On a wing and a prayer: a birding expedition near Riyadh

George Darley-Doran

Published — Wednesday 6 March 2013

Last update 11 March 2013 1:54 pm

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My mobile phone sounds the alarm at 5.45 a.m, unusually early on a Thursday morning. I gather my wits and remember that I’m going on an adventure today. Robert Tovey, one of the Kingdom’s most ardent ornithologists, has invited me to join one of his regular bird-watching excursions. Luckily he lives right next door, so in only a few minutes I join him outside and we’re soon picked up by another wildlife enthusiast, Lou Regensmorter, in his Nissan 4WD.
Heading out west on the Makkah highway, Robert explains why the Kingdom is unique for ‘birding’. “There are eight eco-zones in the world,” he tells me, “separated by oceans, deserts or mountain ranges — and Saudi Arabia forms a boundary between three of them: the Indian, the African and the Palearctic (which goes from Iceland to the Himalayas). So in Jizan, you see African species, there are northern birds in Tabouk and in Dammam they come in from South Asia. There’s plenty of birds to see in the Kingdom, but you have to travel a lot!” Even at this hour of the morning, Robert’s boyish enthusiasm is infectious.
According to ‘Birds of the Middle East’ (the ornithology handbook for this region), there is a total of 550 bird species to be found in the Kingdom at one or another time of year. The record for spotting different species in the Kingdom is 335, achieved over four years by a Swede named Pers Bertilsson. At this point, Robert has seen 260, in less than 24 months. He’s out to break the KSA record, but the going is tough.
“The first 150 species were easy”, he says, “but it gets harder with each new sighting. I’ve seen most of what is in and around Riyadh. But there’s one bird that has eluded me — the Hooded Wheatear. I’ve seen plenty of Morning Wheatears and Desert Wheatears, but I’ve yet to see the hooded variety, and it’s bugging me. So that is our mission for today.”
“The British wheatears are blue-grey, but the hooded variety is black, with a white crown and belly.” He opens up ‘Birds of the Middle East’. “According to this, they are most at home ‘in desolate, barren, rocky ravines and desert.’”
Fifteen minutes outside Riyadh, we descend from the plateau down to the featureless plains that stretch into a distant haze, leaving the massive wall of the Tuwaiq escarpment behind us. Prior to searching in earnest for the Hooded Wheatear, we are going to do some ‘speculative’ bird watching on a farm we have got directions to from a fellow birding enthusiast.
Soon the privet field comes into sight: a circle of green, irrigated by a long arm that circulates slowly and continuously. Robert and I disembark, while Lou goes on to a dried-up waterfall he wants to see.
Apart from the whistling of a stiff southerly breeze, all is quiet. We walk along the edge of the field. In a sandbank to our left, a little furry animal frantically digs a hole, chucking arcs of sand into the air. “Gerbil,” Robert says. Little birds dart back and forth. “There’s a Hoopoe,” Robert whispers. “And that one is a Tawny Pipit!”
Incredibly, in this isolated field, surrounded by the vast desert, we spot no less than a dozen bird species. Or should I say Robert spots — because what to me is a momentary blur, to Robert’s experienced eye is a Collared Dove… a Sparrow… a Pale Crag Martin… a Laughing Dove… a Kestrel… or a Crested Lark. “You can always recognize the Crested Lark from its melancholy song,” he says. “Look…there’s one! He’s too fat. He needs to get to the gym.” He points out a pair of Desert Wheatears and some Mourning Wheatears. No Hooded Wheatear, but this isn’t the right terrain for them.
Lou’s Nissan swings back into view, trailing a cloud of dust. Robert and I climb on board and we head back toward the highway. Bouncing along the dirt track, we pass a big herd of camels, galloping across the sand dunes to our left. Rob peers intently at the heavens. “Sparrow Hawk!”, he suddenly calls out. We stop and he looks more closely with his binoculars. “No. It’s a Brown-Necked Raven…. and there’s an Asian Desert Warbler, from Turkmenistan probably… recognized by its reddish brown backside.”
We move on, slowly, all of us looking for signs of movement in the dunes or the sky. “What’s that up there?” I ask. Robert peers through his binoculars to our upper right. “Eastern Imperial Eagle! Let’s go and have a closer look.”
Lou gently accelerates across the lunar landscape until we reach a dried up lake, surrounded by high dunes. He stops, and we all disembark. High above us, five big birds of prey are circling. “They’re all Eastern Imperials”, Robert says.
Over to my right, I see another eagle standing proudly at the top of a sand-ridge, silhouetted against the sky, surveying the desert below. I point to it and Robert looks through his binoculars. “That one’s a Steppe Eagle, native to the steppes of Central Asia.” A boy riding up the dune on his noisy quad bike interrupts the majestic scene, and the eagle flies away.
On the highway again, the three of us discuss the ins and outs of our various occupations. Lou is a water engineer, here in Saudi to conduct a national study of potential flood hazards for the Ministry of Water and Electricity. “It’s the ideal job,” he says, “because it takes me all over the Kingdom, so I can also do some wildlife spotting wherever I go.” Robert is a senior researcher at King Saud University’s preparatory year — where I teach English.
Driving back in the direction of Riyadh, we make a left, now heading northwest. We continue for 10 kilometers before turning down a narrow paved road toward the escarpment. The road ends abruptly in the middle of the rocky plain, and we keep driving, using a dried-up valley as a road and resorting to 4WD over the sandpits.
In the distance to our right, we see a bedouin encampment. One of them tends a scattered herd of white camels nearby, which nibble at the surrounding acacias, avoiding the Sodom’s Apple bushes. Their fruit looks enticing and delicious, but as the name implies, is deadly poison. When the ground becomes too rough to drive, we park and continue on foot toward the escarpment. Passing three camel carcasses rotting in the sun, swarms of flies all around them, we arrive at a giant U-shaped depression in the wall of rock.
The terrain is bleak and utterly barren. Apart from the echoing “Caw! Caw!” of what sounds like a raven or crow, there is absolutely no sign of life. We climb up a rocky bank and turn around to face the infinite gravel plain, empty and featureless except for the odd acacia bush. It’s hard to imagine a more inhospitable landscape. On the other hand, in its lonely desolation, this place must be the Ritz-Carlton of the Hooded Wheatear world.
Robert points halfway up the escarpment. “Fan-tailed Raven…that’s the one making all the noise.” Then we both see a swiftly moving smaller bird darting out from a ledge on the rock face. “Graceful Prinia. Beautiful and dainty, but boring because there are so many of them.” We hear a repeated “tweet, tweet, tweet” and there’s a flash of yellow above us. “That’s a White Spectacled Bulbul. You can recognize it by its black head and yellow tail.”
Suddenly, two big birds of prey appear briefly, but disappear before Robert can confirm what they are. Another large bird comes into view. “Steppe Eagle.” It rides the thermals above the escarpment ledge, circling slowly, and allowing Robert more time to focus his camera. “This one is better behaved, but we have already seen lots of them.”
Then an even bigger predator appears from the opposite edge of the escarpment — black, with a strip of white across its rectangular wings. Soon it is joined by another two. “They’re probably Egyptian Vultures.” Robert follows them with his binoculars. “Or possibly Griffon Vultures. That would be a first for me! They come from the Western Gulf and Jordan. Maybe they’re attracted by the dead camels.” He manages to snap a rather blurry close-up. “If they are Griffons they must be really high up, because they have a wing span of almost 2.5 meters!”
Back at the car, Robert compares his shot with the one in ‘Birds of the Middle East’. It’s a close resemblance, no doubt. But he is still not sure. “I’ll send it to Tommy Pedersen in Dubai. He’s the Gulf regional representative of ebird.org, where I officially record all my sightings.”
We drive to a couple more spots along the escarpment, and see a few Rock Martins, some Blackstarts and a Kestrel or two — but still no Hooded Wheatear.
Later that evening I’m back home, resting my aching feet, when the cellphone rings. It’s Robert. “I sent the picture to Tommy Pedersen and he has just confirmed that they were indeed Griffon Vultures. I’m up to 261 species now! And you are one of the very few people with an official sighting of the Griffon Vulture in Central Saudi Arabia!”
The Hooded Wheatear managed to elude us. But in our one-day desert expedition, we’ve seen dozens of bird species and Robert has added a rare gem to his list.
Only a short distance from the teeming megacity of Riyadh, we experienced a parallel universe, untouched by civilization, where a vibrant cycle of life continues as it has done for thousands and millions of years.
Note: While this story was being written, Robert Tovey finally sighted a pair of Hooded Wheatears, perching on top of the escarpment near Riyadh. Along with some other sightings, this brings his KSA total to 270 species. His past and continuing adventures can be followed at www.birdingforalark.blogspot.com.

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