22 August 2013

Raydah Escarpment

The Raydah Escarpment (18 12.374N, 42 24.613E) is a first class site 15 kilometres from Abha signposted off the Al Souda road and has been protected to some degree since the 1980’s. The site is a very steep west-facing slope with crags. The escarpment, approximately 12 square kilometres in size, supports a more or less intact forest of mainly Juniperus excelsa with Olea europa on the uppermost slopes. Lush more deciduous vegetation occurs on the lower slopes. 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. It is located in the biologically rich Asir Mountains and is also an Important Bird Area encompassing strata of highland and foothill habitat from 2800 meters to Wadi Jaw at 1350 meters, including a succession of vegetation from juniper dominated upper regions, with olive Oleo europaea, through to the Afrotropical foothills at Wadi Jaw with Ficus trees and where coffee growing occurs. This is the premier site in Saudi Arabia for trying to find the Arabian Endemic species with ten Arabian endemic bird species recorded in this reserve, as well as the Asir subspecies of the Eurasian Magpie and there are numerous Afrotropical species in the lower altitudes. The contrast in climate can be tremendous with cool, damp, cloudy and temperate conditions at the top to hot, oppressive tropical conditions at the bottom. The tarmac road down the escarpment is extremely steep and quite dangerous with numerous sharp turns and is not for the faint hearted. There are a number of places to stop off-road to look for birds but the best plan for birding would be to walk down the road birding on the way and then hitch a lift back up with one of the locals who also infrequently use the road. Care would, however, have to be taken, as there are plenty of Hamadryas Baboons in the park along with Arabian Wolf. One of the best areas for birding is Raydah Farm (18 11.876N, 42 24.579E), which is approximately 300 metres down from the summit, and there is a small garden of less than a hectare beside a tiny perennial stream. You will see the terraced fields on the way down and can park in a pull off area by the left side of the road just by the farm and walk back up and into the interesting areas. We birded the Raydah Escarpment on the late afternoon of 4 and 5 July, in the company of Lou Regenmorter, as well as the morning of 6 July.
Yemen Thrush
Yemen Linnet
Little Rock Thrush
Palestine Sunbird
African Paradise Flycatcher
Abyssinian White-eye
Several good birds were seen at the Raydah Farm including a female African Paradise Flycatcher, 10+ Dusky Turtle Doves, five Little Rock Thrushes, one Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, one Arabian Serin, five Abyssinian White-eye, three Yemen Linnets, 5+ Ruppell’s Weavers, one Palestinian Sunbird, ten Violet-backed Starlings, two Fan-tailed Ravens and four Yemen Thrushes. All of the Arabian Endemics can be found in this area but despite our efforts we failed with the ones we were looking for; Philby’s Partridge, Yemen Serin and Arabian Waxbill. There were good numbers of the Arabian Endemic Arabian Wheatear, Yemen Thrush and Yemen Linnet on the way down to Raydah Village as well as a few Red-breasted Wheatears which are restricted to the highlands of Saudi Arabia. 
Arabian Wheatear
Grey-headed Kingfisher
Arabian Partridge
Arabian Partridge
Arabian Partridge
A very good dried up wadi was located on the left hand side of the road by Raydah Village that went towards a farm and then on down a dried up wadi. Here we had two Grey-headed Kingfishers, one African Grey Hornbill (Phil), 30+ Bruce’s Green Pigeons, 10+ Arabian Serins, one Palestine Sunbird, one Shinning Sunbird, one Green Bee-eater, one Eurasian Hoopoe, 5+ White-spectacled Bulbuls and one White-browed Coucal on two different days. A large number of Little Swift (50+) were seen flying over every visit and twice we saw Arabian Partridge here, the first time a group of six flew across the road and landed on the far side of the wadi giving reasonable views and the second on the last day whilst leaving the site we saw two on the roadside that gave excellent views as they moved away from us. Luckily their reluctance to fly aided in getting good views.