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Saudi Arabia, Birds and Butterflies. (1 Viewer)

Jos Stratford

Eastern Exile
Staff member
United Kingdom
Arabian Odyssey. 26 March - 8 April 2023.


Restricted range endemics, a flavour of the Afrotropics, superb Palaearctic migrants, Crab Plovers et al on tropical beaches …this is the avian melting pot of south-west Saudi Arabia, truly a destination second to none.

In my early years of travelling, pottering around the delights of Syria and Jordan, the idea of exploring Saudi Arabia had always been an alluring prospect. Back in those days, however, it was effectively a closed state - tourist visas were not issued, flights were expensive and travel options nonexistent. Roll on to the current day, all change - yet to be visited by many, but e-visas are readily available and budget flights operate from several European cities. To give an idea, I flew with Wizz Air, outward Vienna to Jeddah, return Jeddah to Milan …both new routes, price promotion resulted in 29 euro for the five-hour flight to Jeddah, an impressive 10 euro other way!

So it was, finally I got to fulfill a long-standing desire to visit Saudi Arabia. Coinciding with early spring migration, this thirteen-day trip focussed solely on the Jazan-Asir regions of the far south-west, splitting time between the distinctively Afrotropical lowlands, the adjacent Red Sea coast and the Asir Highlands above the escarpment, the latter home to most of the region's endemic birds.

Information on Butterflies

Although visiting Saudi Arabia has been an option only in fairly recent times, the birding locations are well-known and a one- or two-week trip is likely to produce most of the desired birds. By contrast, very little current information seems to exist regarding butterflies in the Kingdom - indeed it is difficult to even find an accurate list of species recorded. Most sources repeat a figure of just under 80 species, this seemingly based on the African Butterfly Database, which incorporates Saudi Arabia into its area of interest. However, I soon found this to be incomplete/out of date, finding several relatively common butterflies not in that database. For a better picture, the range maps in 'A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Lebanon and the Middle East' by Husein Ali Zorkot give a better idea of possible species, (though the illustrations in this book are not good enough for identification). Through this source and others, I think the Saudi Arabia butterfly list is actually nearer 130. Whatever it is, as with birds, there is a very nice mix of Arabian and African influences, the biggest number of species in the south-west definitely being African in flavour.

I did not have an identification guide for butterflies, but it was actually not very problematic - having previously spent time with butterflies in both the Middle East and Africa, most species were familiar. For groups that are difficult, specifically the whites and to a lesser extent the blues, I photographed and used online sources to double check identifications.

Before the trip, I really had no idea how many butterflies I would see, perhaps 30 or 40 species. As it turned out, as well as 209 species of birds, I managed 60 species of butterflies, far exceeding my expectations. Of particular note, I also found several butterflies that have a mere scatter of previous records in Saudi Arabia.

International tourism is something new to Saudi Arabia, but the country is well-used to the presence of foreigners working in the country. Saudis are pretty laid back when it comes to visitors to the country - they are generally very welcoming and will often go out of their way to assist if anything is needed. Outside the major cities, very few folk know any English.

Visa. Very easy to get an e-visa - Saudi eVisa | The Official website for Tourist Visa to Saudi Arabia. Quite expensive (130 euro), but is valid for one year and is multi-entry. Includes health insurance.

Bureaucracy. Basically nonexistent, immigration and customs were no issue, they didn't ask about optics or anything else. Boarding the Farasan ferry also hassle free - a lot of soldiers milling around, but no questions. Sometimes cars get x-rayed before boarding the ferry, but didn't in our case - dog sniffed each car and that was it. The Reydah Protected Area may or may not require obtaining an entry permit in advance - officially it is required, and some folk have reported being turned away, but on presentation of passport, I was given a permit at the gate on two subsequent days, the only question being if my car would manage the exceptionally steep slopes. Although it is one of the nicest localities in Saudi Arabia, and was the most productive butterfly site, it would not be critical from a bird angle if entry were refused - all birds are gettable elsewhere.

Ramadan and Traditions. It was Ramadan for the entirety of my trip. In reality, this had zero impact on my trip - many shops, especially larger supermarkets, remained open during the day, as did all petrol stations and services. It also meant that roads were generally quieter than usual, queues in the cities absent. Nobody expects you to follow Ramadan - indeed several times folk stopped to give me bottles of water when I was walking in the heat of the day. Out of respect, it is polite to avoid eating/drinking in front of folk while they are fasting. Concerning clothes, I wore tee-shirt and shorts throughout (as did some Saudi men). This did not raise any eyebrows.

Car. Avis were excellent, car was good, service exemplary, rate included full insurance (no excess, no deposit) and 200 km per day (additional km about 12 euro cents/km). I rented for 13 days, therefore 2600 km. This was just about enough for a standard trip - in reality I did 2800 km and the guy just smiled at the additional kilometres and said no charge. Yelo has cheaper rates, but they take a deposit and there are numerous reports of this never being returned.

Officially, in addition to your national licence, an international driving licence (Vienna 1968) is required to rent a car in Saudi Arabia, all rental car companies stress this at time of booking. Office staff were not interested in seeing mine at time of pick up however.

Road Travel. The concept of safe driving hasn't really reached the Arabian peninsula! That said, it is not amazingly bad and speed cameras/traffic light cameras are absolutely everywhere (linked to a national database with quite high penalties), consequently speeding is quite rare. Speed limits are often only signed in Arabic numerals, so worth learning the most useful for road use:




Police checkpoints are quite frequent, but these are never a hassle, I was always waved through without any questions. Speed bumps are worse, they are very common and sometimes built like mountains! They often have rumble strips before them, but often don't and they are not always easy to see, especially at night …after bouncing across the road on a couple of occasions, you soon learn to be ready for them. Roads on the escarpment (Reydah, Fayfa, etc) are exceedingly steep, low-powered cars can have issues - a standard saloon car is perfectly okay, but probably better not to rent the smallest cars available. I had a Honda Accent, it was perfectly okay.

On the plus side, petrol is cheap, about 55 euro cents a litre and credit cards are accepted at all petrol stations (as well as many shops and almost all hotels). The ferry to the Farasan Islands is free, with or without car. Tickets can be obtained the day before from the building opposite the ferry terminal.

Weather. Don't go to Saudi Arabia if you can't hack high temperatures - coastal areas were uniformly hot and humid, always above 36 C and as high as 41 C around Lake Al-Saad. I actually feel quite okay in such conditions and remained active all day throughout. Cooler and frequently cloudy conditions typified the Asir Highlands (the escarpment edge is 2800 m altitude).

24-25 March. Neusiedler See, Austria.

No options for flights from Lithuania to Saudi Arabia, so opted for a routing through Vienna. With the airport only an hour from the Neusiedler See area, I decided to add an extended stop here, prospects of Great Bustard and European Ground Squirrel the main attraction. Originally planned one full day, this was later extended to two by flight schedule changes.

Day One.

Predawn departure from Vilnius, touchdown in Vienna at 8.30 am local time. Picked up a car, one hour later I was trundling down the small tracks from Tadten across the plains on the Austrian-Hungarian border.

Abundance of Brown Hares immediately apparent, dozens of Lapwings and Curlews, no Great Bustard in initial scans, not hoped for Ground Squirrels. Plenty of raptors however, not only many Common Buzzards and Eurasian Kestrels, but several Hen Harriers drifting around and one Red Kite doing its acrobatics. All soon dwarfed however by a dramatic fly-by of a pair of adult Eastern Imperial Eagles, directly overhead and gradually drifting towards the Hungarian border. A while later I was at the border too, White Stork over, Black Redstarts hopping about the deserted footbridge that marks the border. Under the shadow of an old communist watch tower, I wandered across, breaking my own personal promise not to visit Hungary, then explored the wet woodland for a while. A bunch of butterflies the reward (Brimstone, Orange Tip, Red Admiral, Comma), along with Black Woodpecker and common woodland species.

Still, certain unseen things still awaited on the Austrian side, so I returned and took the more easterly track to Andau. And that is where I found the Great Bustards - three at distance on the grasslands of the LIFE+ reserve, then an impressive 23 in a rank patch of fallow agricultural land opposite, very close to the road. Stately birds indeed, males all puffed up on display, females really seeming rather nonplussed.

After a while with these, I then decided to explore the wetlands adjacent to Neusiedler See. Hmm, so much for wetlands - virtually all of the pans I visited were totally dry and looked as they had been so for years. Occasional Lapwings, grazing Greylags and drifting Hen Harriers. Habitat looked excellent for Ground Squirrels, didn't see anyhow - it is likely that many are still inactive so early in the season. Did eventually find one pan with water and then a quite good mix of birds - Greylags in abundance, a few White-fronted Geese with them, plus 40 or so Common Shelducks, one Common Crane, a flock of about 200 Ruffs. By now, getting late in the afternoon, the wind was beginning to pick up - aborted an attempt to find access to the shore of the Neusiedler See, notching up only Green Woodpecker for my effort, then headed to Mönchhof for my hotel for two nights.

Day Two.

Reedbed targets this day, plus Syrian Woodpecker and, still hopeful, European Ground Squirrel. Began the day on the north-west side of Neusiedler See, the yacht club at Seebad Breitenbrunn allowing direct access to the lake (vast reedbeds prevent access in most areas). I got the idea that Seebad Breitenbrunn would be hopelessly crowded in the summer season, but pretty deserted on my visit, a Pygmy Cormorant one of the first birds seen, fishing just off the boat jetties. It was quite windy along the access road, so reedbed birds proved difficult - no issue with Marsh Harriers, a half dozen flying, but didn't see hoped-for Moustached Warbler. I did, however, see a couple of Bearded Tits and one very smart Ferruginous Duck. More good stuff at the yacht club itself - a very much hoped for Syrian Woodpecker in the campsite area and several Great White Egrets, two Spoonbills, a bunch of Avocets and a small raft of Garganey in an adjacent bay. Done and dusted, I departed, adding several Mediterranean Gulls in agricultural fields just nearby (with Common Gulls and Black-headed Gulls).

With loads of time to spare, I then decided to return to the Great Bustard area, almost immediately refunding the big flock - they had shifted back onto the LIFE+ reserve. Full display this morning, the males becoming huge white fluff balls! Impressive to watch. An hour or two in this area, still no Ground Squirrels, then wandered over to the Hungarian side again, two Black Woodpeckers, a single and a pair of Eastern Imperial Eagles.

Still a couple of species missing on my hit list, so then headed to Seebad Illmitz, another boating access to the lake. Still quite windy, but success this time on Moustached Warbler, an individual singing along the entry road, having the good grace to pop up and sing in full view. Backdrop several Bearded Tits, a bunch of Shovelers and another fly-over White Stork.

In a last ditch attempt to find Ground Squirrel, I meandered back towards Mönchhof via as many pans as I could find on the map. Zilch. Did add a few new species however, then decided to check out one pool at St Martins, a hotel-conference type of place - 130 Red-crested Pochards on the pool across the road, one Common Pochard in their company.

The absolute highlight here however was actually on route to this place - quite by chance, my route took me past Sankt Andrä campsite and as I passed, I spied some movement on the grass through the fence. Rapid stop and reverse, European Ground Squirrel! And not one, but many. Campsite was closed, but fully accessible - parked and walked in, a minimum of 30 European Ground Squirrels scampering around, a new mammal for me and a superb finale to this little stopover in Austria!

Returned to Mönchhof, did my notes - 82 species of birds in these couple of days, five species of mammals.
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Great memories of our Neusiedler See trip back in 2019: the eagles, the bustards, and the same doubts about walking on Hungarian soil! Good stuff, bring it on!
The stopover prey much justifies the trip on its own. Any pix of the floofing Great Bustards or the Moustached Warbler?

I'm curious about the reluctance to step on Hungarian soil.


26 March. Flight to Saudi Arabia.

Visa check, all clear …departed Vienna midday for the five-hour flight to Jeddah. With time difference, arrived early evening and ahead of schedule, the sun just setting to a pleasant 30 C. Common Myna the first bird seen, one atop an aeroplane wing, a bunch of House Crows next up, then a rather more special species - four Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse circling around, then landing in scrubby vegetation near the terminal. Also at the airport, about 40 Slender-billed Gulls on a pool by the terminal and ever-present Rock Doves.

Ultra fast smooth passport control and customs, then off to pick up the car rental. Hmm, Wizz Air arrives at one terminal, car rental is at the other …and it is a staggering 22 km roadtrip between the terminals!!! Fortunately, as Ramadan had started a couple of days earlier and the sun was now setting, the journey between terminals was remarkably devoid of the notorious Jeddah traffic as all folk were at home for ifṭār.

So car sorted, it was time to hit the roads. With most of my chosen birding sites being many hundreds of kilometres further south, the furthest being Jazan some 725 km distant, my basic plan was to drive a considerable chunk of that this night, thereafter doing the rest early next morning. The trip would then proceed from south to north. Got about 400 km, then called it a night, slept in the car in a service station.
27 March. Arrival in Jazan, Either Mangroves.

Woke near 6.00 am, peered around at the rather litter-strewn parking bay I had decided to spend the night, not exactly high-end des res! Still, one Black Scrub-Robin fanning its tail from a boulder. With that, immediately back on the road south. Sooty Gulls and Crested Terns at a point where the road paralleled the sea, one Brown-necked Raven somewhere in the middle of nowhere, but no stops till I was at my first destination - the Either mangroves about 30 km north of the Jazan.

Now, my understanding of Saudi Arabia says baking sun and high temperatures …got to Either just as the most almighty of thunderstorms hit, torrential rain, gusting wind and bolts of lightning - not what I was expecting as a welcome! Still, at Either, you can park right at the edge of the mudflats and, rain or no rain, it's Crab Plovers galore from the comfort of your car. And so there I sat for a half hour, rain teeming down, a good 35 Crab Plovers plodding the flats uncaring of the weather, plus plenty of other delights - a bunch of Western Reed Herons, numerous Lesser Sand Plovers, one Greater Sand Plover, several Terek Sandpipers and a multitude of other waders. Looking soggy and bedraggled, one Hoopoe Lark and several Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks. Fortunately, the rain did end, a hazy sun broke through and temperatures rose to a pleasant 30 C …more my cup of tea.

Explored the mangrove edge on foot, sloshing through quite a goo, White-winged Black Terns hawking adjacent, plus numerous 'Little Terns' types. Sat and tried to distinguish any Saunder's Terns among them …nothing conclusive, those I saw well enough did appear to be Little Terns. In the mangroves themselves, Mangrove Reed Warblers in good numbers, plus three rather stunning White-collared Kingfishers atop a dead tree, all engaging in a group display session. Black Kites wheeling around, two Montagu's Harriers through.

I also wandered the small park area - several Turkistan Shrikes most of note, not much more. And with that, I then decided to head a couple of kilometres inland, stopping at a now flooded shallow wadi. Would have done some birding, Arabian Babblers and Black Scrub-Robins immediately apparent, but instead I got distracted by the first butterflies of the trip - in a nice African-Paleactic mix of influences, the four species present were two typical of the Palaearctic (150+ Blue-spotted Arabs, three Tiger Blues) and two of more African flavour (three African Migrants, one Brown-veined White). As anywhere, identification of the tiger blue group is problematic - theoretically, three species could occur, need to double check my photographs …once I have retrieved them, accidentally formatted the card!

So ended day one, I drove the last few kilometres to Jazan, checked into a way over plush hotel for my needs, then took an evening stroll along the North Corniche - hordes of House Crows, hordes of cats, several Turkistan Shrikes, drifts of Pink-backed Pelicans.
28 March. Coastal Jazan.

There can be few cities that compete with Jazan for abundance and variety of waders and waterbirds! From the city's corniches and along a stretch of mangroves running some kilometres to the city's water treatment plant in the south, it's mega numbers of mega species all the way - Crab Plovers taking top honours, but among other waders also Terek Sandpipers, Broad-billed Sandpipers, hundreds of Lesser Sand Plovers and just any Western Palearctic species that takes your fancy. Also both Sooty Gulls and White-eyed Gulls and a medley of terns from Crested Terns and Caspian Terns down in size through Gull-billed Terns, Lesser Crested Terns White-cheeked Terns to, at the smallest end, abundant Little Terns and occasional Saunder's Terns.

Started the morning at North Corniche, largely to try and find a lens hood that I had lost the evening before. Was high tide, so not so many waders here bar Common Sandpipers, Wood Sandpipers and Temminck's Stints plodding the relatively manicured lawns, but some other birds of note, not least several Turkmenistan Shrikes and my first Hoopoe of the trip. Lens hood successfully found, I then moved south to a roadside pool adjacent to the city's Heritage Village - clearly serving as a high tide roost, this was excellent. All at close range, a dozen or so Western Reef Herons, a few Grey Herons, a Purple Heron and a Striated Heron, plus a rich assortment of waders including a Pacific Golden Plover, a species I would only see twice on this trip.

Adding distraction to the waterbirds, a small grassed area behind also supported a few birds, two Abdim's Storks the highlight, initially sitting on a lamp post, then walking the lawns. One Osprey here too, very pale affairs in this neck of the woods, plus a number of Yellow Wagtails and Red-throated Pipits, a Northern Wheatear and a Pied Wheatear.

Adjacent mangroves added Clamorous Reed Warblers and, rather more interesting, two Mangrove White-eyes, the exact taxonomy of which remains unclear - a very localised endemic or an outlying population of Abyssinian White-eyes that have adapted to the distinct mangrove habitat. Pink-backed Pelicans and Caspian Terns served as backdrop.

As the tide was now dropping, I shifted a little further south and walked a few kilometres from Moses Beach to the area around the Water Treatment Plant - walking on the mudflats on the seaward side of the mangroves, this was simply stunning - waders in immense numbers all the way, including the first Broad-billed Sandpipers of the trip, plus flocks of both Slender-billed Gulls and White-cheeked Terns and, at journey's end, near the WTP, a flock of about 600 flamingos. In previous years, hundreds of Lesser Flamingos frequented this area, either on a pool near the WTP or the adjacent mudflats. I was therefore a little disappointed to quickly scan though and find it 100% Greater Flamingos! Hmm, so I sat on a chunk of driftwood and scrutinised a little better - it was now 99.8% Greater Flamingos. Deep in their midst, one single Lesser Flamingo! Also checked the pool near the WTP, more Greater Flamingos there, no more Lesser Flamingos. Also added my only Avocets of the trip at this place, plus Black-winged Stilt and Ruff.

Hadn't at this point found any White-eyed Gulls, so stopped at a small beach often favoured by them just south of the ferry port …and indeed here they were - mixed with Sooty Gulls and a variety of terns, 16 very smart White-eyed Gulls. Also added Sanderling to the wader list.

With that, now late afternoon, I popped over to the ferry office to arrange tickets to Farasan Island the next day, then called it a day. An impressive 30 species of waders seen this day, including 240+ Crab Plovers, plus eight species of terns.
29 March. Farasan Islands

Day trip to the Farasan Islands. Having arranged the tickets the day before, I got to the port this day at 5.30 am for a simple and hassle-free check-in … basically military guys checked the tickets, car document and passport, then pointed me to which queue to wait in.

7.00 am set out to sea for the 90 minute crossing - Brown Boobies and White-eyed Gulls on the harbour wall as departing Jasan, this pretty much setting the scene for the whole route - regular Brown Boobies all the way across, especially perching on buoys, pods of White-eyed Gulls now and then. In reality however, the crossing was pretty quiet, only in the final stages before the Farasan Islands did it get really active - not only a surge in the numbers of Brown Boobies, but a nice bonus in the form of a Sooty Falcon on one of the last islets before port.

As I had opted for a single day on the island, this gave me five hours to explore …which turned out more than enough. The basic idea was to find a beach full of Brown Noddies and a Red-billed Tropicbird for good measure. So much for that - though pleasant with Crab Plovers and other waders, plus loads of White-eyed Gulls, all the initial beaches produced totally zilch in terms of offshore seabirds. Local fishermen chucking fish scraps to Pink-backed Pelicans was entertaining though, even more so with the squabbles of Sooty and White-eyed Gulls, a rabble of Lesser Crested Terns overhead and a couple of Striated Herons attracted in by the activity.

The area near the ferry port definitely seemed more productive for seabird potential, so I returned there to try to scan the offshore islets. Highly successful, I got ticked off by a soldier! Extracting myself with an apology, I then did a little bit of offroad driving to get to the headland directly north of the ferry port - an idyllic beach, stacks of mixed terns and Slender-billed Gulls, lots of waders. Scanning the small terns, in total contrast to all other localities prior visited, they all appeared to be Saunder's Terns, a pure flock of about 40 individuals. No shortage of Brown Boobies on the bouys and islets either, these largely being the ones visible from the ferry, but perhaps the best sightings on these waters were large offshore feeding flocks of Bridled Terns, massing together and in pretty good numbers, some of the groups numbered 60 or so. Alas, no Brown Noddies, no Red-billed Tropicbird.

As for the barren interior of the island, it was basically sand and rock, not a lot else - home to a few Hoopoe Larks and Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks, one group of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and a dotting of Palearctic migrants - Isabelline Wheatears, two Black-eared Wheatears, a trickle of hirundines, mostly Sand Martins, but one Red-rumped Swallow too. In the skies above, three drifting Egyptian Vultures and my second Brown-necked Raven of the trip.

Back at the ferry port at 2.00 pm, the return leg actually turned out to be better than the outward - plenty of Brown Boobies again, but we also sailed straight through a group of about 50 Bridled Terns, followed a little bit later by a single distant Brown Noddy, then an Arctic Skua. Saving best for last, when quite near Jazan, further Brown Noddies, first a flock of nine, then an impressive 45 just off the boat.

Back in port, I was happy enough with that, I had now seen more or less everything I wanted in the coastal area

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