Gregory Askew (Ethiopia 2019).
If you've ever peered out from your window or stepped out of your back door for the sole purpose of gaining a better view of a bird, you may have a touch of birder in you. On more than one occasion, Gregory Askew found himself doing just that. Over the years, this interest in bird watching has blossomed into a full-blown passion and he's found that ExPat life offers ample opportunity for him to engage in bird watching pursuits. Now Gregory travels the world in his offtime seeking new opportunities to observe birds in their natural habitat. He's also made great strides in connecting the Western and Saudi birding communities to advance public knowledge of the birds of Saudi Arabia. AXP recently caught up with Gregory to find out more.
First off, what brought you to Saudi Arabia?
I am a certified secondary English teacher with a master's in English literature, language, and criticism. I’m a certified TESOL instructor and IELTS examiner as well. My wife, daughter, and I moved from Vermont (USA) to the UAE about ten years ago, where I initially took up a position with the Abu Dhabi Education Council. We lived there for seven years and then moved to Saudi Arabia when I was offered a position as an Advanced ITC Instructor with Saudi Aramco. Currently, we’re based in Al Ahsa and I’m teaching English at the Mubarraz ITC.
Little Owl (Al Namas area)
Pink-backed Pelican (Red Sea Coast)
When did your interest in birding begin and how are you pursuing this passion now?
I’ve had a love of nature and, in particular, birds and birding since childhood, but I became much more active in my late 20s. Since moving to the Middle East, I’ve had the opportunity to bird many different countries, including Holland, Spain, Oman, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Ethiopia. Coming to Saudi Arabia has meant not only the opportunity to teach for a great company in perhaps the most rewarding position I’ve had the good fortune in obtaining, it’s also meant an opportunity to explore and report on one of the most under-birded, under-researched, and difficult countries for birders to visit (at least when I first arrived). In the past three years, I’ve been able to contribute to the growing knowledge about Saudi birdlife, including obtaining some of the first audio of the songs and calls of the endemic birds of Saudi’s southwest. You can listen to these in my Xeno-Canto account. I was even featured in a Spotlight feature on Xeno-Canto when I began uploading audio for species that only occur here and Yemen, such as Philby’s Partridge, Asir Magpie, Yemen Thrush, and Arabian Waxbill. My photographs, videos, and audio of Saudi birds have now been included in the species accounts for the Arabian endemics occurring in Saudi in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library and Cornell’s new Birds of the World.
Rufous-capped Lark (Abha area)
African Paradise Flycatcher (Abha area)
Are you finding others in Saudi Arabia who share your passion?
Unlike the UAE, I came to find that there wasn’t much of a birding community here and that many Saudis, in general, were unaware of their amazing avian treasures. This is not to say there weren’t any Saudi birders or bird photographers, but that birders and photographers of different nationalities in the Kingdom weren’t connected, communicating, and collaborating to the productive degree that I’ve experienced in other countries. What I’ve been trying to do over the past three years has been to bring together the small pockets of interest among the different nationalities here into a much more active knowledge-sharing community as well as help spread greater awareness in general about Saudi birds and the threats facing them.
Many Western birders and bird photographers haven’t been aware of the small crew of Saudi birders and photographers because the latter, actually quite active on social media, were only posting in Arabic and using, for the most part, Arabic hashtags. (In social media, hashtags are words or phrases preceded by a hash symbol (#) and are used as a way of connecting content to a specific topic. They make it easier to discover posts around those specific topics.) My recent hashtag challenge was aimed at Saudi birders and bird photographers to encourage them to share images and information in Arabic about the Asir Magpie using two hashtags originally used by Aramco in its work in collaboration with the Smithsonian to learn more about the Asir Magpie (Instagram #savetheasirmagpie #حماية_العقعق_العسيري). No one was using these hashtags despite the fact that several Saudis had in fact encountered the birds and were sharing their photographs on social media. The winner of the challenge, Turki Al Azwari, got a total of 234 likes and 20 shares through his social media accounts in one week. As a new member of OSME, the Ornithological Society of the Middle East, I have the option of sponsoring the membership of a local from the region. I have sponsored Turki’s membership.
Asir Magpie (Tanomah area)
Namaqua Dove (Riyadh area)
Through my Facebook blog, I’ve been sharing interviews with members of the local birding community, including one with Dr. Duha Al Hashimi out in Jeddah, Abdullah Al Shaikh in Qatif, as well as young Samuel Hodge at the Aramco compound in Ras Tanura. I wanted to make my small but growing platform a space for raising up and celebrating these individuals and hopefully foster greater awareness and interest among a readership that now includes more than just hardcore birders like myself. That said, I have been contacted by several international birders (US, UK, Holland, Sweden, etc.) who are keen on visiting the country once Saudi reopens to foreign tourism. Birding tours are sure to become a key piece of Saudi’s budding eco-tourism industry; however, as of yet, no tour outfitters are catering to this interest. I’ve subsequently guided visitors to the Kingdom who were interested in tracking down some of the more difficult or local species here, including a week-long expedition to the Jazan and Asir regions. Not too long ago we also hosted a family of Swiss adventurers who were on the return leg of a yearlong road trip that brought them as far east as Iran and guided them at birding hotspots in Al Ahsa and Riyadh.
White-throated Bee-eater (Jazan area)
How would our readers connect with you if they wanted to learn more?
What would you say to other ExPats who may be interested in birding?
As I mentioned, my work at Aramco has been very rewarding; however, without the opportunity to explore the Kingdom, enjoy its amazing wildlife and wild birds, and connect with its small but growing ranks of birders, naturalists, and nature photographers, life here wouldn’t have been nearly as rich, as interesting, or as fulfilling.
At a time when social-distancing is recommended for your well-being, there may never be a better time to take up bird watching. We encourage you to peer out from that window and step out of that back door and see what feathered friend awaits the careful observer.