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YEMEN & SOCOTRA

Wednesday 14th January - Wednesday 28th January 2009

János Oláh

This was only the second time Birdquest operated a Yemen tour, which included a visit to the magical island of Socotra. Last year Socotra became a World Heritage site and is likely to become a very popular tourist attraction in the coming years. The itinerary also changed slightly from last year as we introduced a visit to the Jabal Saber and shifted Socotra to the start of the tour. This tour is a must for Middle Eastern birding enthusiasts as it has many superb endemics and restricted range species. The exciting 2009 tour was highly successful again with 235 species recorded and most importantly we saw all the possible endemics and near endemics of the region! We enjoyed some great birding, complemented by Yemen’s striking scenery, its interesting plants, invertebrates, fantastic culture and architecture as well as our hosts, the ever-hospitable Yemenis. Even if parts of Yemen are considered unsafe by some we felt at ease throughout our journey in this amazing country!

Following the successful pioneering Birdquest tour last year we managed to see all the present island endemics once again, including Socotra Warbler, Socotra Cisticola, Socotra Starling, Socotra Sunbird, Socotra Sparrow and great views of the rare Socotra Bunting. Several future splits ‘waiting in the wings’ such as Socotra Buzzard, Socotra Scops Owl, Socotra Pipit and Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak also performed superbly. After an unforgettable three days we were back to the mainland, where several wetlands around Aden produced Sacred Ibises, hundreds of Lesser Flamingos and Abdim’s Storks, Greater Spotted Eagle, Great Black-headed Gulls and a great selection of shorebirds including the elegant White-tailed Plover. Next we travelled to Taizz where we visited the magnificent Jabal Saber mountain. This is a stronghold of the Arabian Accentor, which is the only true Yemeni endemic. We soon found several of these special birds alongside many Yemen Thrushes and Yemen Warblers. We also tracked down the Zebra Waxbill - another species restricted to this region in Arabia. After descending to the lowlands into the Tihamah we visited the famous town of Mocha, famous for being the major marketplace for coffee from the 15th century until the 17th century, it was once the principal port of the country. Later we continued to Hodeida, which was our base to explore the lowlands and Jabal Bura National Park. We recorded a good selection of interesting birds like Black-headed Heron, a very obliging Abdim’s Stork, fighting Tawny Eagles, several Crab Plovers, one of which consumed a big crab right in front of us, White-eyed Gulls, absolutely cracking daytime views of Nubian Nightjars followed by three Egyptian Nightjars (all within half an hour) as well as several encounters with the glowing Arabian Golden Sparrows. The well-vegetated wadis and the bushy areas around Al Mahweet gave us the handsome Arabian Woodpecker, South Arabian Wheatears and some wintering Cinereous Buntings. In the final few days around Sana’a our highlights included great views of both Philby’s and Arabian Partridge, lots of Blanford’s Larks, many good looks at Arabian and Yemen Serins and a fine Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak. The absolutely superb encounters with the enigmatic Hume’s Owl and Arabian Spotted Eagle Owl were also memorable experiences for all of us.

All in all we had found all the endemic birds in this seldom explored corner of the Middle East, and enjoyed an exciting tour through stunning landscapes and most importantly free from any hassle! Arabia Felix is a great place to visit and we certainly all had some fantastic and unforgettable memories during this fortnight.