Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Oman: the central desert

This was to be our longest day of traveling. We drove over 700 km in the day plus the one hour ferry crossing from Masirah Island. We traveled inland from the east coast to the main Muscat-Salalah road, before heading south alongside the Saudi border into Dhofar, the southernmost region of Oman:

Cars in Oman have an alarm that sounds as you get to 120kph. A constant audio alarm, not dissimilar to a continental European police siren. This is surprisingly effective at preventing speeding. The trick was to set the cruise control as close to 120kph as possible without the alarm sounding and then sit back and relax. 
    Unfortunately there was not much else to do. For much of the journey there was simply no scenery. Just a straight road and flat desert. When Richard and I travel together we have a rule that we only drive for one hour at a time and then swap over. This prevents too much driving fatigue creeping in and meant we could cover about 100km per hour easily, hour after hour. I got lucky. I was at the wheel for the left turn onto the main road south: in 7 hours of driving I was the one who got to turn the wheel, woo-hoo! Below, typical desert scenery, flat and straight:

Google Earth gives a good indication of the terrain: 

After travelling all day we were grateful to arrive at Qatbit at around 4pm. We woke the rather grumpy owner up and tried to book a room, only to be told they were full.  Not the news we wanted, especially as we were literally in the middle of nowhere. We assumed a bird tour group were staying that night, there seemed little other reason to stay here. Having been sitting in the car for so long, we took the opportunity to see what birds we could find in the trees around the hotel. We discovered a few migrants, including this Hoopoe:

A Spotted Flycatcher was joined by our only Red-breasted Flycatcher of the trip. There were a few warblers, but all proved to be Chiffchaffs. A couple of Isabelline Shrikes were present, including this very grey looking Turkestan shrike:

Then we had to make a decision on where to spend the night. We had few choices. The owner directed us to Salalah some 200km south, interesting, as we knew there was a hotel much closer at Al Ghaftan, 110km north. It is in the wrong direction and means that we have to retrace our steps for another hour back north, but we have no choice. As it turns out the Hotel at Al Ghaftan and it's owner are much nicer than our experience of Qatbit. Even better, 5 minutes into the drive back north I glimpse some shapes by the roadside as we flash by at 119.9kph. "Sandgrouse, right by the road!". I execute a swift U-turn and we carefully drive up to a small flock of a dozen Spotted Sandgrouse:

Richard gets some excellent pictures of this desert species:

We check into the Al Ghaftan hotel, eat and then sleep in another hotel that we do not see in daylight. The next morning we are up early and drive back south, past Qatbit to be at Muntasar Oasis, some 17km off the main, road shortly after dawn:
Above, a Pajero in the desert. The one on the left obviously. 
Below, on the horizon Muntasar Oasis appears:

As we approach the oasis we pass a camel herder and his camels. These are Arabian Camels and are very dark, some almost black:

Camel tracks:

 The Camel herder insisted that we photograph him:

The Oasis:

Water always attracts birds, especially in such hot, dry conditions. Wood and Common Sandpipers fed on the edge of the pools, we flushed a few Common Snipe (but no Pin-tailed) from the marshy areas. A Great Grey Shrike was present, with the common Turkestan Shrikes:

There were Desert and Pied Wheatears, a Spotted Flycatcher and two Spotted Sandgrouse flew overhead. Male Desert Wheatear:

Pied Wheatear, top right and Desert Warbler, bottom right:

Pied Wheatear:

Asian Desert Warbler:

We had hoped for rather more than the two Spotted Sandgrouse that came down to drink, but it is always good to see sandgrouse. Male Spotted Sandgrouse:

Below, the female bird on the left, with spotted neck and breast, the male on the right:

Muntasar was pleasant but not exactly brimming with birds, but I had high hopes of our next stop, a farm in the desert 80km south. We eventually found Dawkah Farm, the access track is now off the main turning to Dawkah and were able to drive right in. The farm consists of five huge green circles of irrigated grassland that stand in desert sand. From the perspective of a migrating bird in the air they look like this:

From the ground, like this:

In such a barren habitat these damp green areas are simply full of birds. The short grass circle was the best: Tawny and Red-throated Pipits strolled past Desert and Isabelline Wheatears. Hoopoe Larks fed in front of Cream-coloured Coursers, while overhead Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and Marsh Harriers swooped about. Below, Blue-cheeked Bee-eater:

Best of all, for us, were the many Black-crowned Finch Larks. The males were super smart:

Hoopoe Larks: 

Away from the short grass we found more Desert Warblers, Desert Wheatears, Turkestan Shrikes and our only Rose-coloured Starlings of the trip: 

In the heat of the day we left Dawkah Farm and headed to the southern coast of Oman, to Salalah the capital of Dhofar. What would await us there?

Monday, 23 November 2015

Oman: the central coast

Having spent the first three hours of daylight at sea, we then spend most of the rest of the day driving south:

We leave Muscat, pass through the Al Hajar mountains and entered the desert:

Four and a half hours later with only two species of bird seen (Hoopoe Lark and Brown-necked Raven) we arrived at the coast of central-eastern Oman, the winter home to millions of shorebirds. Having seen Sooty Falcon in the morning, our efforts are now concentrated on seeing our other major target, Crab Plover. These unique waders can be found in the huge wader flocks that winter on the coast of Barr Al Hickman, but it seems most reliable on the mudflats of Masirah Island. To get there we planned to get arrive at Barr Al Hickman with a little time to search through some wader flocks on the mainland, before boarding the 6pm ferry to Masirah:

It was high tide when we arrived at the Shannah Ferry terminal. The surrounding coastline gave us our first taste of the sheer numbers of waders that can be found here. As far as the eye could see, and I suspect, much, much further, were huge numbers of herons, Flamingos and waders:

Bar-tailed Godwits were abundant. We scanned through flocks of these birds for their much rarer congener, Great Knot, but without success:

The wintering Oystercatchers were distinctive, presumably of the eastern longipes subspecies: 

A typical quiet patch on high tide shoreline: Terek Sandpipers and Little Stint at the front, Spotted Redshanks in the middle-ground and Bar-tailed Godwit and Oystercatchers at the back:

Curlew Sandpipers, Little Stints, Greater and Lesser Sandplovers, Grey Plovers, Bar-tailed Godwits:

Drier areas just inland held large mixed flocks of Sandplovers and Curlew Sandpipers:

But all too soon it was time to time to catch our ferry and as the sun set we drove our Pajero on board and made ourselves comfortable in the seats above the car deck. In fact, we were much more comfortable than our surrounding passengers who stared at us in horror. Then Richard noted we were the only men in that lounge. Unaware that the tradition of keeping separate public areas for men and women extended to this ferry we had absent-mindedly entered the "family" area. We quickly left and found the an identical seating area on the other side of the ferry, signposted "Men". This was where we were meant to sit. The ferry filled with workers returning from the mainland to Masirah. We observed that Arab men greeted each other with a handshake, then touched foreheads together, before lifting their chins to briefly touch noses. We did not see this habit anywhere else in Oman. As the sun sank into the Indian Ocean our ferry departed, arriving at Masirah one hour later in darkness. 

We spent a night in a hotel which we never saw in daylight, then drove the 21km south to Sur Masirah, negotiating a track through a ram-shackled coastal village to arrive on the mudflats before dawn. Richard was anxious. He had sworn he would not leave Oman until he had seen Crab Plover, on our tight schedule this morning was our one opportunity to fulfill that dream. Having seen the sheer numbers of waders that winter on the coast here would we have time to find a Crab Plover among the millions of other shorebirds? As the sun rose we could make out large flocks of waders on the shoreline:

It was just light enough to begin searching. I picked up my binoculars and scanned through the nearest birds. I relaxed. "Crab Plover. All of them!"

And indeed they were:

These are quite remarkable waders. The huge black bill, the pied appearance, those long legs and the peculiar horizontal gait contribute to an unmistakable charismatic combination. Most bizarrely, they nest in burrows, the digging of which must be helped by that enormous black bill:

In flight they appear even more distinctive, long legs trailing behind flashing black and white wings, with the black back standing out against white body:

Click the settings cog at watch at 720p. 

We spent about an hour with these fantastic creatures, before heading back to Masirah town. Masirah island was a strange place, a sandy outpost on the edge of the Indian Ocean. Camels were common here, in the sand between the coast and the central hills. Heading east of Masirah Island the next land is the Indian subcontinent on the other side of the Indian Ocean. 

We checked the coast before catching our ferry back to the mainland. 

Lesser Sand Plover: 

Sooty Gull, the abundant Gull of the Omani coast. Great bill colours!

The Shannah-Masirah ferry. We now knew to locate the Men's lounge and think we returned without causing great offence.

The viewing deck for the journey back to the mainland. Spot the European traveler:

We spent the entire one hour journey on deck. Wilson's Petrel were quite common away from the coasts, we came across a total of 25 in the central part of the journey back, together with Sooty and Heuglin's Gulls; Swift, Sandwhich and Little Terns. Arriving back at Barr Al Hickman we had a short while to explore the coast here. Barr Al Hickman is a vast flat area of sand, water and salt. Driving here, away from the roads, can be treacherous. Some areas were completely barren:

We headed south to the village of Filim, a traditional spot to view the wader flocks. In one scan from here I think I saw more shorebirds than I have ever seen from one single vantage point before. Out in the distance, behind the Flamingos in the foreground, are thousands upon thousands of waders:

The further back one looked, the more there were: 

Unfortunately the light was against us and so was the time. We continued our journey south and drove inland into the desert...