Monday, 7 December 2015

Oman: Dhofar, 4th and final.

A day of two halves: we spent the morning out at Muddya oasis near the border with Yemen and the afternoon with local birder Rob Tovey at Khawr Rawri, before taking an evening flight back to Muscat. We rose well before sunrise, noting that the Moon, Jupiter, Venus and Mars were all in close proximity: 

Not being remotely superstitious, we took this as a good sign that it would be safe to drive towards Yemen. Yemen itself is not safe. If you like your trip reports to exist in a vacuum, free from human suffering, I suggest you scroll down to the nice picture of camels crossing the road, below. 

While visiting a country to observe and enjoy the wildlife, it is sometimes easy to ignore the challenges that the people of that country may face. Having made our decision to travel out towards the Yemen border it was impossible not to reflect on the human suffering that is currently taking place in Yemen.

My understanding is that the Arabian peninsular, and perhaps the whole Middle East, should be viewed as a tribal region. This is one reason why neatly dividing up the region into states and attempting to install democracy is so challenging as to be probably futile. Yemen has long been divided on ethnic, and therefore religious, grounds between the north and south. The northern Houthis, Shia Muslims backed and armed by Iran, are instigating for greater say in the running of Yemen. In the south, a Sunni Muslim Saudi-led coalition of tribal groups and separatists have fought back against the northern invaders. Jihadi groups are a third force in the complex civil war. Both Islamic State and Al Queda are taking territory and only yesterday, Sunday 6th December, IS claimed responsibility for the murder of the Governor of Aden in a car bombing. 

Oil and gas exports have been suspended, the economy is devastated and a humanitarian crisis is under way. The ports have been virtually closed in an attempt to prevent Iran re-arming Houthis forces by sea. But as Yemen is completely dependent upon imported food, thousands have been forced to choose between starvation at home or fleeing the country. The UNHCR estimate that since fighting began in March 70,000 people have fled to Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan and Ethiopia. When leaving your home and going to Somalia is seen as a safe option, you know your country is close to ruin. 

But we were fortunate. Fortunate to be able to travel to watch wildlife and fortunate to be in the comparative safety of Oman, not in war-torn Yemen.  The hazards we faced were the usual ones on Omani roads, speed-bumps and camels:

We traveled north from Salalah, through the Dhofar Mountains which were thick with overnight fog and the air temperature was only 18°, the lowest we experienced in our visit to Oman. But as soon as we left the mountains, it was business as usual, scorching hot. At Thumrait we took the only road west, towards Yemen, our destination Muddya, a tiny town with an oasis, some 50km from the border. 

There are two types of military checkpoint in Oman: light ones where you may just be waved through or the guards may have fun examining your retractable sunroof. There are also heavy check points. These have significantly more armed troops and have vehicles with huge roof-mounted machine guns stationed on both sides of the road and on either side of the checkpoint. Some 10km from Muddya we rounded a corner and came face to face with the military. It was a heavy checkpoint. 

Richard and I have a routine for army checkpoints. Whoever is the passenger has to cover the back seat of the car, which is covered with binoculars, cameras and telephoto lens, with a blanket. This just saves awkward questions. Although if anyone lifted the blanket we were aware that it may produce rather many more awkward questions. It also meant that as we approached any checkpoint one of us was obviously reaching back into the car, covering something up. I was driving, so Richard quickly covered up our optics. 

We were pulled up by a group of six Omani soldiers, all with guns. They said "good morning" in English and asked where we were going. I replied "Muddya" and was relieved to see that they seemed content with the answer. "Why are two Englishmen driving to an oasis next to the Yemen border at dawn?" would have been my response in their position, but I certainly wasn't going to argue. They checked our passports, had a quick look in the rear of the vehicle and waved us through. The blanket had worked again! 

Shortly afterwards we passed through Muddya and found the Oasis. It was not a particularly picturesque Oasis and here, away from the ocean, it got very hot very quickly. Our visit was a speculative one to try and see Nile Valley Sunbird and perhaps catch up with an early Grey Hypocolius. These nomadic birds are much sought-after, the "Waxwings of the Desert". They regularly winter in the palms at this oasis, but usually do not arrive for another week or two. We searched for Hypocolius, but without success. 

Seeing Nile Valley Sunbirds was much more straightforward. These tiny Sunbirds were positively hyperactive, quite shy and were the fourth species of sunbird we saw in Oman: Purple Sunbirds in the north, Shining Sunbirds on the Dhofar coastal strip, Palestine Sunbirds in the Dhofar hills and Nile Valley Sunbirds out here in this desert oasis. This is a female Nile Valley Sunbird:

Eclipse male Nile Valley Sunbird:

Pale Crag Martins were common here. Small groups swooped, fought and twittered over the oasis, but none were close or easy to photograph, these pictures are heavily cropped:

Pale Crag Martin composite:

We had our best views of Blackstart:

Blackstart, eye-to-eye with a fly:

Then, from behind us on the road, a car screeched to a halt and a voice called out in English "STOP NOW!". We turned cautiously, not knowing what to expect and being vaguely aware that out here anything was possible. Two young men had pulled up in a vehicle and were looking at us from their car. "Photograph us now!" they shouted. We approached and obliged. They seemed happy and drove off, leaving us with the pictures, though slightly puzzled. This was the kind of interaction that we were only to happy to deal with and was typical of our experience of meeting the friendly and proud Omani people: 

By late morning the heat was intense and we decided to travel back before meeting up with Rob Tovey back down in Salalah. We came across a small flock of Lappet-faced Vultures circling near Thumrait:

We popped in to a commercial Frankincense Tree "farm" just north of the Dhofar Mountains:

Sap is collected from the cuts on the branches and dried into "tears", which is sold as incense:

There was a large flock of Fan-tailed Ravens here, showing off the short round tail that gives them their name:

Then back through the mountains and south to the beach. Large flocks of Sooty, Slender-billed and Heuglin's Gulls gathered on the beaches, mixed in with terns and waders:

Greater Sand Plover:

Kentish Plover:


Sooty Gulls:

Yellow-billed Kite:

Both Saunders and Little Terns can occur here, though separating these species in winter plumage is challenging at best. We think these birds were Little Terns, based on the extent of the white above the eye:

The afternoon was spent at Khawr Rawri with local ex-pat Rob Tovey. Having a spot of local knowledge is always a good thing and we enjoyed our birding with him, which he wrote up here. Khawr Rwari was a nice spot with freshwater lagoons running down to the sea and Rob showed us some of the best areas:

There was a large flock of Greater Flamingos out in the middle of the lagoon...

 ... together with a single juvenile White-fronted Goose. This bird has come a long way from it's Russian Arctic breeding grounds to winter about as far south as a White-fronted Goose gets. They are a winter rarity in Oman:

Many herons could be found around at the waterside, Western Reef and Grey Herons together with Intermediate and Little Egrets. Below, an instructive shot of Squacco Heron (top bird) and an Indian Pond Heron in flight together. Note the richer, more saturated cinnamon ground-colour on the breast and back feathering of the Indian Pond Heron (lower bird):

Waders were present in good numbers, Black-winged Stilts, Black-tailed Godwits, Marsh, Common and Green Sandpipers and this Pacific Golden Plover:

This Pacific Golden Plover was the 34th species of wader we recorded in 8 days in Oman, not a bad total for a desert country! There were also species present that had crossed the Indian Ocean from India and the Malaysian peninsular to winter here. A Pygmy Cotton Teal: 

Pheasant-tailed Jacana:

Our best find was a White-breasted Waterhen, another local winter rarity:

One tree held a flock of fabulous Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters:

They looked pretty good in flight too:

Blue-cheeked Bee-eater composite:

I was excited to see that there were also Swifts present. The swifts of Dhofar have had an interesting history. For a while they were referred to as "Dhofar Swift" but are currently thought to be Forbes-Waton's Swifts, resident on nearby Socotra and a local breeder on the Dhofar coast. These birds are in the Pallid Swift super-species and have the large pale throat, pale fringed body feathering and chunky hips of that species. However, they have dark foreheads and lores, unlike Pallid Swift, so that the eye-mask is less contrasting and obvious. In some birds we saw these features could be made out. Here is a comparison with a Pallid Swift I photographed in Portugal:

The lack of a pale forehead also meant that there is less contrast between the head and the dark back in Forbes-Watson's Swift. Compare the evenly dark head and mantle on the bird below with the Pallid Swift above:

But these are subtle features and some birds I photographed would have been hard to distinguish from Pallid Swifts. Here is a Forbes-Watson's Swift composite:

Our birding in Dhofar ended with a flight of 20 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse which circled past the beach and headed inland. 

This trip was a real adventure. Richard Campey was, as ever, a fabulous travelling companion. We saw nearly 170 species of bird in 8 days, at a decent, but not hard-core pace, without trying for most of the Owls or for more seabirds. Given 10 or 12 days we would have missed much less and a two week trip to Oman is probably the ideal length. We enjoyed that the species we saw provided a nice combination of seabirds, waders, desert and Afro-Arabian species. There were great local specialty species and migrant bird species too. Photographic opportunities were plentiful. It was an absolute joy to use a camera in sunshine in winter. Indeed we saw so much that we are still coming to terms with how good the trip was! Fed up with cold grey English winters? Then head south-east to Oman, it comes most highly recommended. 

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