Thursday, 19 November 2015

Oman: Arabian Sea pelagic from Muscat

You can't beat a boat trip as a way to see seabirds, so I had arranged a 3 hour trip at dawn on a boat provided by Ocean Coral Tours at the Al Bustan Marina, just south-east of Muscat. Our main target was to get out to Al Fahl island where hopefully some Sooty Falcons would still be present, but we were also keen to see the local phalaropes, shearwaters and petrels. Using the GPS in my camera to geo-tag the pictures I took, we could plot our route, first out to Al Fahl Island, then further north-east to the open ocean, before sailing south back to the coast:

At 7am we left the harbour, at first accompanied by a couple of local fishing boats:

After 30 minutes or so, we began closing in on Al Fahl island:

As we approached the island, our first seabird appeared, a Persian Shearwater, heading east:

I have seen shearwaters of the Little Shearwater superspecies in the Indian Ocean before. Tropical Shearwaters (below left) appear much blacker (in good light) with a clean white underwing, especially the axilla. Persian Shearwater (below right) is a browner bird (in good light) with a much dirtier underwing, the axilla is obviously marked. It is depressing to note that my photography of shearwaters at sea in the intervening eight years has not improved one bit! 

We then became aware that we were passing small flocks of Red-necked Phalaropes. These fabulous waders spend the winter in the Arabian Sea, such a contrast to seeing them on their high arctic breeding grounds:

Coming across small flocks on a regular basis was a real treat:

Then our first major target species appeared. As we arrived at Al Fahl island Sooty Falcons were immediately obvious. Our first bird, like the majority here was a juvenile. These birds will make their migration to Madagascar in the next week or so:

We had been concerned that we may be too late to catch up with Sooty Falcon, but on 4th November, we estimate that we saw between 20-30 birds still present around the island. Our captain told us that he had "many times" seen Sooty Falcons hunting Red-necked Phalaropes, usually in pairs, over the open ocean.

The adults were particularly smart:

We were treated to all sorts of behaviour from these fantastic falcons, birds soaring overhead, perching on the cliffs, one stooped at our boat, whistling low over our heads at incredible speed. As we circumnavigated the island we disturbed an Osprey. It left it's roost site on the cliffs and immediately became a target for the Sooty Falcons, one adult diving down to mob the much larger raptor:

Then a moment of real confusion. Richard picked up a bird flying in, low over the sea, from the north. I got onto it and saw a medium-sized bird flying on stiff wings, inter-spaced with short glides. Being in seabird-mode my first thought was "petrel?", but it was light brown and the flight action was wrong; then "wader?". But no, the bird flew past the back of the boat and began flying up and down under the overhanging cliffs at the base of the island, just above the waterline. It then landed on the cliffs, clinging to the rock. Finally all became clear - it was a Nightjar! Fresh in from Iran or Pakistan to the north, this nocturnal bird had completed its crossing of the Arabian Sea, arriving at the north Oman coast at dawn. We brought the boat in closer... 

... and were treated to point blank views of a European Nightjar. A completely unexpected species on a boat trip, though Nightjars are a known identification pitfall for some seabird species (see here which also includes a picture of a day migrating Nightjar in Omani waters.) 

We left Al Fahl island in good spirits, one target species under our belt and a bonus Nightjar thrown in. I wanted to head further out to sea to try for Jouanin's Petrel. I spoke to our captain, described a large black seabird, mimed a glide, low over the waves and the penny dropped, "I know this bird" he said. We headed out to sea, north-east from Al Fahl island. After 22 minutes, though it seemed like longer as the swell increased, he shouted - there was an all dark seabird distantly in front of the boat: Jouanin's Petrel:

Out in the open ocean, the swell was increasing and photography with a long lens was near impossible, staying upright was a challenge. Don't be fooled by the nice level horizon in these images, the originals have a 45° slant as we were thrown left and right by the waves.

Our captain then said he thought he had seen something else, something white. I scanned across the horizon and came across a Pomarine Skua, which promptly began harassing the Jouanin's Petrel. The skua had a pale belly, is this what the captain had seen? I maneuvered myself into a seat and scanned from the port side again:

A blow from a whale. That is what the captain had seen. "Whale" I shouted, when "there she blows" would have been better. We move closer. There are lots of whales. And some of them are huge:

The next 20 minutes will stay with me forever. We are in the company of a pod of 9 Sperm Whales, including at least one small calf. Sperm Whales exhale by lifting only the apex of that massive square head out of the water. Only the left nasal passage is used, creating a unique blow that rises forwards and to the left of the whale, reaching a good 2 metres in height:

Then they dived and dived deep, leaving Richard and myself open-mouthed with shock and joy at what we had just witnessed. Even our captain was delighted, he had not seen whales for several years, we were just very, very lucky. 

Capturing the experience of seeing cetaceans seems to work better with video than stills. Here is the result of my efforts. Probably best not to watch this video if you are prone to seasickness. Bear with me in the first 30 seconds, the footage gets much less wobbly at the end and finishes with a large pod of Spinner Dolphins:

As always, click the settings cog and watch at 720p. 

If we had just sailed back to Al Bustan Marina then we would have been more than happy. But there was more. A close flyby from another Persian Shearwater:

Then a Wilson's Petrel came dancing through the waves towards us:

As we neared land we saw another Osprey, Sooty Gulls and Swift Terns (aka Greater Crested Terns) became common:

We passed the beautiful Omani coast, before heading back to the marina. Wow. One of the most memorable boat trips I have done, not for the numbers of seabirds, but for the quality of the species we saw and for an unforgettable close encounter with Sperm Whales.

Next: south for a wader spectacular!

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