11 August 2013

Malaki Dam Lake

Malaki Dam (also known as Malakiyah, Wadi Jizan Dam or Hakima Dam) is probably the largest and most variable expanse of freshwater habitats in the southwestern provinces of Saudi Arabia. This area is a large lake (17 04.72N, 42 97.88E) at the edge of the Asir foothills, 15km east of Abu Arish. It is fed by four main wadis and at high water levels the lake spreads to over ten square kilometres and has a large catchment area extending south into Yemen. The reservoir is bordered to the north by basaltic lava plains and to the south several rocky outcrops which form the edge of Wadi Juwwah, another excellent birding area. The surrounding acacia and salvadora scrubland is interspersed with Tamarix where the hills are grazed and cultivated with some areas with shallow water, the dead remains of flooded trees forming ideal roost sites for herons and egrets. The Lake is on a main migration route and its surrounding area has one of the highest diversities of breeding birds in Arabia with many species being of Afro-tropical origin accounting for the large number of species recorded. We bird-watched the area twice, once on the 1 July, our first morning after first looking at the coast at Jizan Corniche and the second time two days later, on 3 July when we arrived at the location at first light. It took us a bit of time to find the site on the first day, but it is easily located if you drive out of Abu Arish and continue on the road until the check point. Go through the check point for about two kilometres and then you will see a turn to the right which goes to Wadi Juwwah and a dirt track to the left which goes to the lake. This is only a small arm of the lake but it is less disturbed and has easier access than the other areas. Going to the Dam is useless, as you will not be allowed access through the gate. This site is excellent for the endemic Arabian Waxbill in the winter and spring, when flocks can be seen in the reeds and other vegetation near to the water, but by the mid-summer period all the birds appeared to have moved off and we failed to find any. There were, however, plenty of birds to see in this area and we stayed until dark hoping for Nubian Nightjar but failed to locate any along the dirt tracks by the side of the lake. This area is regarded by many of the birders who have bird-watched Saudi Arabia as the best single site in the entire country.
Ruppell's Waver making nest
The lake itself held a good amount of water and therefore had good numbers of water birds. Waders included 10+ Black-tailed Godwits, one Spur-winged Plover, one Common Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, five Green Sandpipers, six Common Greenshanks and five Black-winged Stilts. Ten Eurasian Spoonbill including adults and juveniles were present along with ten Hamerkops, 50+ Glossy Ibis, 10 Squacco Herons, one Little Bittern, three Western Cattle Egrets, one Little Egret and one Grey Heron. Other water birds included a Caspian Tern, three Little Terns, one adult male Pintail, three Northern Shoveler and an adult male Ferruginous Duck. Ten Common Moorhen and three Eurasian Coots were also seen and three Pink-backed Pelicans were a long way inland.
Black-tailed Godwit
Common Greenshank
Eurasian Spoonbill - adult
Eurasian Spoonbill - juvenile
Squacco Heron
Non water birds included three White-throated Bee-eaters, three African Collared Doves, five Zitting Cisticolas, ten Graceful Prinias, 20+ Ruppells Weavers, five Laughing Doves, 20+ Namaqua Doves, Eurasian Hoopoe and Arabian Babbler. Desert Lark was quite common but was very different to the pale sub-species we get in the Eastern Province being much darker in colouration. A few swifts were seen including 20+ African Palm Swifts and five Little Swifts hunting insects low over the water.
Arabian Babbler
African Palm Swift
Little Swift

An early morning trip arriving at first light 3 July proved very successful when we found two Gabar Goshawks sitting in a bush at the side of the track into the site. One was an adult male and the other a juvenile. We also had two White-browed Coucals in the same place, both of which were new specie for me in Saudi Arabia as well as an Abyssinian Roller. Other birds included 10+ Crested Larks, one Black-crowned Sparrow-lark, Nile Valley Sunbird, three White-spectacled Bulbul, 10+ Arabian Babblers and three Black Scrub Robins.
Gabar Goshawk - juvenile
Gabar Goshawk - adult
White-browed Coucal
We then went down to the lake and had similar birds to our previous trip. Whilst walking around looking for passerines in the reeds I saw a Small Buttonquail running along the edge of a field (17 01.582N, 42 59.694E). Luckily the species is not keen to flush and I got Phil onto the bird which gave reasonable views running down furrows and through the vegetation. This is a little known species in Saudi Arabia where it has been noted as an apparently rare resident in the extreme south-west (April bird observations in Saudi Arabia - King 1978). As far as I am aware there have been no recent records of the species and it is not recorded as being present in Saudi Arabia in the most recent field guide to the region the Helm Field Guides Birds of the Middle East - Richard Porter & Simon Aspinall (Aug 2010). Luckily I got a couple of photographs of the bird to confirm identification although it was obviously a Buttonquail on size and Small Buttonquail is the only Buttonquail of the region. As it is a poorly marked bird it is presumed to be a male as they are the duller of the two types in this species. Amazingly I had seen one the previous day near Sabya and then latter the same day saw another walking along the edge of the reeds across the lake in a different area. These sightings show the species is probably not rare but just poorly recorded, which is not too surprising given the low number of birders in Saudi Arabia, the species skulking nature, reluctance to fly and the fact that it is incredibly hot and humid and walking about in fields is probably not done too much even by birders who do go to the south-west in the summer.
Small Buttonquail