Birds of Yemen

A brief overview by RICHARD PORTER

The Republic of Yemen is very rich in bird life. If one includes the island of Socotra over 360 species have been recorded. Among these are seventeen species (thirteen on the mainland and four on Socotra) which are found nowhere else in the world except in some cases neighbouring areas of south west Arabia. For these so-called ‘endemics’ Yemen has a special responsibility and because of them, ranks as one of the most important countries in the Middle East for bird conservation.

So why is Yemen so special for birds? There are in fact several reasons. First consider the high mountain block of the north Yemen highlands as an island surrounded by the Red and Arabian Seas on two sides and the sands of the Empty Quarter on the other. After the ice age a number of European or Asian species ‘pushed down’ from the north remained in this isolated island to evolve into the endemics we know today.

Second, Yemen is influenced by three major faunal regions of the world: the Palearctic, Orient and Afro-tropical; they overlap in Yemen and as a consequence the country has many species representative of each.

Thirdly because Yemen is positioned at the foot - or funnel of Arabia, a number of migratory birds become concentrated on their long journey between their breeding grounds in Asia and their wintering areas in Africa.

Finally, there is a spectacular range of habitats: from the mountain plateau and terraces down to the plains of the Tihama and desert, to the biologically very rich coast and its numerous off-shore islands. Each holds its own special bird communities.

The endemics

As I have said already it is for the endemics that Yemen has a special responsibility and it is to see them that birdwatchers will travel from far across the globe to visit Yemen. They are the ornithological equivalents of the old city of Sana’a, Shibam and the temples at Marib.

The endemics are mostly confined to the highlands and probably the best place to see a good selection is the cliffs of Kawkaban, an hour’s drive north of Sana’a. Starting on the plateau land and rocky slopes outside the old walled town there is a good chance in the dawn light of seeing, and certainly hearing, the two partridges: Philby’s Rock Partridge and the

Arabian Partridge. Like all partridges they are shy and if disturbed will fly off with a clatter of wings and loud chicken-like calls. They are instantly identified by their grey plumage with striped flanks and bold black and white head patterns. Philby’s is the one with the all-black chin and throat.

Then climb down the steep path that leads to the town of Shibam at the foot of the Kawkaban cliffs which must be one of the most exciting walks for birdwatchers anywhere in the middle east. Moving from the rocky ledges to feed on the open slopes will be Yemen Serins - tiny, active, drab birds with tinkling calls. Where acacia trees start to appear will be Yemen Linnets, with grey heads, chestnut backs and broad white wing panels in flight: also Arabian Serins, similar to the Yemen Serin but darker, more streaked, with a stout bill for cracking seeds. Unlike the Yemen Serin it is a tree dweller and can often be seen sitting quietly amongst the acacia branches gently flicking its tail.

Acacias, especially those with a flaky bark, are the home of another speciality, the Yemen Warbler. This curious bird has caused problems for taxonomists as it does not fit easily into any family. About the size of a slim sparrow and brownish grey in colour it moves heavily, but unobtrusively, through the branches gently waving its rather long tail or stopping to hang upside down, like a tit, in its search for insects in the bark or leaf litter. Close views show a cold pale eye in the centre of a dark mask and a flash of apricot on its undertail coverts.

There is also the chance of three other endemics but they are hard to see: the Arabian Woodpecker, the Yemen Thrush and the Arabian Accentor. Look for the woodpecker - it is the only species to occur in Arabia - anywhere where there are trees; it is quite widespread in the highlands. The thrush is very shy and a start before dawn is often necessary to catch its fluting song ringing out over the highland terraces. Resembling a female blackbird it has a powerful yellow bill and when it flies flashes orange beneath its wings. The accentor likes high rocky slopes with low bushes. Small, brown and secretive, if a good view is obtained the characteristic white eye stripe will be easily observed. If you are unlucky at Kawkaban then try the upper slopes of the Sumarah Pass.

What about the remaining endemics? The South Arabian Wheatear with its black and white plumage can be found anywhere on the terraces where it is one of the commonest birds. The Arabian Waxhill likes lower slopes especially where sorghum, maize or millet is grown. A mixture of acacia woodland and euphorbias is the home of the Golden-winged Grosbeak, a startling bird with a powerful black bill and bright yellow flashes in its wings and tail, especially noticeable in flight. On the Tihama plains amongst the cereal crops the final endemic occurs, the Arabian Golden Sparrow. Flocks of bright yellow males and sandy coloured females descend onto the crops where small boys will rattle tins full of stones to scare them off.

Bald Ibis and Arabian Bustard

A short account such as this should not ignore two species which, although occurring elsewhere in the world, have a special significance for Yemen.

The Bald Ibis is one of the world’s rarest birds with a rapidly declining population that now numbers less than 200, most in Morocco. But a few also occur in Yemen, notably on the marshy land near Ta’iz where they were discovered eight years ago. The big unknown is where they breed. Is it in Yemen or are they migrants from a neighbouring country? Whatever the answer the wetland pastures at Ta’iz are extremely important to them.

The Arabian Bustard is a bird of the Tihama plains where it occurs alongside farmers in irrigated agricultural land or grassy savanna amongst acacia trees. Although uncommon, Yemen is in fact its stronghold in Arabia. It is Yemen’s largest bird, standing a metre high and with a huge wingspan. It is marvellous to see such a vulnerable species co-existing, unmolested, with the farming folk of the coastlands.

Seabirds and waders

The richness of the Red and Arabian Seas and their muddy shores make Yemen a haven for seabirds and waders. A watch from the coast at Hodeidah, Aden, Al Mokha or al Khawkhah will produce Brown Boobies, Swift Terns, White-eyed Gulls (which are virtually confined to the Red Sea) and a variety of other seabirds.

Whilst along the shores will be Pink-backed Pelicans, Reef Herons, Spoonbills and a host of wading birds - mostly migrants from their Arctic breeding grounds.

Common birds

But Yemen is not all about rare birds or birds of world importance. The gardens of Sana’a and other cities can be alive with the songs of Yellow-vented Bulbuls, groups of White-eyes, or Palestinian Sunbirds feeding on the nectar of plants. Overhead Alpine Swifts search for insects whilst flocks of Black Kites gather to roost at dusk, circling majestically. Brown-necked and Fan-tail Ravens occur everywhere and you will never be far from the bubbling call of the Laughing Dove.

If you would like to learn more about the birds that occur in Yemen there are two publications worth obtaining: ‘The Birds of the Middle East and North Africa’ by Hollom, Porter, Christensen and Willis and published by T. & A. D. Poyser. Also Sandgrouse 9, which has the most up to date account of the status of the birds of Yemen; it is priced at £7.00 and is obtainable from the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, c/o The Lodge, Sandy, Bedfordshire SG19 2DL.

November 1993