With COVID-19 still limiting travel, migratory birds tease us with the purest symbol of what’s been curtailed for so many of us — the freedom of movement. Yet one unexpected gift of the pandemic-era lockdowns has been a renewed awareness of the wonders of the natural world around us. In these quieter moments, while the human world waits, we have an opportunity to bear witness to an incredible natural occurrence, one that has been happening annually since time immemorial.
Every year, hundreds of millions of birds, representing nearly 300 species, transit through Saudi Arabia along the African-Eurasian flyway. This spectacular yearly passage is currently under way, as adult birds and their offspring head toward non-breeding sites in southern Arabia and Africa. Some areas in the Kingdom are even hospitable enough to encourage them to winter here. One need not have special knowledge or skills to catch the action. Smaller migratory birds, like hoopoes, bee-eaters, swallows, and wagtails can be encountered in and around the landscaping in residential areas or at work sites, refueling for the next leg of their journey.
Looking up, especially in October, you just might spy larger birds, such as storks, eagles, and falcons, gaining height from uplifts of warm air rising from the desert floor. However, for those looking for a chance to re-connect with nature and more deeply immerse themselves in the wonder and beauty, Al Ahsa plays host to some of the best birdwatching spots in the Kingdom, including Al Asfar Lake, Al Ahsa National Park, and Al Uqair Beach.
The permanent water and thick vegetation make Al Asfar Lake one of the most productive hotspots in the whole country. The mud flats, shoals, and shallows attract thousands of wading birds, such as sandpipers and plovers, many of which have the longest annual migrations in the bird world, using Saudi Arabia as a stopover on their way to the southern hemisphere and back. Meanwhile, the reeds, rushes, and tamarisks around the lakeshore offer cover and sustenance for familiar Eurasian birds like the blackcap and common nightingale. If you’re lucky, you just might spot a steppe eagle, an impressive yet endangered bird of prey calling the Kingdom home during the winter.
If you find yourself desperate for a stroll beneath the trees, Al Ahsa National Park is the place to go. The extensive plantings and adjacent scrubby desert are a veritable magnet for migrant birds like shrikes, warblers, flycatchers, redstarts, and wheatears. This is also the best place in the Eastern Province to see the black scrub robin, an energetic resident species with a comically long tail. As the park is a popular picnicking spot, the best time to visit is early morning, especially on Fridays. Less than an hour to the east of Al Hofuf is Al Uqair, a tiny, unpopulated port on the Arabian Gulf. Visit in the morning and you just might find the undeveloped stretches in either direction all to yourself. The odd clusters of trees running along the coast are popular with many of the bird species that can be seen throughout the Kingdom during their migration.
Later in the season, the gray hypocolius can be seen eating dates from the wild palms that grow nearly up to the water’s edge. The tidal flats and lagoons near the port are good places to look for shorebirds and waders, and just offshore, you might witness a huge flock of Socotra cormorant, a threatened diving bird only found in the Arabian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, in search of good fishing.
The theme of this year’s World Migratory Bird Day (October 10) was “birds connect our world.” Sure, birds transcend national boundaries. However, at a time when so many of us are aching to see family and friends back home, getting outside to enjoy the natural world can also help us connect to a deeper sense of well-being, so critical during these difficult times. Birds can help re-connect us with ourselves.