Our Man in Al Jawf: An Interview with Wildlife Photographer Nader Fahad Al Shammari

The first time I heard of Nader Fahad, physics teacher and wildlife photographer from Sakaka, the capital of Al Jawf region in Saudi's northwest, was through his incredible discovery of See-see Partridge in 2014, a species that had not been known to occur in the Kingdom up to that point. To date, the nearest sighting to Sakaka in eBird of this colorful little partridge is 460 kilometers northeast in central Iraq. Since then I've been an avid follower of his birding adventures on Instagram and YouTube, keen to see what other cool birds his region might hold. I haven't been disappointed. Through his lens, Nader has opened a window onto the wild treasures of one of Saudi's most under-explored regions. For those with an itch for adventure and up for the challenge of the hunt, Al Jawf holds the promise of excellent Saudi birding with many more discoveries surely to come. Interested? Nader Fahad's your man.

Nader's records of See-see Partridge are the only ones from Saudi Arabia

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

NF: My love for nature led me to photographing birds in 2011.

SB: But what got you interested in nature? Was there someone in your life who inspired you or an important experience that turned you on to nature?

NF: I live in small city, which is surrounded by countryside. Therefore, I'm close nature. There isn't one particular experience or person that turned me on the nature. Just observing, camping, and watching documentaries over the years. Those are the reasons that I have come to love nature. SB: What’s your favorite Saudi bird and why?

NF: The Lilith Owl because it's the first owl I photographed. I created my logo from it.

SB: Why was photographing the Lilith Owl such a special experience for you?

NF: Because the folklore has always had a bad view of owls. I don't believe that. When I saw it the first time I felt a wonderful sensation.

Nader's had some wonderful owl encounters around Sakaka

SB: What has been the most memorable birding you’ve done in the Kingdom?

NF: It was 2014 when I went to the Asir region. I was shocked by the beauty of birds.

SB: Which birds impressed you the most by their beauty?

NF: Definitely the African Paradise Flycatcher and Violet-backed Starling.

SB: What did you think or how did you feel when you first saw the Asir Magpie?

NF: When I saw the Asir Magpie, I had complex feelings. I was happy because it's a rare bird but at the same time I was worried because it's endangered.

SB: Al Jawf is in the extreme northwest of Saudi, why should international birders consider making the region a stop on a birding tour of Saudi Arabia?

NF: Because of its great location between three natural reserves* and its proximity to Jordan and Iraq, there are different resident and migratory birds that can only be seen in Al Jawf.

* The largest of which is the Harrat Al Harrah (حرة الحرة) Preserve, which is part of the larger Harrat Al Sham (حرة الشام), a vast series of contiguous basalt fields, remnants of ancient volcanic activity, extending from southern Syria through northeastern Jordan. The preserve is home to many of Saudi's resident lark species, including Arabian Dunn's and Thick-billed Larks. Given the region's been so under explored, I suspect the basalt fields in the region might hold a population of "Basalt" Wheatear (Oenanthe lugens warriae), a subspecies of Mourning Wheatear that breeds in the "black desert" just over the border in Jordan. Some have argued apparently that these birds should be considered for full-species status, holding out the potential for a new regional endemic.

Nader's capture of a Thick-billed Lark in the "black desert" of Al Jawf

SB: When’s the best time to visit the Al Jawf region and what are some of the specialties visiting birders and bird photographers might see?

NF: In the winter from November to April. They can find all the info about the birds on my website.

SB: You’re super active on social media and, with the recent news segment, surely introducing more Saudis to joys of birding and bird photography. Has this been your social media mission all along? If not, what else has been driving you?

NF: This is one of many reasons, beside encouraging tourism and sharing my experience and art.

SB: If you could only keep one of your social media accounts, which would you keep and why? NF: Absolutely Instagram. It gives more options to photographers.

SB: Do you hope to play a more active role in Saudi's ecotourism industry in the future?

NF: Of course, I would love to join more active jobs like ecotourism.

SB: So what has been your proudest achievement so far?

NF: I'm proud of adding See-see Partridge to the list of Saudi birds in 2014. By the way this bird has become resident in Al Jawf.

SB: By resident, do you mean you have been seeing it year round? Any advice for visiting birders on tracking down this rarity?

NF: Exactly, I see him all year around. They can find it on mountains near farms.

No one knew this colorful and charismatic little partridge ranged into Saudi until Nader's discovery in 2014

SB: What other projects do you have in the works?

NF: I'm working on a book about the resident birds of Al Jawf.

SB: Will this be a photography book exclusively or more of a guide to the birds of Al Jawf? Arabic only or Arabic and English?

NF: It will be a photography book with a simple information about places and status of birds. You will have a free copy of it. SB: Thank you. I'd be honored to receive one. And what do you think is the best way get more young Saudis interested in their natural treasures?

NF: Education through social media.

SB: As a young Saudi yourself, how has social media helped shape your appreciation and understanding of biodiversity and the need for conservation in the country? Can you think of a time when social media opened your eyes to something related to Saudi birds and bird conservation? NF: The reason is that it makes it easier and faster to receive photos and videos from specialists and regular people from different regions in the country. Imagine that you are watching the birds of your area and at the same time you can watch the birds in other areas directly through social media.

SB: You recently had quite an adventure tracking down a lost Golden Eagle. What was that experience like?

NF: First, I want to thank you my friend for giving me this adventure**. It was a unique and emotional experience. It started when the signal from the transmitter on the eagle appeared to stop moving 300 km from my house. Everyone thought he was dead, but when I got there I found him alive but badly shocked by an overhead powerline. We tried to save him at a clinic in Arar. Everyone was concerned—you, the Saudi Wildlife Authority (SWA), my family, friends and followers. Unfortunately, he died at the clinic. Then I sent the transmitter to SWA to return to the team that was tracking his movements. I honored him by naming my car after him—"E'qab", which means Eagle in Arabic.

**Watch Nader's Instagram story about recovering the Golden Eagle HERE

SB: What new adventures are you planning in “E’qab” in the future?

NF: Searching for a group of birds I need to photograph to complete my book.

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

NF: I'm hoping for the activation of rules to protect birds from hunting, logging, and overgrazing.

SB: Illegal logging is a very serious problem, especially in the mountains of the west. How can we encourage people to start being part of the solution and stop being part of the problem?

NF: Illegal logging and the killing of any wild animals can result in imprisonment up to 10 years and a fine of up to 30 million riyals or one of the two for anyone who commits either. I hope that will be enough to make people stop.

SB: In your opinion, is it safe to visit Saudi? What advice would you give foreign birders who would like to visit? What advice would you give visiting birders about making the most out of their visit to Saudi as a whole?

NF: Certainly Saudi Arabia is safe. In the media they spread false information for the sake of excitement without the truth. For example, you moved to Saudi Arabia and have been birdwatching around the country safely. Here are two tips: first communicate in advance with birdwatchers like you or locals and, second, choose specific areas to visit during your trip because Saudi Arabia is very large.

SB: Thank you, Nader. Good birding, my friend!