Kindling the Local Fire: An Interview with Abdullah Al Shaikh Hussain

Back in October of last year I met some members of the Birds Monitoring Group, a group of Saudi bird photographers mostly from the Al Qatif area who were visiting Al Asfar Lake in Al Ahsa. Talking to these gentlemen that day and checking out in Al Ahsa. Talking to these gentlemen that day and checking out their website, it was clear just how knowledgeable and passionate they are about birds. I was heartened to meet locals like themselves who are trying to raise awareness about Saudi’s bird life and the threats so many of them are facing. In the hopes of advancing our shared mission of bringing attention to the plight of the Kingdom’s avian treasures and sparking a greater interest in their protection, I reached out to one of their members recently for an interview. It’s my pleasure to introduce Abdullah Al Shaikh Hussain.

Abdullah Al Shaikh Hussain in the field

SB: So, Abdullah, what’s your professional background?

AH: I have a bachelor’s degree in computer science from King Fahad University for Petroleum and Minerals (KFUPM) and currently work as a systems engineer for Dell Technologies. My professional job started in 2005 when I worked as a systems analyst in certain projects for Saudi Aramco and then as an HPC engineer until 2013. I joined Dell the end of 2013 as a technical accounts manager but have been working as a systems engineer from 2016 until now.


SB: And what led to your interest in birds and bird photography?

AH: I got into the photography world accidentally in 2013 when my wife asked me to research a DSLR for her. I had to extensively read about photography and learn how it works. I found it very interesting and I ended up buying two DSLRs, one for each of us. In the beginning, as with others, I tried exploring all kinds of photography. After trying almost all, I became interested in bird photography. This was for many reasons, among which was getting a closer look at these beautiful creatures. This was nearly mid 2014.

SB: In that time, what would you say has been the most memorable experience you’ve had birding in the Kingdom?

AH: Most of my birding has concentrated on Tufaih (Khafra Marsh) and the Qatif area. The most memorable experience for me was kickstarting the “Sea and Shorebirds of Al Qatif” project with my colleague Faisal Hajwal. We conducted the project last year, between November and December 2019, with the aim of identifying all the sea and shorebirds that pass by Qatif during the winter. I gained a lot of knowledge (but still lack so much) about the species of sea and shorebirds that pass by our area. This project will hopefully continue after the pandemic to cover a wider area.

“The Sea and Shorebirds of Al Qatif” by Abdullah Hussain and Faisal Hajwal. Contact them through the BMG website to find about how to obtain a copy.

SB: Bravo on the photography book. It looks amazing. Do you have a favorite Saudi bird? Which one and why?

AH: I really enjoy witnessing all the birds, but I favor the Northern Wheatear. Besides the beautiful colors that this bird has, it conducts one of the longest migrations of any passerine, despite its small size, and crosses different areas of our planet. It is a very capable bird and travels up to 30,000 kilometers during its migration.

The Dunlin is another long-distance migrant that makes stopovers in Saudi on its way to and from breeding grounds in the far north. The Arabian Peninsula lies at the intersection of significant avian flyways and is an important wintering ground for globally threatened species, such as Sociable Lapwing and Steppe Eagle. Captured by Abdullah Hussain.
Chatting with members of the Birds Monitoring Group back in October 2019.

SB: That’s definitely a remarkable bird. They even go as far as Alaska during the breeding season! So when we first met, you told me about the Birds Monitoring Group and shared the link to the BMG website. Inspiring stuff. Can you tell my readers about the Birds Monitoring Group and its mission?

AH: BMG is a self-financed group that specializes in birds. The group consists of members ranging from specialists, birdwatchers, veterinarians, and researchers. The group’s mission can be summarized by the following points:

  1. Recording and documenting all resident, migratory and invasive birds of the Qatif region

  2. Working on a classification and identification guide of all the birds in the region. This will be mainly a dedicated guide for researchers and birdwatchers

  3. Working on a photographic classification guide targeting the public to educate them about identifying and preserving the birds

  4. Preparing scientific reports on the number of resident and migratory species and submitting them to the competent authorities with the aim of protecting those birds and their endangered environment

  5. Extending the group’s activity to include the birds of the the Gulf region by making trips and inviting people from the other Gulf countries to join the group

  6. Obtaining an official partnership with one of the Kingdom’s institutions concerned with preserving the environment

  7. Working on preparing an illustrative map that helps identify important wintering and breeding areas as well as stopovers for birds in the Kingdom with the aim of establishing nature reserves

The handsome Western Reef Heron can be seen along the coastlines of the Arabian Peninsula. Sometimes they occur inland at hotspots like Al Asfar Lake in Al Ahsa. Captured by Abdullah Hussain.

SB: And who are the group’s founding members?

AH: The group was founded in 2011, and the main founders of the group are Mohamed Al Zayer, who had the initial idea for the group and is now the head, Faisal Hajwal, Lutfi Al Basarah, Mahmoud Al Basarah, Mahdi Al Saghir, and Jaffar Seriu.


SB: I’ve really been impressed by the quality of the group’s work. What does it take to get the kinds of photographs and make the sorts of discoveries the BMG have accomplished?

AH: The main thing that BMG members have is a passion for birds. Although it involves technical knowledge and knowledge about the birds and their identification, being passionate about what you do will produce an outstanding outcome.

Members of the Birds Monitoring Group documented the first evidence of breeding Egyptian Nightjar in Saudi Arabia. Great work, guys!

SB: And when can we expect a bilingual (Arabic/English) version of the BMG website?

AH: This is the plan and it will hopefully be available in both languages soon.

Pied Kingfisher is an uncommon winter visitor to the Eastern Province. In the past two years it has been seen at Tufaih / Khafra Marsh, a stellar birding hotspot a short drive from Jubail and Al Qatif. Captured by Abdullah Hussain.

SB: For many foreign birders considering visiting Saudi, safety is one of the top concerns. In light of the police action in Al Qatif a few years back, the US state department has warned Americans to avoid visiting the area. A similar warning was also issued for Al Ahsa, where I am currently working. In your opinion, is it safe to visit Al Qatif? What advice would you give foreign birders who would like to visit?

AH: It is definitely very safe to visit Qatif. The advice I would give birders who would like to come to Qatif for birding, especially those who are not familiar or have not visited the city before, is to coordinate with either a local birdwatcher or contact one of the BMG members. I would be more than happy to provide any kind of help in this regard.


SB: What about making the most out of a visit to Saudi as a whole?

AH: They should plan their trips carefully by deciding which regions they would like to visit as some migrant and resident birds are found in certain regions and not in others. It is also a good idea to consult with a local birder to get to know the specifics of the areas and the hotspots for birds.

This green-eyed beauty is a Socotra Cormorant, one of the regional specialties occurring along the coastlines of the Arabian Peninsula. Captured by Abdulla Hussain.

SB: What are some of the highlights of birding around Al Qatif? I’m familiar with what Tarout Island has to offer, but that’s the limit to my knowledge of where the birds are in Al Qatif.

The Barred Warbler is one such migrant passerine that shows up annually on passage in Al Qatif and elsewhere around the Kingdom. Captured by Abdullah Hussain.

AH: Qatif has various species of resident and migratory birds. In recent years, the number of these birds has declined, and the birds have started to move toward the northwest of Qatif, where there are a lot of farms and open areas that are further from the populated areas. The reasons for this are mainly due to residential and commercial development and the removal of most of the mangroves. But currently you still can find a vast number of birds, especially near the seashore, where you can find terns, sandpipers, plovers, ducks, gulls, herons and egrets, cormorants, oystercatchers, and other waterbirds. There are some spots where you can also find warblers, kingfishers (mainly the Common and White-throated), some birds of prey, bee-eaters (both the Blue-cheeked and European), European Roller, shrikes, and various other passerines.


SB: You know well the threats facing the birds of the Middle East. How can we get more Saudis to put down their guns and pick up cameras instead? And how about getting more young Saudis interested generally in their natural treasures?

AH: By first having solid regulations that would protect not only the birds, but also everything that contributes to the health of the ecosystems in which they live. Then working on awareness by showing how important all the other creatures around are to our environment. This could be done by embedding this content in the students’ curricula or books during their studies.

SB: What’s your top wish for Saudi’s bird life by 2030?

AH: Since we have a wide area rich with birds and since most of them are prone to hunting, I hope that those areas will be converted into protected areas and hope to have solid regulations in place by which birdwatchers, photographers and researchers will still be allowed to pursue their passion. I dream of the day when I will see zero guns pointed toward the birds.

A Eurasian Curlew tossing back a tasty crab morsel. Captured by Abdullah Hussain.