An Interview with Dr. Duha Al Hashimi, The First Female Birdwatcher in Saudi Arabia*

While I can’t speak to the verity of the appellation in the title—”the first female birdwatcher” in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—which a birding acquaintance used to describe her recently, I can say Dr. Duha Al Hashimi is surely the most passionate. You can check out her wonderful collection of bird photography at her blog, The Birds in My Garden (طيور حديقتي), and in the active Facebook forum The Birds of Saudi Arabia and its Neighbors (طيور المملكة العربية السعودية), which Dr. Duha created. While she and I have been corresponding about birds since I came to Saudi in 2017, I’ve never had a chance to learn much about her background and how she came to love birds. Luckily, she graciously accepted my request to interview her.

SB: Can you share a little about yourself?

DH: I teach chemistry at Jeddah University. I love teaching and reading. I love gardening and wish I could do something to change people’s attitudes about trees, wildlife, and nature in my country.

SB: What led to your interest in birds and bird photography?

DH: I have loved photography since forever. It started as hobby back in 1987 when I was interested in making pictures in the lab as visual aids for my teaching. Then I started to get interested in still-life photography. A macro lens and an extinction tube got me into nature macro, but mostly flowers and little things, not insects or anything alive. When I was doing my PhD dissertation, I was forced to be away from my hobby, so my time out was standing in front of the window and looking at tree branches. It was then I noticed the diversity of birds we have. I started to take notes to describe the birds I was seeing. Mostly what I knew then were the Blackcaps—male and female—the Turkestan Shrike, the Red-breasted Flycatcher and the Black Bush Robin. The Masked Shrike got me so curious to know more about it, but the internet was not as powerful as it is today. Yet it was enough for me to find Abdulrahman Al Sirhan's website, which meant I needed pictures to be able to get IDs from him and from other birding websites. It was then I found BirdForum.net and it really made me take birdwatching and bird photography more seriously.

While maybe it wasn’t Dr. Duha’s “spark bird”, by her account the stunning Masked Shrike definitely helped fan the flames of her love of birds.

SB: Are you a lister—keeping a list of all the birds you’ve seen? If yes, what’s your life list? What about your Saudi list?

DH: Yes I do. My Saudi list is 201 birds. My Mauritius list is 16. My Indonesia list is 20. My Sharm Al Sheikh list is 30, and I’ve seen many birds from London Gardens.

SB: What is your favorite Saudi bird and why?

DH: I love the Black Bush Robin so much. I love the way it runs on the ground and balances itself with its embarrassingly long tail. Its song is unbelievably beautiful, but not as beautiful at the Yemen Linnet, which I think is a very unlucky to be underrated by Saudi birders.

Dr. Duha proves her love with all the attention she’s showered on these comical little birds.

JB: What is your favorite place in Kingdom to watch birds?

DH: Jeddah for sure. I hope people start to become aware of what treasures they have and how lucky they are to have such a unique geographical site. Times like this, when we are all locked in our homes, all one needs is a tall tree and to just wait. Chances are that any one of the amazing birds of Eurasia may come and perch right in front of you. Taif is another very underrated place for birding. There you get to enjoy the migration as well as many wintering birds and lots of the Arabian endemics, including the woodpecker.

Dr. Duha’s pretty fond on this endemic songster. Few songs evoke the pure energy of wild birds than the Yemen Linnet’s.

SB: What advice would you give visiting birders for making the most out of their visit to the Kingdom?

DH: They should arrange the timing of their visit carefully. For instance, the first 10 days of March you can see four kinds of wheatear and get a chance to photograph them easily. January and February are a perfect time if you want to see the Menetries’ Warbler, Crested Honey Buzzard, and many wagtails, which I am sure are not as easy to find on their breeding grounds. It is also useful to get in touch with many of the local birders—mostly they are very helpful young men and have valuable information, but they’re maybe not fluent in English but I guess with pictures you could get along very well.

One of the specialty warblers of the Middle East, the Menetries’ Warbler can be encountered in passage on both sides of the Arabian Peninsula. Dr. Duha, I suspect, has a veritable bird magnet buried in her garden and regularly gets visits from Menetries’ among several other wonderful warbler species.

SB: How can we get more young Saudi women and men interested in the kingdom’s natural treasures?

DH: Education and the traditional media are doing a poor job here. I think arranging more reserved areas inside the cities and around them. Also we are in desperate need of botanical gardens to preserve our endemic trees and make people more aware of them. We should also be increasing the mangroves on the shores in and around cities.

SB: What’s your number one wish for Saudi bird life by 2030?

DH: Tough question. All Saudi birders dream of the Arabian Woodpecker and I am no exception. But the bird I really hope I get to see is the Yemen Accentor. I don’t know of any record for it in Saudi, but I really hope it will be discovered here, whether by me or by other birders.

SB: Thank you so much, Dr. Duha Al Hashimi. Stay safe out there in Jeddah and keep your wonderful photography coming!


* This interview was originally posted in April 2020 shortly after the start of the nationwide lockdowns to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Saudi Arabia.

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