Arabian Endemics


 Asir Mountains

The Asir Mountains of south-west Saudi Arabia and the highlands of southern and western Yemen are designated as an endemic bird area. They are located in the south-west Saudi Arabia, just inland and east of the Red Sea, and are a north-south running escarpment and high plateau and are the highest land in the Arabian Peninsula, tilting from west to east. The mountains are composed mainly of limestones, sandstones and shale and overlie a basement of granitic rocks. The rugged mountainous landscape contains several peaks over 2,500 metres within Saudi Arabia. In the west, a steep escarpment drops to the Tihamah plain on the Red Sea coast. To the east is a high plateau, with the mountains then sloping more gently to the inner desert and sands of the Rub’al-Khali (Empty Quarter). Throughout the region the predominant rocks are basalts (there are relatively recent lava fields slightly to the north), significant granite outcrops, especially south of Abha the main provincial Asir city, and well known sandstone regions, notably Jebal Gaha (2100 m) and at Habala. Jebal Gaha has extensive juniper forest on its plateau summit but in 2010 this was mostly dead, or much stressed, as a result of poor rains in recent years. Jebal Faifa (1950 m) is much better positioned to catch rainfall, is remarkably green. This region together with the Tihamah plain is home to the majority of southwest Arabian endemic bird species with all except the Arabian Accentor Prunella fagani occurring in this area. The montane juniper woodlands are vital habitat for these birds, such as the Yemen Linet (Carduelis yemenensis), Yemen Thrush (Turdus menachensis) and Yemen Warbler (Parisoma buryi) as they are dependent on juniper berries as a food source and juniper trees for nesting. In addition the highlands of south-west Saudi Arabia are the only place in Arabia where the Asir endemic race of the Eurasian Magpie occurs. Some authorities give specific status to this taxon. This region is also a stronghold for the several species of Afrotropical realm birds, including some that are breeding summer visitors.
Raghadan Forest Reserve - Baha
Raghadan Forest Reserve - Baha

Formerly, large areas were forested, but agricultural activities and exploitation for timber have diminished this habitat. Patches of forest still survive in deep valleys (wadis) and on some steep slopes, and well-developed juniper Juniperus forest remains intact above c.1,900m. The most widespread vegetation today is deciduous woodland, often characterized by Acacia, with many endemic plants. Within the Asir mountains lies the Raydah escarpment which is located at 42o 24.00' East  18o 11.80' North, and is possibly the most important compact site in Saudi Arabia for south-west Arabian endemic, and other, woodland species. The Raydah reserve area is a largely undeveloped section of the western escarpment of Jebal Souda that has been protected to some degree since the 1980s. It encompasses strata of highland and foothill habitat from 2800 m to Wadi Jaw at 1350 m, 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. Ten Arabian endemic bird species have been recorded in this reserve, as well as the Asir subspecies of the Eurasian Magpie and there are numerous Afrotropical species in the lower altitudes. It encompasses 1200 hectares of land and lays about 15 kilometres west of Abha, and has very steep west-facing slopes with crags, with thin soil, falling from 2,700 to 1,600 m in less than 3 kilometres. There are permanent streams and the climate is generally cool and wet frequently covered by cloud. The escarpment supports a more-or-less intact forest, predominantly Juniperus excelsa, with Olea europea on the upper and north-facing slopes. More deciduous trees (Nuxia, Ficus, Acacia) occur lower down and in valleys and gullies with the bottom third as well as south-facing slopes often dominated by Buddleja, tree aloes Aloe sabaea and other succulents. Bee-keeping is a common human activity and there is moderate to heavy use of the area for recreation. Endemic birds of the Raydah escarpement are mentioned below:

·         Philby’s Partridge (Alectoris philbyi): 6-50 breeding pairs
·         Arabian Partridge (Alectoris melanocephala): 51-500 breeding pairs
·            Arabian Scops Owl (Otus pamelae): 51-500 breeding pairs
·         Arabian Woodpecker (Dendrocopos dorae): 1-5 breeding pairs
·         Yemen Warbler (Sylvia buryi): 51-500 breeding pairs
·         Yemen Thrush (Turdus menachensis): 51-500 breeding pairs
·         Arabian Wheatear (Oenanthe lugentoides): 6-50 breeding pairs
·         Arabian Waxbill (Estrilda rubibarba): 6-50 breeding pairs
·         Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak (Rhynchostruthus percivali): 1-5 breeding pairs
·         Arabian Serin (Serinus rothschildi): 51-500 breeding pairs
·         Yemen Serin (Serinus menachensis): 6-50 breeding pairs
·         Yemen Linnet (Carduelis yemenensis): 500 breeding pairs

The climate of the region varies considerably depending on altitude, aspect and season. The highlands receive variable rainfall caused by the south-western monsoon, which brings damp oceanic winds. These winds are uplifted by the mountains and trigger thunderstorms, particularly during the summer, with most rain falling in April/May and July/August. Annual average rainfall in the escarpment areas is 600-800 millimetres rising to over 1,000 millimetres in the wettest areas with the high plateau receiving 300-500 millimetres. Temperatures in the highlands are highest in the summer, reaching 20-250C, and lowest in winter with a mean temperature of 100C, although frosts can occur above 2,000 m and snow occasionally falls on the highest peaks.

The region has a wide diversity of bird life, vegetation and topography. Altitudes reach just over 3,000 m and the juniper Juniperus procera forests in the highlands are probably the most extensive anywhere in Arabia. Also in the highlands there are thickly wooded acacia valleys of various species but Acacia tortilis and A. mellifera where the most common noted during the present survey. Terraced agriculture growing cereals, notably wheat and maize is in decline and many fields, especially in the Jebal Souda area have been abandoned. However this was not the case everywhere in the highlands, to the north and south of Jebal Souda agriculture was more in evidence, possibly because there may have been more reliable rainfall in these areas in recent years. There is limited animal husbandry, small flocks of goats and sheep occur in the highlands and cows often wander untended in the undisturbed areas. Bee-keeping and honey production is an important occupation in the region. 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.
Mount Soudah Park
Raydah Escarpment Reserve - top section
Raydah Escarpment Reserve - middle section

Endemic birds of Arabia

Of the ten Arabian endemic species that occur in Saudi Arabia nine were recorded on Jebal Souda and the Raydah escarpment during a survey 4 – 23 July 2010. The tenth, Arabian Waxbill Estrilda rufibarba (which was recorded once in 1987 on Jebal Souda) was only found in the Tihama region. All ten species have also been seen in the Baha area of the Asir Mountains 225 kilometres north of Abha in the Golden Tulip valley and the Raghadan Forest area.

Philby’s Partridge (Alectoris philbyi): A rare resident of the south-west highlands, has been seen on dry scrub covered hillside by some terraces on the Jebal Souda plateau at 2680 m and in similar habitat on the Azeezah Road as well as near Balahmah. They prefer juniper dominated habitats where rocky knolls & clearings occur. It occurs from 1500 – 3000 metre elevations & in 1987 it was regarded as an uncommon resident in terraced fields of Jebal Souda. There has been a decline since then that may have been caused by encroachment of buildings and other development to its favoured habitat of terraced fields. The Philby’s Partridge is related to the Chukar & Red-legged Partridge and is native to south-western Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It can be easily identified from other partridges by the black cheeks and throat and a narrow white stripe from the bill to behind the eye separating the black from the greyish-blue head. Both sexes look alike, although males may be slightly larger in size and have a tarsal knob. Seen in the top part of the Golden Tulip valley.

Arabian Partridge (Alectoris melanocephala): A common resident of the south-west highlands, especially steep wooded hillsides of the western escarpment of Jebal Souda and the Raydah Protected Area but also Farshah where it is normally recorded on most visits. They prefer juniper dominated habitats where rocky knolls & clearings occur.  It has also been recorded at terraced fields on the Souda Plateau and feeds mainly on plant material, seeds and insects. They are also common in the Tihama region at Jebal Aswad and Jebal Gaha and can be found from 250 – 2800 metres elevation. In 1987 it was a widespread and not uncommon species and there seems to have been little change in its status since then. They are much larger than other Alectoris species with the sexes being similar, although females are slightly smaller. They have a black crown extending down the nape; a broad white band begins in front of the eye and extends to the back of the head. The chin and upper throat are also white and are separated from the white above the eye by a narrow black band that starts at the bill, extends to the cheek and forms a "V" on the neck. The sides of the neck are pastel brown and the rest of the plumage is bluish grey with pronounced barring on the sides. Seen in the top section of the Golden Tulip Valley where birds were seen to fly down the cliff face at the back of the Golden Tulip hotel.

Arabian Scops Owl (Otus pamelae): Keonig (2008) split Arabian Scops Owl Otus (senegalensis) pamelae as a distinct species from African Scops Owl O. s. senegalensis but recent work (Pons et al 2013) has shown African Scops Owl 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 recommend to elevate it to species status, as Arabian Scops Owl Otus pamelae. The 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 (G.M. Kirwan & R. F. Porter pers. obs., Keonig et al. 2008). 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.

Arabian Woodpecker (Dendrocopos dorae): An uncommon but widespread resident of the south-west highlands, Jebal Souda plateau on the dry east side as well as at Raydah Farm on the Raydah escarpment and Wadi Jaw at 1350 m. Also occurs at Yazeed south of Abha. Birds are usually associated with acacia trees but can be found in a variety of wooded habitats. The species also occurs in the Tihama at Jebal Gaha and Raith. The Arabian Woodpecker is a rather small, olive-brown woodpecker with white bars across its wings and red patch on the rear of the head of a male. Both sexes show a pale red patch down the centre of the belly. It has a distinct call which accelerates and, then descends “kek-kek-kek-kek-kek-kek”. It is the only woodpecker breeding in Arabia, has a typical woodpecker undulating flight, and only drums weekly and infrequently. They occur locally in the Red Sea foothills and western uplands of south-west Arabia, from the Yeman boarder to 26°N in Saudi Arabia. It is generally uncommon to rare where it occurs with approximately 0.1-1.0 mature individuals per km2. The total population is therefore inferred to be fewer than 10,000 mature individuals and it is classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List 2006 as it has a small population of less than 10,000 mature birds, which is likely to be declining as a result of excessive cutting and lopping of trees for charcoal, firewood and fodder. Birds occur in a wide variety of fragmented woodland-types, from sea level up to 3,000 metres on mountain slopes, including: groves of fig Ficus, date-palm Phoenix or pandan Pandanus at lower altitudes; subtropical, evergreen riparian forest; traditional shade-coffee plantations and well-developed succulent shrubland at middle-altitudes; woods, groves and parklands of Acacia, Juniperus, Olea and Dracaena at higher altitudes (often on slopes terraced for agriculture); and old-established orchards in the highlands. Breeding records (February-May) are restricted to the highlands (1,450-2,400 m) with the nest-site being a small hole excavated in the trunk or major branch of a large tree. Seen in dead trees in the Golden Tulip valley where there drumming was an obvious sound.

Yemen Warbler (Sylvia buryi): A common resident of the south-west highlands in bushy areas especially on the Raydah escarpment, and slightly less frequently in similar habitats on the Jebal Souda plateau. The species is local in its occurrence. In 1987 it was recorded more frequently than in 2010, especially on the plateau area. It is native to south-west Saudi Arabia and west Yemen and is a rather plain-looking warbler with a large head, short wings and a long tail. Both sexes are sooty-grey to dark brown above, with a darker head, especially around the eye and a distinctively white iris, contrasting with the dark orbital ring. The dark upperparts are clearly demarcated from the pale underparts, which are white on the throat and buffish on the belly, with a dull apricot patch between the legs. It is classified as vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List 2006 and has a population of less than 10,000 mature birds. They have a slow song that is quite loud as well as a thrush like warble and are very active, almost always in pairs where they search for insects in the centre of thick acacias, frequently hanging upside down. Their flight is weak and low, with an upwards swoop when landing on a branch. In Saudi Arabia, this species is found mostly within well-developed Juniperus woodland between 1500 & 2900 metres above sea level. They nest in bushes or trees, normally at a low height and breed from March to July. Their diet consists primarily of insects, but fruits will also be taken when available.

Yemen Thrush (Turdus menachensis): A common & widespread resident of the of the south-west highlands, favouring areas of thick bush mainly at Jebal Souda and Al Jarrah. In 1987 it was also common and widespread in the highlands and no apparent change in population seems to have occurred over this period. Also occurs in the Tihama around jebals such as Jebal Aswad and Jebal Gaha. It is a medium-sized (23 cms), plain brown bird with the male being olive-brown above, paler and greyer below, with dark narrow streaks radiating across the buff-grey chin and throat onto the breast. The stout bill is orange-yellow, the legs are flesh-coloured to yellow and, in flight, the orange underwing-coverts can be seen. The female is very similar but paler overall, being buff below, often with dark shaft streaks on the belly and flanks, and with a duller-coloured bill. It has a fluty song, mostly heard at dawn, containing a series of high-pitched phrases and an explosive call ‘chuck-chuck’, from which it is most easily located. It is classified as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List 2006 as its population is likely to be small, 2500 to 9999 birds and declining owing to excessive exploitation and clearance of its montane woodland habitat although in Saudi Arabia its woodland habitat is protected in at least two protected areas: Raydah Reserve and Asir National Park. It is native to the mountains of south-western Saudi Arabia and western Yemen and has a very local distribution. It can be very skulking in nature, remaining motionless for long periods of time. The species is confined to mountainous areas with a dense cover of native trees and shrubs including woodlands, thickets, copses, orchards and large gardens, although adjacent open areas are also frequented. This species occurs from 1,200 to 3,100 m above sea level, mainly above 1,700 m, and at its lowest elevations it is restricted to thick vegetation along watercourses. This small forest bird forages on the ground among dead and rotting vegetation, feeding on terrestrial invertebrates such as snails, and on fruits such as those of Rosa, Juniperus, Olea and Ficus species. The Yemen thrush breeds from March to August, with the nest positioned one to four metres above ground in a bush or tree-fork, usually in dense cover. The nest consists of a firm cup made of dry grass, small twigs, moss and thin bark strips, with a mud interior lined with fine grass and rootlets, into which one to three eggs (usually two) are laid. Birds are relatively common in the Baha area in the middle section of the Goldebn Tulip valley and the Raghadan Forest area.

Arabian Wheatear (Oenanthe lugentoides): A rather scarce resident of the south-west highlands, but is also found in Oman, Palestine and Yemen, mainly in rocky, bushy sites but widespread on the Jebal Souda plateau, Wadi Tale’a, Pipeline Road, near Farshah, Gara’a and Tanumah. It was not recorded on the Raydah escarpment in 2010.  In 1987 it was recorded more frequently so the species may have declined slightly, with disturbance not thought likely to be the reason as it is often associated with gardens and regularly breeds near human sites. Also occurs in the Tihama mainly around jebals such as Jebal Aswad and Jebal Gaha. They nest in holes in terrace walls and feed largely on insects. They are common in the upper reaches of the Raghadan Forest and the upper parts of the Golden Tulip valley.
Arabian Wheatear - male

Arabian Waxbill (Estrilda rubibarba): A rather scarce resident of the Tihama region where they have beens seen on Jebal Faifa summit and at Jebal Gaha. The Arabian Waxbill is endemic to Saudi Arabia and Yemen and occurs in the mesic uplands of the Tihamah foothills, occasionally straying onto the lowland Tihamah proper. The species is described as rare in southern Saudi Arabia and the population is suspected to be in decline due to habitat loss as a result of the increasing use of modern agricultural techniques. They are highly social, and occur from 250-2,500 m in fertile cultivated Wadis, plains, rocky hillsides and terraced slopes, usually with a dense cover of trees and bushes. The species roosts communally in this dense vegetation, and recently fledged juveniles have been recorded in May. It has become closely associated with regularly irrigated agricultural areas with flowing water. Birds have also been seen in the Raghadan Forest area of Baha.

Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak (Rhynchostruthus percivali): Previously considered conspecific with R louisae amd R socotranus but morphological and plumage differences are thought sufficient to warrent specific status. Occurs in southwest Saudi Arabia, west & east Yemen and southwest Oman. Scarce breeding resident occuring where Euphorbias are common.

Arabian Serin (Serinus rothschildi): A rather scarce resident of the south-west highlands occurring in scrub land and acacia sites, recorded twice on Raydah escarpment at Raydah Farm and once on the plateau along the Azeezah Road. In 1987 it was recorded more frequently than in 2010, suggesting a possible decline in numbers. Also occurs in the Tihama around Jebal Gaha where a few were seen. Birds have also been seen in the Raghadan Forest area of Baha.

Yemen Serin (Serinus menachensis): A scarce species of the south-west highlands only recorded once at the Raydah farm in 2010. In 1987 it was seen on three occasions. Also occurs in the Tihama around Jebal Gaha. Birds have also been seen in the Raghadan Forest area of Baha.

Yemen Linnet (Carduelis yemenensis): A common resident of the south-west highlands, frequenting weedy terraced fields which had been harvested, where it was often seen in flocks of up to 200 birds. It was also recorded on the Raydah escarpment along the Raydah Pipeline Road, Al Jarrah and Al Azah. In 1987 it was also common and widespread so there appears to have been no change in its status during this period. Habitat preference is for subtropical to tropical dry shrubland. Flocks have been seen in the Baha area in the Golden Tulip valley where they frequent cultivated areas and allotments.

Endemic Sub-species

Eurasian Magpie (Pica pica asirensis): A rare sub-species, although sometimes treated as a full species, that is endemic to the south-west Saudi Arabia highlands. It is probably in significant decline and was not seen at the summit of Jebal Souda in 2010, unlike 1987, but was recorded a few kilometres north of Balamah near the village of Al Azah at 2606 metres, at Sharma village in the Wadi Tale’a of the Souda plateau and at the reserve entrance to the Raydah Protected Area, on a radio antennae at 2795 metres. It has also been recorded in the Tihama region at Jebal Aswad and Jebal Gaha. At Jebal Gaha they occur near the lip of the sandstone plateau at 1850-1950 metres. The world population estimate of 135 pairs may be an overestimation.

Arabian Green Bee-eater (Merops cyanophrys): This subspecies is sometimes treated as a full species (e.g. Handbook of birds of the World). It is usually treated as conspecific with M. viridissimus and M. orientalis, but differs from both by its very short stub-ended central tail feathers; bright blue forehead, supercilious and throat and bluer lower belly; broader, smudgier black breast-bar; marginally larger size and clearly longer tail (minus the tail extensions) than the other taxa. Proposed race najdanus (from central plateau) now included within muscatensis. Two subspecies currently recognised. M. c. cyanophrys from southern Israel, western Jordon and west and south Arabian coasts and M. c. muscatensis from central Arabian plateau and eastern Arabia (eastern Yemen to Oman and United Arab Emirates).