Visiting birders to the Kingdom’s capital will be happy to know that Riyadh Province boasts some very fine birding with several quality hotspots. Each is a relatively short drive from the city center—about one to two hours—and would make for quite a full weekend of exploring. Tracking down the highlights at each, however, might require a repeat visit or two. As these spots appeal to more than just avian interests, you won’t mind either way.
Al Ha’ir (الحائر)
A little less than an hour south of Riyadh, following the running of the Riyadh “River”, the voluminous flow of treated wastewater coming out of the capital by way of Wadi Hanifah, is Al Ha’ir. On account of the mix of habitats, Al Ha’ir likely offers the most avian diversity anywhere near Riyadh at any time of the year. Therefore, there’s no “best time” to visit. Even during the summer, the permanent flow of water and the shelter provided by thick vegetation support good numbers of breeding birds.
During winter and passage months the surrounding agricultural fields and scrubby margins are a good place to find Spur-winged and Northern Lapwing among other shorebirds, Collared and Black-winged Pratincole, Spotted Crake, African Collared-Dove (among the many Eurasian), Namaqua Dove, White-throated Kingfisher, Arabian Green Bee-eater, Black Scrub-robin, Desert Finch, Red Avadavat (introduced), and Spanish Sparrow. Watch the skies around the area for raptors, such as the abundant Western Marsh Harrier, Long-legged Buzzard, Short-toed Snake-Eagle, as well as Steppe and Greater Spotted Eagle. Breeding Pharaoh Eagle-Owl have also been discovered in the rocky wadis and hills marking the edges of this stretch of Wadi Hanifah. The nearby wadis can also be quite good with the abundant acacia trees attracting an array of interesting winter and migrant species, such as Menetries’ Warbler, halimodendri Lesser Whitethroat, Blue Rock Thrush, and Persian (Red-tailed) Wheatear.
By late spring, the summer breeders are back and the reed beds are alive with good numbers of Streaked Weaver, the pendulous nests of this non-native species clustered obviously along the outer edges of the reeds, Little Bittern, Squacco Heron, Purple Heron, and Eurasian Reed Warbler. Basra Reed Warbler has been seen here a few times and the observations I made of this species in 2018 and 2019 suggest that they may breed at this site, potentially good news as it is listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to habitat loss in its traditional breeding range.
With 188 species observed at Al Ha’ir over the years, there’s the potential of anything turning up, like the Pheasant-tailed Jacana seen back in 2014 or the Black-winged Kite that turned up December 2020, so it’s definitely worth repeat visits. For eyes starved of green, the incongruous beauty of a “river” flowing through the desert might be reward enough for venturing out.
Jebel Towki (جبل طوكي)
About an hour to the northeast of Riyadh is Jebel Towki, an area offering perhaps the best desert birding for those based in Riyadh and points east. The area has been referred to as Buwaib Escarpment by other expat birders and off-roaders; however, on two occasions locals informed me the name is, in fact, Jebel Towki. Buwaib appears to be an area near the escarpment but about 40 kilometers to the south. I wish expats would make more of an effort to base location names on what the locals call them as this can ultimately aid in information exchange and help birders on the ground in need of local support. All it takes is perhaps a smidgen of Arabic—Google Translate at least—and a willingness to engage people in the field. I’ve had nothing but pleasant encounters and learned something new every time, so don’t be shy!
Now the main draw of Jebel Towki for birders is the chance of encountering Thick-billed Lark, as this has turned out to be the most reliable spot for them near Riyadh virtually year round. Past encounters with young birds suggest they may even breed here, but this likely depends on how much rainfall the area has received. Now, despite the fact that they’re present, this species can be hit or miss and may require multiple visits to track down—third time was the charm for me. As the suitable terrain extends over a large area, your chances increase the more time you can spend and the more ground you can cover. While the area can be birded from the road with only short treks into wadis or out near the escarpment edge—I actually spotted my first Thick-billed from the car—getting off road in a 4×4 or planning a longer trek on foot, particularly along the base of the escarpment, would likely turn up more birds. Mind you that the hiking can get a little rugged around the base as the terrain can get quite rocky, so sturdy boots would be a must. There is a large camel market below the escarpment just north of the road.
If you only have 2WD at your disposal, then driving to the northeast corner of the market and hiking over to the base is a good way to reach some prime habitat without exhausting yourself with too much trekking. Ultimately though, the easiest way to look for the larks is driving up Jebel Towki and exploring down the roads you first come to, running first to the right and then to the left, just after reaching the top. Walking the wadis running alongside and away from these roads will eventually turn up the larks among the other species to be found about the escarpment. These include several different wheatear species, depending on the time of year, with White-crowned and possibly Hooded to be expected year round. This is also a good area for African Collared-Dove, Trumpeter Finch, Blackstart, and Green Bee-eater. Wintertime will surely produce a Steppe Eagle or two and possibly other large raptors, like Eastern Imperial Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, and Short-toed Snake-Eagle. We had our first Fan-tailed Raven out at the escarpment in March 2020.
Heading east from the top of Jebel Towki about 12 kilometers across the plateau, you will find wide flat areas beside the road, where, depending on rainfall and the subsequent vegetation, it’s possible to hit a bonanza of larks. I have seen Bar-tailed, Temminck’s, Greater Hoopoe, Greater and Lesser Short-toed, and Desert Lark in this area, and all in fairly good numbers. Historical records of Arabian Dunn’s Lark near Thumamah National Park hold out the promise of hitting the full sweep of desert lark species.
After a morning of desert birding I recommend visiting the Towki Camel Market and grabbing some cheap Sudani food to celebrate a successful outing.
Rawdat Nourah (روضة نورة)
About another hour further to the north from the Jebel Towki area is Rawdat Nourah, what I’ve discovered to be the larkiest place near Riyadh. The past few visits to Jebel Towki failed to turn up any Thick-billed Larks, and during my last visit Bar-tailed and Temminck’s weren’t to be found either. Rawdat Nourah, however, has proven reliable for the latter two and historically has been a good spot for Arabian Dunn’s Lark. In fact, after repeat visits the past two winters, I finally tracked down this hard-to-find species, my erstwhile nemesis bird, at Rawdat Nourah in December 2020—nemesis no more! Greater Hoopoe-Lark is also quite abundant here, and I suspect Lesser Short-toed Lark breeds in the rawdah proper—a broad, shallow depression that collects water during the rainy months and can subsequently be quite green with grasses and other ephemeral desert vegetation.
If you catch the rawdah lush during passage months, then you can expect it to attract a nice array of drop-in visitors. Winter 2018, I found large numbers of pipits, wheatears, and larks, including a nice flock of Bimaculated Lark, as well as European Starling, a less common winter visitor to the Kingdom. Just one further note on access, this area is quite extensive and is best birded by following the tracks away from the main road to the edges of the more vegetated patches. This is mostly gravel desert and even a 2WD vehicle can manage. Just be careful of punctures from dropped camel wire and other debris as well as softer patches, particularly where drifting sand has accumulated around the bases of vegetation.
After four unsuccessful visits, December 2020 produced my first encounter with Arabian Dunn’s Lark
Arabian Dunn’s Lark habitat at Rawdat Nourah
Rawdat Sajuwan (روضة سجوان)
Time willing, another interesting patch just south of Rawdat Nourah worth exploring is Rawdat Sajuwan. Provided there’s been some rain, then this rawdah might prove to be quite productive as well and another potential spot for finding the Arabian Dunn’s Lark. Rawdat Sajuwan offers the same extensive vegetation around a shallow depression as Rawdat Nourah, with the depression going green after rains. Here there is some excellent larking habitat—meter-high shrubs dotting a flat gravel-sand desert interspersed with Sodom’s apple, the occasional acacia, and patches of ephemeral grasses and desert blooms. However, during our only visit last winter it had been quite dry and we didn’t turn up anything different than what could be encountered at Rawdat Nourah. Visits should ultimately be timed with the rains for the best experience.
Two and a half hours north of Riyadh is the picturesque town of Ushaiqer. The local dump to the west of the town was the site of last year’s mass gathering of the globally threatened Steppe Eagles. Mischa Keijmel, who first witnessed and documented the spectacle, estimated that there were about 5,000 eagles at the site during winter 2019/2020. The congregation drew other large and interesting species as well, such as Eurasian Griffon and Cinereous Vulture. Unfortunately, this winter the number of eagles observed at the site have not been much greater than about 10% of what Mischa encountered last winter, and during our recent visit we counted only 50 eagles, which still amounted to the most eagles I’ve seen in one place. If the eagle numbers at this site continue to remain low in subsequent winters, then one might opt to skip the 2.5 hour drive and check out areas closer to Riyadh where congregations have also been observed. One such spot where I’ve seen several dozen eagles before is just southeast of Riyadh off the Al Kharj Road and could easily be included in a visit to Al Ha’ir.
Two Steppe Eagles at the edge of a dump southeast of Riyadh off the Al Kharj Road
Wadi Nisah (وادي نساح) / Tuwaiq Escarpment (جبل طويق)
About an hour’s drive southwest of Riyadh is Wadi Nisah, a wide sandy valley dotted with farms and surrounded by sandstone hills and narrow, inviting wadis. Nearby are the towering sandstone cliffs of the Tuwaiq Escarpment and the popular tourist spot called the Edge of the World. For birders, this area offers perhaps the best chances of encountering Desert Owl in the Kingdom, particularly along the escarpment and in some of the steeper wadis. In addition, it appears to be more reliable for species not frequently encountered elsewhere around Riyadh, such as Bonelli’s Eagle, Fan-tailed Raven, Scrub Warbler, Hooded Wheatear, and Striolated Bunting. Even if you don’t turn up the owl—as luck would not have it during our most recent visit—Wadi Nisah and the surrounding area are stunning and well worth the visit.