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Capturing Beauty in the Saudi Wilds: An Interview with Abdullah Hatim

In the time Saudi Arabia opened to international tourism and the pandemic so abruptly shut it all down again, Instagram started to get flooded with images and videos from the country’s newly minted tourist attractions, some by popular travel vloggers, who flocked to the Kingdom in droves, to reveal to the rest of the world the “real” Saudi Arabia. Cue an unstuttering stream of slick selfies and dramatic drone footage of essentially all the same stuff from basically all the same places. Okay, well, not that bad, but it was still clear that most of these Instagrammers bought onto the package tour. I hold that you’ll venture closer to “the real” the further off the beaten track the wonder leads you. For me, the portal to those places has always been through the pursuit of birds and other wildlife. I’m not talking about the kinds of experiences guaranteed with the cost of admission. These require work, these require dealing with the Kingdom on its own terms, these require being open to adventure and ready to roll with the vagaries such adventure often entails. Thankfully there are some on Instagram who know what I’m talking about–the nature photographers. I’ll take theirs and all the love and passion required to do what they do over some glossy, overproduced Arabian Nights selfie any day of the week!

One such photographer whose work caught my eye a while back is Abdullah Hatim. Abdullah, who goes by the IG handle Travel Vlogs, participated in my recent hashtag challenge to help raise awareness about the endangered Asir Magpie. I was surprised at the time to learn that Abdullah is only fifteen years old. I’m always excited to meet young people as passionate about getting out and exploring as I am. Hopefully he’ll inspire more young people like himself to get out from behind their screens and go search out experiences with the real!

Introducing Abdullah Hatim.

Abdullah entered the following shot of the Asir Magpie in my hashtag challenge to help raise awareness about Saudi Arabia’s endangered endemic #savetheasirmagpie

SB: So, Abdullah, tell my readers a little about yourself.

AH: My name is Abdullah Hatim and I am 15 years old. I was born in Jeddah and I am currently in 10th grade. I am a bird, wildlife and nature photographer.

Abdullah’s stunning portrait of a male African Grey Hornbill, one of the cool Afrotropical species that call the southwest of Arabia home

SB: Right, folks can check out your photography not just on Instragram but on Facebook and Twitter as well. You told me you also created a YouTube account where you’ve been sharing video footage of Saudi birds. And where are you from again and how long have you been living in Saudi Arabia?

AH: I am from Pakistan and I have been living in Saudi Arabia my whole life.

SB: What brought you and your family to Saudi?

AH: My parents are from Pakistan. My dad was also born in Jeddah and he too is a professional bird, wildlife and nature photographer. He has been living here for the past 41 years now. He has worked in various organizations in different positions in Saudi Arabia and has more than 16 years of working experience.

SB: What is your favorite thing about living in Saudi?

Abdullah in his favorite place to go exploring, the southwest of Saudi Arabia

AH: I have explored every bit of the magnificent land of Saudi Arabia. From mountain ranges of over 9,000 feet in the southwest, which get really cold in the winter, to the Rub Al Khali, the largest sand desert in the world, World Heritage sites and museums to long stretches of sandy beaches, Red Sea coral reefs to the bustling cities like Jeddah, you name it. Yet, my excitement continues to grow as I keep on discovering something new about Saudi Arabia almost every day.

SB: What led to your interest in birds and birds photography? When did you first become interested?

AH: I have been doing bird photography since 2018, mostly in Jeddah at that time. I found birds to be very interesting creatures from early on and I always wanted to get up close to capture and admire their beauty. My dad has all the professional cameras and gear as he’s been into different photography for more than 6 years now. That’s what urged me to start photographing birds and I asked my dad for a super telephoto lens (600 mm) with a 2x teleconverter (1200 mm). When I started, I noticed that it’s not so easy to photograph them. Birds usually don’t pose where you want and, moreover, it’s often difficult to get close enough to take quality pictures. But if you know some basics of bird photography, it becomes much easier to capture amazing moments of the birds’ lives. That’s how it all started and my initial interest has now turned into a passion. Since then I have kept learning about birds, their behavior, distribution, scientific details, etc.

Hamerkop with breakfast. Nothing’s more satisfying than capturing birds going about their business in the wild. Great capture, Abdullah!

SB: What has been the most memorable experience you have had birding in the kingdom?

AH: My most memorable experiences while birding in the kingdom have been the regular and frequent road trips to Al Shafa, Taif, Al Baha, Tanomah, Abha, Jizan, the Farasan Islands, Faifa, Al Birk and Al Lith.

SB: What’s your favorite Saudi bird and why?

AH: I mostly like the birds in the southwest of Saudi Arabia. My most favorite Saudi bird is the Asir Magpie because it’s really smart and has an interesting call.

SB: What is your favorite place to go birding in the Kingdom?

AH: My favorite places to go birding in the Kingdom are Abha, Tanomah and Faifa.

A jaw-dropping male Violet-backed Starling, courtesy of Abdullah’s keen skills

SB: You are an excellent photographer. What does it take to get the kind of shots you do? What would you say are the ingredients of a perfect shot?

AH: First off, you need patience and perseverance as well as practice and passion. You need to know the quality and direction of the light to help with the composition. You need knowledge about the bird and its activities. You have to know about your gear, proper settings, proper exposure, and positioning. Lastly, you always need to head out for photography right before sunrise.

SB: How can we get more young people like you to care more about bird life?

AH: Unfortunately, birds do not appeal to many screen-obsessed young people these days at all and that is really sad. It doesn’t have to be the case. It is really important that parents and teachers engage the younger generation in birds, bird watching, wildlife and the natural world. Connecting young children and teenagers with the outdoors has so many health benefits as well and it helps them to learn to look after the planet we live on.

Put your phone down and go out a catch this Pikachu! With your camera that is… Little Rock Thrush, a common species in the highlands of the southwest, by Abdullah

SB: I couldn’t agree more, Abdullah, and well said! What’s your top wish for Saudi’s Bird life by 2030?

AH: I hope for more afforestation, establishing wildlife conservation areas, creating natural water bodies, introducing more birds and animals, pushing for more clean-air and environmental initiatives, anti-litter awareness campaigns, and building more relevant facilities to increase bird and wildlife tourism.

SB: All of which would lead to a much more bird- and birder-friendly country for sure! So what’s in store for your future? Anything to do with birds?

AH: I will be focusing on becoming an ornithologist or biologist and will continue to sharpen my skills as a bird, nature and wildlife photographer. The intention is to help and save birds as well as other wildlife from extinction.

Abdullah is becoming a solid birder as well and shares his records with eBird, such as this Red-knobbed Coot, only the second record for the Kingdom


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