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Help Needed in Saudi: The Saudi Birding Community’s Effort to Track Down a Tagged Egyptian Vulture

The weekend before last*, Yoav Perlman, an Israeli ornithologist and blogger, forwarded the following email from Ron Efrat, a researcher in the region studying Egyptian Vultures, to Jem Babbington and me and asked if we might use our contacts here in Saudi to track down the missing vulture.

I opened the link in Google Maps and realized that the bird was in the southwest and replied that I knew some folks down that way and would put the word out. My first thought was Ahmed Niyazi, a stellar bird photographer from the Asir region and new member of Saudi Birding on WhatsApp, whom Khalifa Al Dhaheri from the UAE introduced to the group. I messaged him (“Hi Ahmed, I have some detective work for you”) and shared the location where the vulture’s track had appeared to stop. A few hours later he called to tell me that the area was too far from him but that Ahmed Al Omeri, another Saudi bird photographer, lived just 100 kilometers away. He shared his contact information, suggesting that I get an Arabic-speaking friend to help us communicate. I told him that we’d manage well enough.

The young vulture began its migration in Syria but had its southward journey cut short around August 25 just north of Sabt Al Jarrah in southern Makkah Province (image credit to Ron Efrat)

A short time later Ahmed Al Omeri called to let me know he intended to go out and look for the bird. We spoke for a short time about the circumstances around its suspected demise. He asked that I forward him the location on WhatsApp and had questions about what the researcher would like him to do if he indeed located it, particularly what to do with the bird’s transmitter. I sent him the location but told him I’d ask and get back to him about what to do if he found it.

“This bird is not an adult. It looks like in this picture I believe. If you find the bird, try to determine how it died, like maybe from electricity or hunting…”

I messaged Ahmed again after I heard back from Yoav regarding what should be done and shared a simple description of the vulture as well, which Ron had said was a second-year bird, so not the bright black-and-white contrast of an adult but something browner, more mottled. Ahmed and I also spoke again by phone and I was reminded of the fact that I already knew of him. Ahmed has been active in avian research for quite awhile now—20 years according to him—and in fact assisted the Aramco-Smithsonian research team in their work with the Asir Magpie. He also has a wonderful YouTube channel with fantastic footage of nesting Saudi birds, including some of the endemics, such as the Arabian Waxbill. Once he had clarified what was expected, he assured me that he had experience in handling situations like this. I assured him I didn’t and expressed my fullest trust in his skills as a tracker to get the job done. A short time later Ahmed sent me a video message from his car to let me know he was on his way.

The hero of this story, Ahmed Al Omeri, on his way to where the vulture’s signal had remained static for three days

Turns out the whole time the mission was under way, my wife and I were watching Tenet—a long-awaited, two-and-a-half hour sci-fi epic by Christopher Nolan—at Al Ahsa’s newly opened movie theater, and yet here I was distractedly awaiting what Ahmed would send next. Would he find the bird? What were the chances, if he did, that the bird would still be alive? After three days since its last movements were recorded, the prospects were dim. If it was dead, what then would be determined the cause of mortality? The Kingdom’s rife with hazards for migrating birds, not the least of which are the numerous and generally non-discriminating hunters.

The young Egyptian Vulture deceased, a victim of electrocution in the southwest of the Kingdom

An hour later, I glanced down at my phone during the movie and there it was. Ahmed sent another video. This time, his Toyota Land Cruiser can be seen stationary in gently sloping sandy desert with low jebels in the background. There’s the Egyptian Vulture, a subadult bird, expired on its back with the disheveled contour feathers on its belly ruffling in the wind. Ahmed is describing the scene as he pans to the left and up a metal pole to reveal the cause of death—non-insulated power lines—one of the most serious threats to this globally endangered species. He sent also a picture of the transmitter and leg bands, which he removed from the bird to be returned to Ron, who might be able to use them again.

It seemed clear from the start that there was little chance of a happy ending; however, the events of the day testify, for me, to one thing in particular—the networking and knowledge-sharing capacity of our growing birding community. Saudi birding was a much lonelier affair when I first arrived, but now it seems an even more connected community of Saudis and expats alike has taken shape online and out in the field. I am excited to witness what else we, collectively, can accomplish in the name of bird conservation in the Kingdom.

The beauty and wonder of this creature, only in its second year of existence (photo credit to Ron Efrat)

If you’d like to help protect threatened migratory birds in the region like the Egyptian Vulture, I invite you to join me in making a donation to Birdlife's Flight for Survival. As little as €25 can help support educational programming to raise awareness among young people around the region about migratory birds and the critical need to protect them.

* Originally posted on September 2020

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