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Saudi Arabia Feb-Mar 2023 (1 Viewer)


rabid twitcher
Czech Republic
The 2013 Lonely Planet calls Saudi Arabia "the ultimate frontier of tourism". The country has never been open to leisure travellers, the only western visitors being expats and businessmen - generally anyone with some  other excuse to be there outside of simple curiosity. Much has changed in the last few years - SA now issues tourist visa online without any hassle (and, as ot turns out, also without any costs as apparently the payments did not go through, which however did not stop the issuance of the visas). Moreover a lot has changed internally - the changes are actually so fast that it's utterly confusing, because a lot of rather recent info you find is no longer valid - the biggest confusion stemming from the recent change of which days comprise the weekend! In more useful terms the changes also include no longer needing to prove your marriage to get a mixed room in a hotel, ability to get fuel and food during the times of prayers and a relaxed dress code for women, which only asks for the shoulders and knees to be covered (which my wife would have anyway). The only annoyances left are the segregation of genders in some establishments (which we did not really test except for the Farasan ferry and do not thoroughly understand) and the silly need to swim in clothes (which however wasn't that annoying thanks to the warm and dry climate where everything dries on you instantly anyway).

In general, visiting Saudi Arabia was easier than I ever thought. I have heard stories of hostilities to tourists but that cannot be more removed from out experience: everyone was either indifferent or friendly - sometimes even too friendly and eager to chat (without having any common language) to the point of disturbing our nature observations - and at the one moment we really needed help (when I forgot to turn off the lights and drained the battery), the first person we came across immediately helped us.

In 19 days in SA, we have recorded 200 bird species, from which 34 are gWP ticks and from those 19 were global lifers. For a birder that has never been to Arabia, the potential would be even much higher, but we have been to Oman, Kuwait and Jordan, so we have already seen a lot of the species. Even though the country is still rarely visited, birding sites in the southwest,where the local endemics live, are well known, marked on eBird, and there are comprehensive reports describing them. Finding most targets was easy even though some popular sites are currently closed for various reasons. We found all of the targeted Asir mountain specialities except for the local population of African Pipit, which is probably not really present in "winter" and the only major miss was in the lowlands where we failed to find any Arabian Golden Sparrows, but that was somewhat expected as they have not been seen in a while. A major score on the other hand is the observation of Red-footed Booby from the Farasan ferry which might be country first. We also found nearing Red-knobbed Coots on a dam in the highlands, which is also probably the first nesting record for SA.

For the 19-day trip we rented a sedan (which was surprisingly high-clearance and that was very useful) and mostly camped - camping is allowed anywhere in SA where it's not restricted for nature protection or other reason and it's massively popular also among locals. There are many public toilets and each stall includes a "mini-shower" which, albeit originally meant for toilet hygiene, allows you to wash yourself anywhere, making wild camping in the desert much more pleasant. Only in the Jizan lowlands we took hotels for 4 nights because the area is densely inhabited and nighttime temperatures even in February do not descend below 25 degrees.

The entire adventure cost only about 800 EUR per person (not being charged for the visa was helpful) - the Wizzair flights from Vienna are insanely cheap, the car rental is reasonable (even though the car was in a shaky condition), petrol costs next to nothing and cheap fast food is widely available even in small villages.

I will talk about some birds in the following posts.
Looking forward to a trip report! What was your car with a high clearance and how you rented it?

Suzuki Dzire. It's the classic concept (now basically extinct in Europe sadly) of a sedan from which nothing unnecessarily hangs down below axles (looks like classic Argentinean corsa if you ever go to that part of the world). We rented with Avis on Ryiadh airport - the staff was extremely disinterested in business, car had cigarette burn marks on seats, something giving out metal clacking when passing speedbumps, creaky right front wheel hinge, vibrated heavily between 80-100 kmh, had some questionable brakes by the sound (and smell in downhills) of them and it had a battery swapped out for a smaller one (that's a first as far as I have seen), but it made almost 6000 kms without any real issue. As a bonus they miscalculated the charge for extra kilometers and took only half of what they were entitled too :)
Before we get into some travel stories, let's talk about the birds present, seen and not seen.

As I have already alluded to, the attraction of SA is enhanced by the new concept of Western Palearctic, often referred to as "Greater WP" to distinguish it from the original idea. While the original WP included the northern part of SA, gWP adds the entirety of the Arabian Peninsula. As one is travelling there, it's easy to ask oneself how reasonable this is from the point of view of the birds present - and to me this is quite a difficult question. When I was in Oman, I had the feeling that the border perhaps should have been drawn through the empty desert between Muscat and Dhofar, as there were far more unfamiliar birds in Dhofar. In SA, the problem is much more difficult - yes, there is a bunch of local endemics or near-endemics in the Asir mountains in the SW but if you look at them for a while, you see that a lot of what's on the menu is simply a divergent form of a classic WP species - there is a magpie, a blackbird, a linnet, two serins, a red partiridge, a chiffchaff, a wheatear and a rock thrush ... Seriously, Darwin could have spared a lot of trouble and went just here instead of all the way to Galapagos and see the same thing in action. Yes there is some incursion of hardcore African species (Hamerkop is actually common there!), but overall, calling this WP doesn't seem that far-fetched.

Quite different is the situation in the lowlands immediately below the escarpment where the background tune of any bigger bushes is the hooting of White-Browed Coucals, African Gray Hornbills whistle in the hills, African Palm Swifts sweep the sky, the common dove is African Collared, the quails in the fields are Harlequin and pelicans Pink-backed, Helmeted Guineafowl runs through acacia thickets and if you finally find a Roller it's Abyssinian. That place is, to be honest, simply Africa. One day after I haphazardly ate what must have been the liver of a better-not-identified animal, I sat down at the very edge of the escarpment (it's so sharp in many places that you can literally hang your legs down from it) and joked that now I am gonna vomit over the edge of the Western Palearctic and honestly I feel that this really is where the line should have been drawn.

But it wasn't and so here we are, getting our gWP ticks in the entire playground that has been lined up for us. The 34 - now 36 after I found a YBK and Saunder's tern on photos - gWP ticks that we got (so far, I have some ID ideas to discuss later) were:

In the central deserts around Riyadh:
  • Streaked weaver (cat C)
  • Turkestan shrike

Asir specialities:
  • Asir magpie
  • Philby's partridge
  • Montane nightjar
  • Brown woodland warbler
  • Yemen warbler
  • Yemen thrush
  • Red-breasted wheatear
  • Little rock thrush
  • Arabian waxbill
  • Yemen linnet
  • Arabian woodpecker
  • Arabian serin

Further birds in the mountain:
  • Hamerkop
  • African olive pigeon
  • Dusky turtle dove
  • African stonechat
  • Rufous-capped lark
  • Yellow-billed kite

In the lowlands and foothills:
  • Red-eyed dove
  • Nubian nightjar
  • White-browed coucal
  • African palm swift
  • Abyssinian roller
  • African gray hornbill
  • African collared dove
  • Small buttonquail
  • Harlequin quail
  • Helmeted guineafowl
  • Pink-backed pelican
  • African Openbill
  • Wattled starling (twitch of what is possibly the 1st SA record)

In the Red Sea:
  • Brown noddy
  • Red-footed booby (possibly the 1st SA record, own discovery)
  • Saunder's tern

Now to illustrate the potential of the country for the prospective gWP birder, there were further 12 species that would have been gWP ticks if we hadn't been to Oman previously:

  • Nile valley sunbird
  • Arabian wheatear
  • African silverbill
  • Arabian partridge
  • Abyssinian white-eye
  • Arabian eagle-owl
  • Cinnamon-breasted bunting
  • Abdim's stork
  • Shining sunbird
  • Arabian scops-owl
  • Yemen serin
  • Chestnut-bellied sandgrouse

Admittedly the NV Sunbird is on the list only because we are too lazy to go see it in Egypt, but this should illustrate how good SA is for gWP birding. In our statistics, it looks on par with Oman (36:34 gWP ticks) but if we had been here first, it would have been 48:22 - quite the difference!

Furthermore we also saw (or heard) a few species that are very uncommon in WP (chosen purely on my subjective feeling):
  • Rüppell's Weaver
  • Black Scrub-Robin
  • Crab-Plover
  • Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark
  • Oriental Honey-Buzzard
  • Brown Booby
  • Lesser flamingo
  • Red-billed tropicbird
  • Shikra
  • Desert owl

... as well as a broad selection of species that people typically flock to Israel for, a long roster of waders on the coast and some general WP fluff.

At this point it's worth also talking about species that we did NOT see - so anything below this line is not a part of the trip list!

Firstly some species we hoped to see or even actively searched for and which are at least reasonably commonly seen in the areas visited in spring:

  • Arabian golden sparrow (this one really not for the lack of trying)
  • Gabar goshawk
  • Dark chanting goshawk
  • Goliath heron (we probably glimpsed one but no photo and hard ID)
  • Black-headed heron
  • Collared kingfisher
  • Bridled tern
  • African pipit (possibly not present in "winter")
  • Pacific golden plover (probably, still have to check some photos)
  • Desert whitethroat (but see the ID forum soon)
  • Arabian lark (searched for near Riyadh)

I also have a stash of "Little tern" photos to go through and see if some could be somehow IDed as Saunder's - many were already in breeding plummage, so the distiction should be possible, but some previous visitors with experience with thise species concluded that everything seen on their visit was, surprisingly, Little

Further species would be more likely in summer (if someone is crazy enough to visit the oven):
  • Violet-backed starling
  • Grey-headed kingfisher
  • Plain nightjar
  • White-throated bee-eater
  • Gambaga flycatcher

And finally there are a few potential targets that we already had from Oman and thus did not target and see:
  • Singing bush-lark
  • Arabian golden-winged grosbeak
  • Bruce's green pigeon
  • African paradise-flycatcher (this was surprising to miss)
  • Pied cuckoo (in summer)

And things we had from other places than Oman:
  • Verreaux's eagle
  • Thick-billed lark
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The Wizzair flights basically offer two options - Riyadh or Jeddah. Even though Jeddah looks more logical, it's actually not that much longer drive from Riyadh, the route offers more variety and the connection and car rental options were actually better, so we chose Riyadh. We were a bit afraid of entering the country armed to the teeth with technology, including a thermal camera - incidentally, it turned out advantageous that we packed all in backpacks; my cabin bag was scanned quite leisurely before immigration and then the guy with the X-ray after immigration asked if all our bags were carry on and we just said yes (even though it was a lie) and he did not scan them any more, probably assuming they were already scanned. I am not sure if there would be any issue anyhow - and whether I should share this publicly - on top of already having shared that we have never paid for the visa - but to be honest, I am not really planning to come back to SA any time soon, so it should be fine :) We bought a SIM card easily and then had some troubles finding the Avis counter and ended up actually getting a lift from a local across the vast parking garage, which was mildly surreal.

Not far north of the airport there lies the Thumamah park, which is apparently a famous destination to visit and camp in the desert. I have not the faintest area about how it is supposed to work - there is a main road, on one side of it is a large fenced off and locked area, on the other side is a vast field of bedouin tents and this goes on for couple dozen kilometers. The petrol station at the 550/5309 junction has a nice supermarket where we stocked up with food that also sells a huge assortment of camping equipment, but this doesn't really make the idea any more clearer. We thus drove through the "park" and finally turned off the road at 25.43860, 46.45169 for Rawdat Al Khafs, which Google Maps show as a lake, but it's at best a temporary one - on satellite, there is not much, in reality it was a green patch. The key point of this turnoff was that the track into the desert was actually driveable in out car, which is by far not a given here.

Now is a good moment to digress and explain how confusing orientation in SA using Google Maps is. There is a lot of icons that would normally mean "nature reserve" on the maps, often with a name in Arabic or simply stating "Park" - in reality, this could be literally anything - an official fenced off closed reserve, a completely artificial park with playgrounds or barbecue places, or simply a wadi with acacias and a good place to park - it's quite hard to tell. We were also quite unsure what such an icon means for camping - is it less or more suitable for camping if there is a "park"? At the end of the day, most of these place were good for camping and anywhere we got to ask, we were expressly permitted, with the exception of the area around Raidah escarpment in Abha and Habala park where there are explicit signs against camping. There are, in fact, explicit signs against camping on highway 533 just before the turn-off, but the "special environmental forces" that we met in the morning at our site some kilometers away from the highway were very welcoming - the only thing they didn't like was that we put tent pegs into the ground as that "causes erosion" (note that the entire discussion was, as always, through google translate).

The area around the Rawdat was quite green and it was teeming with mammals at night - I was really excited to finally see a desert site like that after many fruitless nights in Israel, but over the course of the trip I learned that this was just a local anomaly and the rest of SA was as dead as a proper desert should be. In the morning we got our first birds - this was quite representative of the birds of many other sites at the inland SA plateau with Brown-necked Ravens, Steppe Eagles, Isabelline and Grey Shrikes, Asian Desert Warbler, Isabelline, Pied and Desert Wheatears, Hoopoe and of course the ever present background of House Sparrows, Crested Larks, Laughing Doves and Pigeons and wintering/migrating Chiffchaffs or Willows. There were also and Greater Spotted and Imperial Eagles (if I have this right), Siberian (probably) Stonechat, Long-legged Buzzard, Pallid Swifts and Barn Swallows, but the star of the site was the Turkestan Shrike, an unexpected lifer straight on the first morning.

We have spent the next day in vain attempts to reach the "Hidden Cave" not far from Riyadh, as it holds a large bat colony - it turned out impossible in a sedan due to the state of the access tracks. During the process we found a rubbish dump with a lot of eagles (that I still have to look at to see if there isn't something extra) and stopped at a few other sites that gave us a more complete picture of the common birds of the area - both White-cheeked and White-spectacled Bulbuls, Mourning Wheatear, Pale Crag Martin, Blackstart, Arabian Babbler, Common Kestrel, Desert Lark - and, of course, the main reminder that we are no longer somewhere in Israel, Black-scrub Robin, which was almost surprisingly common all around the desert areas (given how rare it is still in old WP). We would then return to this general area for the last night of the trip, because it turned out that Rawdat Nurath, a well-known site for Arabian Lark, was only a couple dozen kilometers north - we have not found the larks despite several hours of search at the locations where there were recently seen (about 25 km west from the actual Rawdat) but found several nice species to add to the "north of Ryiadh" list - Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Greater Short-toed, Greater Hoopoe and Bar-tailed Larks. Interestingly there were many Northern Wheatears, which were completely absent at the beginning - I am not sure if it is a function of the three weeks that have passed or if the sites are that inherently different.
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Anyway, it was time to push to the west if we ever wanted to reach the really interesting parts. But first we had a planned stop to investigate an area which IUCN shows as still having Sand cats, just off the Riyadh-Mecca highway. We were not sure what the access off the highway would be, as we quickly learned that non-paved tracks are typically not accessible to our car - unlike for example in Jordan or Kuwait, here the deserts are much more sandy - but the road turning north at 23.4073, 43.9271 was perfectly smooth tarmac ... well until a big red sign some 35 kms later, quickly followed by a roadblock. I was already curious when I investigated this road on Mapy.cz and saw that about 6 kms of the road were not charted - and here was the explanation! The 6 kms aren't actually missing, but what is missing is a series of 10 bridges over wadis within this stretch of the road, each of which has to be bypassed by driving down from the road, crossing the wadi on a dirt track and driving back up. We were planning to use this road for the night search for the Sand Cat and we very glad that we reached this part already during the day so that we could properly investigate the optimal strategy for each of the wadis: whether to go left or right upon reaching the missing bridges - unless something changes, the sequence for driving from the south is RRLLRRRRLLL (so driving from the north it's RRRLLLRRL). Once we had written this down, navigating the stretch in darkness was easy.

The road then continues north across a large sandy desert and to some villages in the north for many tens of kilometers (and eventually connects to another highway) and offers some really varied landscapes but not that much in terms of birds - we found some Griffon Vultures, and then a dam with Yellow and White Wagtails, Common Sandpiper, Green Bee-eater, Little Ringed Plovers ... The acacias where we camped had Arabian Warbler, the first of many.

The next day we drove in the heat of the high noon along the border of the Mahazat As-Sayd reserve to watch some mammals across the fence and then finally reached the Asir mountains north of Al Bahah. There we identified the road south from 20.47625, 41.33877 as suitable to search for Blanford's fox. The area welcomed us with a notable change in bird species - first appeared Ruppel's Weavers and Shining Sunbirds, then while we made ourselves dinner after sunset to wait for darkness to fall for the Blanford's Fox search (at roughly 20.41682, 41.34776), the change became even more notable with the first Arabian Serins - this species has later turned out to be surprisingly scarce compared to reports and we only saw it a few times. The night drive brought a very good view of Arabian Scops-owl, the morning after camping at 20.47465, 41.34824 started with more Arabian Serins and Shining Sunbirds but added Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, the first on many Arabian Wheatears, Blue Rock Thrush and Short-toed Eagle.

After driving south for a bit, we realized we really did not have any good plan where to go next and stopped at a really random site at 20.3145, 41.4013 chosen just for the shaded parking spot - which turned to be incredibly lucky because while I was looking at where to go next, Ivana found the only Arabian Waxbills of the trip, with the first of many African Silverbills (that really stressed me out because I couldn't at first find the waxbills among them).

Since this was still outside the range of the reports that we were planning to use to select sites further south, we picked the best eBird hotspot nearby - Khairah Forest Park just north of Al Bahah. This was a typical example of the kind of place that was really a park with playgrounds and picnic spots, yet, as the most wooded area around, also a great place for the local forest birds. Excited from things being so new, we quickly registered Little Rock Thrush, Yemen Thrush and Brown Woodland Warbler - the three most common of the local endemics that we invariably saw later on at most of the similar sites. There were also Little Swifts.

Driving across Al Bahah I became a little disillusioned with the area because it was really heavily inhabited and it was not clear where to look for more nature. Google Maps had a "scenic spot" at 19.84404, 41.54153 with a possible waterfall, so we parked nearby and walked through the edge of the village to finally reach the edge of the escarpment (that's the place where I almost vomited down from the edge of the palearctic realm) with a fantastic view and the first on many Delicate Prinias. The escarpment area around also had the first Tristram's Starling and Fan-tailed Ravens and the only Alpine Swifts of the trip.

After another fruitless Blanford's Fox run, we chose another eBird hotspot - Shibanah Wild Park - for the next morning and that's where things really kicked into a higher gear. From the rather extensive area the obvious choice to pick was the Shibanah dam, which had, to start things off, Red-knobbed Coot - a species that was only recently found in SA (and now seems to be increasingly common, more about that later). There were also some familiar WP species such as Wood Sandpiper, Common Moorhen, Grey Heron, Black-crowned Night-heron, Black Stork, Song Thrush, Common Snipe, Palestine Subnird, Temnick's Stint and Little Grebe - which all got somewhat overshadowed when there appeared not only Yemen Linnets but also a Hamerkop. We have seen quite of few of those in Africa, but the amount of out-of-placeness they exhibit here just makes the experience far more staggering.

Shibanah was truly one of my favorite spots of the mountains - serene, wild, remote and virtually unknown. From there, we moved on south to Tanomah, which marks the end of the off-the-beaten-path sector of the trip and the start of the area which has already been quite covered by birders. We were in particular following two excellent reports
each of which includes a well-organized section describing the individual sites. In the next posts I will thus go to a bit less of a detail about the sites covered in those reports.
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Oh that's cool. Their "definitive" line is basically the escarpment and the just on top of that one excludes Dhofar - basically perfectly as I would like to have it - except that they also remove northern coast of Oman for being too oriental. I've never thought about that but it has a point.
One cannot deny that Tanomah is scenic boulder-strewn peaks covered with sparse "forests" surround a small town tucked in a valley. As the terrain still rises to the west, there is no view of the lowlands from most places, but the idea of the escarpment is firmly in the air. The places everyone raves about is Al Mehfar park, right next to the escarpment. In a sense this was the site I was the most disappointed with - it's in a nice location with the view down to the Afrotropics and huge boulders around, but there is really no ... room. It's basically a campsite, with small roads leading to picnic spots in, a huge parking lot and the inevitable mosque. There is also a large building that looks it may have been a hotel and restaurant in the distant past - this feeling that there used to be tourism is very pervasive through the entire country - what happened, I have no idea. To the north, it's possible to walk a few hundred meters around some meadows under steep rocks, to the south, the only way to do any exploration is to climb over the boulders, which is feasible, but the main obstacle is then the bushes between them. From the reports I was really expecting a large area when one can walk around and bird, but that's exactly what is really, really hard to find in the mountains here - every piece of accessible terrain is usually simply built over.

One of the first birds in Al Mehfar had my heart skip a beat, but I pinned it down as a migrating Spotted Flycatcher at the end. Here we also learned about the Sunbird switch that happens when you get into the mountains - the sunbirds here are Palestine.. The aforementioned climbing over boulders produced a Yemen Warbler, surely the most striking of the Asir endemics, a huge, babbler-like creature, Little Rock Thrushes, Brown Woodland Warblers, Yemen Thrushes and Yemen Linnets were expectably present as well as Scrub Warbler, Griffons and other common birds; somewhat unexpected to me was a Lesser Kestrel. We checked out the nearby Al Sharaf park, but it wasn't terribly interesting - and despite it looking close by, the way there is really annoying. So in the evening, we headed back to Al Mehfar for some nighttime action. Hearing Montane Nightjars has proven to be easy, but we could not find any to look at - the call carries for a long distance and usually we would try to follow one, but it would go silent and another one would call from a completely different direction. There were some with a clear bearing in the fields to the north, but it was close to houses and we did not want to trespass at night. We also heard an Arabian Eagle Owl very close - I looked around with IR but could not find it - and then it dawned on me that it must be sitting on top of the cliff against the sky (which makes it invisible for IR as the sky is too cold) so I shone a torch there and there it was. African Scops Owls were calling everywhere, which turned later to be a common theme. We camped in the park, which was pleasant and silent after the crazy horde of dogs got used to our presence.

We got up while it was still dark and headed for Wadi Dahna, exactly following the instructions from the reports. The Phliby's Partridges started calling well before sunrise but it took as a while to actually locate them which was easiest from the road around 18.90120, 42.20359. There we also saw our only Arabian Woodpecker. Wadi Dahna somewhat relived my disdain for the local sites (well, not for long, but anyway) as it is a nice place where you can make a long walk, all the way to the "waterfall" (which was completely dry). There were many pipits, but it was obvious from the sounds that they were Long-billed; our first Dusky Turtle-dove flew overhead. Upon reaching the waterfall, we sat down and watched the land below (which is not easily accessed due to the, well, waterfall in the way) - a Hammerkop flew in and a troop of Baboons moved towards the waterfall from below. The Baboons were scary but also pretty useful, because it was their presence that agitated the Asir Magpies, the most prized species of this site! Well it was a bit weird to be so excited from what is basically a magpie, but a tick is a tick! The Baboons then hurried to the pool above the waterfall to drink and we hurried back to be sufficiently far from the pool when they arrive.

For midday we planned two stops based on eBrid sightings to target African Stonechats (18.67471, 42.24212) and Buff-breasted Wheatears (18.64547, 42.24056) - in hindsight this wasn't really needed as both species would later appear quite often, but we really, really wanted to not have to go back for something. On both sites the birds were easy to find - but with the stonechats, the tricky part is the ID, which I have just left to the birdforum experts.

And then we arrived to Abha. I have to be honest, I did not like Abha area much, to a large part because of the lack of access to anything. We started at Al Soudah waterfall, another site getting huge applause from everyone, but the entrance was fenced off and some officials have told us that it is really closed. We explored the areas on the other site of the road, but it was not hugely exciting apart of more Dusky turtle-doves and some Arabian Partridge. Around Al Soudah proper, the highest peak of the mountain, there are several "parks" that look like possibly nice large forests, but everything was fenced off and locked. We heard good things about access roads to the entrance of the Raidah escarpment reserve, but these are simply tarmac roads in a steep slope, not very inviting, and they were busy on a weekend and so was the "park" area at the escarpment ridge above. We drove a bit to the south of this area and found some reasonably wild valley with trees and many Dusky turtle-doves and Yemen linnets, then we identified a suitable spot for wild camping (and for looking for King jirds after dark) and went back to the area around the escarpment entrance to look for nightajrs and mammals in the evening, but were told off by the police because there are "armed people" and the area is not safe. This entire procedure made me drive the roads around several times and I have to say, those are pretty annoying - every place here looks really close to each other, but the time spent driving small roads through villages was surprisingly long.

We have already talked to the rangers at Raidah reserve about visiting the next morning and they said it's not a problem (there was no need to have a permit beforehand), so we turned up at sunrise and quickly passed through the gate, the only problem being that we got some more water that we then have to carry to not seem disrespectful. There is a tarmac road all the way down through the Raidah reserve, but it is very, very, very steep and our car, well, it did not do very well on steep roads, in either direction. Moreover, there are basically no side tracks to explore, the terrain around the road is steep and impassable, so the road is the only place to bird - thus we decided to simply walk the road instead of driving and left the car at the top. Birdingwise it was not largely eventful besides a Peregrine falcon near the top and some of the common Asir species, but we eventually reached the farm, waited a bit and the main target - Rameron Pigeons, duly presented themselves. The farm area was generally the most lively, with Abyssinian White-eyes everywhere, so it was quite fun.

On the way out, we stopped at Abha dam, a rather soulless and hot (Abha itself is quite low compared to the ridge) site with an assortment of unexciting species and then we finally took the courage to descent from the escarpment. The main Abha-Jizan highway looked like the safest choice for the rather questionable braking capabilities of our car, but really, "safe" is not the word that one should used in connection with the road. People here really want to drive home the point that we are now entering Africa, because the customary driving style adopted on the highway is very much comparable to how driving in Kenya looks - people constantly passing in a way that forces the oncoming traffic to swerve out of their lane is the basic idea.

We lived through though and arrived at the Marabah dam around noon. I had been naively thinking that this site was still in the mountains and that it wouldn't be that hot, but that was really wrong, as the altitude is really low and this swath of low hills is actually the warmest part of the region as the coast is at least slightly chilled by the sea. We thus mostly observed the wetlands from the car or very near it - still it was quite exciting, with our first Pink-backed pelicans seen and White-browed coucals heard. In hindsight, our efforts to get good photos of the pelicans were really absurd, considering how many pelicans we have seen later, but one never knows! The dam also had Glossy Ibis, Spoonbill, Nile Valley Sunbird, Stilt, many Shovelers and other joys, overall a really nice looking place that could have been fun when visited very, very early in the morning. We quickly realized that we would have to adapt our strategy to the unbearable heat of the lowlands and checked in to a hotel in Sabya - I picked the cheapest place on booking.com which turned out to be this really opulent suite with a separate living room, apparently the standard of hotels in Saudi. Right next to it was a fun little eatery, where I quickly became friendly with the Indian cooks and they would just make me various food according to their judgement. One of them also bought a 200 CZK note from me for his rather impressive collection of foreign currencies.
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Before I continue any further, some corrections and additions:

  • "Spotted flycatcher" at Tanomah turns out to be an Arabian Weather female or juvenile. Those are REALLY weird.
  • Asir Magpie also seen at the Buff-breasted Wheatear site midway between Tanomah and Abha
  • Yemen Warbler also seen at the African Stonechat site near that
Now for the next week of the journey, I will abandon the linear narrative, because we have visited several sites repeatedly. We have stayed one night in Sabya (well, actually some urbanization east of Sabya proper), the next in Jazan, then two nights camping on the Farasans and then two more nights in the same Sabya hotel. The climate in the lowlands is quite unbrearable, so we would often spend most of the afternoon in the hotels just chilling - in fact, we would generally plan to just do morning and evening birding, but then suddenly notice that it's already noon and we are slightly melting :) so the breaks were not even that long. The hotels were found on Booking.com as the cheapest around and still were pointlessly luxurious and all around pleasant.

In the lowlands, Sabya has proven to be a good choice for a base - it's far from the coastal sites south of Jazan, but much close to all the known places for Arabian Golden Sparrow and other farmland sites as well as the Either mangroves. That having said, it's worth noting that sites are further away in this area than it looks - the traffic is terrible on the main roads and oftentimes you have to drive many kilometers in the wrong direction before you can turn around as the main roads often do not have true junctions. Also note that Google Maps does not get this right every time and you have to add some creativity to the navigation.

My favorite inland site here was definitely Al Harjariah Farms - directly south of Sabya, just west of the highway. This place is highly praised in the reports and I get why. It did not produce any specialties that we would see only there, but it was really, really alive with birds - plenty of African Collared Doves, a few African Palm Swifts, constant Coucal calls, a few OHBs, but also all the Arabian birds: Black Scrub-robins, Babblers, Sunbirds and most notably the only Hypocoliuses of the trip. The agricultural area between the villages here is large, freely walkable and really green, feels like in much wetter tropics than the rest of Jazan. Here, and in the village to the south, people have also seen the Golden Sparrow and recently Gabar Goshawk was reported, but we had no luck.

A few kms northeast, eBird has another hotspot called Salhabah Farms - this we liked much less as it's not really accessible, only on main tracks. Even further, across of the east-west highway, are the "Sabya Farms", remarkably identified on satellite maps thanks to two large semicircular fields. This is a well-known site for Nubian Nightjar and indeed we heard them shortly after dusk; finding one to look at was than just a question of patience. Some kind of an owl was flying around, but we never found it sitting nor did we get any look at it. When we started exploring this area and some abandoned houses, we attracted the attention of locals who swiftly drove towards us in a full car, but once we showed them some pictures of geckos, they became very interested and friendly, they also repeatedly assured us that this area was very safe. (They also offered to catch some of the nightjars for us so that we can get a better look, but we respectfully declined.)

The final big agricultural site is the Pivot Fields (on eBird Sunbah Farms) halfway between Sabya and Jazan. This is a large area of fields with circular irrigation and a reasonable contingent of birds - we really hoped for Abyssinian Rollers and looked for them around, to no avail. During a dawn visit, we easily heard several Harlequin Quails, but could not find any - one should probably not really walk through the fields here as it damages the crops and the fields are swampy and irrigated with water of questionable origin anyway, so following the calls was not really doable outside of a few existing trails. We did flush a bird, but from very blurry photos, it really looks more like a Common Buttonquail. Interestringly we never heard any calling, not even during another visit deep at night.

We also investigated several nearby places for the sparrows, but since they were not really seen this year yet, we did not have high hopes. The best known site is the cemetery in Abu Arish, a really ugly site in the middle of a big city; we also tried a few eBird locations of single sightings, but nothing was found.

However the main way how to really pad your triplist here is to visit the coastal sites. Both Either mangroves and "Southern Corniche" in Jazan were basically a showcase of the relevant pages in the book for waders and other coastal species. In Either we also recorded the mangrove race of Eurasian Reed Warbler which is liable to being split soon, but we failed to find any "mangrove" White-eyes, nor any of the coveted herons (Black-headed an Goliath), nor Collared Kingfisher at (sorry for the pun) either site. Concerning shorebirds, the more exciting ones for a WP visitor were surely both Lesser and Greater Sand Plovers, with a few odd individuals already in the beautiful breeding plumage, Terek Sandpipers, Crab-plovers, Broad-billed Sandpipers; Either also had Collared Pratincole.. I checked all large plovers quite carefully looking for Pacific Golden Plovers, but each and every one of them was clearly Gray. In Either, which is at the edge of desert, there were Black-crowned Sparrow Larks and Greater Hoopoe-Lark - in contrast to that, there is also a park, with irrigated grass, and in this park, there was a small flock of Wattled Starlings, a mega rarity for Saudi, which we had overlooked during the first visit (and also on eBird) and had to come back for after being alerted to their presence by Gregory Askew. In the Southern Corniche area, we had Abdim's Stork twice.

South of Jazan is yet another famous site, the waste treatment plant - which is a sight to behold in itself, because there is no waste piping, the black water is being brought by a continual traffic jam of trucks! The site smells really bad, but has a lot of Flamingoes with a few Lesser Flamingoes springled in, as well as yet another does of the unending parade of shorebirds. A few kms south of there is the "Sea Park" with yet another promising wader terrain, but we visited it only briefly; the biggest sight was a flock of hundreds of Spoonbills doing synchronized sweeps of the mud. All of the coastal sites had a selection of terns but those were far easier to observe at Farasans at the end.

The final, but possibly the best, site in the lowlands is the Jazan (Al Sadd) dam, about an hour east of Sabya/Jazan. This is smack in the middle of the warmest belt - too far from the sea to get any breeze but still almost at sea level - and thus observations there aren't for the faint of heart (or any other vital organ requiring thermoregulation), but the birding is spectacular. We found the best overview of the main body of water from 17.05537, 42.96416 and the best access to get closer on the other side at 17.05114, 42.97452 - those two point are almost half an hour from each by car though! In this area there were incredible flocks of shorebirds together with Glossy Ibises, Spoonbills, Hamerkops, White-winged and Whiskered terns, but also ducks (mainly Pintails, Tufted and Ferrigunous), birds of prey, Squacco and Purple herons and so on ... Already from the first viewpoint, we noticed the sole African Openbill, even though we first mistook it for some trash on a shrubbery as well as a White-tailed Lapwing. An early morning visit to the eastern site was simply amazing - at some point while walking through the thick acacia forest, I suddenly started feeling uneasy, because this felt like Kenya and I got subconsciously afraid of Elephants! For our gWP list, we added Helmeted Guineafowl (surprisingly skittish) and Red-eyed Dove.

We then drove here and there around the area, which has some more water bodies (the hydrology of which eludes me), some derelict tourist buildings and some roads to explore - we were rewarded by Masked and Woodchat shrikes for the triplist, but, to our dismay, there were no Rollers nor Hornbills. We thus headed for the northern inlet (17.0882, 42.9637) where Carlos reported some bats in abandoned buildings; his coordinates were not precise, so we did not find the buildings in question, but somehow, smack at the location, there was an electrical wire, upon which there was an African Gray Hornbill and an Abyssinian Roller, about 50 meters from each other! That was a nice moment for sure.
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Visiting the Farasan islands was a highlight of not only this trip, but of our travels altogether. This was the place where we both snorkeled for the first time - and it's really hard to imagine a better place to start! The islands are pretty big - the largest one is over 50 kms long and there is a bridge connecting the road to a second, only slightly smaller island. Most of the islands are a desert, but there is some agriculture and a few fishing villages as well as one relatively large town, that we managed to completely avoid. The main roads travel mostly inland, but the coast is accessible at many places through relatively reasonable dirt roads. Finding snorkeling sites is not completely easy - most of the coast is either just extensive sandy beaches, or is endowed with signs warning about some unspecified mortal danger, but the few sites we did find were out of this world - you basically just walk into the water for a few dozen meters on a sandy beach and when the depth reaches 1-1.5 meters, the coral reef starts; in three days of mostly swimming, we identified over 50 species of fish and many other interesting sea creatures. If you fancy some snorkeling, the two best sites that we found are 16.86516, 41.81034 (next to a marked "Snorkeling point" on Google Maps), and 16.72272, 42.06492 in a derelict resort. A close third for sea life is then 16.72256, 42.175365 - the driving is slightly worse, but it is the birding site we found on the islands, with very good views of various terns.

Speaking of birds, the main success of the visit was the observation of several clear Saunder's Terns in breeding plumage. Interestingly, one of the reports notes that every Sternula tern they found was likely Little, which however may be due to them making only a fleeting visit to the islands as well as different timing in the year. Brown Boobies were quite common, as were Ospreys. The most common terns were Lesser Crested, but Greater Crested were present as well. Farasans were the only place where we saw White-eyed Gulls, but even there, Sooty Gulls massively dominated; it's also the only place in KSA where it's easy to see Egyptian Vultures, which we did. The inlands of the islands are a really serious desert, which means Hoopoe Larks, Black-Crowned Sparrow-larks and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse are common - much more so than on the adjacent mainland. In the mangroves closed to the port, we saw a large, reddish heron, which definitely could have been Goliath, but we failed to make a picture and cannot honestly exclude Purple, which still bothers us to this day.

As I have already spoiled in the first post though, the biggest event happened during the sailing back on the ferry. This ferry is nice due to it being free, but also a bit stupid because you are not allowed outside at any point - and to make it more absurd, there is the Saudi gender segregation (and the really clean front-facing windows are in a women-only area). Even when separated by the circumstances, we both managed to snap pictures of the Red-footed Booby on a buoy, however I was, at first, not aware of what it is, because my photos incidentally do not show the feet at all - Ivana's photos however show them quite clearly and this is now likely the first record for KSA! I also managed to get a photo of a Brown Noddy, which I again did not realize until Ivana saw the photo - the bird is in the shade and so well camouflaged that I simply did not see it among the whiter terns around. There was also a Red-billed Tropicbird and Arctic Skua.

Taking the ferry is an interesting exercise, because there is a lot of soldiers and a lot of confusing security procedures - at some point, they took our passports from us and ordered me to drive somewhere and Ivana to walk somewhere else ... then they took my car papers ... but everything was eventually returned and it was never really a problem, just weird. The biggest spectacle however was the X-ray bus used to scan the insides of our cars. The visual insanity of that process is really hard to describe, I recommend any interested reader to simply go and see :) Note that whole the ferry allows for first-come-first-served use, you will have a much better time if you reserve your spot in the office a day before, it's also free!

At first we were not sure how many nights to plan at the islands, but it was really beneficial to commit to a schedule to guarantee space on the ferry back, so we went with two - in retrospect, we would easily do at least one more, simply because the snorkeling was so great. The islands are not as hot as the mainland - the water is warm, but it still has some cooling effect; we were also quite lucky that the days were partly cloudy - so one can really live there for a while without problems. Wild camping was easy and without problems; the city that is inexplicably there has some shops, so even if we hadn't brought all supplies from the mainland it would not have been a problem. The ferries are seemingly always full, but all the people go to the city - for whatever reason - and the rest of the islands was always completely empty, including most beaches. Note however that you still have to swim in clothes.
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