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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!

Oman from the air – 1st December 2018   Leave a comment

This short post is a postscript to my account of the Andaman Islands and South India account.

I try whenever its possible to get a window seat on a flight with the hopes of admiring the landscapes we are flying over. Even if I’m lucky to get a window seat the view is often blocked by the wing or the engines, we’ve over the ocean, we are too high to see many features, its cloudy, the sun is in my eyes or the ground below is featureless or hazy.

However flying back from Cochin in South India to Muscat in Oman with Oman Air I had some excellent views of this spectacular country from above, the air was clear and dry, the view largely unimpeded. We crossed the coast somewhere near the easternmost point of the country, flew over the open desert and the rugged Al Hajar mountains before descending to the capitol Muscat.

The onward flight to Heathrow was nowhere near as impressive.

I haven’t bothered to annotate the photos as they are self explanatory.

I’ve been to Oman twice, once in 2007 on a comprehensive birding tour of the country and again in 2014 on a much shorter trip when the main target was the newly discovered Omani Owl in the Al Hajar mountains. A full account of the latter can be found on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

South India part 2: Munnar, Periyar NP and Thatterkad. 26th – 1st December 2018   Leave a comment

This is the third post about my trip to the Andaman Islands and South India and the second on our time in South India. The areas covered are Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad reserve.

As I made clear in the last post I had considerable problems with my bridge camera during the tour and by this late stage it had given up the ghost. Thankfully tour participant Alec Gillespie offered to share his photos, for which I am most grateful. All (or nearly all) bird photos are his and duly credited as such, scenery etc are mine taken on my pocket camera. As I write this I have just received the trip report and some more photos from tour leader Dave Farrow. One or two of his are included as well.

 

Right on dusk as we were nearly back to the vehicle our two local guides asked Alec to take a photo of them with his long lens. He had to be this far away to even get their faces in the frame. Notice Alec, like all of us was wearing leech socks, essential in the damp leech-ridden lowland forests.

 

From Munnar we visited the mountain massif of Rajamalai in Eravikulan NP, first crossing vast swathes of tea plantations to get there.

 

 

The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu experienced very heavy monsoon rain and extensive flooding in September. This bridge was washed away meaning we had to cross on this plank and then take a jeep ride to the entrance of the park. From there we were taken to the start of the walk by bus.

 

One of the top birds of the area was this little White-bellied Blue Robin which we managed to see whilst we were waiting for the bus to the mountain. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and at the other end of the bus route we got stunning views of this Kerala Laughingthrush. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and several Malabar Whistling Thrushes. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We walked up the road as far as was permissible, getting great views over the surrounding countryside and towards the highest peak in the Western Ghats.

 

Normally hard to find and only viewed at a distance, a pair of Nilgiri Pipits showed very well by the road. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The same can’t be said of the Nilgiri Thar, a species of goat endemic to the Western Ghats. Usually seen reasonably close, our only views were high on the ridge above. As no-one got a useable photo I’ve included one from Wiki Commons taken by AJT Johnsingh

 

After an excellent morning we had a dreadful afternoon, one of the clients slipped on the path at the hotel and had to go to hospital with a broken nose. Eventually the rest of us went birding but saw little. We travelled through some road works to get to a better area of forest but the mist descended and we lost all visibility. On our return the road was blocked as they were blasting rock. We waited two hours, until well after dark, before we were allowed through.

 

Mist streamed through the trees as we pulled over in an area of forest the following morning.

 

… we saw more White-bellied Blue Robins, more Kerala Laughingthrushes and this Brown-breasted Flycatcher. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Fortunately we passed through the extensive road works without any hold ups this time.

 

There must be elections in the offing as the communist party supporters were holding a rally.

 

We continued on to Periyar. This point in the travelogue gives me an opportunity to include a few of the more widespread species that were seen at some point or other during our South India tour, starting with Brahimny Starling. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Orange MInivet, a fairly recent split from Scarlet Minivet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Indian Nuthatch, which I think we only saw further north. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Loton’s Sunbird  (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Yellow-browed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We had an afternoon, a whole day and a morning in the lovely forests of Periyar NP.

 

To access some of the best forest we had to cross a lake on a raft. Near the embarkation point we had good views of Southern Hill Myna … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and Malabar Starling in a flowering tree. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We watched in some trepidation as the transport across the lake was hauled into view.

 

Crossing on the bamboo raft was tricky to say the least but we managed with nothing worse than damp feet.

 

The trails weren’t all that bad but a few stream crossings were a bit more tricky.

 

This was by far the worst place on the trip for leeches and even though we were wearing leech socks we were constantly flicking them off our boots. I only suffered a few leech bites and even then I removed them before they had injected much anticoagulant (which makes the bite itch like crazy).

 

There were some pretty hefty scorpions in the forest …

 

There were some enormous spiders too. Note the small brown blob on this female’s lower abdomen. That’s the male spider mating with it.

 

… and we kept an eye open for snakes, although this Shield-tailed Snake is non venomous.

 

A pretty yellow frog was added to the list of non-avian goodies we saw that day

 

… as was this butterfly known as the Tamil Yeoman. (Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest).

 

Although we never saw one, it was clear that Tigers prowled these forests.

 

As well as resident birds these forests are havens in winter for migrants from the north. Further north on this trip most wintering Phylloscopus warblers were Greenish Warblers but here in the south the closely related Green Warbler (above) which breeds in the Caucasus, predominated. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We also saw Large-billed Leaf Warbler, a shorter distance migrant, breeding in the Himalayas and parts of China. Unfortunately we never connected with Tytler’s Leaf Warbler a rare winter visitor from northern Afghanistan, N Pakistan and NW India which would have been a life bird for me. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We saw many other birds in these forests including one of the most attractive raptors in the world – Black Baza … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… the pretty Flame-throated Bulbul … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Malabar Trogon … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Rufous Babbler, which was a life bird for me … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… a sleepy Indian Scops Owl … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… and a rather more alert Jungle Owlet. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We were nearly back at our bus one evening when we saw shapes moving in the grass by the village. They proved to be Pin-tailed Snipe, a winter visitor from Siberia. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But the overwhelming surprise during our time at Periyar was seeing another pack of Dhole. To go from ‘never seen before on the South India tour’ to seeing two packs on one trip was remarkable to say the least. The pack of seven had brought down a Sambar by the water’s edge and took turns coming to the carcass and taking away mouthfuls. Unlike the previous pack near Jungle Hut (see previous post) they were relaxed in our presence and we had what is often described as ‘walk-away views’. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Not quite as unexpected, but still amazing to see was this small herd of Gaur or Indian Bison in the forest. Our local guides said that they were hard to see at present because they frequented the water’s edge but water levels were currently very high, forcing them back into the forest. We found them on our final morning at Periyar. This rather dull photo was taken on my pocket camera …

 

.. but Dave was able to get a closer shot. The herd comprised of six cows and a calf. It’s a shame we didn’t see the massive bulls but I’ve been yearning to see this species for years so it was still a magic encounter. Photo copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

The other major find on that morning was this beautiful White-bellied Blue Flycatcher – not to be confused with the White-bellied Blue Robin! (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

The hotels on this tour were of a very high standard and the staff usually most courteous. At this hotel they all turned up to wave us off.

 

Our final birding location was Thattekad, an area of dense forest and rocky outcrops nearer to the coast.

 

We had two evenings and a full day at Thattenkad, among the many species we saw were this roosting group of Ashy-headed Woodswallows … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Crimson-backed Sunbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Black-rumped Flameback … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

… Golden-fronted Leafbird … (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… Malabar (or Blue-winged) Parrot (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

… and on our last morning of the trip, Grey-headed Bulbul. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

But it was the nightbirds that stole the show – this roosting pair of Sri Lanka Frogmouths, which despite their name are not endemic to Sri Lanka, posed beautifully. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The similarly non-endemic Sri Lanka Bay Owl took a long time to track with much climbing through dense vegetation in the dark before we finally got a decent view This species which habitually clings to the side of tree trunks is seldom seen by anyone. It was first seen on this tour last year and was even a life bird for Dave. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

After our final meal together we went out owling one final time and had these wonderful views of the huge Spot-bellied Eagle-owl, a species I’ve heard several times elsewhere in Asia but have never seen. A fitting end to a fine trip. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

 

Four of us had been to Sri Lanka before so we left early the next morning for the airport. The guy who had fallen over and his wife flew to Sri Lanka with the rest of the party but had decided that due to his injury they would cut the tour short and go home, so it was just Alec and his wife Christine who joined Dave for the Sri Lanka part of the tour. From the tour report I see they did very well. If I had have joined them I’d have got two life birds and far better views of a bird that I saw poorly on my 2004 trip to Sri Lanka. Oh well, I guess I’d have liked to have gone but money and time were pressing.

 

 

 

South India part 1: Ramanogara, Mudumalai and Ootcamund – 21st – 25th November 2018.   Leave a comment

In November last year I joined a tour going to the Andaman Islands, South India and Sri Lanka. As I had been to Sri Lanka in 2004 I declined to take the third section of the tour.

My last post covered our time in the Andaman Islands and this post and the next covers our time in South India, mainly in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

I mentioned in my Andaman Islands post that my bridge camera was having trouble focusing. This issue continued in South India until about half way through when it failed completely. Fortunately another tour participant, Alec Gillespie who joined the trip for the South India and Sri Lanka segments, volunteered to share his photos. With excellent top of the range photo gear Alec was able to take a wonderful portfolio of bird photos. All of his shots are credited, the remaining, often ‘soft focus’ ones are mine.

 

Alec Gillespie with camera gear. Camera, lens, tripod and associated accessories weigh around 14kg! Rather more than I’m prepared to lug around tropical forests I’m afraid, but he does produce some superb photos.

 

We returned from the Andamans to Bangalore (or Bengaluru as its often called) for an overnight stay. Our first destination the following morning was the rocky outcrop of Ramnogara.

 

Our main target here was the South Indian endemic Yellow-throated Bulbul which we saw but didn’t get to photograph. However there was another interesting bird nesting up on this rock face …

 

 

… the now critically endangered Indian Vulture. All species of vulture in Asia have declined dramatically in recent years with losses of 99.99% reported. Once common species like White-backed and Indian Vulture (seen here) are now rarities due to the use of the drug Diclofenac or Volterol for veterinary purposes. Eating the carcass of a cow treated with this drug will cause liver failure in vultures and a single dead cow (of which there are many in India as religious beliefs prevent them from being used for meat so they wander freely in town and countryside) can poison hundreds of vultures. See this Indian Vulture at its nest was a real treat even if it was a bit distant. Here’s a photo I’ve added to the post later taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

Our next stop was at the lake at Ranganathitto. A waterbird sanctuary, we were able to travel by boat round the lake and get close up views of many of the birds.

 

Nearby signs made it clear how you should behave!

 

There were large numbers of Black-headed Ibis on the reserve.

 

Closely related to the Sacred Ibis of Africa and Madagascar and the White Ibis of Australia, these are familiar birds in wetlands across India.

 

The rarest of the world’s eight species of pelican, Spot-billed Pelican was here in good numbers.

 

White-breasted Waterhens (a species of rail) were seen along the water margins.

 

Asian Open-billed Stork is one of the rarer of the world’s 17 stork species. It’s mandibles have evolved so that only the tips close, leaving the sides ‘open’ so they can manipulate their water snail prey. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

 

The lake held lots of Muggers (or Marsh Crocodiles), We had good and close views of them in the water …

 

… and on land.

 

A real treat was seeing this Great Thick-knee, a species of stone-curlew. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Restricted to south and south-east Asia this is one of 10 species in the family Burhinidae. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

On route to our next destination we stopped to photograph this Red-naped Ibis. (Photograph copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Moving on we drove through one of the tiger reserves where you weren’t allowed to stop unless you had booked a guided jeep tour, however we broke this rule briefly when we saw an Asian Elephant beside the road. We got uncomfortably close to elephants a number of times on this tour as they are certainly not confined to reserves. Indeed one villager was killed by one as he walked back home during our stay in the area. We were warned a number of times not to walk in a certain direction (that is walking outside of the closed reserves of course) because an elephant had been seen/heard in the vicinity. In spite of the dangers the local people seem to accept that elephants and people must co-exist.

 

Our destination was Jungle Hut, a lodge near Mundumalai.

 

One of our main targets was the seldom seen Nilgiri Thrush and during our stay it remained ‘seldom seen’ however we had compensation in the form of this beautiful Indian Pitta. Most Asian pitta species are mega-elusive but this one is an exception, I saw it easily and well in Sri Lanka in 2014 and the same happened here as well. (Photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The locals were here to greet us – one of our first sightings of Southern Plains Langurs.

 

Chital (aka Axis or Spotted Deer) were common in the area and a herd was usually present in the lodge grounds …

 

… as was the enormous (about 1m from nose to tail tip) and very noisy Indian Giant Squirrel.

 

We had low cloud for much of our time here …

 

… but we still got good views of great birds like Nilgiri Flycatcher (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… Jacobin or Pied Cuckoo (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and Malabar Lark (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

One evening we went looking for nightjars and saw the little Jungle Nightjar.

 

The following day we set off in jeeps rather than our usual minibus and climbed high up the mountain mists in search of Painted Bush Quail.

 

 

We hadn’t got far when our local guide stopped the vehicles. At the side of the road a pack of Indian Wild Dogs or Dholes had killed a Chital. Although they were wary of our presence they refused to leave the kill. Eventually several of the dogs pulled the carcass further into the undergrowth. Sorry for posting such a blurred image but the camera was playing up and my hands were shaking with excitement.

 

This was without doubt the best sighting of the entire trip for me. I’ve always been interested in mammals since I was a child and vividly remember reading Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book long before Disney turned it into a silly cartoon. One of the species mentioned in the Jungle Book was the mysterious wild dog, the Dhole and I’ve longed to see one since. Birdquest have been running tours to South India for decades but this is the first time one, let alone a pack, has been seen! Postscript: I’ve been able to replace one of my blurred images by this much sharper one taken by the tour leader. Copyright Dave Farrow/Birdquest.

 

We searches the fields and scrub areas further up the mountain finding …

 

… the impressive Black Eagle …

 

… Bay-backed Shrike …

 

… and eventually several groups of gorgeous Painted Bush Quails (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

In the afternoon we moved on even higher to the town of Ootacamund, universally known as Ooty. Our first destination was a market at the top of Doddabetta Peak, the highest point.

 

The idea of a sign advertising the ‘plastic free Nilgiris’ is a bit of joke when you can see plastic waste bins, chair, covering of stall and tarpaulin in this photo alone.

 

With a large amount of discarded food on offer many birds have become quite tame such as this East Asian version of our Great Tit, the Cinereous Tit.

 

A Crested Goshawk posed nicely for pictures (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Blackbird is a widespread species in the Palearctic/northern Oriental region but recently it has been split into four – Eurasian, Chinese, Tibetan and Indian. This of course is the Indian species which differs slightly from our familiar Eurasian Blackbird in plumage and voice. They weren’t common, I only saw three on the entire trip and the best views were obtained here at the Peak. (photo copyright Alec Gillespie)

 

Nilgiri Woodpigeons (unlike their Andaman cousins which we dipped on) were common and easy to see here.

 

Two of the best species seen were the endemic Nilgiri Laughingthrush (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the gorgeous Grey Junglefowl. It is of course the Red and not Grey Junglefowl that is the ancestor of domestic chickens. At last I have seen all four species of ‘wild chickens’ (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

The elusive Northern Red Muntjac was also seen. As we are in Southern India it may see strange to call it Northern Red Muntjac but Southern Red Muntjac occurs in Malaysia and Indonesia which of course is south of here. The muntjacs introduced to the UK are a third species – Reeve’s Muntjac.

 

The accommodation on the tour was consistently of a high standard but the hotel at Ooty had a foyer of outstanding elegance.

 

… but the wifi was crap though!

 

Whilst in Ooty we visited the Botanical Gardens which gave us views (but not photos – my camera gave up the ghost on Doddabetta Peak) of Nilgiri Flowerpecker …

 

… but we did get to see Square-tailed Black Bulbul well (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

However the gardens seemed a magnet for school outings so getting in (and getting out) was a bit of a hassle.

 

Throughout the Nilgiri hills Greenish Warblers were quite common. They are wintering here from their breeding grounds in western Siberia and easternmost Europe (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

Whilst I have seen Greenish Warblers many times before, the beautiful Nilgiri Blue Robin (photo copyright Alec Gillespie) …

 

… and the ‘drop dead gorgeous’ Black-and-Orange Flycatcher were life birds.  (photo copyright Alec Gillespie).

 

We finally left Ooty heading towards Munnar. In September 2018 the area suffered from torrential downpours and widespread flooding. Our route was still impassable so we had to make a long detour via the coast and got little birding done that day. Time to admire the scenery and relax, which is probably more than the hotel guests in this room can do suspended in mid-air by a few insubstantial beams.

 

Stops on route included this waterfall.

 

…and a spot to do a little birding and watch the Bonnet Macaques …

 

… who were clearly finding plenty to eat along the roadside.

 

The next post will include photos from Munnar, Periyar NP and Thattekad.