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Birding Saudi's Northeast

Saudi's northeast is a major industrial and commercial center in the Kingdom. The region borders Kuwait to the north and the Persian Gulf to the east. The three main urban centers in the region are Jubail, Qatif, and Dammam, each offering access to a unique mix of habitats for some of the best birding in the east.

Jubail Hotspots

The Asian subspecies of Black-winged Kite has been confirmed breeding at Khafra Marsh and has been seen throughout the year

Known as Tufaih (طفيح) by locals, Khafra Marsh is the most popular birding hotspot among birders and bird photographers based in the northeast. The main features of the area are an extensive network of farms adjacent to open sand desert to the west and a large, reed-fringed lake to the east. The abundance of water throughout the area means that good birding can be had throughout the year, often with a different cast of characters for every season. The best times to visit, however, are during the passage months in spring and fall, when a variety of migratory birds, like European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters can be encountered along with resident species, such as Namaqua Dove, Water Rail, Gray-headed Swamphen, Red-wattled Lapwing, Purple Heron, Black-winged Kite, Pharaoh Eagle-Owl, and Delicate Prinia (P. lepida irakensis). This is also one of the most reliable places to find Egyptian Nightjar, which breeds in the area and can be found during the spring and early summer.

Khafra Marsh can also be especially productive during the winter months, when the lake becomes one of the best places in the east of the country to see gatherings of duck species, waders, and other interesting water-loving birds, like Eared (Black-necked) Grebe, Little Crake, White-tailed Lapwing, Jack Snipe, Terek Sandpiper, Caspian Tern, Great Bittern, and Pied Kingfisher. A few interesting raptors also can show up in good numbers, such as Oriental Honey-Buzzard, Greater Spotted Eagle, Steppe Eagle, Imperial Eagle, as well as all four harrier species from the Western Palearctic.

Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin begin returning to Saudi to breed in April and will depart around September

The best way to bird the Khafra Marsh is to stop at the openings in the reeds and scanning for birds out on the lake and then to drive around the many tracks through the farms to the southwest of the main road, stopping to scan fields under cultivation for wheatears, pipits, and wagtails among others or to explore stands of tamarisks around the perimeter of the farms for migrant warblers and other passerines as well as possible nightjars and scops-owls, both Eurasian and Pallid having been recorded. Some of the bird photographers familiar with the area might be able to steer you in the direction of a spot in the desert nearby where Pharaoh Eagle-Owl has been reliably seen over the years. Watch the sand dunes and roadside through the desert for Greater Hoopoe-Lark.

If you happen to visit in the summer, you'll find the most productive birding around the lake with common residents like Gray-headed Swamphen and Delicate Prinia joined by large numbers of breeding Little Tern, Little Bittern, and Squacco Heron. Don't neglect the farms during the summer as some species like Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin can only be found throughout the region during the hotter months.

The birding at Khafra Marsh is quite good with the potential to turn up rare or vagrant species, such as Abdullah Hussain Al Shaikh's Amur Falcon or Phil Robert's White-headed Duck.

Another local hotspot near Jubail is Sabkhat Al Fasal, a series of large settling ponds used by the nearby wastewater treatment plant surrounded by sabkha flats and tamarisk scrub. While accessible via an open gate at the southwest corner, I have been told that permission is required to bird the area and some bird photographers have complained of having been told to leave by plant security. I and others have visited though without issue. It appears the main concern is controlling access to hunters, the result of which is that Sabkhat Al Fasal can often sport larger numbers of ducks and diving birds than anywhere else in the east. Most of what can be seen here, though, can be seen hassle free at Khafra Marsh.

Jem Babbington, who has banded birds at Sabkhat Al Fasal over the years, holding a Delicate Prinia (P. lepida irakensis), a species that up until last year we didn't know occurred in Saudi Arabia

While I've never visited here myself, I've heard that Deffi Park, which is located northwest of the Fanateer neighborhood in Jubail, can be quite good, particularly in the winter, when Oriental Honey-Buzzard and Black Kite can often be found as well as the chance of seeing rarer winter visitors, such as the Black-throated Thrush irruption of a few years back.

The nearby Aqua Park hasn't been visited that often over the years but based on past eBird reports it seems like a good spot for finding an array of waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns any time of the year.

For those up for a drive and a little more of an adventure, you can head west of Jubail towards the farms of Al Fadili, a veritable island of sabkha ponds, pivot fields, and tree-ringed farms in the middle of a great sea of sand! I've never visited myself, nor any other eBirder up to this point, but Jem Babbington and some of the Eastern Province bird photographers have and have reported some interesting birds. The best time to visit would be the passage months when anything might drop in for some food, water, or shelter on its journey across the Arabian Peninsula.

Al Qatif Hotspots

Situated between Jubail to the north and Dammam to the south, the historic Al Qatif province has a storied past, both ancient and modern, and boasts some excellent birding as well. Between 2011 and 2019, the region saw a series of protests by Shia activists that resulted in deadly clashes between the Saudi security forces and a small band of armed insurgents. On account of the violence, foreigners had been warned to avoid the area, particularly the village of Awamiyah (the area circled in the map below), where much of the fighting centered. The area is no longer restive, and you're free to visit and will have nothing to fear. The people of Qatif are some of the kindest and friendliest you'll meet in Saudi and the farms district in particular especially charming. Some just might be birders themselves like many of the guys from the Birds Monitoring Group.

Tarout Island offers some of the best shore birding in the Eastern Province

The most interesting place to bird in the area is Tarout Island, whose remnant mangrove stands and coastal shallows are a popular feeding and roosting sites for large numbers of ducks, waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns. Due to its proximity to the Ras Tanura oil and gas complex across the Tarout Bay, this area is also carefully monitored by the Saudi coast guard and some otherwise enticing spots for birding are restricted and are mostly signposted as such. This is the case near the border guard station (the first red X from the right), where you'll find a warning about taking pictures in the area. However, the mangroves on the north shore are also restricted but not well marked. Many a visitor, including myself and Adam Harris, have just barely avoided getting arrested by venturing too far down a path through the mangroves straight into view of the coast guard.

An aerial image of Tarout Island and nearby villages of Al Qatif, including the infamous Awamiyah

Don't let the threat of getting hassled put you off though. Any time of the year you're sure to find a lot of great birding along the island's shores. Greater Flamingo are especially easy to see from the island—watch out for the odd vagrant Lesser Flamingo in the flocks—as are the regionally endemic Socotra Cormorant. The island is particularly good for shorebirds, which can even be found roosting in huge numbers on a dirt soccer pitch on the north side of the island. One of only three eBird reports of Great Knot from the Kingdom came from here—a flock of around 100 back in the 1990s. Other shorebird species you could expect to see are Eurasian Oystercatcher, Greater and Lesser Sand Plover, Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, Broad-billed and Terek Sandpipers among many others.

Winter time is a good time out on the island to sharpen your gull ID skills with a smattering of less common Caucasian and Central Asian breeders, like Caspian and Armenian Gulls mixed in larger flocks of Steppe and Heuglin's Gulls. You're sure to see a few of the impressive Pallas's (Great Black-headed) Gull as well.

I am unsure about the status of the mangrove stands near the town of Safwa, but based on images I've seen in Google, it does seem that you might be able to venture out into them without the worry of running into the coast guard. However, just up the road is the new Mangrove Eco Park, at which Saudi Aramco, the Saudi state oil company, built a visitor center and a series of boardwalks for accessing the mangroves. To ensure you chances of seeing a lot of nice coastal birds, try to arrive an hour or so before high tide, which will concentrate the birds along the mudflats nearest the boardwalks.

The farms around the Al Qatif region offer good birding throughout the year as well, with the passage and winter months being the best. It's still to be confirmed, but there's a chance that both Delicate and Graceful Prinia (P. gracilis hufufae) may be found here. The abundant water around the farms coupled with the food and shelter provided by the date palms and other crops grown is a magnet for migrants passing through the region. There are also populations of a few different species known from other parts of the country or region, such as Gray Francolin, very likely a subspecies introduced from South Asia, as well as White-spectacled Bulbul and Ruppell's Weaver, both of which are native in the west of the country but have presumably been introduced to the Al Qatif region.

Egyptian Nightjar can be more reliably found in the east of the country

West of the farms of Al Qatif is the King Fahad International Airport. Just five minutes down the road from the airport is a small lake where groundwater has percolated up to the surface. The waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns congregate around the flats, shoals, and shallow open water of the airport lake. Owing to its proximity to the airport, hunting is prohibited here, which is likely why there have been reports of good numbers of ducks as well, including Garganey and Common Shelduck. The reed beds and tamarisk scrub around the lake are good for resident species, like Delicate Prinia and Clamorous Reed Warbler, as well as migrants and wintering species, like shrikes, wheatears, stonechats, and Bluethroat. An extended layover in Dammam for any lister en route to the southwest could make their visit a two-prinia trip for sure and quite possibly add other species that may perhaps be harder to find elsewhere in the Kingdom, such as Gray Francolin, Egyptian Nightjar, and Hypocolius.

Al Khobar Hotspots

Unfortunately, the best birding near Al Khobar can be found on the grounds of the Aramco camp in Dhahran, so if you're not a resident of the camp or friends with someone who is, then you'll only be tormented by the great birds that have been seen at the camp's Lanhardt Lake over the years, such as Red-crested Pochard, Little Crake, Pin-tailed Snipe, Northern Goshawk, Eurasian Penduline-Tit, and Calandra Lark.

In terms of publicly accessible spots, the South Corniche in Al Khobar is your best option. Here you'll find a large freshwater lake right beside the corniche road, where you'll find large congregations of waders, shorebirds, gulls, and terns throughout much of the year. Some good birds have been recorded here over the years, so it's definitely worth checking more than once. You can also take in some seawatching from the pedestrian way skirting the shore of the gulf. From the shade of one of the many trees lining the corniche, you can scan the waters just offshore for coastal birds, such as Great Crested Grebe; Saunders's, White-cheeked, Great Crested, and Lesser Crested Terns; Socotra Cormorant, Western Reef-Heron, Striated Heron, and Osprey.

Besides the corniche, you might explore the under-birded Modon Lake Park southwest of Al Khobar on the Abqaiq road. This is an area of trees and reed-fringed waterways next to an industrial park. With repeat visits, especially in winter when large flocks of Black-headed and Slender-billed Gulls descend on the area for drinking and bathing in the freshwater. Whiskered and White-winged Terns also frequent the area. This is also an area where we're still uncertain as to the prinia species occurring there. It's close enough to the Al Ahsa region, where the hufufae subspecies of Graceful Prinia can be found; however, Delicate Prinia has now been confirmed just next to the Dammam area and more than likely occurs further south in similar habitat.

A Graceful Prinia (P. gracilis hufufae) from Al Hubail Lake a little over an hour south of Al Khobar

South of Al Khobar is Half Moon Cove, a large coastal lagoon dotted with resorts and expansive seaside villas, but the birding here would be quite underwhelming compared to the wilder coast just a little further south near the Uqair Port. I'd recommend putting in the extra driving for a more unique birding experience with much more promising habitat. Otherwise, there's always Bahrain, which surprisingly offers far richer birding opportunities than the Saudi side of the causeway.

Al Khafji Hotspots

Only five kilometers from the Kuwaiti border, the small oil and gas outpost of Khafji isn't much to write home about. Birding is limited around the area, but the gently rolling sand-gravel desert running west of the town can turn up Cream-colored Courser, Greater Hoopoe-Lark, Bar-tailed Lark, and Finsch's Wheatear, the latter only during the winter months. There are four records from the 1980s of large flocks of wintering Eurasian Dotterel further to the west in similar desert terrain, so such records might still be possible with more observers exploring this far-flung area. The coastal desert and municipal parks can be quite active during passage months in the spring and fall and may host an array of interesting Western Palearctic migrants.

The best birding spot in the city is the Al Khafji Wastewater Treatment Plant. It was here that I first discovered that Delicate Prinia had in fact expanded into Saudi from Kuwait, which the species is believed to have colonized starting back in the 1990s. Birding around the perimeter of the plant should turn up a few resident pairs of this species. From a rise on the east side of the plant you can scan the settling pools for waders, ducks, and shorebirds. The scrubby desert and thick mesquite trees around the facility are also good for migrants, passerines as well as raptors. I saw Black-winged Kite, Black Kite, as well as a possible Levant Sparrowhawk during my visit to the city.

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