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Birding Saudi’s Eastern Province—Al Ahsa Hotspots

The city of Al Ahsa in the heart of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province is actually a collection of towns and villages located in or near the Al Ahsa oasis, the world’s largest, that have grown together over the years. It is said that the area has been under continuous cultivation since prehistoric times due to the presence of abundant freshwater springs. Indeed even today the Al Ahsa oasis supports large-scale date production through its many plantations. The history, culture, and farms of Al Ahsa make it one of the more interesting places to visit in Saudi. The birding can also be quite good.

Al Asfar Lake (بحيرة الأصفر)

About a 30-minute drive to the northeast of Al Hofuf is a large agricultural drainage basin surrounded by extensive wetlands, sabkha flats, and scrubby dunes. Known locally as Al Asfar Lake (“Yellow Lake” among some expats), the diversity of habitats and permanent water on offer means this is one of the most productive birding spots in the Eastern Province.

An obliging Gray-headed Swamphen posing for its headshots out at the Al Asfar Lake

While the birding can be interesting at Al Asfar at any time of the year, winter is the best time to visit as the weather is ideal for exploring and bird diversity increases with the arrival of wintering species and the passage of early or late migrants. Expect to see good numbers of Little Grebe, Eurasian Moorhen, Kentish Plover, Little Egret, Great Cormorant, and Eurasian Marsh-Harrier. Scan the marshes, mudflats, shoals, and open water for an array of gull, tern, and wader species, including Slender-billed Gull, Whiskered Tern, Pied Avocet, and Northern Lapwing. Around the dense reed beds and shallow wetlands at Al Asfar Lake Water Rail, Gray-headed Swamphen, Squacco Heron, Bluethroat, Eurasian and Clamorous Reed Warbler can be found as well as less common winter residents, such as Great Crested Grebes and Eurasian Coot. The lake is also probably the easiest place in the Kingdom to see Moustached Warbler.

A stunning Blue-cheeked Bee-eater, a common passage visitor to the lake

The desert scrub and shrubby vegetation around the area is substantial enough, particularly on the east side of the lake proper, to draw virtually anything during winter and passage months. Graceful Prinia are abundant here at any time of the year. Steppe Grey and Daurian Shrike are regular each winter as are both European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater on passage. The desert scrub, of course, is a good place to find the avian odd couple—Desert Wheatear and Asian Desert Warbler—and be sure to watch the skies for winter raptors, with Greater Spotted and Steppe Eagle as well as Long-legged Buzzard making regular appearances around the lake. There’s even a resident pair of Pharaoh Eagle-Owl you may chance upon.

One of the resident Pharaoh Eagle-Owls caught out in the open after a foggy morning

One family of birds whose presence has been surprisingly limited on the lake, at least in the three years since I’ve been birding there, is ducks! I’m properly mystified by this, as another manmade, significantly smaller lake in the desert outside the city of Al Ain in the UAE routinely sported large mixed gatherings of ducks every winter. I’ve only been able to speculate on the reasons for their relative absence at Al Asfar, but the inverse abundance of hunters in the area surely can’t be the sole reason. During fall and winter you just might luck upon a species or two near the centers of the wider stretches of open water or tucked into the quieter coves, like the Ferruginous Duck I only recently saw for the first time in Saudi despite the fact that they’re not a particularly uncommon duck or the flock of Common Shelducks Adam Harris and I had winter 2019.

Certain species become more abundant at the lake during the breeding season, such as Squacco Heron

By late spring / early summer a new cast of characters has taken over the lake, with Little Bittern and Little Tern the most obvious. Some of the lake’s non-avian denizens become easier to see as well, such as Eurasian Marsh Frog, Caspian Turtle, and Sailfin Molly in the canals, pools, and flooded reed margins and Schmidt’s Fringe-toed Lizard, Toad-headed Agama, Horny-scaled Agama, Sandfish, Spiny-tailed Lizard, and Desert Monitor in the surrounding dunes and scrub. The sinister-looking Horned Viper has also been seen here, and recently I had a rare encounter with a Golden Jackal, bigger and shaggier than the common Arabian Red Fox.

An area as good as Al Asfar promises to produce rarer sightings, and indeed in just in the past four years we've found Short-eared Owl, Pomarine Skua, Saudi’s first Pale Sand Martin, and, recently, White-throated Kingfisher.

To access the lake from the main road, take the dirt track running east from this spot in Google Maps and follow it out to the power lines in the distance. Once you reach the power lines, take a left and then follow that track until you see the lake. While the tracks are passable by 2WD vehicles, watch out for sand drifts or deeper ruts ahead of you. Also be sure to stay on well-packed tracks as straying from these, especially out on the sabkha flats, might get you stuck. In the event that does happen, there are signs posted in different places around the lake with mobile numbers for pickup trucks. I’ve got an image of one of those saved on my phone. Just in case!

Egyptian Nightjar appear to be more common at the lake during the summer months, suggesting that they may in fact breed there.

Al Ahsa National Park (منتزه الأحساء الوطني)

A Black Scrub-Robin at the Al Ahsa National Park

While not nearly as productive as Al Asfar Lake, if you find yourself desperate for a stroll beneath the trees, Al Ahsa National Park, just north of the village of Al Umran, is the place to go. This is the best place in the Eastern Province to see Black Scrub-robin, an energetic resident species with a comically long tail, in the Eastern Province. While I’ve seen them singly in the landscaped grounds, they’re in fact rather abundant here and certainly breeding. A morning beneath the trees and along the shrubby margins of the park will likely turn up several pairs in a short time.

Fat Sand Rat, one of the many smaller desert mammals to be encountered at the park

As the park is quite popular as a picnicking spot for locals, the best time to visit is early morning, especially on Fridays, when most folks aren’t really out and about until after noon prayer. Of course, the extensive plantings and adjacent scrubby desert can be a veritable magnet for migrant birds like shrikes, warblers, flycatchers, redstarts, and wheatears. during the passage months, like the Hume’s (Lesser) Whitethroat I discovered on September 2019, a rare find on the Arabian Peninsula. Some mammal species to look out for in the park are Fat Sand Rats, Arabian Jird, and Desert Hedgehog. Wait until sunset and you’ll have a chance to see a few of the bat species roosting in the caves of nearby Jebel Abu Hasees and Jebel Al Qarra like the Naked-bellied Tomb Bat.

European Bee-eaters can be seen at the park during spring and fall migration

Jebel Shedgum (جبل شدقم)

On the eastern edge of the Shedgum Plateau just 40 minutes north of the center of Al Hofuf is a low escarpment known locally as Jebel Shedgum.This is the nearest accessible place I know for finding birds associated with desert mountains, such as White-crowned Wheatear, Desert Lark, and Trumpeter Finch as well as historical records of Little and Pharaoh Eagle-Owl.

Jebel Shedgum is one of the closest spots for finding Desert Lark

While there are some other interesting historical records—Arabian Dunn’s Lark and Cream-colored Courser back in 1984—the area belongs to Aramco and must be significantly more degraded after 30 plus years. Viewing from Google Maps, the extent of the degradation, particularly on the plateau above the mountain, is apparent. Even still, I managed to turn up my first Finsch’s Wheatear on top of the plateau December 2017, so the spot is definitely worth a visit. It’s just that the terrain, after years of industrial works, doesn’t look like much at first sight.

Bird photographers should keep in mind as well that long lenses near industrial sites may attract the attention of company security or local police, so be discreet and use common sense when exploring such areas. If you want to enjoy some of the best desert birding near Al Ahsa minus the heavy industrial footprint and the potential for getting hassled, then I suggest driving the extra distance to Jebel Hamra or Haradh.

Al Uqair Port, Al Uqair (العقير)

An adult Socotra Cormorant at Al Uqair Beach in Al Ahsa

Less than an hour to the east of Al Hofuf is Al Uqair, a tiny, unpopulated port on the Persian Gulf. This is a very nice place to visit during the cooler months. A Friday morning in winter and you might find the undeveloped stretches of beach in either direction of the port all to yourself, which is all the better for searching for Hypocolius eating dates from the wild palms growing right near the water’s edge or migrant passerines working their way north or south via the odd clusters of trees along the coast. The tidal flats, lagoons, and open water near the port are good places to look for gulls, terns, shorebirds, waders, and divers, including Socotra Cormorant, a threatened species only found in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea.

Jebel Hamra, Judah (جبل حمراء)

A female Hooded Wheatear at Jebel Hamra

The best desert birding near Al Ahsa has to be at Jebel Hamra near the village of Judah. Only an hour and half away from either, a visit to Jebel Hamra is a relatively easy day out of birding for visitors to Al Ahsa or Dammam, and the absence of heavy industry here means the mountains and surrounding desert are in a natural state aside perhaps from overgrazing by local camel herds. There are also nearby pivot fields, including a few just north of Judah Thumb, a sandstone monolith jutting up prominently as you approach the area from the village.

Bar-tailed Lark are fairly reliable throughout the year at Jebel Hamra

While bird numbers and diversity may ultimately be low compared to other spots, the terrain is so striking and the promise of discovery so strong that I can’t help wanting to trek further and stay out longer. There is something really exhilarating about deserts and Jebel Hamra holds the same charms.

The best time to visit is during winter when the chances of turning up interesting larks are the highest. Look out for Desert, Bar-tailed, and Temminck’s Lark on and around the mountain, and with an incredible historical record of 60 Arabian Dunn’s Lark, it’s only a matter of time before the conditions are right for a return of these desert nomads. Also check the pivot fields for lark species favoring more vegetation, such as Crested, Greater and Lesser Short-toed, and Bimaculated Larks.

Asian Desert Warbler, a fairly common visitor to the Kingdom’s scrubby deserts during the winter

Jebel Hamra is also a great spot to catch up with several different resident and migrant wheatear species. White-crowned and Hooded are year-round residents, while Desert, Mourning, Pied, Isabelline, Northern, and Persian can be seen during winter and passage months.

Though a recent owl survey failed to turn up Desert Owl, which has been found in similar habitat elsewhere in the Kingdom, Little and Pharaoh Eagle-Owl are present but might require repeat visits to finally track down. It took us three years to finally locate a resident pair of Little Owls in November 2020. Either way, every visit isn’t the same as the last, so Jebel Hamra is a desert hotspot worth going back to time and again.

Little Owl is far less common in the Eastern Province than the central and western region of the Kingdom

So Google Maps will lead out as far as Judah Thumb and from there you can begin exploring, by foot or by car (2WD passable on well-worn tracks), along the base of the mountain heading north; however, if you’re interested in birding the top of the mountain, there are two ways I’ve discovered to get up there by foot as marked in the image below. The northernmost point, at the end of a wide and interesting wadi is passable by car if you have a larger 4WD vehicle. The southernmost point is a camel track that can only be ascended by foot. If you have experience driving across sand, there is also a spot on the northeast side of the mountain just off the main road where you can drive up to the top.

An satellite image of the area around Jebel Hamra with the locations of two spots where you can ascend to the top of mountain

Haradh (حرض)

A Steppe Buzzard, one of the rarer raptors occurring down near Haradh during winter and passage months

Like Jebel Hamra, Haradh offers desert as well as field and farm birding. Viewing on Google Maps reveals an extensive cluster of pivot fields throughout the area, most of which, unfortunately, are inaccessible as part of Nadec’s dairy operations. However, there are a couple pivots northwest of the junction with the Al Kharj road and close to a low escarpment that can be accessed and other pivots in the area can be surveyed from the road. These can be very birdy in the winter with Northern Lapwing gathering in good numbers on the short-grass pivots and passerines like Spanish Sparrow, Daurian and Steppe Great Gray Shrike, Bluethroat, and Siberian Stonechat around the margins and scrubbier patches. The critically endangered Sociable Lapwing was recently discovered to be wintering in small numbers here as well.

Small numbers of the endangered Sociable Lapwing winter down in Haradh
Greater Hoopoe-Lark are among many other larks species that can be seen down in Haradh

The surrounding desert is also quite good, especially for lark and wheatear species, including Bar-tailed, Temminck’s, and Greater Hoopoe-Lark. Historical records of Spotted Sandgrouse and Thick-billed Lark hint to the birding potential on offer around Haradh.

The only downside to the place is the drive from Al Ahsa. It can be a long and boring two-hour haul. Jebel Hamra and the agricultural areas around the nearby villages of Judah and Urayarah might be an easier option for those coming from Al Ahsa or further still.

Aramco Sewage Treatment Plant (“Abqaiq Lagoons”)—Abqaiq (أبقيق)

Just a quick note on the Abqaiq Lagoons hotspot in eBird. Historically this spot was quite productive, Cliff Peterson and Matt Heindel having wracked up an incredible 194 species from 1982 to 1987. Unfortunately, though, the sewage treatment plant, which is operated by Aramco, is fenced off and inaccessible accept with permission. I haven’t attempted to get permission as, according to Cliff, the spot isn’t nearly as open and hospitable to the range of species he once encountered. I will update if there’s anything further to report about the area.

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