Thursday, 3 December 2015

Oman: Dhofar 3

This is Ayn Hamran, a large wadi only 15 minutes from Salalah. This fabulous site holds most of the Dhofar species we wanted to see. It is also apparently a site where Verreaux's Eagle can be seen. Richard and I don't talk about Verreaux's Eagle. Even the name is fabulous. Any bird whose name has a scrabble score that high, must be worth seeing. In fact, this monstrous, rare, black Eagle, with its unique wing-shape and dramatic white patches on the wings and back is one of THE most wanted birds, anywhere. In fact, we don't even look in the field guide at its image. It is simply TOO good a bird and one that we have accepted since birth, that we will never see. At Ayn Hamran, we glance up wistfully at the blue morning skies. I regularly scan the ridge-line, picking up 3 Steppe Eagles, but nothing more. We know we won't see Verreaux's Eagle and we are calm in acceptance of that state. We might as well be scanning the skies for Unicorns. Except that the appearance of one would generate slightly less shock than if a Verreaux's Eagle were to pass overhead. But it won't and it doesn't. 

The day begins with a much smaller bird, Arabian Warbler:

 Then Arabian Partridges:

 Then Arabian Butterfly. Only kidding, this is a Common Tiger Butterfly:

Ayn Hamran produces a fabulous few hours of Dhofarian birding. Cinnamon-breasted Buntings and White-spectacled Bulbuls join more the familiar Chiffchaffs, Whitethroats and Lesser Whitethroats. There are Hoopoes, Shining Sunbirds, Tristram's Grackles, many Bruce's Green Pigeons and African Silverbills. Abyssinian White-eyes are common:

There are half a dozen of one my favourites, Blackstart:

And a single adult Masked Shrike, with the usual hordes of Turkestan's: 

Then there is a burst of colour as a Grey-headed Kingfisher zips through the trees in front of us. We manage to relocate it further down the wadi. 

It is a smart bird and the only one we have seen in Oman. If only it would open it's wings, to reveal those colours again. And as if by magic, it opens a wing and begins sunbathing. You stunner! 

All the while we have been listening out for Black-crowned Tchagra, this being the best site for a bird with a name as fabulous as it's head pattern. After a good hour and a half, we stop for breakfast in the car and then head to the base of the cliffs. There are African Paradise Flycatchers and Shining Sunbirds in the scattered trees here and we finally get a picture that captures the Sunbird's iridescence:

This particular male Shining Sunbird was flying up to feed on insects and spiders in the huge webs that hung from the trees. Note the size of the adult spider, a monster:

Below, this was a horrendous beast: large, staring eyes, black furry legs and a fearsome mouth that looked as if it could take a bite out of you at any moment.
Oh, I've just noticed there is a spider in the picture too ;-) 

Having survived walking through spider webs the size of double duvets, Richard suddenly starts pointing down at the ground silently. He is on the top of a small ridge and has just found our target, a fantastic Black-crowned Tchagra. This is not an easy bird to see. It creeps around on the ground under the branches of bushes and only once comes out into the sunlight: 

Very satisfied with our morning so far, we work our way east. Dropping into  
Khawr Rawri, where a Malachite Kingfisher has been recently reported. Apparently we have about a 1 in 4 chance of seeing this bird but this isn't to be our lucky day. We find a very smart adult male Turkestan Shrike:
 The female wasn't bad either:
Also a beautiful Blue Pansy butterfly:

Then into the mountains to what we thought at the time was the Tawi Atayr sinkhole. In fact we were at a smaller sinkhole a few km south of the big one:

The Sunbirds up here are Palestine Sunbirds:

A pair of South Arabian Wheatears were present around the buildings:

This site is the only accessible site for one of the most boring birds in the world: Yemen Serin. Mainly because the rest of the world population of this species live in Yemen. A country, we are told, where everyone, even the children carry guns and we have no intention to visit. Small, brown and slightly streaky, the Yemen Serin is a bird that even I find it hard to get excited about. The fact that Richard flushes a small, brown streaky bird that I don't see and can't relocate, makes me feel even more flat about the experience. 

Then something amazing happens. Two other birdwatchers turn up. This is the only time in Oman we meet other birders. And it is pivotal moment. They are Swedes, we exchange pleasantries and sightings and give them directions to where we saw the Dideric Cuckoo the day before. Then:
"Have you seen Verreaux's Eagle?" one of them asks. 
We freeze. 
"No", we added cautiously, not feeling the need to add, "they don't exist". 
"We saw one 10 minutes ago, on a cliff-face just up the road. We waited for about an hour and ten minutes, but then one flew past, a fantaschtic birrrd". 
We run to the car. It is our unicorn moment. 
Only after we leave do we try to digest their directions. "You will see a view. You will know when you get there", what sort of directions are they? But nine minutes later we turn a corner and bang:

We encounter one of the most stunning vistas I have ever seen. In the distance the Indian Ocean twinkles blue. In the mid-ground a huge expanse of desert and wadi stretches out before us. In the foreground we are on the edge of huge cliff, enormously high. Looking at the view, it is more like flying than being on the ground. It is a physically staggering experience. I sit down on the edge of the cliff, Richard starts taking some scenery shots. I look down at my feet, noting that most of Oman appears visible beneath them. Then from behind my right foot, two adult Verreaux's Eagles appear beneath me, moving away faster than any other bird I have ever seen. I can see their huge black wings, white rumps, the thin white lines on their backs. "EAGLES!" I scream. Richard calmly takes a picture of me, watching the impossible, watching Verreaux's Eagles:



Yes, yes, yes, yes, YES! 

And other assorted swear-words that are best not repeated here. When we calm down we realise that there are three birds present. In the strong winds blowing up towards our lofty look-out, these huge Eagles cover vast distances in seconds. We estimate that they pass at over 70mph. We are treated to a number of flybys in the next couple of hours, the birds tending to return to the cliffs away to our right. It was fabulous to look down at the eagles, a unique perspective in raptor-watching. Even though they are mostly distant, we do see them approach and land on the cliffs. Below are heavily cropped images:
An incoming Verreaux's Eagle:

Adult on cliff:

... joined by a second bird.

Flight shots were tricky due to the immense speed of the birds passing at distance, all the while we were being buffeted by strong winds, but I've made up a couple of composite images. The first is of a diving bird:

The second of a bird climbing, then stooping, all in front of the fabulous panorama:

Two extremely happy birders, sitting on the edge of the world, feeling as if they have achieved the impossible:

Next: an excursion towards Yemen... 


  1. Great report. I went to the eagle site last May but failed. Next time...I think, though, that what you have reported as Striolated Bunting must actually be Cinnamon-breasted, as Striolated don't really occur at this site.

    1. Andrew, thank you for correcting me. This blog post does indeed show Cinnamon-breasted Bunting, editing is just about to occur!