - Abha


Over the Eid holiday (25 – 29th October) we went on a family holiday to Abha in the Asir Province of Saudi Arabia. Although it was a family holiday I managed to get in quite a bit of birding time, concentrating mainly on the Mount (Jabal) Soudah region of the highlands. At just over 3000 m Jebal Souda is the highest peak in Saudi Arabia and includes the Raydah protected area on its western escarpment, and is surrounded by a plateau, mostly over 2500 m. The south-west of Arabia is the stronghold of the Arabian endemic bird fauna with 10 of the 11 endemic species in Arabia occurring in this area, the missing species being Arabian Accentor Prunella fagani. In addition the highlands are the only place in Arabia where the Asir endemic race of the Eurasian Magpie occurs which is given specific status by some authorities. The timing of the trip was not ideal as the summer is probably the best time to visit as many afro-tropical summer visitors arrive to breed such as White-throated Bee-eater and Grey-headed Kingkisher. The region does, however, have a wide diversity of bird life throughout the year with varied vegetation and topography. The juniper Juniperus procera forests in the highlands are probably the most extensive anywhere in Arabia and there are also some thickly wooded acacia valleys. In the foothills below 1,500 m vegetation becomes much more Afrotropical with numerous Ficus trees and genera such as Commiphora, Aloe, Ceropegia and Caralluma being well represented. These lusher habitats of the foothills soon give way on the tihama to arid sandy deserts interspersed with very fertile irrigated fields where water runoff from the highlands can be controlled or where water is close to the surface. These tilled areas usually have high bunds around them and grow a variety of crops, including sugarcane, millet and maize. Being on the periphery of the major weather systems of the northern Indian Ocean (notably the South-west Monsoon) the weather can be unsettled although when we went we had excellent weather although clouds built up each afternoon and on the last afternoon a huge thunderstorm with torrential rain and even hailstones curtailed our outside activities for the day. The birding at Mount Soudah was excellent and although birds were limited in number I saw six Arabian endemic species here as well as a number of other restricted range species, for Arabia. We visited the site every day as the family liked the area and there were play areas for the children which enabled me to do some birding whilst they were playing and everyone was happy.
Steppe Buzzard
Steppe Buzzard
Steppe Eagle - first calendar year
Pied Wheatear
Red-breasted Wheatear
Red-backed Shrike
Brown Woodland Warbler

The road to Mount Soudah is very good up to the top, although little steep, and is well signposted from the city of Abha. There are several car parks and pick-nick areas to stop at and have a look around as you approach the summit, many of which were good for birds. At the summit there were plenty of Fan-tailed Ravens along with a lesser number of Brown-necked Ravens. Other birds seen in this area included tens of Steppe Eagles of various ages along with a Lesser Kestrel and a confiding Steppe Buzzard. Tristram's Grackles were common near settlements as were Arabian Babblers and my first Arabian endemic of the trip Arabian Wheatear. My second endemic of the trip appeared in the trees of a pick-nick spot singing and turned out to be an Arabian Serin and this was followed soon after by a small flock of another Arabian endemic Yemen Linnet which turned out to be quite common in the park areas. Shrikes were also common in the parks with Woodchat, Masked and Red-backed all seen. Looking around further enabled me to locate my fourth and fifth Arabian endemic species in the shape of four Yemen Thrushes and a Yemen Warbler.  House Sparrows, White-spectacled Bulbuls, Abyssinian White-eyes and Spotted Flycatchers were all added to the steadily growing species list. A loudly calling brownish warbler turned out to be a Brown Woodland Warbler a species with a restricted range in Arabia and a Palestine Sunbird added a bright flash of colour to the otherwise grey surroundings. A sighting of a Hammerkop flying over caused some excitement and whilst trying to locate where it had landed I flushed a party of seven Philby’s Partridge my sixth Arabian Endemic all seen in the first day of the trip.  Other good birds seen here included seven Arabian Babblers, four Red-breasted Wheatears and two Pied Wheatears. White-spectacled Bulbuls were common and were continually singing from their vantage points. 
Mount Soudah Park
Mount Soudah Park



2 comments:

  1. Jem - this area sounds fascinating! MOore images please

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  2. Yoav,

    More to come in the next few days of sites in the general area around Abha including the Raydah Escarpment. Arabian regional endemics were very hard to photograph, but photos of some good birds and scenery to come.

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