Archive for the ‘Oman’ Tag

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2014 – what a great year!   Leave a comment

2014 has been a great year, full of foreign travel, great birding/ringing and social events. Fortunately there have been no serious issues, so the year has passed without major problems.

This post just summarises some of the highlights; more photos and discussion of each subject can be found on the blog.

During the year the companionship of my family (see the Christmas photo below) and my many friends (be they from school or university days, or birders and ringers here at home or people I have met on foreign trips) has greatly added to the quality of life. There have been a number of social events and musical concerts, many of which I have illustrated on this site.

 

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When at home much of my time has been taken up with bird ringing, either around Poole or at Durlston Country Park. We have ringed well over 5000 birds in this area and have amassed a lot of useful data. We have been notified of lots of interesting recoveries some of which I intend to post here in due course. The photo shows a male Bearded Tit photographed at Lytchett Bay.

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British birding and twitching has taken a bit of a back seat this year. I recorded 223 species in the UK, quite a bit less than usual and most of my birding has been following up other peoples sightings. I have only added one species to my British list – this Baikal Teal seen in Cambridgeshire in March, one to my Dorset list – a Hooded Crow on Portland and one to my Poole Harbour list – a Great White Egret.

IMG_1272 Baikal Teal

Foreign travel has dominated the year. I did eight tours through the year, although this was just seven trips from home as two were taken back to back, and birded in eleven different countries. I recorded 1515 species in total and had 199 life birds. This brings my life list to 7870 following the IOC checklist or 74.5% of the world’s birds. According to the ‘list of lists’ on the Surfbirds website this gives me the 27th highest life in the world, but I know that there are quite a number of birders who do not submit their lists and think I’m more like 50th in the world. Even so, I consider that to be a great achievement and well worth the cost and physical effort involved, and although it hasn’t required much skill on my part, as I have mainly seen these birds on guided tours, I am very pleased to have progressed so far.

For each tour taken in 2014 I have included two photos below, one of the scenery and one of a notable  species.

The first trip was in February to Oman to search for the newly described Omani Owl, wonderful scenery, although long hours were spent in the dark before we eventually got good views. No photos were obtained of the owl so I have included a shot of two critically endangered Sociable Lapwings that were also seen on the tour.

 

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In March I did two trips to Mexico back to back. The first was to the delightful El Triunfo cloud forest reserve in Chiapas. The first photo shows dawn at the clearing where we stayed, the second the incredible Horned Guan, which was the 10,000th bird species Birdquest had seen on their tours.

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The second Mexico tour was to the Yucatan where we enjoyed the Mardi Gras festival and climbed to the top of some Mayan ruins as well as some stunning birds like the Ocellated Turkey.

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IMG_1033 Ocellated Turkey

 

The most varied trip and in some ways the most enjoyable was the drive from North Carolina to the Canadian border that Margaret and I did in May/June. We enjoyed birding in southern woodland and the Appalachians, did pelagic trips off Cape Hatteras, went sightseeing in Washington and New York, birded in the boreal forests of New Hampshire and the coast of Maine as well as visiting a number of friends. I have yet to edit all these photos so I there should be more posts from this most photogenic trip still to come. Below – the Statue of Liberty and a Black Bear seen in North Carolina.

IMG_0094 Statue of Liberty

IMG_0210 Black Bear

 

In May/June I had another great trip, this time to Borneo. One of the highlights was seeing the last bird family for my list, Bornean Bristlehead, but the four new species of Pitta came a close second. There was a really good selection of mammals too. The photos show dawn at Danum Valley and Blue-banded Pitta.

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P1120091 Blue-banded Pitta2

 

In late August my friend Roger and I had a week in the Azores concentrating on pelagic trips off the island of Graciosa. The highlight for me was seeing two new species of storm-petrel, Monteiro’s and Swinhoe’s The former is shown below along with storm clouds off the coast of Graciosa.

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IMG_5609 Monteiro's SP

 

The longest and hardest tip of the year was to northern Madagascar and the Comoros in September/October.  Good birds and mammals abounded but roads were poor in places, transport unreliable, journeys were long and accommodation was variable. The photos below shows sunset over Lake Kincloy, the site of the rare Sakhalava Rail, but the bird of the trip was the wonderful Helmeted Vanga seen earlier on the trip on the Masoala Peninsula.

IMG_0759 Kincloy Sunset

IMG_0329 Helmet Vanga

 

The final trip in November/December was to southern Argentina. This highly scenic trip was most enjoyable and produced some great birds. The photos show the Moreno Glacier in Glacier National Park and the critically endangered Hooded Grebe. I have still to upload the final installment of this trip but will be on this blog within a few days.

IMG_3559 Glacier NP

IMG_3885 Hooded Grebes

 

All of these trips are illustrated in more detail on the blog. Feel free to scroll back through the year. Happy New Year – here’s to a successful and enjoyable 2015.

Posted January 3, 2015 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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1st – 9th February 2014 – the Omani Owl twitch   1 comment

I don’t usually do a foreign trip based around finding a single species, but that is what happened during the first nine days of February.

In March last year Magnus Robb and Rene Pop of the Sound Approach made a startling discovery, whilst attempting to record Pallid Scops Owl, a new species to science, the Omani Owl, was found in the Al Hajar mountains of northern Oman. The paper in the link below was published on 5th October 2013.

http://soundapproach.co.uk/sites/default/files/Owl%20pdf.pdf   Subsequently Arnoud van den Berg was able to take some amazing photos

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The Omani Owl. Photograph by Arnoud van den Berg/the Sound Approach.

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Partly because it was the first new non-cyptic bird species for science to be discovered in Western Palearctic (Shirihai and Svensson boundaries) for forty years and partly because I knew all the people involved in the discovery, I was very interested in seeing the owl. Discussions with Mike Watson of Birdquest led to the setting up of the Omani Owl Expedition for the first week of February, a time which was expected (but failed to be) peak time for vocalisations. In the event four of us booked on the tour and here is the story of the trip…..

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Day One. On our first afternoon we visited the beach at Ras As Sawadi. The main attraction being the large number of wintering gulls and terns. Most are Heuglin’s Gulls, a race of Lesser Black-backed from arctic Siberia, but include Slender-billed, Steppe, Caspian and the dark-headed Pallas’ Gulls from central and western Asia and the local Sooty Gulls.

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Unfortunately as it was the weekend many of the locals were racing 4x4s and off road buggies up and down the beach making the critical examination of the gulls difficult. The large gull in the centre and the one at bottom left are Pallas’, the rest are Heuglin’s Gulls and Slender-billed.

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The bane of any gull watcher!

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More or less confined to the Arabian Peninsula, Sooty Gull were easy to identify and quite common.

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Of all the taxa of ‘large white-headed gulls’ one of the least known is ‘barabensis’ or Steppe Gull. Variously considered a subspecies of Lesser Black-backed or Caspian Gull or even a species in its own right, this individual had the correct wing tip pattern but had a pale, not dark eye, something that apparently occurs in those ‘barabensis’ that winter in the Arabian Gulf.

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We were appalled to see about 20 decapitated sharks on one part of the beach. Worldwide over 100 million sharks are killed annually, mainly for shark fin soup. Clearly this is having a huge effect on the ecology of the oceans.

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Early on day two we headed north to the Sohar Sun Farms. This agricultural area has irrigated fields, piles of slurry and sewage ponds, all highly attractive to birds in a desert environment. Unfortunately  the farm is closing and even as we birded around the cow sheds we saw cattle being removed in trucks. However we saw lots of good birds, it was easily the birdiest site of the trip.

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Vociferous Red-wattled Lapwings were common and conspicuous.

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… but pride of place went to a group of 14 Sociable Lapwings on the irrigated fields.fields. This Central Asian species has declined precipitously in recent years and is considered to be critically endangered ….

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… and several beautiful White-tailed Lapwings completed the trio of lapwing species.

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Three Oriental Skylarks was a good find.

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Raptors included Bonelli’s, Steppe, Greater Spotted and Imperial (in photo above) Eagles.

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Pretty Indian Rollers were seen all along the coastal strip.

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We returned for a late lunch and then headed out for our first owl sortie. We traveled to the wadi where the Omani Owl was first discovered and as dusk fell, searched at the ‘type locality’.

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Once the New Moon had set it became very dark indeed. We stayed at the site from 1730 – 0030 seeing several little Pallid Scops Owls but no Omani Owls, although one was possibly heard to call once.

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On day three we spent the morning at a farm close to the hotel. It wasn’t as good as the Sohar farm for birds but we did see several Desert Wheatears and in the nearby scrub, an Asian Desert Warbler. We also made a repeat visit to the beach at Ras Al Sawadi but the tide was very high and most gulls were too distant.

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The pale-eyed Asian Desert Warbler is a scarce visitor from Central Asia.

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This Isabelline Wheatear shows the diagnostic tail pattern.

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Adult male Desert Wheatears are unmistakable but the all black tail is diagnostic in all plumages.

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The beautiful Green Bee-eater perched an the wire fences.

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Due to it’s generally scruffy appearance it has been suggested that this bird would be better named the Disgraceful Prinia!

We returned to the owl wadi in the afternoon to allow us to have a good look around before it got dark. After dusk we joined up with another birder, John McLoughlin (aka Johnny Mac) who had contacted Mike in advance, we searched similar areas to the previous night, seeing more Pallid Scops Owls and hearing a definite contact note from the Omani Owl at the ‘type locality’, but no amount of searching with the spotlight would reveal the bird. We began to realise why this bird had remained undiscovered for so long!

At one stage we saw someone else spotlighting from the rough track that ran along the bottom of the wadi, some 200m or so from the road. We realised they were locals and when a spotlight was shone on them they spun the vehicle round and zoomed off, firing a shot in the air as they went. Clearly the presence of local hunters in the area wasn’t desirable whilst we were owling.

Around about 2145 we stopped at a pull-in near the start of the wadi to eat a snack. As soon as we got tucking-in we heard an owl call. A number of different calls were heard, one low and gruff, another like the ‘kwick’ of a young Tawny Owl and a few shrill notes that sounded rather familiar. The distant rock face was spotlighted and an owl found. Chaos, of course ensued, as we all tried to get views through the scope, pass the torch around so the torch holder could have a look as well and try and record the vocalisations, all this in a lay-by littered with discarded wood and plastic which had us tripping over in the dark. Although 300m or more away, the circular facial disk and dark streaked plumage could be seen in the powerful beam before it flew off into the inky blackness.  We were elated, views were distant, but we were sure we had the owl ‘under the belt’. It was decided that if left now we could have a celebratory pint or two in the bar!

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The morning of day four saw us return to the owl wadi. We found a rough track that led much closer to where the owl had been the night before – but then made an unwelcome discovery – Little Owls, or to be more precise Lilith Owls, a potential split from Little Owl named after the Babylonian queen of the night. We were downcast, had we screwed up, was the bird we saw last night in the torch beam merely Anthene (noctua) lilith? Back at the hotel we listened to the recording from last night, on reflection they were similar to Little Owl (differences would be expected if lilith was a separate species from Little Owl) but the strange gruff call hadn’t been recorded. I was adamant that what I saw in the scope wasn’t a Little Owl, was completely the wrong shape – both species must have been present. We contacted Magnus who suggested that the arrival of an Omani Owl may have caused the Little/Lilith’s to start calling; quite possible, but still an air of uncertainty hung over our sighting.

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Other birds in the area included this smart Desert Lark ….

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… and a Blue Rock Thrush

We decided the best option was to come back later in the night after the traffic had stopped and stay out until the early hours. We rested in the afternoon and arrived at 2045 and stayed until 0330. We didn’t get a squeak from Pallid Scops, Lilith or Omani Owls, the highlight perhaps being some very vocal Red Fox’s, their blood curdling cries echoing around the wadi.

At around 0230 I suggested Mike should play the lilith calls from last night at the same locality and then spotlight them. This worked. One responded immediately and when spotlighted it was obvious that it wasn’t the bird from the night before, appearing as just a tiny round ball on the cliff face. We felt better; yesterdays views weren’t much but at least they must have been of the real ‘McCoy’.

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Day five Hardly surprisingly, as we didn’t get to bed until 0430, we weren’t up early. A very late breakfast was enlivened by views of a Crested Honey-buzzard outside the restaurant. This species is a very rare, but regular winter visitor to the Middle East from Siberia, the bulk of the population wintering in SE Asia. I got good views but didn’t have my camera with me. Mike got some good shots and I’ll post some here later when I can get a copy. We spent the afternoon and evening in a completely different wadi some distance away.

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This extensive wadi system had many side valleys all with spectacular scenery.

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We were shown around these charming irrigated gardens by some welcoming locals. They looked full of promise but actually were devoid of birds.

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We did see a number of Red-tailed (or Persian) Wheatears, winter visitors from Iran.

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As the sun set we waited for darkness, but by 2300 we had seen or heard absolutely nothing. The only good thing we discovered was that some of the locals knew the Omani Owl vocalisations, but said they could only be heard much higher up. You could hide a thousand owls in this terrain!

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Day six saw us making a long drive up to the UAE border for two Omani specialties, the Arabian race of Collared Kingfisher and Varied Wheatear. Somewhat knackered after multiple late nights and irregular meals, we opted for breakfast before we left, which may have been a mistake as we dipped on the kingfisher but did, at least, see the wheatear.

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We found this Variable Wheatear just before we had to leave. The birds wintering habitat is being destroyed for yet more roads, something that Oman seems to have a surplus of. As the name suggest Variable Wheatears come in three different morphs (now ascribed to subspecies), this form is known as ‘picata’.

Back at the hotel we had good news, whilst we were searching the big wadi last night, Johnny Mac had found a separate smaller wadi and had heard an Omani Owl give its quiet contact call at 1830 and 2100. It was obvious where we were going to go owling tonight.

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At the request of the Sound Approach guys who are still researching the Omani Owl, the location of the wadi is being kept quiet for now, we just called it ‘wadi Mac’

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Again we waited patiently for dark but we had no success at all. However we returned pre-dawn on the seventh day and saw two Omani Owls perched and in flight. Views were too distant and too brief for photos but we now knew that there was a confirmed second locality for the species and we were the first two people see two together. We were delighted!

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Day seven. After our pre-dawn owling we returned to the hotel and packed up and drove the three hours to the Sayq Plateau on the south side of the Al Hajar mountains. We spent the afternoon and all of day eight birding in this extensive area. As well as the birds in the photos below, we saw a Ring Ousel (a major Omani rarity) and a flock of 18 Mistle Thrushes, there have only been four previous records (two singles and a pair).

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The Sayq Plateau consists of boulder strewn slopes covered with ancient twisted olive and juniper trees. Birds are few and far between but contain some real gems.

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A number of Rufous-tailed Rock Thrushes showed well.

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This wintering Pied Wheatear perched up in a village, hence the unusual background.

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It took a long slog across the stony plateau before we found this Streaked Scrub Warbler – right back where we started. This species is now placed in it’s own monotypic family and so is high on ‘family listers’ hit list.

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A number of picturesque village perched on the edge of deep chasms.

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Spectacular!

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This village was a holdout for a number of insurgents  in the 1950’s and was bombed by the British at the request of the then Sultan.

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Day nine. We had intended to look for Omani Owls on the Sayq Plateau, but the nights were cold and windy and not conducive for listening for owls in the dark. After some debate we decided to return to ‘wadi Mac’ for one last try before we flew home. As a result we got up at 0130, checked out at 0200 and arrived at the wadi at 0500. At 0610 we found two Omani Owls perched high on the cliff and were able to watch them until it got light. One entered a small cave which could be a nest site, whilst the other perched some way away. We had to leave at 0630 to go the airport but somehow managed to stay until 0650. We did arrive in time for the flight and arrived home the same evening.

OK, the views were poor, the birds were nearly a half kilometer away but between us and Johnny Mac, we had found a new site for the owls, were the first to observe a pair together, found a possible nest hole and been the first to see the species in daylight.

The Sound Approach intend to follow up our sightings and hopefully soon, staked out Omani Owls will be on every Omani birding itinerary.

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Omani Owl – can you spot it? It’s above the right hand corner of the tree. Photo by Mike Watson.

Posted February 15, 2014 by gryllosblog in Uncategorized

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