Monday, 16 November 2015

Oman: the north

This was a trip, with long time friend Richard Campey, to see Sooty Falcon and Crab Plover, with anything else a bonus. The standard site guide for the region is Sargaent and Eriksen's superb "Birdwatching Guide to Oman". Thanks are due to Richard Ebbs for recommending this excellent field guide and for his trip report & map from his visit. On the ground I contacted Rob Tovey in Salalah who gave us useful advice and joined us for the final afternoon. It was hot and sunny throughout, and the temperatures were punishingly relentless, typically reaching 32°- 34°. In the shade. Which meant out in the sun it was pushing 40°. At night temperatures dropped to 29°. Stepping out before sunrise, it was hard to believe it would only get 5° or 6° warmer by midday. 

We hired a 4x4 from Muscat airport, toured the north and then drove the length of the country south to Salalah, before flying back to Muscat. We were given a Mitsubishi Pajero, perhaps the most famous cultural brand failure in the global car market. Named after Leopardus pajeros, the Pampas Cat, it had to be re-branded as the Montero after the researchers failed to note that that "pajero" is slang for w****r in most Spanish speaking countries. I will leave you to guess which term we reserved for our vehicle. For us, it was perfect. Omani roads, which are otherwise excellent, are famous for having unmarked speed ramps on fast roads and we did have a couple of aerial moments, when the high road clearance was invaluable. However, the vehicle's height was most appreciated when an Arabian Chameleon stepped out in front of the car in the mountains east of Salalah: 

I stepped on the brakes, but knew there was no chance of us stopping before we hit this beautiful reptile. I tried to keep the wheels either side of it and hoped that we could pass safely above it. Unfortunately when Chameleon are threatened they make themselves bigger, straightening their legs and raising their heads high above their bodies. This may fend off the various mammals that hunt them, but about 1.5 seconds before impact we were horrified to see the Chameleon stop, straighten up and raise it's head. Decapitation was imminent. "No!" we simultaneously shouted as the Pajero, brakes screaming, shot over the Chameleon. We screeched to a halt and spun our heads around to survey the scene of butchery behind us. There, in the middle of the road, completely untouched was an Arabian Chameleon. It stalked it's way into the roadside bushes, to safety, where I am certain I heard it mutter, "pajero". 

Most official birding tours of the country spend 10 - 14 days searching for the best birds, but we only had 8 days. This meant that we accepted in advance that we would not be able to see everything. Our timings were more planned around avoiding school holidays, as we both have children, rather than to target certain species. We wanted to be late enough in the season to try for some wintering species, but not so late we that we missed Sooty Falcon, which leave for Madagascar in mid-November. And hopefully no earlier.  


1. Al Ansab Wetland Reserve, Muscat:

This fabulous site is just 15 minutes from the airport so was the logical first and last place we visited. A site visit must be booked via the Haya Water website, but is free. You are met at gate by a guide, who outlines the rules and then you are free to walk around. It was an interesting cultural experience to chat to an Arab woman about birds, but the guides know their stuff. Earlier is best. Delayed by fog on our departure from Heathrow, and cruelly deprived of sleep all night long by Omani Air, we did not arrive until 10:30am, when we stumbled out of the Pajero into blinding, intense heat. Fortunately the wildlife was fabulous:

Citrine Wagtails were common at the waterside:

Herons and Egrets were common. We recorded Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, Grey, Western Reef and Squacco Herons plus Great, Little and this Intermediate Egret:

Being a wetland in the desert, the water acted as a magnet to birds. There were waders everywhere, from White-tailed Plover to Ruffs and Common Sandpipers...

To Wood Sandpipers...

To Marsh Sandpipers....

To Temminck's Stints...

To Little Stints...

Raptors were constantly present. Ospreys, Marsh Harriers, Kestrels joined Steppe Eagles:



Booted Eagles:

And my favourite, Greater Spotted Eagles.

Passerines were well represented in the trees. Isabelline Shrikes (Daurian as far as we could tell) perched up in the shade below the canopy, Arabian Babblers hopped about under the trees, tiny Green Bee-eaters were common and eye-catching:


Indian Silverbill:

Clamorous Reed Warbler:

Red-tailed Wheatear:


We also came across our first Sunbirds. Purple Sunbird, like this eclipse plumaged male below, were abundant on our second visit at 7am. On our first visit, mid-morning, we saw none. Timing, and heat, mean everything. 


2. Qurm Park, Muscat:

In the centre of Muscat, another green watery oasis. There was a nice selection of waders on the stream that runs into the sea, the abundant Red-Wattled Lapwings together with Black-winged Stilts, Whimbrels, Redshanks, Green and Common Sandpipers. A sizable Ring-necked Parakeet roost was building up by dusk. 


"Abundant" does not really capture how many Common Myna's were present in the park:


Our first Indian Rollers performed spectacularly. These birds flash violent blue in flight to human eyes. How these birds must appear to other birds in infra-red is beyond me. No wonder they roll and wing-flash at every opportunity: 

A migrant Grey-headed Wagtail, thunbergi

3 & 4: Liwa and Khatmat Milahah

We ended our exploration of the north near the UAE border in far north-western Oman. We failed to see Collared Kingfisher at Liwa, but found things more productive at Khatmat Milahah. This was a dry, sandy area of desert, with scrubby Ghat Trees providing the perfect habitat for warblers: Ménétries' Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler and Asian Desert Warblers were in the scrub, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears out in the sun, with a few migrant Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers as well.

Richard at Khatmat: 

Having had a coupe of days out and about on the land, it was time to check the coast. Next, an Arabian Sea pelagic. 

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