When I first moved to Saudi Arabia, I'd often heard the expression "Jeddah ghair" (Jeddah is different), owing to the perception of the city as a liberal enclave in a famously ultra-conservative Islamic country. One area in which this ancient port city and present-day commercial hub is decidedly not different is in its access to exciting birding opportunities. Like elsewhere in Saudi, good birding abounds if you know where to look!
Located on the Kingdom's Red Sea coast, Jeddah sits along two important migration routes—the Black Sea-Mediterranean flyway and the Asian-East African flyway. What this means is twice annually, birders around the region get treated to the passage of huge numbers of migratory birds, perhaps no more dramatically as when a large flock of Demoiselle Cranes passes overhead.
If you wish to witness this avian spectacle in the Kingdom and potentially rack up a sizable trip list, the best times of year to go birding around Jeddah are during the spring (March/April) and fall (September/October) months. That said, even during the hot and muggy days of the Saudi summer, good birding is never too far away.
The Local Hotspots
Most of the urban birding in Jeddah proper is restricted to the corniche area running along the Red Sea shoreline. From the city center, you can get your first taste of Jeddah birding at the Al Hamra Corniche, opposite King Fahad Fountain. Here you'll find all of the common city dwellers, like Laughing Dove, the native White-spectacled Bulbul along with its introduced cousin, White-eared Bulbul, House Sparrow, and Ruppell's Weaver, not to mention a few other introduced species, such as House Crow, Common Myna, and Indian Silverbill. The grassy lawns and plantings along the corniche will attract migratory birds, so, depending on what time of year you visit, watch for Eurasian Hoopoe, European and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Red-backed and Isabelline (Daurian) Shrikes, Spotted Flycatcher, Northern Wheatear, Tree and Red-throated Pipits among others. Look up for Common and Pallid Swifts careening high above you, their shrill calls indicating their presence, or for passing raptors, like the oft-abundant Black Kite.
Walk along the pedestrian way and watch the water's edge for Western Reef and Striated Herons fishing in the shallows or members of the perennially opportunistic gull family hanging close to picnicking families, including Sooty Gull and the regionally endemic White-eyed Gull, my first of which was seen unglamorously in the parking lot of a local fast food restaurant! Gliding out over the waterway just offshore could be any of the several different species of terns that occur in the Red Sea, two of which are high on most visiting birders' lists—Saunders's and White-cheeked. Be careful separating the former from the quite similar Little Tern, especially during the winter months.
Not far from the Red Sea Mall is the North Corniche area. Here you'll find much of the same that can be found at Al Hamra Corniche, but owing to its size the North Corniche has the potential to attract a greater variety, particularly of migratory birds. Your chances of finding White-eyed Gull in the city are much better here than at Al Hamra, and with only the open sea to the west of you, scanning out over the water could turn up interesting seabirds, like Brown Booby and Bridled Tern. If the timing's right might even get a flyby showing of Demoiselle Crane.
The best coastal birding in Jeddah, however, is down along the undeveloped coastline known as the South Corniche. Here is where you'll find the best shorebirds. Among the widespread and common Western Palearctic species, you may get lucky and see less common species like Broad-billed and Terek Sandpipers, not to mention the Indian Ocean specialty—Crab-Plover! This is also a good place for Greater Flamingo (watch out for the odd Lesser Flamingo in the mix) as well as Pink-backed Pelican, a predominantly East African species that can be found along the coasts of roughly the southern half of the Red Sea. Near the northernmost pull-off in this area, there is a military base, offshore of which there appears to be a seabird roost. Seawatching here can be productive just after sunrise as the gulls, terns, and other seabirds depart. Watch for Brown Booby, Bridled Tern as well as Great Crested and Lesser Crested Terns flying past. Closer inshore White-cheeked and Saunders's Terns will be fishing. Just note, however, that owing to its proximity to a military base to the north and a power plant to the south, the authorities here might be more suspicious of birders, especially if you're carrying long-lens cameras. Unless you want to get hassled, be sure not to take pictures near these two sites, which should be signposted to indicate as such. The South Corniche is open to the public, however, so, as long as you avoid those places and try to be a little more discreet when taking pictures, you shouldn't have any trouble. If the police do stop you, show them a field guide and some of your photos to make it clear what your purpose is. They shouldn't have any more reason to detain you.
When birding the South Corniche, also be sure to explore the adjacent scrubby desert for migrant passerines and interesting resident species, such as Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, Cream-colored Courser, Greater Hoopoe-Lark, and Black-crowned Sparrow-Lark. Late summer and early fall, passerines migrating along the corniche might attract hungry Sooty Falcons, with both adult and young birds dispersing from nearby breeding sites.
Moving inland from the South Corniche, you should visit Wadi Fatima, known by some in the area as "Jeddah River". The steady flow of water and thick patches of mesquite scrub in this area can make it quite birdy. In the morning watch for Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse coming in to drink along quieter, more open stretches of shoreline. This is also a good spot for waders, particularly those preferring more freshwater wetland habitats, like Black-winged Stilt, Spur-winged and White-tailed Lapwings, Little Ringed Plover, Marsh Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint, Purple Heron, Little Egret, and Squacco Heron. Several different tern species have been reported from here, with this being perhaps the nearest spot to Jeddah to find both Whiskered and White-winged Terns, which frequent inland lakes and wetlands during the cooler months. In the winter, keep an eye out for vagrant Pheasant-tailed Jacana, which has shown up here on two occasions.
In the scrub around Wadi Fatima, look for Tihama lowland specialists like African Collared-Dove, Namaqua Dove, Arabian Green Bee-eater, a near-endemic only found on the Arabian Peninsula as well as adjoining countries in the northwest, Arabian Great Grey Shrike, Graceful Prinia, Black Scrub-Robin, Nile Valley Sunbird, Ruppell's Weaver, and African Silverbill. Arabian Golden Sparrow has been reported from here as well. The more open scrub around the area should be good for Nubian Nightjar. Arrive well before dawn or an hour past sunset and drive the dirt tracks just north of the "river". Watch for eye shine as nightjars perch on the road ahead. Sometimes it's possible to flush Nubian by walking among the low scrub by foot.
Less than a half-hour's drive out of the city is the Eastern Forest, a local park with extensive plantings surrounded by scrubby desert and barren, rocky hills. The biggest attraction here is the raptors. During passage months, large numbers of Black Kite can be seen in the area with smaller congregations of eagles, predominately Steppe with perhaps a few Greater Spotted, also possible. European Honey-Buzzard can be seen during migration and observations of Oriental Honey-Buzzard are increasing in western Saudi Arabia, where they have been encountered throughout the year. Long-legged Buzzard is the resident buzzard species in Saudi Arabia and can be seen throughout the year as well, but watch for the Steppe subspecies of Common Buzzard during the winter.
Among the trees at the park, any migrant passerine could potentially show up, with Saudi's first Pied Bushchat appearing just a few years back. This is also a good place for Namaqua Dove, Arabian Green Bee-eater, Nile Valley Sunbird, White-spectacled Bulbul and Black Scrub-Robin.
Around the rocky hills near the Eastern Forest, you can find Desert Lark and Blackstart and though not reported recently, Pharaoh Eagle-Owl and Little Owl should be out in them hills as well!
Another area worth visiting for much of the same at Wadi Fatima and the Eastern Forest, especially after periods of rain, is Jeddah Dam. Standing water is sure to attract a lot of birdlife. Given its proximity to rocky terrain, Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse can very likely be found here. Watch (and listen) for them coming in to drink along the water's edge just after sunset. This would also be another good place to watch for Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse during the morning hours. Two near-endemics—Arabian Babbler and Arabian Green Bee-eater can also be found in the mesquite scrub in the area.
For those looking to explore further afield, especially those visiting during the hotter months perhaps looking for some respite from the crushing humidity down along the Red Sea coast, there is a lot of great birding in the highlands to the east of Jeddah. It's here in the hotspots southwest of the city of Taif where you can get your nearest encounters with some of the Arabian endemics, species not to be found anywhere else besides Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and, for some species, Oman.
There are two wadis almost due west of Taif—Wadi Al Dhahaya and Wadi Al Wuhait—where you can find stands of Euphorbia ammak, a tall, tree-like succulent native to Saudi Arabia and Yemen whose fruit just so happens to be a favorite of Saudi's hardest-to-find endemic—the Arabian Grosbeak. Other endemic and near-endemic species that can be found here are Arabian Partridge, Arabian Green Bee-eater, Arabian Warbler, Arabian Babbler, Tristram's Starling, Arabian Wheatear, Arabian (Shining) Sunbird, Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin, and Yemen Linnet. Both Striolated and Cinnamon-breasted Buntings can also be found and care should be taken in separating the two. Watch the skies overhead during migration, particularly in the fall, when huge numbers of European Honey-Buzzard pass over en route to points south. Red-rumped Swallow along with Alpine, Common, Pallid, and Little Swifts could be flitting overhead as well, depending on the time of year.
Further south from this area, you can visit Wadi Khomas. At 2000 meters (6500 feet) above sea level, this might be the nearest place to Jeddah to see Buff-breasted Wheatear, the Arabian Peninsula's most newly designated endemic species. Records from here, in fact, constitute the northernmost along the Sarawat Escarpment for the species. Also to be seen in the area are Arabian Green Bee-eater, Arabian Woodpecker, White-spectacled Bulbul, Abyssinian White-eye, Gambaga Flycatcher, Arabian Wheatear, Arabian (Shining) Sunbird, Arabian Waxbill, Long-billed Pipit, Arabian (Olive-rumped) Serin, Yemen Linnet, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting.
A larger area near mountain town of Al Shafa worth exploring is Wadi Thee Ghazal. All of the same species that can be seen at Wadis Al Dhahaya, Wuhait, and Khomas can be seen here. However, there are some tantalizing records from Thee Ghazal, including three additional endemics—Arabian Scops-Owl, Yemen Thrush, and Yemen Serin—as well as several Afrotropicals at the northernmost extent of their global range, such as Bruce's Green-Pigeon, African Grey Hornbill, Black-crowned Tchagra, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Violet-backed Starling, Little Rock Thrush, Brown Woodland-Warbler as well as Gambaga Flycatcher.
The further east of Taif you travel the more arid and barren the terrain becomes until you reach proper desert. A short distance east of the city is Saiysad National Park, which offers a mix of highlands and arid lowland species and is one of few places in Saudi where all three sunbird species—Nile Valley, which prefers lower, more arid elevations, Arabian (Shining), which is a mid-elevation (circa 1500 meters) specialist, and Palestine Sunbird, which ranges the highest in elevation—have been seen in the same area.
Continuing east past the airport on the highway towards Riyadh, you will pass through a long expanse of gravel-sand desert. Surely if there's been rain in the area, this should be good habitat for Arabian Lark, a near-endemic species, 90% of whose population is estimated to be found in Saudi alone. To date though, I know of only one record near Mahazat As-Sayd Preserve. Unfortunately, at the moment it is not possible to arrange access to Mahazat As-Sayd; however, for those up for exploring the desert around the perimeter of the enclosing fence line, you might be rewarded with views of the Common Ostrich herds, which are part of a reintroduction program, or Lappet-faced Vultures, which nest on acacia trees within preserve.
Hotspots North of Jeddah
The best birding north of Jeddah is without a doubt around the grounds and properties of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Unfortunately, access is restricted to university staff, students, and their guests. If you happen to know someone who lives there, then definitely seize a chance explore the interesting birding there. During his time at KAUST, Brian James, who holds the record for the highest number of species recorded in Saudi (364!), racked up an incredible list of sightings from around KAUST, 184 of which have been reported from the community's Safaa Golf Course. Brian also had the Kingdom's first and only records of Yellow Bittern from the Island Mangrove Walk. They haven't been reported in the years since, but that could be for a lack of trying on the part of the birders there currently. The bitterns along with a ton of other great birds have been seen from the King Abdullah Monument area north of the community. South Beach is yet another good birding spot nearby, but, alas, all of these hotspots are off-limits unless you have a personal connection who can get you access.
No such issue accessing Wadi Rabigh, Wadi Wadughan, or Jebel Al Qamar though. The rocky hillsides and wadi bottoms at these sites are ideal places to look for Sand Partridge, White-crowned Wheatear, and Trumpeter Finch. This is ideal habitat for Striolated Bunting as well. Areas with sheerer canyon walls would be worth checking for Desert Owl an hour or so after sunset or an hour or so before dawn.
Hotspots South of Jeddah
Southwest of Makkah is an extensive area of wetlands, farms, and thick swathes of mesquite scrub surrounded by gravel-sand desert and low, craggy hills. Water is fed into the area from the voluminous outflow of the Makkah Wastewater Treatment Plant, creating ideal conditions for a diverse array of species. Much of what can be encountered at Wadi Fatima can be found here as well, but the relative remoteness of this area, which translates as a lack of human disturbance, makes for better birding all around and the potential to turn up species that might otherwise avoid Wadi Fatima, like ducks and geese. Historic records from the area show consistently high counts of an equally high number of species. One record included an astonishing 1000 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse flying in to drink by groups of up to 100 birds, making this perhaps the best place to search for sandgrouse near Jeddah.
Heading south along the coast, you find some good coastal birding at Al Lith, particularly in the vicinity of the shrimp farms, which unfortunately replaced what used to be a gorgeous lagoon ringed by thick stands of mangroves. The farms do, however, attract large numbers of waders, seabirds, and shorebirds. During the winter months, both Pink-backed and Great White Pelican can be seen here along with Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, and Black Stork. The impressive Goliath Heron has been reported from here several times, making Al Lith perhaps the best place near to Jeddah for finding this large Afrotropical wader.