As the eBird reviewer for Saudi Arabia one of my responsibilities is to ensure the validity of the sightings being entered into the eBird database. Any sightings considered rare, out of place, out of season, or numbering greater than what would be expected get flagged and sent to my review queue, from where I may need to reach out to the observer if there was, for example, insufficient documentation. Because so few people are using eBird in Saudi, mainly because there are simply not a lot of birders here, I sometimes go to the country list to check what has been seen recently and by whom. This way I can catch and weed out the oddball reports that occasionally slip through the net, such as the Golden Eagle, which is here for sure but very uncommon and local, observed “feeding on prey” in a public park in the center of Jeddah.

Well, a short time ago I was scrolling through the recent sightings, past the names of observers with whom I’m already familiar, when I saw someone new–a Samuel Hodge reporting a Grey Wagtail on May 9, eBird’s Global Big Day. Grey Wagtail pass through Saudi during migration in the spring and fall and would be a prize addition to any outing, so I was curious what else he had seen that day and where. Turns out that he was based in the Eastern Province as well, so I clicked on his eBird profile, always keen to learn more about the small but growing crew of eBirders in the Kingdom. I was happy to discover that Mr. Samuel Hodge was American, like me, and also a blogger. I followed the link to his website–Birds and Turtles–and from all the wonderful posts and pictures, it was clear that Samuel was someone who is passionate about birds and other wildlife and that he’s had some pretty amazing experiences traveling the world to learn about them. 

The smart little Grey Wagtail Sammy and his family saw during the Global Big Day on May 9, 2020. Check out Sammy’s website to see photos of some of the other birds they saw that day.

When I showed my wife his profile and website, she suggested that I interview him for Saudi Birding. Certainly with all the issues facing global wildlife, we’re going to need the passion and energy of young people, like Samuel, to help solve them. His is a voice, like that of so many caring and committed youth around the world, that deserves to be amplified and shared. So I was honored when he agreed to my request for an interview.

Without further ado, introducing Samuel “Sammy” Hodge.

Samuel’s eBird profile showing all of the countries where he has made bird observations

SB: First off, please introduce yourself to my readers.

SH: My name is Samuel Hodge, and I am going into fifth grade in Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. I am ten years old. I am from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and I live next to a cranberry bog and a lake. I like to catch and release crayfish in the lake, and catch and release frogs on the boardwalk. I like to go bird watching with my 5 year old sister, my mom and my dad here in Ras Tanura but also when we go traveling to places like Cyprus, Sri Lanka, and other amazing places to go birding.

SB: What brought you and your family to Saudi Arabia?

SH: We were living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and my parents were teachers there. My five year-old sister was just born and the lifestyle of living in Ras Tanura was perfect for all of us because we were all together more than we would be living in America. Also, my parents wanted us to travel more and see the world. We felt like moving to Saudi because it was familiar to them, and a little to me because they had previously taught at the American International School of Riyadh, where I was born.

SB: What’s your favorite thing about living in Saudi?

SH: My favorite thing about living in Saudi is since we live next to the Gulf, we see all the beautiful migrating birds that stop here for their final stop, and they stay here for a couple of weeks, so we have enough time to take pictures of them. Sometimes we see hundreds of Socotra Cormorants on the water in gigantic flocks on their way to the Island of Socotra to mate. We also love to see migrating Blue-cheeked and European Bee-eaters. One of our favorite activities is to go to the golf course where they often feed on insects, and count them. The sound of their song makes us feel happy, especially this spring when we were under curfew.

A Blue-cheeked Bee-eater in the Eastern Province doing its share to help deal with this winter’s locust plague

SB: When did you first become interested in birds?

SH: My grandpa used to take my mom and dad birding in Washington State, and before I could even walk, I was going bird watching in Washington State. When I go to my grandpa’s house in Washington State, I make bird houses for flickers, pileated woodpeckers and many more birds. I have a whole series of bird houses for each species of bird. I have been doing this since I was seven, and my grandpa has continued building the houses for me. Then we hang them up in the forest behind his house. When I go to my other grandpa’s house, also in Washington State, I feed Steller’s Jays peanuts. When I lived on Cape Cod we had a bird feeder in both the front and back yard. My mom and I love watching Northern Cardinals at our bird feeder that we bought and then my grandpa helped me set up a pulley system so we could easily refill it. We still love riding across the street to the many bogs and then we watch Canada Geese with their Goslings and Mute Swans with their Cygnets.

Sammy and his dad out birding in Washington State

SB: You’ve got a wonderful blog that everyone should follow, but I was wondering why “Birds and Turtles”.

SH: I chose the name Birds and Turtles because even though I love birds, I am also interested in turtles. Ever since growing up in Massachusetts, I used to go to our lake and see freshwater turtles basking in the sun, and I became fascinated by turtles. When we moved to Saudi Arabia my dad arranged volunteer opportunities with rescue centers and research organizations in Florida, Greece, Oman and Sri Lanka. These were great chances for me to learn about helping with turtles. One of the things I did in Greece was working with volunteers from all over the world on beach surveys as well as harbor patrols. They taught me how to properly pry off barnacles from a turtle’s shell with a special tool. Another time on a different survey also in Kefalonia, Greece, we found a turtle nest, so I held one end of the tape measure and then we measured the nest. Volunteering with birds usually involves surveys and counts. Two of my most memorable surveys were the European Roller survey in Cyprus and the Winter Bird Count in Austria. You can read more about these experiences onI chose the name Birds and Turtles because even though I love birds, I am also interested in turtles. Ever since growing up in Massachusetts, I used to go to our lake and see freshwater turtles basking in the sun, and I became fascinated by turtles. When we moved to Saudi Arabia my dad arranged volunteer opportunities with rescue centers and research organizations in Florida, Greece, Oman and Sri Lanka. These were great chances for me to learn about helping with turtles. One of the things I did in Greece was working with volunteers from all over the world on beach surveys as well as harbor patrols. They taught me how to properly pry off barnacles from a turtle’s shell with a special tool. Another time on a different survey also in Kefalonia, Greece, we found a turtle nest, so I held one end of the tape measure and then we measured the nest. Volunteering with birds usually involves surveys and counts. Two of my most memorable surveys were the European Roller survey in Cyprus and the Winter Bird Count in Austria. You can read more about these experiences on my website

Sammy volunteering at the Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project in Sri Lanka

SB: What was your most memorable experience birdwatching in Saudi ever?

SH: Ringing birds in Jubail is probably the most memorable experience because I love waking up at four in the morning before the sun rises to go ringing. I learned a lot about migrating birds, including how to count their primary and secondary feathers, and how to identify local species such as Bluethroats, Clamorous Reed Warblers and Great Reed Warblers. Besides ringing, my most memorable Saudi birding experience was when we were on the Ras Tanura golf course, and we saw a strange looking black and white bird. He was pretty big, so we looked in the bird book. It turned out it was a Pied Kingfisher. It was the first time we have seen him in Saudi.

The Pied Kingfisher that Sammy spotted out in Ras Tanura. This species is an uncommon winter visitor to Saudi Arabia with most recent occurrences from the Eastern Province.

SB: What’s your favorite Saudi bird and why?

SH: My favorite Saudi bird is the Common Kingfisher because I love the way the bird sounds and how beautiful it looks. I still remember when we were going ringing in Jubail. Once we caught the birds in the mist nets, Jem Babbington from Dhahran told me to read the number on the ring, then he recorded it in his book of all the birds he had ever ringed. One of the birds we caught was a Common Kingfisher. After we had ringed the kingfisher, I was trying to release the kingfisher, but it just wanted to stay in my hand and relax. We eventually put it in the bushes and it finally flew off. When we go birding here in Ras Tanura, we sometimes see a Common Kingfisher, and we have to be super quiet to see him, but he still sees us, then squawks and flies away.

Sammy with a lovely female Common Kingfisher at a ringing operation in Jubail

SB: What’s your favorite place to watch birds in the Kingdom?

A immature Steppe Eagle at Jebel Soudah in Asir Province, January 2020. Very large numbers of this globally endangered raptor pass through or even overwinter in Saudi Arabia every year.

SH: I used to like ringing in Jubail, but now we go to the golf course in our camp and see birds there. I would love to check out other places such as Al Ahsa, and I would also like to go to Riyadh to see the Steppe Eagles.

SB: How can we get more young people like you interested in the natural world?

SH: Saudi Arabia might not seem like a good place to be involved in nature, but actually it is perfect in a lot of different ways. For one thing, sometimes there isn’t a lot to do here, but really there is a lot to do. For example, we have recently been restricted because the pool and beach have been closed, but we are out in nature. For example, almost every day we go to a desert scrub area on camp that is less than ten minutes away on foot. My sister and I spend hours every day looking for Pitted Beetles and Pin-striped Ground Weevils.

There are lots of wonderful creatures to discover in Saudi Arabia, such as these cool Pitted Beetles.

Parents and schools also are important. My mom teaches second grade at Ras Tanura Elementary School and started a club called Nature Club for second, third, and fourth graders. In my mom’s ¨Morning Message¨ for her class, my mom let me and my five year old sister talk about the beetles and some birds we see. Also, some years there is an art show and there is painting and other arts, but also photography. When I have participated in the art show, I have submitted European Roller photos and Hoopoe photos as well as a Gannet photo I took in Scotland. I think photography shows might be a way to get people interested in insects, birds, and other creatures.

Two European Rollers Sammy saw during his participation in a bird survey in Cyprus. This is a highly migratory species that passes through Saudi every spring and fall.

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

SH: I understand Saudi Arabia wants to create tourism for the future. There are birders from all over the world that would be excited to come to Saudi for opportunities to see migrating birds. There are estuaries where blinds could be built and there could be a Birdlife Saudi that creates tours for birders. This would create more understanding and knowledge about birds here and give the Saudi government a reason to invest more in birding.

Al Asfar (“The Yellow”) Lake in Al Ahsa, which is part of the Al Ahsa Oasis’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would be a great candidate for a dedicated nature preserve with blinds and boardwalks for visitors. Currently unregulated hunting, unfortunately, means that far fewer species stopover at the lake during migration or the winter. 

SB: Now imagine you discovered a brand-new bird species in the world. What would it be called and what does it look like? It’d be great if you could draw and color a picture of this new species!

SH: The bird would live in Eastern North America, and eat almost anything it can swallow except frogs and turtles. Some things it would eat would be snakes, rabbits, and mice, etc. The bird would be migratory. The bird would be an owl. The new species would have pronounced ear tufts, a speckled back, a striped underbelly, and both striped underwings and on the top of the wings also. It will have an oval face with yellow and orange eyes. The owl will be called the Black Winged Striped Eagle Owl.

Introducing the Black-Winged Striped Eagle Owl (Bubo hodgei). Thanks for the brilliant illustration, Sammy, and happy Saudi birding!

* Originally posted in June 2020