29 September 2012

Golden Tulip Hotel Valley - Baha

Baha is in the highlands of south-west Saudi Arabia and is about 225 kilometres north of Abha in the Asir Mountains. The Asir Mountains and the highlands of southern and western Yemen are designated as an endemic bird area and are located inland and east of the Red Sea, and are a north-south running escarpment and high plateau which is the highest land in the Arabian Peninsula, tilting from west to east. The mountains are composed mainly of limestones, sandstones and shale and overlie a basement of granitic rocks. The rugged mountainous landscape contains several peaks over 2,500 metres within Saudi Arabia. In the west, a steep escarpment drops to the Tihamah plain on the Red Sea coast. To the east is a high plateau, with the mountains then sloping more gently to the inner desert and sands of the Rub’al-Khali (Empty Quarter). This region together with the Tihamah plain is home to the majority of southwest Arabian endemic bird species. The montane juniper woodlands are vital habitat for these birds, such as the Yemen Linet (Carduelis yemenensis), Yemen Thrush (Turdus menachensis) and Yemen Warbler (Parisoma buryi) as they are dependent on juniper berries as a food source and juniper trees for nesting. Although very few birders bird-watch in Saudi Arabia, almost all who do go to the south-west in search of the ten endemics to be found in Saudi Arabia.
Philby’s Partridge (Alectoris philbyi)
Arabian Partridge (Alectoris melanocephala)
Arabian Woodpecker (Dendrocopos dorae)
Yemen Warbler (Parisoma buryi)
Yemen Thrush (Turdus menachensis)
Arabian Wheatear (Oenanthe lugentoides)
Arabian Waxbill (Estrilda rubibarba)
Arabian Serin (Serinus rothschildi)
Yemen Serin (Serinus menachensis)
Yemen Linnet (Carduelis yemenensis)

Only one regional south-west Arabian endemic is not found in Saudi Arabia, the Yemen Accentor. Most of the birders who have been to the south-west usually go to Abha for land birds. A few birders have birded Baha and all the endemics have be found in the area previously. As last weekend was a long weekend, due to Saudi Arabia National day I chose to travel to Baha with the family to see what was there which allowed me to do some birding in the area. We flew from Dammam Airport to Baha by direct flight arriving in Baha at 13:00 hrs. I then hired a car from the airport and drove to the Golden Tulip Resort on the edge of town, which was chosen as it is situated in a good birding area on one of the highest points in the city with a 300 metre drop directly behind it.  A wide, lightly forested wadi descends from beside the hotel (200 metres left of the hotel as you come out of the hotel entrance) starting at 2,100 metres and descends into the city, passing some cultivated land on the way. Six Arabian endemics have been seen in this wadi all within walking distance of the hotel, with many other good birds also in the vicinity. I bird-watched this area on the first and second afternoons as well as the third morning getting to the site before it was light. Even though I spent quite a bit of time birding the area I was not as successful as others in locating the endemics and I only managed to find Yemen Thrush and Arabian Wheatear but I did find many restricted range species for Saudi Arabia in the area as well as large numbers of migrants. Four Yemen Thrush were located flying around the trees in one small wooded area and gave quite good views perched in the trees. Normal views were brief flight views as they flew across open areas in the trees or jumped being scrub when feeding on the ground. Arabian Wheatear was very common and was located in almost all rocky areas with scrub. Many females were seen but also a number of smart males with birds regularly seen behind the hotel where the Hamadryas Baboons gather. The other endemics that have been seen in the wadi that I did not find are Yemen Linnet, which has been seen in small flocks in a number of locations, Arabian Partridge and Philby’s Partridge have been seen at the top of the wadi near the hotel and Arabian Woodpecker has been seen on the dead trees in the wadi itself. I am not certain I birded the same location as the birder who saw these species, as information on the exact location was not available to me, but I was certainly in the same vicinity. Either the timing of my visit was not perfect as many of these birds were seen in spring or I was unlucky with the endemics. Either way I was very happy birding this area as the number of birds and species was amazing compared to what I am used to seeing in the Eastern Province. I am also going to Abha in a months-time and am hoping to add a few more regional endemics to my list there.
Arabian Wheatear - male

 The top end of the valley is right behind the Golden Tulip Hotel and has a steep valley dropping sharply hundreds of metres below. You cannot go down this valley as it is too steep but you can see a few trees and juniper bushes. The area is excellent for Fan-tailed Raven which is very common in the sky and perched on the steep scree slopes and I also saw two Brown-necked Ravens with them. Swifts, Martins and Swallows were numerous in the area with Little Swift, Red-rumped Swallow, Barn Swallow, African Rock Martin, Sand Martin and Common Swift all seen in good numbers. As mentioned Arabian Wheatear is common here and other species seen included one Little Rock Thrush, one Scrub Warbler, fifteen Tristram’s Starlings and one Southern Grey Shrike that appeared to be of the subspecies Lanius m buryi which looks very different to the birds seen in the Eastern Province with much darker mantle and less white in the wing (scapulars) but still with white outer two tail feathers. This subspecies is only meant to occur in Yemen so the bird may have been a very dark Lanius m aucheri. Yellow Wagtails were common and three Isabelline Wheatear and two Red-breasted Wheatears were also seen along with two Gambaga Flycatchers. Care needs to be exercised here as hundreds of Hamadrya Baboons are present in the area and although not over aggressive to people they could attack if surprised or frightened. 

Fan-tailed Raven
Tristram's Starling

The middle valley is more wooded with small areas of trees and scrub. It was full of birds when I was there but of a very different variety that when other birders have birded the area. One of the first birds I saw was a small feeding group of Abyssinian White-eye and this was closely followed by a really smart Brown Woodland Warbler and a couple of Arabian Warblers. I then saw an amazing sight of 250 – 300 Alpine Swifts together in the air, none of which were present the next day so were presumably migrants. Four Yemen Thrushes, two smamamisicus Common Redstarts and four female Ruppell’s Weavers mainly associating with House Sparrow which again look like a different subspecies to those we see in the Eastern Province being much darker and less sandy coloured. Shrikes were about in large numbers with Masked Shrikes, Red-backed Shrikes, Woodchat Shrike and Daurian Shrikes all around in good numbers. The only Pipit I saw all trip was also in this area feeding on the stony barren area of the valley and it turned out to be a Long-billed Pipit. White-spectacled Bulbuls were present in small numbers with Laughing Doves around in larger numbers. European Bee-eaters were only seen in ones and twos on the first afternoon birding the valley but the second afternoon and third morning hundreds of birds were flying around catching bees from some broken bee hives, making a very impressive sight. One or two Ortolan Buntings were seen feeding around the stony areas and Lesser Whitethroat, Common Whitethroat, European Blackcap and Spotted Flycatcher were also seen in good numbers in the trees and scrub. Common Kestrel was the only bird of prey I saw with the exception of a Steppe Eagle near the airport on arrival in Baha. Three Eurasian Hoopoes were seen in flight and a single male Eurasian Golden Oriole flew over. A Wryneck was seen feeding on the ground and crawling around a wall in a building plot where a few  Siberian Stonechats as well as what appeared to be a few African Stonechats were also located. 
Alpine Swift

Red-backed Shrike - juvenile
Red-backed Shrike - juvenile

The allotment and cultivated areas further down the valley held Ortolan Buntings in large groups of up to fifty birds in several areas. Three Tristram’s Starlings were seen on top of a building under construction and two Graceful Prinias were in the scrub nearby. Small groups of Tree Pipits were seen feeding in the allotment areas and a single Yemen Thrush flew past behind one of the allotments in the trees behind. This is the area I was expecting, or hoping, to see Yemen Linnet but with no luck. Again plenty of Red-backed Shrikes and a few Daurian Shrikes were in the area.

Ortolan Bunting
Tree Pipit