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Saudi Arabia, Birds and Butterflies. (1 Viewer)

6 April. Khairah Forest & Wadi Ileeb.

Weather refugee. I hadn't come to Saudi Arabia for cloud and rain, so I decided this day to leave the highlands and return to the coast, guaranteed to be hot and sunny.

First however, I wanted another day of butterfly action, focussing this time on Khairah Forest. there at 7.00 am, too early for butterflies, so a bit of birding. These here forested slopes are the sometime home of Arabian Grosbeak, but rare indeed is the bird encountered. Plenty of other birds in the morning sunshine though - abundant Yemen Linnets, at least eight Arabian Wheatears, several Arabian Warblers and a couple of Arabian Serins. Also encountered two Crowned Dwarf Racers, small non-venomous snakes. Then something rather good - a small flycatcher in an acacia. At first glimpse, I thought it was going to be a Red-breasted Flycatcher, but it was actually something better - a Gambaga Flycatcher. Like a small version of a Spotted Flycatcher without breast and head streaking, I thought I was a little too early in the season for this species, so that was a bonus.

Anyhow, the magic hour was approaching, time for butterflies to get active. Unfortunately so too was cloud getting active again, a bank of the grey stuff sitting on the lip of the escarpment, plunging Khairah into periodic shade with growing frequency. Nevertheless, a few butterfly were active in this early morning period - a White-spotted Commodore, a couple of Bath Whites, an Arabian Wall Brown and two new for the trip - a solo Green-striped White and a solo Small Copper.

This place definitely had potential, but the cloud seemed to be winning the battle for dominance, so I decided to head inland a little further away from the escarpment edge. This worked a treat - a mere three kilometres or so and I was in blue skies and unbroken sunshine. A very nice couple of hours followed - a very Palearctic feeling, just occasional Dark Blue Pansies ans Yellow Pansies, but an impressive abundance of butterflies that you might find on a rocky Mediterranean coast somewhere - many Bath Whites and Green-striped Whites, plenty of Painted Ladies (only one prior to this on the trip), several Small Coppers, both Lang's Short-tailed Blue and, new for the trip, Long-tailed Blue. The biggest surprise however was something you definitely won't find on the Mediterranean coast - a Western Dwarf Blue. Superficially similar to a mini Canary Blue, this is one of the smallest butterflies in the world, truly a midget. I certainly was not expecting it here however - although it is spreading on the Persian Gulf side of the Arabian Peninsula, a thousand kilometres across the desert, I didn't know of any records on the western side of Saudi Arabia. I was to later discover that an individual of this species was also discovered at a locality a dozen or so kilometres from this spot a year earlier.

That seen, I then decided to descend the escarpment back into the lowlands - dropping off the cliff, it was an immediate transformation back into an Afrotropic butterfly mix - Purple-brown Hairstreaks, many of both pansies, African Ringlets, many Plain Tigers, a colony of Mediterranean Tiger Blues and, always stately, several Citrus Swallowtails. The Goldilocks zone however was unfortunately mostly in cloud and, by the time I was in full sun, I had descended from 2300 m to about 750 metres, already becoming too hot and dry to support much other than Blue-spotted Arabs and Tiny Grass Blues.

Time to head for the coast, a drive of a couple of hours through parched land at 37 C. Somewhere about midway, I spotted a patch of relative greenery and made a short detour …and what an amazing discovery - Wadi Ileeb, an oasis of fresh flowing water, a series of shallow pools and abundant birds! Clearly a very welcome sight for migrating birds, herons were packed in - at least 130 Squaccos, four Purple Herons, one Grey Heron, about 40 Little Egrets, 35 Cattle Egrets and, the only one of the trip, one Great White Egret. Also Spoonbill and four Glossy Ibis. Equally impressive, a flock of about 400 Yellow Wagtails, almost all males and a split between about one-third blue-headed flava wagtails and two-thirds the stunning black-headed feldegg birds. Also about 60 Red-throated Pipits, many in full summer dress. And just to round the birds off, as well as Black Scrub-Robin and an overhead Booted Eagle, I had the good fortune to flush a Common Buttonquail.

Quite a few butterflies here too - now being firmly in the hot lowlands, this was absolutely the desert mix - Blue-spotted Arabs and Plain Tigers predominant, African Migrants next, then a smaller numbers of Dark Blue Pansies and African Grass Blues.

Excellent stop, thereafter continued across the desert, all amazingly green after recent rain. Stopped for the night at Albraaket, about 60 km south of Al Lith. No hotels here, made the mistake of sleeping in the car on the beach - hot and humid, first mosquitoes of the trip.
7 April. Al Lith, Acacia Tree & Mecca.

6.00 am, warm and muggy, Crab Plovers and assorted waders from the car as I awoke, a motley assortment of Sooty Gulls, White-eye Gulls and both Crested and Lesser Crested Terns lingering on the beach. Hoped-for passerines in the town's straggly corniche park didn't really materialise, so I decided to head 60 km north to see if I could explore the Al Lith area. Al Lith boasts extensive fish pools and mangrove systems, but access is largely not permitted. And that is what I found - a barrier across the road and a security guard. Managed to persuade him to let me through on foot and sat myself on the edge on a bank scanning mangroves opposite …three Brown Boobies at close range were a little unexpected this far north, plus several Striated Herons, a few Purple Herons, a Pink-backed Pelican, numerous terns and various waders. Fun didn't last long though, the security guard had clearly called back-up - a truck appeared and I was escorted out!

Well, that scuppered my day's plans. Not much to do, I perused Google satellite and decided to head ever further north to an area of green agricultural land near Mecca, perhaps it would attract a few migrants.

In the still green desert, a steady stream of Black Kites appeared roadside, plus no shortage of Namaqua Doves et al. Keeping eyes open for other raptors, I continued to drive north. Not for long however, my journey was about to come to a grinding halt! Fifteen kilometres north of Al Lith, the desert now more like green savannah with long grass and isolated acacia trees, a whole bunch of birds were flitting up from the grass onto a fence line …bright yellow birds! Eeks!

This being the main north-south highway, stopping is a good way to get shunted by a truck or car, both of which frequently use the hard shoulder as an extra driving lane. Hoping not to get stuck in sand, I pulled off the highway, went down the embankment and drove back to the bird spot. And what a sight awaited - in full golden glory in bright sunshine, absolutely exquisite ARABIAN GOLDEN SPARROWS, loads of them! Having reluctantly decided against travelling south to search for them in previous days, the Birding Gods were surely smiling down on me this morning. I quickly realised that not only had I found a flock, but a breeding colony - a lone acacia bush some hundred metres distant was a mega buzz of action, full of chirping sparrows, males in full fluttering display to females and a lot of nest building. About 80 Golden Sparrows in all, plus a few House Sparrows looking rather less dapper Total magic.

As this locality is some 500 km north of the traditional areas that they are found, I can only assume that the recent rains had encouraged the birds to this area. Either way, the Golden Sparrows had immediately taken the title 'birds of the trip'. Trying to steal a little of the limelight, there were also butterflies here, these including numerous Desert Whites and a few Black-striped Hairtails and Desert Babul Blues.

After an hour at this hive of activity, in increasingly hot and humid conditions, I continued north. I got to the farmland near Mecca at midday, 37 C and hyper humid. Not overly productive, but not bad too - in a couple of hours walking, 35 Spur-winged Lapwings, several Black Scrub-Robins, my only European Collared Doves of the trip and a couple of African Silverbills. Butterflies too, headed by several Citrus Swallowtails, along with Plain Tigers, still numerous Desert Whites, a few Common Grass Yellows and some African Migrants.

Called it a day and headed to Jeddah, trip nearly over.
8 April. Jeddah.

Final day, city life in Jeddah. Rather than head out to any of the dry wadis in the hinterland, I decided to instead simply walk the city's Corniche along the seafront. And a very impressive affair it is - two or three kilometres of well-vegetated greenery, a mix of palms, acacias and other exotic shrubs, plus an abundance of flowers. Plenty of fairly overgrown corners, not too disturbed in the early morning - a magnet for migrants passing up the arid coast, plus haven for residents.

Arrived at 7.00 am, almost immediately the first surprise - an early butterfly fluttering across a flower bed, a male Common Diadem! Having only seen a single female so far on the trip, an excellent mimic of Plain Tiger, the males are altogether a more stunning beastie. Not a species that I was expecting in the city, it turned out however to be the most abundant butterfly on the Corniche, at least 50 seen during the morning. Wandering on, amid many Common Mynas, Rüppell’s Weavers and Spectacled Bulbuls, I soon added another new species for the trip - the rather attractive White-cheeked Bulbul, about 30 seen in total. And slowly the species list climbed - four Pallid Swifts around one of the adjacent luxury hotels, a Masked Shrike, an Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, a Tree Pipit. On the beach adjacent, abundant White-eyed Gulls, a few Sooty Gulls too, along with Striated Herons and a bunch of Crested Terns.

Managed to whittle away six hours along this promenade, bird species list climbing to almost 40, while additional butterflies included Plain Tigers, Common Grass Yellows, African Migrants, Mediterranean Grass Blues, Brown-veined Whites and a couple of Desert Whites. Not at all bad for basically a slither of greenery in a city centre.

And with that, now hot and muggy, it was time to head for the airport. Full marks to Avis, a smooth check of the vehicle, a complimentary gift of dismissing the excess kilometres I had driven. I transferred to the other terminal, farewell Saudi Arabia, trip over.

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