29 October 2018

First fully documented record of Ruppell's Vulture in Saudi Arabia and Arabian Peninsula - Tanoumah

Whilst birding the Tanoumah area, along the edge of the main escarpment of the Asir mountains in southwest Saudi Arabia, 12 October 2018 Phil Roberts and I came across a group of about 50 Eurasian Griffon Vulture Gyps fulvus in the air together, many later came down and rested on the rocks before again moving southwards. This is easily the largest gathering of this species either of us have observed in Saudi Arabia. We did not get great views of the birds when initially seen, as we saw them from the car and could not stop quickly. I parked the car as soon as possible, but the road was busy and dangerous, and by the time we returned to the area on foot some of the birds were on the ground. No birds could be seen in the air at this point but soon the birds on the ground took off and a group of about twelve birds flew around briefly before disappearing behind the cliffs. I quickly took a few photos of two birds but unfortunately, the terrain prevented any further sightings. On seeing low-resolution photographs, Yoav Perlman pointed out that one of the vultures looked odd and thought that it could be a Rüppell's Vulture Gyps Ruppelli or a hybrid, as it did not look quite right. Yoav suggested I contacted Dick Forsman for his opinion, so I sent him two high-resolution images. Dick responded saying the bird was so far from a typical adult Eurasian Griffon of the eastern type and this option could definitely be excluded. With the very contrasting black-and-white pattern to greater and even median underwing coverts, narrow head and typically marked axillars Dick felt quite sure that the bird was a Ruppell's Vulture of the NE African erlangeri subspecies. Most of the long undertail coverts seem to be missing due to moult, but the ones remaining showed the pale tips typical of Ruppell's Vulture. Dick also mentioned that having studied Ethiopian Ruppell's Vultures on many trips to the country he has a very strong feeling of them being some kind of a hybrid population between fulvus and nominate rueppellii, as mentioned in his book (Forsman 2016). Dick said the Saudi Arabian bird was a brilliant example of this type, showing features from both species. Dick’s views thus matched Yoav’s original thoughts almost exactly. The status of Rüppell's Vulture in Saudi Arabia is unclear and clouded by the records of Meinetzhagen. Recent views are that the species does not occurred in Arabia as Meinertzhagens records are discounted due to his indiscretions as documented elsewhere. When looking through the recently compiled list of species occurring in Saudi Arabia, it is not recorded, thus this record becomes the first fully documented record of Rüppell's Vulture Gyps Ruppelli for Saudi Arabia. There are no accepted records from any countries that make up the Arabian Peninsula, making it a first for this region as well. The closest and only record for the entire Middle East region is a probable third calendar year bird seen at Lakhish Hills, South Judean Plains, Israel, 5 May 2014 where the bird was associating with Eurasian Griffon Vultures away from their main colonies. The likelihood of the species occurring in Saudi Arabia was very small due to its current population of only 22,000 and the fact that it is Critically Endangered, however vulture passage has been noted down the Asir Mountains in autumn. Rüppell's vulture Gyps rueppelli is a large vulture that can be found throughout the Sahel region of central Africa in areas of arid steppe, grasslands, mountains (up to 4500 m in Ethiopia) and woodlands. Once considered common in these habitats, the Rüppell's vultures are experiencing steep declines, especially in the Western portion of their range. They feed entirely on carrion and bone fragments of larger carcasses, mainly soft muscle and organ tissue. It is named Rüppell's vulture is named in honor of Eduard Rüppell, a 19th-century German explorer, collector, and zoologist. There are two subspecies known Gyps rueppelli rueppelli (A. E. Brehm, 1852) – Southwest Mauritania and Senegambia east to Sudan and western Ethiopia, and south to Kenya and northern Tanzania. Gyps rueppelli erlangeri (Salvadori, 1908) – Ethiopia (except west), Eritrea and Somalia. The eastern subspeices is paler and more like Eurasian Griffon Vulture than its darker relative to the west. Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank both Yoav Perlman and Dick Forsman very much for their generous help in identifying this bird. Without their help and knowledge, this bird may well have remained unidentified.
Ruppells Vulture