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Feeling Hopeful with Mansur Al Fahad*

During my first year in Saudi Arabia, while tracking down what literature I could find on the Kingdom’s birdlife, another name besides those of Western birders and researchers kept coming up–Mansur Al Fahad, a Saudi whose passion for his country’s avian treasures has translated into a portfolio of stunning images of some of the Kingdom’s rarest and most unique species as well as significant discoveries that have cast a brighter light on their habits and distribution. Since then we’ve been corresponding here and there–he’s been supportive (and sympathetic) in my quest to track down Arabian Dunn’s Lark–and recently had a chance to meet in person when he joined me at the Al Ahsa National Park to ID some medium-sized bats my wife and I had been seeing at dusk. He turned up with this cool ultrasonic recorder with which he could capture the vocalizations of the bats marshaling out overhead into the night and confirm the ID–Naked-bellied Tomb Bat. This was a whole other level for me. I was intrigued by how deeply he, a citizen scientist like myself, had gone from his interest in birds to an amateur study of Saudi bats. I asked him that evening if I could interview him for the blog.

I am pleased to introduce to Mansur Al Fahad.

SB: Hi, Mansur, welcome. To start, can you tell my readers about your professional background?

MF: Thank you, my friend, for your trust and giving me the opportunity. I am pleased to be a guest of the blog and to answer your inquiries. I have a BA in History from King Saud University in Riyadh, which I completed in 2004, and I work as an elementary Social Studies teacher in Riyadh.

SB: How long have you been interested in nature and wildlife?

Mansur Al Fahad out in the field

MF: I have loved animals from a young age. I used to love small animal figurines, even animal stickers on school books. I also loved science class. I remember how, at the age of ten, I wrote papers about the migratory birds—their descriptions, dimensions, and local names—that the people of my village used to hunt during autumn. You can say that it was preliminary documentation without any illustrations.

SB: Did anything in particular spark your specific interest in birds?

MF: As I told you, I was drawn to the strange migratory birds that I was seeing in the hunters’ bags, but the real interest came after I found the first edition of the Field Guide to Middle Eastern Birds in a local bookstore, and I challenged myself to spot as many birds as possible.

SB: What is it about birds that you’ve found so interesting?

MF: Everything about birds is amazing! Their colors, their liveliness, their sounds, their habits, the challenge to find them.

SB: And, as I’ve asked everyone else, what’s your favorite Saudi bird and why?

MF: I love larks. Is it because they are real desert birds? Perhaps. Of course, I also love the endemic birds, and then I feel a special love for the naughty, little Scrub Warbler!

During the winter, the Saudi desert holds out the promise of encountering around a dozen different lark species, including the Thick-billed Lark, featured here in Mansur’s incredible capture!

SB: What would you say was the most memorable experience you’ve had birding in the Kingdom?

MF: As a birdwatcher, every time I see a new bird is an unforgettable experience, but the most unforgettable was when I saw an Arabian woodpecker for the first time. I was sitting in one of the parks in Al Baha and suddenly it stuck to the branch of a tree in front of me. My hands shook as I tried to hold the video camera, and although it lasted about a minute, I could not photograph it due to the confusion!

No fumbling with this shot, Mansur! This is a male Arabian Woodpecker from Saudi’s southwest.

SB: Your interests have since branched out to include butterflies and bats. What does this say about your personality? Have you grown bored with birds?

MF: Of course not. Let’s just say adding new friends. I made it clear at the beginning that all animals attract my attention, but my current interest in butterflies is about taking pictures for a future book about butterflies on the Arabian Peninsula. As for bats, their mysterious life attracted me, despite false rumors about them. With so few studies about them in Saudi Arabia and most of them so old, we need to uncover new records. My research has really succeeded in proving the existence of species in areas where they were not previously recorded. For example, Naked-bellied Tomb Bat Taphozous nudiventris, I was able to document it for the first time in Zulfi, Riyadh, and Al Ahsa, as you remember from the evening we met out at Jebel Al Qarra.

Mansur’s work on bats has shed light on the winged mammals’ occurrence and distribution in the Kingdom. Featured here is Mansur’s shot of a Desert Pipistrelle (Hypsugo ariel).

SB: So do you consider yourself the kind of person who goes deep dive into subjects that interest them? And then you try to learn as much as you can about those subjects?

MF: Yes, I do. Indeed.

SB: Honestly, though, it seems you’re driven by a more scientific curiosity about Saudi wildlife. What are you hoping to accomplish through your various research endeavors?

MF: I want to show Saudi wildlife to the world. It is true that I do not currently have a blog or a website, but I am ready to post any pictures or information about any animal in Saudi Arabia on sites like Jem Babbington’s Birds of Saudi Arabia or eBird. I am happy when I get my pictures with my country’s name in a book. I want to share the beautiful aspects of Saudi Arabia, in contrast to the wrong image of it in the West!

Mansur’s image of a Dark Grass Blue (Zizeeria karsandra). He’s been photographing butterflies for an upcoming book.

SB: You told me live and work in Riyadh and your family’s from Al Zulfi. What are some of the birding attractions around the central region?

MF: Al Ha'ir River Basin, south of Riyadh, is the most prominent. Let’s say that it is a rest and refueling station in the middle of the desert—everyone is keen to stay there. There is also Rawdat Khuraim, which is especially good in winter. The Tuwaiq mountains are charming and contain distinctive and rare birds like Desert Owl and Bonelli’s Eagle. Zulfi is another interesting area. We’ve recorded there many rare birds, including seven species of owls, for example.

Steep cliff face along the escarpments and wadis around Riyadh hold out the promise of finding Desert Owl, featured here courtesy of Mansur’s stellar skills as a photographer.

SB: You’re a talented photographer as well and have photographed several of the harder to find species in the Kingdom, such as my nemesis bird—Dunn’s Lark—and the Desert Owl. What does it take to have such encounters?

MF: Don’t despair. If someone has seen a bird, you are sure to see it as well. As for the pictures, you need a lot of patience to make the bird trust you and to wait for it to approach you and say ‘what are you waiting for? Come on, tap the shutter!’

Mansur is one of maybe a half dozen birders who’ve seen (let alone photographed!) the Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak in Saudi Arabia over the past two or three decades.

SB: As a teacher, have you shared your love of nature with your students? If so, how have you tried to raise awareness among them about Saudi birds and wildlife and the threats facing them? Do you think interest is spreading among young people?

MF: On every occasion, I take care to educate my students about wildlife, and I stress that we are a small part of it. If some of them disappear, the rest will be affected, including us. There has been a noticeable change in the ideas of young people about the environment for the better. Social media and the digital revolution have played their role, of course. I notice, for example, angry comments and discussion when displaying any negative images, such as hunting or cutting trees. Also, there has been a remarkable increase in the number of Saudi wildlife photographers, especially bird photographers. This, of course, will increase the number of nature lovers.

At only about 100 pairs left in the wild, the Asir Magpie, Saudi Arabia’s sole endemic species, needs an active conservation plan, and now, to stop its downward spiral towards extinction.

SB: With an eye to a brighter and hopefully more bird-friendly 2030, when the government’s vision is meant to become a reality, what would you say is your top wish for Saudi’s birdlife by the end of the decade?

MF: I am very optimistic. I trust this work. The changes that have occurred in past three years are amazing, and I think that they will undoubtedly benefit wildlife. My wish is to see wildlife support the national economy as in some other countries, to see tourists enjoying Saudi nature and wildlife and to protect them, especially for that and other reasons. Then I will rest and know that my dream has come true. Finally, let me extend my thanks to all the friends who have contributed to spreading awareness and documenting Saudi birds and wildlife, like Jem Babbington, Lou Regenmorter, and recently you.

SB: And thank you, my friend, for how generous with your time and your gifts you’ve been with us, your students, and the country.

Check out more of Mansur’s bird photography as well as his earlier videography at the Cornell's Macaulay Library.

As far as I know, Mansur’s is the only documented and confirmed sighting of Montane Nightjar in Saudi Arabia in the past ten years. According to him, Montane is much less common than formerly believed.

* First posted October 2020. I’ve since tracked down my erstwhile nemesis bird! 🙂


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