22 November 2013

ascalaphus sub-species of Pharaoh Eagle Owl in Saudi Arabia? – Sabkhat Al Fasl

Whilst birding at Sabkhat Al Fasl I found a Pharaoh Eagle Owl Bubo ascalaphus sitting on the ground under some vegetation near one of the water pumping stations (see below four photos). The species is a scarce but widespread breeding resident from areas including the Rub’ al-Khali (Empty Quarter), Abqaiq, Hufuf, northern Hejaz, Tabuk, Hail, Riyadh and northern areas such as Harrat al Harrah Reserve. It also appears to be a winter visitor in small numbers to Northern, Eastern and Central areas of Saudi Arabia.  The bird shows all the important features of Pharaoh Eagle Owl of mottled tawny upperparts and head; creamy-white underparts with light black streaks on upper-breast and barred but unstreaked lower-breast, belly and flanks; good dark frame/boarder to the facial disk; small ear tuffs. 

The Pharaoh Eagle Owl is distributed throughout much of North Africa and the Middle East, with two recognised subspecies. The subspecies Bubo ascalaphus ascalaphus occupies the northern part of the species range, being found in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, northern Egypt and Israel east to western Iraq. By contrast, the smaller, paler and sandier coloured Bubo ascalaphus desertorum can be found in the Sahara Desert south to Mauritania & Niger and from Western Sahara, east, to Sudan, as well as in Eritrea, Ethiopia and much of the Arabian Peninsula, as far south as northern Oman and as far east as southern Iraq. They are found in arid habitats, including open desert plains, rocky outcrops and broken escarpments and jabals, mountain cliffs and wadis. Most records from Saudi Arabia have been attributed to the pale B. a. desertorum but the bird I found at Sabkhat Al Fasl and another bird (or possibly the same individual) seen in a similar area two weeks before appear to be different and appear to be the sub-species B. a. ascalaphus. The bird I found at Sabkhat Al Fasl appears to be a different bird to the earlier individual, as my bird was in a different location, had a sick left eye and was in a much better and healthier overall condition. This could have happened in the three weeks between sightings but all three facts make it likely to be a different bird, particularly as a number of birders have been to the site and have failed to locate the first owl.

The above compilation shows the differences in plumage between birds seen in Saudi Arabia.
The top left bird is a really obvious pale looking B. a. desertorum photographed in northern Saudi Arabia, north-east of Hafar Al Batin by AbdulRahman Al-Sirhan
The top right bird is an intermediate plumage bird photographed by myself at Jebal Nayriyyah north-east Saudi Arabia.
The bottom left is an intermediate bird photographed by Mansour Al Fahad in Zulfi north-Central Saudi Arabia, August 2013
The bottom middle is a dark B. a. ascalaphus type bird photogrpahed by Dave Kilminster at Sabkhat Al Fasl 1 November 2013
The bottom right bird is a dark B. a. ascalaphus type bird from Sabkhat Al Fasl 15 November 2013 (possibly a different bird to the middle photo).
B. a. desertorum - AbdulRahmen Al-Sirhan
Intermediate type more like B. a. desertorum - Manour Al Fahad
B. a. ascalaphus - Dave Kilminster
It is possible that the resident breeding population is B. a. desertorum and some of the winter migrants at least are B. a. ascalaphus. I would like to thank AbdulRahman Al-Sirhan, Mansour Al Fahad and Dave Kilminster for allowing me to publish their photos of Pharaoh Eagle Owl and allowing me to compare the two sub-species together.