15 July 2014

Arabian Scops Owl at Al Mehfar Park - Tanoumah

As Arabian Scops owl Otus pamelae has recently been elevated to full species status (see below), and neither Phil Roberts or I had seen the species in the country we decided to try to locate birds in the Tanoumah area, an area where birds had been seen in 2001. This area is in southwest Saudi Arabia north of Abha at 1950 metres elevation. We spent the first night looking for suitable areas in the Al Mehfar Park area trying to hear birds calling but had no success. The second evening we again tried without luck and heard no birds calling. After a few hours as we were contemplating giving up I tried a very quick burst of Arabian Scops owl call and got and immediate response. We followed the Calling bird and could hear it was clling from a thick Juniper tree. Despite being right uder the tree and the bird still calling we could not se anything. After about ten minutes we saw the birds move slightly within the same tree but the views were brief and poor. The bird was still calling and was then joined by a second bird when one and then the other moved to a more open tree where I managed to locate it sitting right out in the open on a branch. Phil had kindly loaned me his back up flash and we managed to get a few photos before leaving the birds alone still calling. This was the last but one of the twelve Arabian Endemics (not including Arabian Magpie that some regard as a species but is generally regarded as a sub-species, and which we have also seen) for Phl and I to see in Saudi Arabia and we were very happy with our nighttime efforts. Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak is the only one missing. Whilst looking for the owls we also managed to see at least two Montane Nightjars, one sitting along the top branch of a Juniper tree.

In 2008 work by Keonig (Keonig, C., Weick, F. & Becking, J.-H. 2008. Owls: A Guide to the Owls of the World, 2nd edn. London: Christopher Helm) concluded that Arabian Scops Owl Otus (senegalensis) pamelae was a distinct species from African Scops Owl O. s. senegalensis. Recent work by Pons et al (Jean-Marc Pons, Guy M. Kirwan, Richard F. Porter & Jerome Fuchs (2013). A reappraisal of the systematic affinities of Socotran, Arabian and East African scops owls (Otus, Strigidae) using a combination of molecular, biometric and acoustic data. Ibis (2013)), has also shown Otus senegalensis pamelae, represents a very distinct lineage and is well differentiated phylogenetically, morphologically and vocally from O. s. senegalensis. As a result it has been recommended that elevating it to species status, as Arabian Scops Owl Otus pamelae is warranted. The main reasons for this are this southern Arabian taxon is highly divergent from African senegalensis (uncorrected-p mitochondrial genetic distance = 4%). The song of pamelae is very different from that of Eurasian Scops Owl O. scops and Pallid Scops Owl O. brucei but more similar to that of African Scops Owl O. senegalensis. It nevertheless differs from the latter’s song in being higher pitched, sounding ‘scratchier’ and having more prolonged notes; the song sounds two-parted, due to the much quieter first note.  In terms of biometrics, results clearly suggest that pamelae is longer winged and longer legged than mainland African populations of senegalensis. In comparison with populations of O. senegalensis in continental Africa, Arabian pamelae is distinguished in being paler overall, with less distinct streaking over the underparts and a less obvious whitish line on the scapulars (Keonig et al. 2008). Arabian Scops Owls possess several diagnostic genetic and phenotypic characters and it is therefore consider the most appropriate taxonomic treatment is to recognize Arabian Scops Owl as a species Otus pamelae, and not as a subspecies of O. senegalensis as it was originally described based solely on morphological data. This change means that Arabian Scops Owl becomes a new Arabian endemic, found in South-west Saudi Arabia, South-west Yemen and north-east to southern Oman and African Scops Owl Otus senegalensis is now no longer found in Arabia but instead occurs in parts of Ethiopia, Eritrea & Somalia.