Autumn migration in Saudi Arabia


When Paul Cook and I touched down in Saudi Arabia in late August last year to continue the ornithological autumn survey we began in the spring (see here and here), it was a balmy 44°C in the shade. Picked up from the air-conditioned airport in a company car, and dropped off at our hotel, you'd hardly have known it. But when I stepped out on to the balcony of my room, I almost got a bruise on my forehead from bumping into the wall of heat outside.

Out on the desert 'patch', the heat and lack of rainfall had taken their toll on the acacia shrubs that had been so full of life in the spring, rendering my first week or two back out there scintillatingly quiet. Many hours passed without a single bird of any kind; one three-hour spell at a particular vantage point was saved from being a complete blank only by the simultaneous appearance of a pair of Brown-necked Ravens and a Rock Martin in the same binocular view 10 minutes from the end.

A small group of European Bee-eaters passing through low to the ground on my first morning hinted I might look forward to the same spectacle I'd encountered daily in the spring, yet it would be three weeks before I saw the species again. The only ornithological interest I could muster during that early period was the subtle shift in seasonal habitat choices by the local resident White-crowned Wheatears and Greater Hoopoe-Larks, and the marginally increased prominence of half-a-dozen pairs of rather tattily plumaged moulting Arabian Green Bee-eaters. There were a few more Greater Short-toed Larks flying over than I encountered in the spring and Isabelline Wheatears reached a brief peak of 10 in mid-September, but the withered acacias remained resolutely empty.

The Saudi desert was still unrelentingly hot in early autumn (Graham Gordon).

Birdlife in the well-watered town parks next to my hotel was an entirely different story. The undoubted highlights of the first two weeks were the encounters I had with various Acrocephalus and other skulking warblers at point-blank range. Back in May, I'd just caught the beginning of a small Marsh Warbler passage through the town; knowing what a numerous breeding bird it is to the north and west of Saudi Arabia, I was rather looking forward to a protracted study of the species in the autumn. What I did not anticipate was the sight of dozens of 'Acros' at a time, simultaneously bouncing in-and-out of the dense laurel bushes like little jacks-in-a-box in the first light of day, while the seemingly randomly timed water sprinklers burst erratically into life, and the birds shifted positions accordingly. Nor had I considered the mix of worn adult and fresh first-winter birds, the confusing overlap of eastern and western populations of Reed Warblers, the potential for the enigmatic Basra Reed Warbler – and the Marsh Warblers – all lined up in the same split-second binocular view, allowing simply no time to study individual birds at all. It was a relief when something distinctive like a Thrush Nightingale or a Wryneck dropped in among them, and I was able to drop any pretentions of studying little brown warblers for a while.

One particularly hot afternoon in the first week of September had me sitting in the shade waiting to see what might pop up. A few Golden Orioles sheltering from the sun and an array of flava wagtails panting in the open were great to see, but suddenly I noticed a movement in the grass and put my binoculars up to see a super River Warbler, with its Thrush Nightingale-like breast band and yellow gape streak, staring back at me. It slipped back into cover after a minute in the open, and as I waited for its reappearance, a movement even closer to hand turned into a stunning Savi's Warbler, flaunting itself in a way you would never believe. The latter remained more or less fully on view for over 20 minutes and was so close I could see the sunlight shining off its drab, olive barbs and barbules, and the rictal bristles around the base of the bill. As if this wasn't enough, a Corncrake ran across the open green lawn directly inbetween them, and then, as I got up to walk away, both Grasshopper Warbler and Common Quail flushed from the flower bed right next to where I'd been sitting.

River Warbler gave point-blank views on one particular hot afternoon in early September (Mark Easterbrook).

It was hard to make sense of the times and weather conditions that led to birds arriving on the patch. Somewhere around 10 September, I observed that the approximately 100-plus Acros in the parks were starting to be overtaken by Common Whitethroats – yet whether this was a gradual build-up in numbers, or a sudden increase on a morning when I was absent from the park, I simply couldn't tell. Nevertheless, one tremendously exciting event was clearly detectable when I had 40 Barred Warblers arrived one morning, some clearly dropping out the sky and flying through the streets in the first two hours of daylight. Also significant in town during this early period was my first-ever Cinereous Bunting in a flock of eight Ortolans, as well as the first Black-headed Bunting I'd seen in a very long time. On 7 September, I was entertained by three incredibly delightful Eastern Black-eared Wheatears fore more than an hour around the swings and slides of the Lookout Park: both dark-throated and pale-throated males, plus a frosty, almost Siberian Stonechat-like female.

On the survey site, it was a full week before I had my first raptor to mark on my clipboard. A single, resident Long-legged Buzzard was followed quickly five minutes later by another. Ironically, I noted, as I jotted them down, that our shorthand acronym for the species, LOB, could equally have applied to London Buses! By far the standout moment of September in the desert was a Pharaoh Eagle-Owl, watched throughout an afternoon session from my vantage point. Meanwhile, a single adult Steppe Eagle perched on a pylon for an hour, broke another three- or four-day spell with virtually nothing to record whatsoever apart from the unendingly fierce, searing sunshine.

I succeeded in passing the time on site by looking forward to a visit by two ex-pat British birders, Jem Babbington and Phil Roberts. I remembered meeting Jem on Fair Isle 35 years earlier, but he had now been domiciled in Saudi for more than 20 years – and Phil 30. The two would be making a 16-hour return trip from their base in coastal south-eastern Saudi with the principle goal of photographing the Thick-billed Larks I'd seen numerous times in the spring. I was a bit concerned in the days leading up to their visit that the birds appeared to be present in nowhere near the same numbers I'd encountered four months earlier.

When the time came though, we managed to locate two small parties of Thick-billed Larks between us, and the guys walked away delighted with the photos they acquired. At the same time I enjoyed a bonus lifer in the form of an Egyptian Nightjar. Importantly though (and just in time, because 48 hours later an obvious clearout occurred) my two allies bore witness to the same jaw-dropping warbler spectacle I'd been enjoying daily in the parks. Moreover, they managed to grip me off with a Spotted Crake out in the open while I was taking a well-needed afternoon nap – a species I never did see.

Thick-billed Larks performed very well at Graham's survey site for visitors Jem and Phil (Jem Babbington).

As September rolled into October, my desert patch began to see a welcome trickle of southbound Steppe Eagles, mainly seen sat on the electricity pylons at first light and loafing around until 9 am when the thermals began to rise. Meanwhile, the acacias continued to harbour little other than the odd warblers, mainly Lesser Whitethroats. Somewhat later than expected, a small, almost daily passage of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters began, and equally surprisingly tardy, the odd individual Tawny Pipit started to appear. The afternoon I saw my first Mourning Wheatear I couldn't wait to get back and check my references, thinking they were something of a rarity – instead I found it was a not uncommon winter visitor to the region. There were still no Upcher's Warblers, Common Rock Thrushes or White-throated Robins that I'd encountered so frequently through the spring, but having only just caught the final few departing Desert Wheatears in late March, it was very satisfying to enjoy protracted views of a couple of dozen individuals in October before they moved on further south.

As the second fortnight of October hove into view, the weather forecast hinted at temperatures dropping below 30°C for the first time – though they never actually materialised! Gradually, Lesser Whitethroats began to replace their Common cousins in the town, with up to 70 seen on some mornings. A couple each of locally scarce Red-breasted Flycatcher and Common Rosefinch popped up in the parks. Singles of both scrub robins, Masked Shrike and Barred Warbler remained ever-present to the end. A formidable three days of strong southerly gales led to some severe sandstorms at my survey site, but also produced the first genuine sustained passage of eagles that I had witnessed there. I'm only talking a total of 20-30 Steppes in a morning, but the fact they were taking much the same line along the western ridges meant I could fix my scope on a particular point with the reasonable expectation it wouldn't be long before another would pass. In doing this I also picked up a couple of young Eastern Imperial Eagles and on one occasion an especially worn, almost white-headed Golden Eagle came in and landed on the pylons. Two Egyptian Vultures were the first I'd seen since I saw them atop the Taj Mahal in November 1994!

Steppe Eagle migrates across the Arabian peninsula on a broad front throughout October (Paul Cook).

On my very last Friday off work, the sustained strong winds brought me a few excellent Steppe Eagles low over town, minus the sand in my eyes. After months of promising myself I couldn't leave town without climbing the 200 steps up to the steep vantage point at the west of town that had given the area below the name Lookout Park, I finally made the effort. I was rewarded with the sight of several spectacularly close Steppe Eagles almost brushing my eyebrows. However, the most significant event of the climb was the supremely commanding view over town and a sight that would leave me in a state of not knowing whether to laugh or cry …

Much earlier in the autumn, my project manager thought he'd scoped out a potentially promising strip of water for me from his office laptop and had suggested it might be worth me going to try and locate it. As it happened, I'd also seen the possibility on the maps myself, but my one and only attempt to find it had revealed what appeared to be an inaccessible sewage treatment plant surrounded by impenetrable hedges and a security fence on three sides, so I'd quickly given up. Now though, seven weeks later, from my lofty perch, I could see what appeared to be a track leading to a large expanse of shiny water no more than a kilometre distant, and could just about make out the form of what looked like a couple of hundred Black-winged Stilts shimmering in the haze. I bounded down the lookout tower steps, hastened back to the hotel for my telescope, and stumbled as quickly as I could across soft, sinking sand piles and dried up mud beds to the edge of the lagoon.

An 'inaccessible' lake proved a haven for Black-winged Stilts and many other waders (Terry Laws).

What I saw there over the final three days of my Saudi experience both pleased me and left me with that regrettable thought of 'just- what-might-have-been'. There were, as suspected, 200 stilts, but also up to 100 Ruff, 70 Little and 20 Temminck's Stints, 30 Wood and 20 Green Sandpipers and so on. It's been years and years since I've encountered Collared Pratincoles, Red-necked Phalaropes or White-tailed Lapwings anywhere in the world, to give just a few examples of birds that flashed through my mind as having been missed, passing through town a kilometre from where I'd lain my head for almost 100 nights in the midst of the great spring and autumn migration seasons of the previous six months.

Never mind, the final days had much to celebrate too. My first-ever Red-tailed Wheatear one evening in a rockier section of Lookout Park quickly became six over subsequent days, and three Desert Warblers out on site ended a 30-year gap since my last previous meeting with the species in the wadis of Eilat. Menetries's Warblers – elusive and offering me little more than unsatisfactory glimpses in the spring – are a reasonably common winter visitor to central Saudi Arabia. Some days I was able to notch up three or four feeding out on the open tarmac of the Subway Park, fascinating to watch with their tiny size and ever-waggly tails. My penultimate evening in the desert brought me my only Eurasian Crag Martin of the autumn, looking quite majestic among the smaller, fluttery, ever present Rock Martins; quickly followed by two separate flocks of 30-plus Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, two superb Cream-coloured Coursers and a well out-of-range male Hooded Wheatear.

Menetries's Warbler is a reasonably common winter visitor to Saudi Arabia (Duha Alhashimi).

In case it isn't apparent from what I've written so far, I have as much admiration for all the different wheatear species as I have for any group of birds. I spent a number of hours with a couple of female-type Pied Wheatears at Lookout Park over the course of the last week, and finished off the final hour of the very last night salivating over a simply gorgeous, endearingly tame, scaly winter-plumaged adult male right up until dark. Both Paul Cook and myself had an acute attack of inertia as we had to eventually prise ourselves away from Saudi in early November. But as you do, you look forward to some of the things you missed on your return to the UK. Fortunately it was a mild morning when we stepped out at Newcastle Airport and I metaphorically embraced the glowing red and amber-leaved trees, emerald fields and fresh air we'd swapped for what I can only describe as a miraculous birding experience of a lifetime in the desert heat.

After months in the Saudi desert, Graham was pleased to feel the chill of the British autumn on arrival back at Newcastle Airport in early November (Graham Gordon).

Written by: Graham Gordon

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