Ireland part 1: Wexford to Belfast – 28th May – 2nd June 2019   1 comment

I visited Ireland with my parents in the 60s and again with my late wife Janet in the 90’s, however Margaret had never been and was keen to rectify this. We had planned to visit in June/July 2018 but I had to have an operation so that idea was postponed. So although there were a lot of travel commitments in spring 2019 we managed to fit in a trip to Ireland as well.

Originally we planned to circumnavigate Ireland, but the more we investigated the more places of interest we found, so we decided to cover around two thirds of the coastline and return in another year for the rest. Also on my Mongolia trip 2018 I met a nice couple from the Isle of Man who invited us to look them should we ever visit. So as neither of us had visited the IoM we added that to the itinerary.

We decided to take our own car rather than fly and took the ferry from Pembroke in south Wales to Rosslare in the southeast corner of Ireland.


The ferry left Pembroke in the afternoon, travelling down the enormous Milford Haven to the Irish Sea.


We passed a number of bird rich Islands including Skokholm, famed for its seabirds including a large Manx Shearwater colony …


… and the huge Gannet colony of Grassholm island. The white appearance of the island is produced by tightly packed nesting Gannets and not some light coloured rock.


After landing we stayed in a B&B at nearby Kilrane. The following morning we headed to Our Lady’s Island, a site of pilgrimage for catholics.


However we weren’t here for the ruins or the pilgrimage but to see the birds. Our main target was Roseate Tern, but all the tern colonies along the side of the lake were composed of Sandwich, Common and Arctics and not their rarer cousins.


At the south end the lake is separated from the sea by a shingle bank, hundreds of terns were flying over the bank and heading out to sea to fish.


Eventually we saw half a dozen or so Roseate Terns. Identified by their paler appearance, rosy flush to the breast in breeding season, darker wedge in the outer primaries and black bill with a red base, their population has declined markedly in the UK but there are still around 700 pairs breeding in Ireland. I didn’t manage to photograph these fast moving birds so here is a photo taken from eBird (photographer’s name not given).


We also visited the nearby Tacumshin lake, a site famous for rarities, in particular North American shorebirds in the autumn. Although there were quite a few birds they were all too distant for photos. We had lunch in Wexford at a pub that had converted the ally out back into an elegant covered lounge.


Margaret wanted to visit the Irish National Heritage Centre; we had hoped it would be an exhibition of arts and crafts and maybe music; instead it was a recreation of dwellings from various times in the past, the Mesolithic, Neolithic and early Christian eras with boards explaining what life was like in those periods, which was interesting in its way, but not what we had expected.


We continued northwards to Arklow and stayed by the banks of the Avoca River …


… at the predictably named Bridge Hotel.


We were travelling up the east coast on our way to Dublin. Today we headed into the Wicklow Mountains, but it wasn’t the best mountain experience I’ve ever had. Although the scenery was pretty they were hills rather than true mountains and allthough there were a few good views there was nowhere to park and photograph them.


A quaint village with an old church and an unusual tower was a nice place for lunch.


During the afternoon we drove up the motorway to Dublin. We had thought about finding somewhere to stay in the outskirts and getting the bus in but before we knew it we were in the centre. Finding a hotel was a nightmare as there was nowhere for me to park outside whilst Margaret went in to check rates and availability. All the ones we tried were either 250 Euros a night or over pubs and already full. Eventually we found a hotel that only charged 90 Euros a night but I had to drop Margaret off and then go round the block again and again until she emerged with the details.


Once settled, we found the hotel a very nice place to stay and quite central for sightseeing. That evening we walked to O’Connell Street, photographed the General Post Office (GPO), the site of the famous 1916 Easter Uprising, and the new gleaming spire before having a meal nearby.


From Wikipedia: During the Easter Rising of 1916, the GPO served as the headquarters of the uprising’s leaders. It was from outside this building on the 24th of April 1916, that Patrick Pearse read out the Proclamation of the Irish Republic. The building was destroyed by fire in the course of the rebellion, save for the granite facade, and not rebuilt until 1929, by the Irish Free State government. An original copy of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic was displayed in the museum at the GPO. The museum was closed at the end of May 2015 and replaced by a new visitor centre to commemorate the 1916 Rising, ‘GPO Witness History’, in March 2016. The building has remained a symbol of Irish nationalism.


Out first destination today was Trinity College just the other side of the River Liffey …


… we walked through the pleasant quadrangles …


… pausing to photograph a Mistle Thrush on route.


Of course what we wanted to see was the wonderful Book of Kells, Ireland’s most important and most treasure historical artefact. Hardly surprisingly the actual manuscript is kept in a darkened room in the college library where photography is strictly forbidden but examples of the highly decorated pages can be seen on illuminated panels in the gallery beyond.


For those wanting a detailed description the following is (again) taken from Wikipedia : The Book of Kells is an illuminated manuscript Gospel book in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament together with various prefatory texts and tables. It was created in a Columban monastery in either Britain or Ireland and may have had contributions from various Columban institutions from both Britain and Ireland. It is believed to have been created c. 800 AD. The text of the Gospels is largely drawn from the Vulgate, although it also includes several passages drawn from the earlier versions of the Bible known as the Vetus Latina. It is a masterwork of Western calligraphy and represents the pinnacle of Insular illumination. It is also widely regarded as Ireland’s finest national treasure. The illustrations and ornamentation of the Book of Kells surpass that of other Insular Gospel books in extravagance and complexity. The decoration combines traditional Christian iconography with the ornate swirling motifs typical of Insular art. Figures of humans, animals and mythical beasts, together with Celtic knots and interlacing patterns in vibrant colours, enliven the manuscript’s pages. Many of these minor decorative elements are imbued with Christian symbolism and so further emphasise the themes of the major illustrations. The manuscript today comprises 340 leaves or folios; the recto and verso of each leaf total 680 pages. Since 1953, it has been bound in four volumes. The leaves are high-quality calfvellum; the unprecedentedly elaborate ornamentation that covers them includes ten full-page illustrations and text pages that are vibrant with decorated initials and interlinear miniatures, marking the furthest extension of the anti-classical and energetic qualities of Insular art. TheInsular majuscule script of the text itself appears to be the work of at least three different scribes. The lettering is in iron gall ink, and the colours used were derived from a wide range of substances, some of which were imported from distant lands. The manuscript takes its name from the Abbey of Kells, which was its home for centuries. Today, it is on permanent display at Trinity College Library, Dublin. The Library usually displays two of the current four volumes at a time, one showing a major illustration and the other showing typical text pages. The entire manuscript can be viewed on the Library’s Digital Collections Repository.


We also had the chance to look at the main hall of wonderful college library.


We also wandered along the banks of the Liffey admiring the architecture of the bridges, both and old and new …


… and the City Hall.


Near there was a series of sculptures illustrating the victims of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1849. The near total failure of the potato crop due to blight, caused the death of over a million and forced even more to emigrate. The population of the country fell by 25%. The lack of support from Westminster at the time exacerbated tensions between Ireland and UK, the affects of which can still be felt today.


Later we made our way to the area known as Temple Bar …


… after the eponymous watering hole.


Nearby we had our lunch serenaded by an Irish folk group.


Further along the river we came to Ha’penny bridge, so called because that was the toll to cross it when it was built.


Quite a beautiful structure …


… the nearby inn bears the same name.


Further west we visited the Viking Museum from which you get a good view of the adjacent cathedral …


… which of course was our next port of call.


During the evening we returned to Temple Bar to eat. The area as now much livelier with musicians and competitions of strength to entertain the passers-by. Most of the bars were so crowded that you hardly get in the door so after finding an al-fresco bar we returned to the hotel.


The next morning we left the city via an underground motorway that leads straight from the docks north to motorway to Belfast. Our destination was Ireland’s most important archaeological site, Newgrange. Again it is easier for me to copy and paste from Wikipedia than type the whole lot out. Newgrange is a prehistoric monument in County Meath, Ireland, located 8 kilometres (5.0 mi) west of Drogheda on the north side of the River Boyne. It is an exceptionally grand passage tomb built during the Neolithic period, around 3200 BC, making it older than Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids. The site consists of a large circular mound with an inner stone passageway and chambers. Human bones and possible grave goods or votive offerings were found in these chambers. The mound has a retaining wall at the front, made mostly of white quartz cobblestones, and it is ringed by engraved kerbstones. Many of the larger stones of Newgrange are covered in megalithic art. The mound is also ringed by a stone circle. Some of the material that makes up the monument came from as far away as the Mournes and Wicklow Mountains. Newgrange consists of approximately 200,000 tonnes of rock and other materials. It is 85 metres wide at its widest point. After its initial use, Newgrange was sealed for several millennia. It continued to feature in Irish mythology and folklore, in which it is said to be a dwelling of the deities, particularly The Dagda and his son Aengus. Antiquarians first began its study in the seventeenth century, and archaeological excavations took place at the site in the years that followed. Archaeologist Michael J. O’Kelly led the most extensive of these and also reconstructed the frontage of the site in the 1970s, a reconstruction that is controversial and disputed. Newgrange is a popular tourist site and, according to the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, is “unhesitatingly regarded by the prehistorian as the great national monument of Ireland” and as one of the most important megalithic structures in Europe.


I can add that the reconstruction of the frontage by O’Keely is controversial because it is claimed that Neolithic people would not have had the technology to construct a wall of that height at such a steep angle. There has been much debate about the meaning of the spirals inscribed on the megalith by the entrance. As those on the left are coiled in a different direction to those on the right it has been suggested that this marks the movement of the sun before and after the winter solstice.


Also from Wikipedia: There is no agreement about what the site was used for, but it is believed that it had religious significance. Its entrance is aligned with the rising sun on the winter solstice, when sunlight shines through a ‘roofbox’ and floods the inner chamber. Several other passage tombs in Ireland are aligned with solstices and equinoxes, and Cairn G at Carrowkeel has a similar ‘roofbox’. However some claim that although this might have been its original intent, the current positioning of the stones is due to the 1970s reconstruction. To get a ticket to see this wonderful alignment on the shortest day you can enter a lottery and pray, not only that your name will be drawn, but also that dawn on the 21st of December will be cloud free. Photo from the Irish Times taken at the winter solstice..


Nearby was the location of a most significant Irish event. The Battle of the Boyne a battle in 1690 between the forces of the deposed King James II of England and those of the Dutch King William of Orange who, with his wife Queen Mary (his cousin and James’s daughter), had acceded to the British Crown in 1689. The battle took place across the River Boyne close to the town of Drogheda in the Kingdom of Ireland and resulted in a victory for William. This turned the tide in James’s failed attempt to regain the British crown and ultimately aided in ensuring the continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland and that of a Protestant Monarch in Britain.


We continued north but rather than head straight to Belfast we detoured to cross the border in South Armagh. Anyone who was around in the 70s, 80s and 90s will remember the constant run of bombings and shooting from what was then ‘bandit country’. Now we didn’t even know we had crossed the border until we noticed a sign saying ‘speed limit in miles per hour’. In fact we crossed into Northern Ireland back into the Republic and back into Northern Ireland again with less hassle than it takes to use a pedestrian crossing. The fact the sort of armed border posts that I encountered in my 1991 visit could soon return if we have a no-deal Brexit fills me with apprehension. The is the town of Armagh, famous for having two cathedrals, one Protestant and one Catholic both called St Patrick.


We headed towards the huge Lough Neagh which sits in the centre of Ulster; from the south the northern shore was only visible through my scope. We called in at Oxford Island nature reserve which was far better than I expected …


… with loads of hirundines including a huge House Martin colony …


… and some excellent close views of Barn Swallows …


… Great Crested Grebes with stripy young on their back …


… and Little Grebes, their diminutive cousins …


… plus lots of wildfowl, Tufties, Pochard and this drake Gadwall.


We would have liked to visit the centre of Belfast but we doubted if we had the time, so we headed towards the old docks, the site of the former shipbuilders Harland and Wolff, whose giant gantries Samson and Goliath dominate the city skyline. Once employing 35,000 people, the workforce had shrunk to under 100 in recent years, mainly making turbines for offshore wind farms. Since our visit the company has been sold.


Perhaps the most (in)famous ship ever made at Harland and Wolff was the RMS Titanic, the story of which is so well known that there is no need to repeat it here. We were heading for the Titanic museum, a peculiar shaped building beside the old docks. The museum deals with the history of Belfast at the time of the building of the ill-fated vessel, it’s commissioning, construction, fitting out and eventual demise on its maiden voyage. It was extremely well presented and it took a long time to peruse all the displays.


After a bit of a queue we took a ride on a gondola through the simulated hull of the Titanic whilst under construction, which gave some sort of idea of the heat, noise and unpleasant working conditions that the shipwrights endured for 12 hours a day.


Nearby the SS Nomadic was in dry dock. She was built to transfer passengers and mail to and from RMS Olympic and RMS Titanic, and is the only White Star Line vessel in existence today.


Stopping only to photograph this Pied Wagtail, we headed for the nearby Game of Thrones exhibition.


Like so many others we are fans of this superb fantasy series, much of which was filmed in Northern Ireland, but were a little disappointed by the exhibition. The main displays were the costumes used and a number of props from swords to dragon skulls.


There were a few opportunities to get photos of yourself taken using props from the show against a well-known GoT background, but in most cases these photo-ops failed with the notable exception of Margaret sitting on the Iron Throne. As my friend Fenja has commented, ‘the real Queen of Westeros’.


The next post will cover our journey up the spectacular Antrim coast as far as Londonderry.



Tunisia: 6th-7th and 12th-16th May 2019   Leave a comment

Our trip to Algeria (see previous post) was ‘fleshed out’ before and after with time spent birding in Tunisia. This proved to be well worthwhile as I saw another ‘life bird’, a wide range of North African birds, some of which I haven’t seen since 1990, plus several ‘insurances against future splitting’ and some excellent mammals.


We arrived at Tunis airport in the late afternoon so it was already dark when we arrived at Cap Bon, a peninsula sticking north-east into the Mediterranean.


This is the (evening) view from our hotel towards the island of Zembra, a breeding site for two species of shearwater.


The weather the following morning was cool and grey with a strong northerly wind, not what you would expect from North Africa in May.


Although you might think that May is quite late for migrant passerines this far south, there were quite a few about including this Woodchat Shrike …


… along with more familiar birds such as Pied Flycatcher …


… and Spotted Flycatcher.


There were a number of resident specialities too like Moussier’s Redstart, endemic to the Maghreb region.


Later we moved further along the peninsula in search of migrant raptors but as you can see the conditions weren’t optimal.


We did see a number of raptor species such as this Short-toed Snake-eagle …


… and a few migrating Black Storks.


Most of the raptors seemed to be travelling along this valley and disappearing from sight …


… we had noticed that a groups of five Egyptian Vultures had appeared from the east and passed up the valley on two occasions, when this happened for the third time we concluded that the same flock must be flying up the west side of the peninsular to the northernmost tip and finding the weather unsuitable for a sea crossing, returning down the east side and going round again and again.


Later on we moved inland where the conditions were better. We headed for a couple of lakes, Abdel Menaami and Sod Melaabi.


Our main target was the rare White-headed Duck, of which we saw a dozen or so, but they were hidden by reeds and quite distant.


The following morning after some initial land birding at Cap Bon we headed off in a small boat to look for seabirds.


The initial plan had been to head for the breeding island of Zembra but the recent wind had resulted in a large swell. So instead we travelled up the east (leeward) side of the peninsula, where as you can see, conditions were excellent.


After a bit of chumming we were soon surrounded by our target birds, Scopoli’s Shearwater (foreground and upper left) and the smaller Yelkouan Shearwater (the remaining five). These species have been split from Cory’s and Manx Shearwater respectively and are both confined to the Mediterranean as breeding birds (a tiny number of Scopoli’s breed in Portugal). I’ve seen both species before but never had views as good as this.


Scopoli’s is slightly smaller than the Atlantic breeding Cory’s but the crucial ID feature which can only be assessed at close range is the white edging to the underwing primaries forming white wedges extending into the otherwise dark primary tips. Cory’s lack this so the white in the ‘hand’ has a more rounded appearance. The two species sound different and according to chromatography studies, smell different too. These two latter features are far more important to a species that identifies its mate in the dark by sound and smell than minor differences in plumage.


The species Manx Shearwater once encompassed all of the Mediterranean taxa, but in recent years Balearic Shearwater (breeding as the name suggests in the Balearic Islands) and Yelkouan (or Levantine) Shearwater have been given specific status. The breeding range of Yelkouan extends eastwards across the Mediterranean from Menorca, where it is marginally sympatric (or possibly hybridises) with Balearic. It is closer in appearance to Manx than Balearic making identification outside of the Med difficult, but has browner undertail coverts and lacks the white curved line behind the ear coverts characteristic of Manx.


Before returning we came in close to the cliffs to see a pair of breeding Peregrines. The most unusual species we saw from the boat was a group of three Pomarine Skuas heading west. It seems unlikely that they wintered in the Med or migrated here via Gibraltar. It was suggested that perhaps they entered the Niger River drainage from wintering grounds in the south Atlantic, crossed the Sahara to the Med and were now heading for the Rhone valley, the Rhine valley, the Baltic and then overland via Lake Lagoda to the White Sea and their arctic breeding grounds!


After the boat trip (I hesitate to call a trip a half mile offshore a ‘pelagic’) we set off for the far north-west of Tunisia where we would stay overnight before crossing into Algeria the next day. The dreadful and tragic terrorist attacks in Tunisia in recent years have, as far as the terrorists are concerned, had the desired effect. Empty and half built hotel and apartments such as this one opposite our hotel are seen all along the coast. Such a loss for the Tunisian economy.


Four days later we were back in Tunisia and all but one of the party were starting the optional extension to the south of the country. After leaving Hammamet near Tunis, our first point of call was these saltpans at Sfax which held a multitude of Greater Flamingos and other birds.


Terns were quite numerous including Little Terns …


… and what I usually refer to as ‘Gullible’ Terns (Gull-billed).


Waders were present in good numbers including Common Ringed Plovers and Little Stints.


From here we headed southwards and inland for three very enjoyable days birding in the desert.


Soon we reached Bou-Hedma National Park.


Our targets were both mammalian and avian. This is the widespread Dorcas Gazelle which occurs all across the Sahara and into Sinai and Israel …


… but far rarer is the Addax. This beautiful creature was hunted to extinction in the wild in Tunisia but has now been reintroduced. A few wild individuals exist in Chad, Niger and Mauritania.


Even rarer is the Scimitar-horned Oryx. In this case there are no truly wild individuals left but the species has been reintroduced into Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal and recently Chad. The ones we saw were too far away for decent photos, so this was taken from who also run tours to Tunisia.


Our main avian target was the little known desertorum race of Red-necked Nightjar. Smaller than the nominate race found in Morocco and Iberia, it has been touted as a potential split but apparently the vocalisations are identical.


We stayed at nice hotels in Mahres and Matmata.


Outside of Matmata we stopped in a traditional Berber village.


Views of the surrounding countryside and the local mosque.


It certainly seemed a part of the world where little happens in a hurry.


The scenery became much starker as we journeyed south.


Associated with fens and wetlands in the UK, who would have expected a Swallowtail butterfly in this harsh environment.


A widespread bird that I seldom see is the lovely Rufous-tailed Bush Robin (a bird that has had more name changes than Italy has had changes in government) but here they seemed quite common with at least eight seen in the area.


Normally shy and skulky, we were able to get some great views.


We saw a nice range of larks including this Bar-tailed Lark …


… and most notably a flock of Thick-billed Larks, a species I haven’t seen since I visited Morocco in 1990.


We also saw a total of six species of Wheatear, all of which I photographed with varying degrees of success. Black Wheatear was easily the commonest …


… giving good views throughout the region.


Just a pair of White-crowned Wheatears were seen knocking around this old building.


The western race of Black-eared Wheatear has been identified as a potential split. Apparently the eastern race is more closely related to Pied and Cyprus Wheatear than it is to the western race. So either eastern BE Wheatear should be lumped in with both Cyprus and Pied giving two species overall or all four forms should be given specific rank.


Surprisingly we only saw one Desert Wheatear as in some desert areas its by far the commonest wheatear species.


Another bird I haven’t seen since 1990 is Red-rumped Wheatear, unfortunately hiding its red rump in this shot.


And finally Maghreb Wheatear, a distinctive form of Mourning Wheatear. This form deserves specific status as the primaries are grey, rather than black with white inner webs, and it is sexually dimorphic unlike the nominate race. The scientific name halophila means ‘salt lover’, so presumably it prefers salt flats.


There were plenty of Spanish Sparrows around …


… but took a bit of searching to find the very localised (African) Desert Sparrow.


Other goodies included this juvenile Lanner …


… and a rather surprised Little Owl.


But the best bird of south Tunisia for me was this African Desert Warbler as we missed in in Morocco 19 years ago.


There were some great desert mammals too, the endearing little Gundi …


… and its predator, African Golden Wolf. Recently it has been shown that the Golden Jackals of eastern Europe and Asia are not closely related to the ones in Africa which are in fact related to wolves, so the African populations have been renamed African Golden Wolf.


In due course we left the wild scenery of the south and headed back to Hammamet and an overnight stay before our flights home …


… but on route we took a cultural diversion to El Djem to see one of the best preserved Roman amphitheatres in the world.


From Wikipedia: The amphitheatre was built around 238 AD in Thysdrus, located in the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis in present-day El Djem, Tunisia. It is one of the best preserved Roman stone ruins in the world, and is unique in Africa. As other amphitheatres in the Roman Empire, it was built for spectator events, and it is one of the biggest amphitheatres in the world. The estimated capacity is 35,000, and the sizes of the big and the small axes are respectively 148 metres (486 ft) and 122 metres (400 ft). The amphitheatre is built of stone blocks, located on a flat ground, and is exceptionally well conserved. The amphitheatre of El Jem is the third amphitheatre built on the same place. The belief is that it was constructed by the local proconsul Gordian, who became the emperor as Gordian III. In the Middle Ages, it served as a fortress, and the population sought shelter here during the attacks of Vandals in 430 and Arabs in 647.


The trip to Tunisia along with Algeria had been an excellent short trip with three life birds, a number of potential ticks and some great mammals all set in great scenery.

In spite of uploading photos at a much lower resolution than I would prefer I have now completely run out of available space on this blog. I now have the choice of paying a lot more for additional space, of deleting old posts or reloading old posts with low-res photos. Please bear with me whilst I decide what to do!

Algeria: 8th-11th May 2019   Leave a comment


I know its corny …


Algeria had been a short but very interesting trip. I obtained two life birds with a few more as insurance against future taxonomic change. The difficulties of birding with a police escort and without optics are obvious and I picked up a nasty bout of food poisoning, but all in all, I’m very glad I took the opportunity to join this tour.

The next post will deal with our experiences in Tunisia.

United Arab Emirates (Sharjah and Ajman) and Musandam, Oman: 25th-27th February 2019   Leave a comment

This post covers our time in the emirates of Shajah and Ajman, our ‘desert safari’ and a boat trip on the Straits of Hormuz in the Musandam enclave of Oman.

On the morning of the 25th we left Dubai and it’s weird architecture; this is a station on the overhead monorail system.

During our tour we were subjected to three compulsory ‘retail outlets’. The first one a carpet warehouse was visited yesterday, the others selling leather and then jewellery came this morning. I’d like to put it on record that I strongly object to being made to attend these hard-sell sessions. The carpet guy started off saying that these carpets were hand woven by women and girls in the poor parts of the Arab world and if we didn’t buy anything they would all starve! No amount of explaining to the sales staff that dogged your every move that you couldn’t afford, didn’t like or didn’t have room for their carpets would deter them. I even spent time hiding in the gent’s to get way from them. This process was repeated at the leather and jewellery outlets as well. This system was a also feature of the tour to Turkey we did with the company RSD a few years ago, they clearly take a cut from the retailers and that helps keep their costs down. Having confirmed that this is the modus operadi of RSD then we have decided that we won’t ever travel with them again and I can’t recommend them to anyone who doesn’t think a holiday is about shopping for goods at inflated prices.

I particularly objected to the leather outlet selling furs which I consider to be a cruel and unnecessary practice. I did manage to slip out a bit early and was able to photograph this Hoopoe nearby.

Overhead were a number of Pallid Swifts.

We boarded our bus and continued out of Dubai to the Emirate of Sharjah. This is a more conservative emirate than Dubai where alcohol isn’t allowed so I wasn’t too happy until I found out that we weren’t staying here but in the neighbouring emirate of Ajman where alcohol was restricted but available. Our so-called tour of Sharjah just involved stopping at this roundabout and photographing the exteriors of this government building …

… this mosque …

… and this statue representing the Holy Quran.

We headed on to Ajman and our pleasant hotel by the beach …

… having unloaded we found out another annoying bit of information …

… our guide Ozlan who had been very helpful and informative was leaving at this point. I was now thinking that this trip was very poorly organised, however things would improve as you never knew what was happening from one minute to the next.

During the afternoon we explored the harbour area and saw a few birds like the ubiquitous House Crow.

We also had the following morning to ourselves but the following day we joined up with four other people in a 4×4 for a ‘desert safari’. Again the information provided was misleading as we were driven to an enclosure where you could hire a quad bike for a 30 minute drive. As we had been told it was all inclusive we declined …

… but did use the time to make friends with an falconer’s Saker. Here Gill, one of our fellow passengers, poses with the falcon …

… then it was my turn.

After that we took to the 4×4 for the ‘desert safari’ a fast drive in a convoy up and down the sand dunes. It was a bit scary and there were a few frightened squeaks from Margaret but then …

The driver misjudged a ridge top and we just slid down the slope. It felt worse than it looked and we were all worried that it was going to roll over. Eventually we managed to crawl out.

The car in front and behind stopped and after 30 minutes of digging, pushing and pulling we were free to continue. Our driver, an immigrant to the UAE, blamed the guy in front for not driving fast enough to allow him to crest the ridge. The guy in front said ‘these immigrants come over here and don’t even know how to drive properly’. Wherever you go in the world its always someone from elsewhere who’s at fault when things go wrong!

We were supposed to gather to see the sun set over the desert, due to our incident we were delayed so I was lucky to get this shot the moment we arrived at the desert camp, it was supposed to be a traditional Bedouin camp but was clearly set up just for tourists.

We were late so we were hurried loaded onto the back of camel for what must have been the shortest camel ride in history (all of two minutes). Gill and Keith try to look like they’ve enjoyed the ride.

We were given a very substantial meal then as it got fully dark the entertainment started. First a dancer with a costume that lit up as he twirled …

… creating fantastic shapes in the darkness.

The a belly dancer. It always surprises me that a culture that maintains such conservative values when it comes to women’s dress should be responsible for the invention of the erotic belly dance.

And then the man who danced with fire …

… which was quiet breathtaking.

On our final day we were taken to the Omani enclave of Musandam which is totally surrounded on land by the UAE and sits at the point where the Persian Gulf meets the Gulf of Oman, otherwise known as the Straits of Hormuz. Our boat trip departed from the town of Dibba just over the border from the UAE.

The Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman are known as important wintering grounds for gulls that breed over a wide area of Eurasia. So far my attempts to watch and identify them had been somewhat unsuccessful. So when we arrived a Dibba and I saw groups of gulls on the beach I thought my luck was in but we were herded onto the dhow so quickly that I had virtually no chance.

We soon set off along this arid but starkly beautiful coast.

A lot of the tourists took the opportunity to sunbathe but i was more interested in photographing the gulls that flew by.

I was puzzled by the ID of most of the gulls but studying photos when I got home i came to the conclusion that most of the ‘Herring Gull’ types were a form called barabensis which has variously been considered a race of Caspian Gull, a race of Lesser Black-backed Gull or a species in its own right known as Steppe Gull. This is an adult, as is the bird perched on buoy in the earlier photo.

… whilst this is a 1st winter.

Small parties of the delicate Slender-billed Gull flew by.

A bird I wanted to see (although I’ve sen plenty before on previous visits to Oman) was Sooty Gull, a bird largely restricted to the coasts of the Arabian peninsula and East Africa.

Quite unlike any of the ‘large-white headed gulls’ these were easy to identify.

As we passed close in shore the boatman excitedly called out ‘Arabian falcon’, it was of course an Osprey. Not much good for falconry unless you fancy fish for supper.

We landed at a small cove …

… most, including Margaret went swimming …

… but of course i went birding, seeing Socotra Cormorant, a local speciality …

… a fairly distant Hume’s Wheatear …

… and White-cheeked Bulbul. There is a zoo-geographical area called the Western Palearctic (WP), which includes all of Europe, North Africa and parts of the Middle East. A new handbook has been published by two eminent ornithologists which convincingly argues that the whole of the Middle East including Iran should be included. All the three species shown above occur only in the expanded ‘greater WP’ but not in the former ‘lesser WP’.

Before we boarded the dhow we were taken to the nearby cliffs …

… for a trip inside a sea cave.

I don’t know what it is about tourist sea trips but they nearly always seem to involve a sea cave!

Then it was time to head back to Dibba and catch the bus back to the hotel.

By the time we got back to Dibba there were hundreds of gulls on the beach, again there was little time to study them, but I think I can see Lesser Crested Tern, Black-headed, Slender-billed and Steppe Gulls plus a House Crow in the image. I had hoped to find an arctic subspecies of Lesser Black-backed called Heuglin’s Gull but I couldn’t convince myself that any were present among the many ‘Steppe’ Gulls.

Back at hotel as we had to check out of our room before we left we were given a chance to shower and change at the hotel’s gym. Then all that remained was to take the bus back to Abu Dhabi for our overnight flight back home.

Although on time the transfer at Istanbul was problematic. Unlike on the way out we had to go through a security check, there were many hundreds in front of us and once we entered the zig-zag taped zone people kept ducking under the tape and queue-jumping which led to frayed tempers from many. We made the flight ok but there was hardly any time to even sit down, not what you want in the middle of the night.

I’ve been wondering what to post as my final shot, there have been so many highlights on this tour, the mosque in Abu Dhabi, the Burj Khalifa, the boat in Oman but I’ve decided to conclude with another shot of the ‘desert safari’.

In conclusion the United Arab Emirates and the Musandam enclave of Oman were very interesting places to visit and I’m glad we went. However the actual tour arrangements fell well below expectations. The chaotic transfers at Istanbul which could have been avoided with direct flights, the lack of clear information on what was and wasn’t included in the tour price and of course the compulsory visits to hard-sell retail outlets mean that we will definitely boycott the company RSD in future.

Dubai: United Arab Emirates – 23rd-24th February 2019   Leave a comment

In my last post I detailed our visit to Abu Dhabi. This was part of a week long trip to the United Arab Emirates. Our next stop was the Emirate of Dubai another of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, we spent our time in the city of Dubai.

From Wikipedia:  Dubai is a global city and business hub of the Middle East. It is also a major global transport hub for passengers and cargo. Oil revenue helped accelerate the development of the city, which was already a major mercantile hub, but Dubai’s oil reserves are limited and production levels are low: today, less than 5% of the emirate’s revenue comes from oil. A growing centre for regional and international trade since the early 20th century, Dubai’s economy today relies on revenues from trade, tourism, aviation, real estate, and financial services.


Dubai seems to be the product of a competition entitled ‘who can build the most outlandish building’. There seems little point of this structure other than somewhere to go up an elevator on one side, walk across to the other and then down an elevator again to ground level.


Our first stop in Dubai was the Dubai Mall. This is not just any shopping centre, its absolutely enormous …


… and has dinosaur skeletons in the concourse …


… multi-level fountains complete with sculptures of diving men …


… all discretely wearing swimming trunks of course …


… and even a massive aquarium where you don’t see minnows or goldfish swim by …


… you come face to face with sharks and rays.


Outside the mall you are overwhelmed by the scale of Dubai’s towering skyline …


… never more so than when you gaze up at the world’s tallest building – the Burj Khalifa at a mere 830m. Originally named the Burj Dubai, the project ran into financial difficulty during the financial crisis of the ‘naughties’ and the project was rescued by input from the president of the UAE Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan and so was renamed in his honour.


Fancy a job as the window cleaner on the world’s tallest building?


Here is a diagram from Wikipedia showing the Burj Khalifa in relation to other notable tall buildings.


Of course the Burj Khalifa won’t remain the highest building for long, it is said that Saudi Arabia is building an even taller one, so not to be outdone Dubai is erecting a new tower that will be over a kilometre high in the Dubai Creek region. Here in the Mall is a model of what it will look like.


As a town Dubai didn’t exist until 1799 when the Bani Yas clan established it as a dependency of Abu Dhabi. It wasn’t until 1966 that oil was discovered and the place was transformed beyond recognition. As a result there are few old buildings in Dubai and a historic tour would be short indeed. One old building that survives is this fort that has been turned into a museum.


The museum contained many reconstructions of traditional Arab life including the pastime of falconry. A falcon, usually a Saker, was used to catch and kill a Houbara Bustard (I know that officially its now called Macqueen’s Bustard but most people still use the name Houbara). Unfortunately in the modern era this traditional practice is having a devastating effect on both predator and prey, with both the Saker and Houbara being wiped out in the wild in Arabia. The demand for wild hatched Sakers is now so high that few exist west of Tibet and the Asian form of Houbara has been extirpated in most areas west of Kazakhstan, (except of course, Israel for obvious reason). Unusually on this blog these photos of birds, albeit dead ones, are the only ones in this post.


We crossed Dubai Creek by traditional dhow on our way to a traditional market …


…where we perused the spices, fabrics and other stuff on sale …


… but didn’t buy much.


That evening we went on another outing on Dubai Creek, evening meal included.


As we slid under various bridges we passed buildings that were even higher than those in Abu Dhabi …


… and of even weirder shapes.


The first port of call this morning was the dreaded carpet warehouse, I’ll mention that little inconvenience in the next post. Then we went on to the Burj El Arab, said to be the only 7-star hotel in the world (a description the management say they didn’t coin) but certainly one of the most expensive. We paused briefly at the gates for photos …


… and at this hotel with a herd of ‘golden horses’ on the lawn …


… before we drove to the Palm Islands. There are three artificial islands in Dubai shaped like palms (and another group of islands shaped like a map of the world) and we visited one of them. The apartments on the fronds of the arms are mega expensive but there is a huge waiting list for them.  After all they have a guaranteed sea view! Photo from Wikipedia.


We drove up the central ‘trunk’ of the ‘palm’ and through the arch of the mega hotel at the end.


They build them big in Dubai.


In the foyer of the hotel was the biggest aquarium I’ve ever seen, not only was there full sized sharks and rays in there …


… guests can even scuba dive or rent a room with a window onto the aquarium. Imagine waking up to see a shark float past your bedroom window.


We also strolled along the breakwater which forms the perimeter road in the hope of seeing some seabirds, no joy but Red-vented Bulbul near where the car was parked was notable in a (Greater) WP context.


After returning to the hotel we came back that evening for what was to be one of the highlights of the trip, a visit to the Burj Khalifa itself. First we visited the adjacent plaza where at dusk the fountains played to music every half hour.


Although it was difficult to get a clear shot due to the crowds, the display was breathtaking, especially as it was all done in the shadow (perhaps not the most appropriate term, as it was now night) of the Burj Khalifa …


… which was illuminated by writing in a variety of languages promoting the Dubai Mall and the Burj itself.


In due course it was time to leave and ascend the mighty tower to the observation platform. There are two observation platforms, the main one on the 124th floor at 452m or the more expensive one ‘Sky Level’ at 148th floor at 555m.


Not very often you see an elevator with floor numbers like this!


If you pay for ‘sky level’ you can visit both observation platforms. The upper one is a lot less crowded, but as always its difficult to actually get a view due to people taking selfies by the windows.


The view from here was more like the view from an aeroplane than a tall building.


The lower level had one advantage, there was a narrow slit open to outside so you could poke your phone (but not your proper camera) through and get a pic of the fountains playing around the lake below.


The evening wasn’t over we headed past other strangely shaped buildings …


… to the impressive Burj al Arab hotel which is shaped like a spinnaker sail.


This hotel displays an ostentatious level of opulence and is completely ‘over the top’. This is the view looking upwards from the foyer.


From the reception desk that looks like an old fashioned juke box we took the escalator to the first floor …


… past a series of waterfalls and fountains …


… to an ornamental pool …


… with even more fountains.


So how much does it cost to stay in ‘the most luxurious hotel in the world’? According to TripAdvisor a single bedroom suite will set you back £1200 per night but the presidential suite which is reserved for heads of state and royalty is more like £2000.


However the hotel must make a nice little side line by letting tourists pop and and have a drink in one of the bars as the combined cost of the outing to the ‘two burjs’ wasn’t cheap.


It was lovely to see Margaret lighting up the room.


We left about 2300 finding that the hotel and the causeway leading to it was illuminated in purple.


That more or less covers our time in Dubai, however we still had a couple of days left in UAE during which we would visit the Emirates of Sharaja and Ajman, go on a desert safari where the 4×4 nearly rolled down a big sand dune and travelled to Oman to catch a dhow to the Straits of Hormuz. That will be the subject of the next post.

Abu Dhabi: United Arab Emirates – 21st – 23rd February 2019   Leave a comment

Margaret asked me if I was interested in a trip to Abu Dhabi and Dubai with a travel company called RSD. We had been to Turkey with this company before and I had mixed feelings about the way they operate their tours, but agreed anyway as I was quite keen to visit the United Arab Emirates and see the famous cities for myself.

Although direct flights to Abu Dhabi with Etihad are easy enough to find, this trip used a Turkish Airlines flight from Gatwick with a stopover at Istanbul. As check-in was quite early we opted to stay overnight in a hotel nearby. At check-in we were told that the 1030 Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul was delayed by two hours which would mean that we miss our connection to Abu Dhabi. We were instructed to get a taxi to Terminal 2 at Heathrow and then submit a claim to Turkish Airways for the fare. On arrival at Heathrow there was a further problem as the woman on the help desk had no idea why we had been redirected. It transpired that Gatwick sent us all to Heathrow without checking first whether the Heathrow flight was on time or not. As it happened it was delayed and we eventually got airborne about 1300, later than the estimated take-off time of the delayed flight from Gatwick!

We arrived at Istanbul at 1830 unsure if we would make the connecting flight or not. Although we were told on disembarking that the last call for that flight had been called, after rushing to the gate we found out that that flight had also been delayed (a Turkish Airlines hat-trick) so both us and our luggage eventually made it to Abu Dhabi at around 0230 on 22nd. By the time we had been allocated a coach and taken to the hotel it was 0430. We only had four hours sleep before it was time for breakfast! Not the best of starts to the trip.

Although tired from the journey and lack of sleep we were eager to start exploring Abu Dhabi. The Emirate Abu Dhabi is the largest of the seven Emirates and Abu Dhabi City is the capital of all of UAE, although Dubai has a larger population. Unfortunately the rest of the morning was taken up with a ‘briefing’ which was really just a chance for the tour guide to hard-sell us tours over and above those that were included in the package. I was glad we were able to fill our time with extra trips but the combined cost was high, almost as much as the price of the tour, we had little chance to discuss it between ourselves before deciding (of course we had to pay by card as we didn’t bring enough £s with us, so incurring extra charges). I felt that these ‘add-ons’ should be advertised at the time of booking, not thrust upon you once there. The first tour was to the area around Abu Dhabi’s famous Formula 1 race track …


… from where we saw a number of the buildings for which the city is famous such as this circular office block, the Aldar Headquarters.


We took a short boat trip supposedly to be able to see the F1 circuit better (which we didn’t – but it was a pleasant enough outing).


I must point out that our boat was neither the mega private yacht shown here nor this tradditional dhow seen above – just an ordinary ferry.


Here is Ferrari’s famous roof that covers part of the F1 circuit.


The circuit actually goes through this hotel, imagining watching an F1 race from the comfort of your hotel room.


Another view of the mega-roof.


The access road crosses the F1 track and the driver poised briefly to let us take a photo(through the blue perspex).


Although racing cars were using the circuit it was clearly a practice run as no-one was in the stands.


Nearby was an amusement park with what appeared to be very scary rides.


On the way back we passed close to the Aldar HQ, the world’s first vertically circular building. It claims to catch the sun in the morning and evening but present the narrow aspect at midday thus saving on both heating and air-conditioning.


Al Bahar Towers have large covers over the windows which can be moved to allow the light in or protect the occupants from the glare and heat of midday.


Our next destination was the stunning Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the largest mosque in Abu Dhabi and indeed in all of the UAE.


Of course this wasn’t a birding trip but I took the chance to look at the local avifauna whenever time allowed. This is a Middle Eastern speciality – White-cheeked Bulbul.


There were small groups of Grey Francolins in the grounds of the mosque but they quickly moved away when I tried to photograph them.


Entrance to the mosque is via a dome, an escalator and an long underground passage. The dome has a wonderfully decorative roof.


Quotes from Wikipedia are in italics: The Grand Mosque was constructed between 1996 and 2007. The design has been inspired by Persian, Mughal, and the Alexandrian Mosque of Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque in Egypt, also the Indo-Islamic mosque architecture, particularly the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore, Pakistan being direct influences. The dome layout and floor plan of the mosque was inspired by the Badshahi Mosque. Its archways are quintessentially Moorish, and its minarets classically Arab.


Named after the late Sheik Zayed, the mosque is the largest in Abu Dhabi and the largest in the UAE and the third largest in the world.


The building complex measures approximately 290 by 420 m, covering an area of more than 12 hectares ), excluding exterior landscaping and vehicle parking.


The central courtyard is flanked by decorative colonnades.


The mosque is constructed from a dazzling white marble, so finely polished that it reflects the light as if it was covered by water.


It appears that the columns are embellished with gold leaf (although I’ve not been able to confirm that).


Wonderfully ornate carvings decorate the ceiling …


… above the ornate light fittings.


The mosque is surrounded by pools of still water …


… providing the perfect medium to reflect the beautiful pillars and arches.


One more view of the pools surrounding the colonnade …


… and one more look at the exquisite colonnade itself.


I’ve seen some pretty amazing buildings in my time but the Sheik Zayed Mosque is right up there with the best of them.


That evening we had dinner on board a traditional dhow …


… whilst we sailed past Abu Dhabi’s illuminated skyscrapers.


We also saw other great buildings such as the Etihad Towers as we drove round by bus but nighttime photography from a moving bus doesn’t produce great results. Amazing as this appeared it was just a foretaste of the wonders we were to see in Dubai.


We stopped by the arch that leads to the Emirates Palace Hotel in order to photograph the ever changing colours …


… both in the arch itself and the accompanying fountains.


The following morning we moved on to Dubai. More about that in the next post.

I was there!   Leave a comment

‘I was there’ is the title of a book by Mark Patyress that I was once given for Christmas. It documents past outstanding rock/pop concerts that people still talk about to this day.

On a much smaller scale, those are the terms I would use to describe a concert I attended last Saturday.

Now this wasn’t some rock extravaganza but the spring concert of Barclays House Choir, an amature choir that Margaret has been a member of since 2008. Of course I’ve attended all the bi-annual concerts that I could, but more out a sense of loyalty than music appreciation. My musical tastes are broad, but classical music is only lightly represented, and choral music hardly at all. In particular I find the hour-long requiems, which the choir always seems to chose for the spring concert, to be rather tedious.

Hearing that they were performing Mozart’s Requiem I wasn’t expecting much from the first half, especially as its sung in Latin and I had left my program, which provided a translation, at home. However the second part, a selection of opera classics was a revelation.


The choir at St Peter’s church, Parkstone, Poole taken at an earlier Christmas Concert.


Photo of the choir and orchestra just feet in front of me (taken with my phone).


A view a bit more to the right of the orchestra, I couldn’t photograph the orchestra any further to the left as I was so close that conductor Helen Brind obscured the view.


The soloists L-R Michael Dewis, Andrew Morris, Emily James and Caroline Thomas. Seated on the right is leader of the orchestra, Andrew Foot.


Opera, like choral music isn’t really my thing. I’ve only attended one or two operas and never listen to it at home. There are always one or two well known songs but these are islands in a sea of vocal extravaganza that I never understand at all, rather like listening to the Who’s famous rock-opera ‘Tommy’ and finding out that you really only like ‘Pinball Wizard’.

It was just these favourites that the choir, orchestra and four soloists performed; The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco by Verdi; Pearl Fisher’s Duet from the Pearl Fishers by Bizet; Habanera and Toreador’s Song from Carmen by Bizet; The Flower Duet from Lakme by Leo Delibes, Brindisi from La Traviata by Verdi; Anvil Chorus from ll Trovatore also by Verdi and Nessum Dorma from Trunadot by Puccini. (It’s telling that I had to use Google to find out which opera each of the songs was from and who the composer was and in the case of Leo Delibes – I had never heard of the composer previously).

The Barclays House Choir and St Peter’s Orchestra are of course amateurs, the soloists however are professional, they were Caroline Thomas (soprano), Emily James (alto), Andrew Morris (tenor) and Michael Dewis (baritone). Between rehearsals and the concert Margaret brought Andrew Morris back for dinner (other choir members did the same for the other soloists) and so I spent dinner chatting to this outstanding singer quite unaware at the time just how outstanding he was.

Well what of the performances? All were superb but special mention has to be made of Michael Dewis’ Toreador’s song and the finale Andrew Morris’ rendition of Nessum Dorma which received a standing ovation.

The orchestra and choir also performed wonderfully, I was in the front row just feet from the orchestra and the soloists. I was so pleased to witness such a great concert that should have been performed in a concert hall rather than hidden away in a local church. Shamefully the orchestra and choir almost outnumbered the audience, it is a real pity that such talent is not appreciated more widely.

Perhaps this will spur me on to attend some operatic concerts, I’ve clearly been missing out.

On a different subject you might be wondering what has happened to my regular updates about my birding, ringing and foreign travel. Well the truth is I’ve done so much this year that I have literally thousands of photos that I have yet to look at, let alone edit, label and select for the blog. I do hope to get round to it some time!