Archive for the ‘Saker’ Tag

Mongolia part 4: Barig Mountains, Sangiin Dalai Nuur, Hustai National Park, Khentii Mountains and Ulaanbaatar- 1st – 5th June 2018   Leave a comment

For this 4th and final part of the trip I’ve uploaded photos from the Barig Mountains (near to the Khangai range, Hustai NationalPark, the Khentii Mountains and Ulaanbaatar.

 

A very roughly drawn map of our route. With few roads to follow the lines on the map are only approximate. Post 1 covered from Ulaanbaatar (UB) to the Khentii Mountains, back to UB and south as far as the red dot. Post 2 covered the journey south and then west as far as the next red dot. Post 3 covered the Altai and Bodj Mountains, the intervening lowlands and the Khangai Mountains by the next red dot. This final post covers the nearby Barig Mountains, Sangiin Dalai Nuur, Hustai NP due west of UB and a return visit to the Khentii Mountains.

 

As I wrote in my last post we managed to see our target Asian Rosy Finch at White Rocks Pass (in this photo) quite quickly so with some time on our hands we headed to the nearby Barig range in the hope we might find the rare White-throiated (or Hodgson’s) Bush Chat.

 

We arrived in the early evening and set up camp in this valley. A couple of sheepdogs from a dwelling about a mile away came over. They were no trouble and hung about for the evening. All was quiet during the night until the early hours when the dogs went ballistic. We think a Wolf may have passed nearby.

 

Surprisingly the minibuses just drove up the mountain, it was incredible how they manged to get over the rocks. It was a bit like driving to the top of Cairngorm from the ski lift car park. Eventually they couldn’t get any further and we hiked the last bit. Unfortunately the weather was turning and we didn’t get the panoramic views we enjoyed at the other mountain ranges.

 

The habitat was the same as in the Bogd Mountains a few days ago, rounded boulders covered with orange lichen and like the Bogd we found Water Pipits on the rocks but no Bush Chats. They must have been held up on migration from their wintering areas in northern India.

 

We also had good views of Siberian/Stejneger’s Stonechats. The recent separation of these two species on genetic grounds has been problematic for birders. Subtle differences can be seen in 1st winter or fresh autumn plumages but these are hard to detect in worn breeding plumage. The balance of probability is that these birds south of the boreal zone are Siberian Stonechats whereas the ones we saw in the Khentii were Stejnegers. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

We arrived at Sagiin Dalai Nuur in the later afternoon. The wind was still strong and the terrain, mini sand-dunes like a never ending vista of molehills, was most uncomfortable to drive on.

 

Flocks of White-winged Terns flew back and forth just above the ground …

 

… and a number of Steppe Eagles hunted the omnipresent Brandt’s Voles. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

In the evening the sun came out and gave good light for photographing species like Mongolian Lark (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

… or this Asian Short-toed lark. I included this photo in the last post in error. Although we also saw this species at the lakes further south János took this photo at Sangiin Dalai Nuur. More importantly we had our only sighting of the recently split Mongolian Short-toed Lark (split from Greater STL) at this sight but no photos were taken. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

We saw a great range of species here ranging from the graceful Demoiselle Crane to Corsac Fox, Asiatic Dowitcher, Oriental Plover, Red-necked Stint …(copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

… and the familiar, yet always graceful Pied Avocet. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

It was a difficult night, the wind buffeted the tents and soon it started to rain heavily. The next morning we tried birding in the lee of the mess tent and added Red-throated Diver and Slavonian Grebe to the list.

 

Taking down and stowing wet tents in a gale wasn’t easy but had to be done.

 

As we left we came across an enormous herd of domestic horses. This is just a small part of the herd. Although Mongolia only has about a population of 1.5 million away from the capital the livestock numbers reach close to 70 million. Much of the natural pasture is severely overgrazed and as you can see the wind whips the exposed soil away creating this pink tinged sky.

 

We had quite a way to go but at least we were now on tarmac roads! In the early evening we arrived at Hustai Nation Park, a short distance due west of Ulaanbataar. We were planning to camp just outside the park gates but when we saw there was a ger camp we pleaded with János to allow us to stay there as much of our gear plus the tents were still wet. Fortunately he agreed and gers were available. As you can see the bad weather that we experienced today was just clearing as the sun set.

 

The weather was fine the next morning when we explored the grassy slopes of Hustai National Park. A remnant of the once extensive natural grasslands that covered this area.

 

There were several raptors in this area such as this fine Saker …

 

… impressive Cinereous Vultures (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

… and this poorly photographed Golden Eagle.

 

Passerines like this Meadow Bunting were seen in the bushes (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

Our (or at least my) main target was mammalian and no it wasn’t these endearing Tarbogan Marmots.

 

We were looking for the legendary Przewalski’s Horses but these aren’t they! Disappointingly our first sighting turned out to be feral domesticated horses. That was quite troubling because they shouldn’t be in the NP. The possibility of contaminating the gene stock of the Przewalski’s exists and worryingly the left hand individual had a short stiff mane like the wild animals. I’d have any such animals rounded up and released well away from the NP.

 

I’ve seen plenty of Red Deer in my life but never seen them running past the moon.

 

A bit further on we found the ‘real McCoy’ Przewalski’s Horses feeding with Red Deer. Why such excitement over a horse. Well, I’ve looking forwards to seeing Mongolia’s birds for a decade or two, I’ve been looking forwards to seeing Przewalski’s since I was about 10!

 

Przewalski’s Horse is the only true ‘wild horse’ all others such as the mustang of North America or the brumby of Australia are feral domesticated horses. The species became extinct in the wild in the late 60s due to hunting. A number of individuals existed in zoos but after WW2 there were only 9 in captivity. A individual captured from the wild in the 50s was used for breeding and brought in much needed genetic diversity. By the end of the 90s some 1500 individuals existed and after re-introduction programs over 400 now exist in Mongolia with a smaller number in China.

 

With cave paintings from Palaeolithic Europe of stocky horses with upright manes and muscular cheeks dating back 35,000 years ago or more it is tempting to conclude that Przewalski’s were the ancestors of modern horses. In fact the two lineages diverged over 160,000 years ago, long before modern humans had left Africa. In fact the ancestor of the modern horse is more likely to have been the Tarpan which went extinct in Poland in the 19th C. Photo credit: French Ministry of Culture and Communication, Regional Direction for Cultural Affairs, Rhône-Alpes region, Regional Department of Archaeology.

 

Another photograph of this magnificent  (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

Now it was back to ‘civilisation’ and the traffic of Ulaanbataar. It took quite a few hours to cross the city from the west to the east but eventually we made our way back to the Khentii Mountains and camped at the same site as we did on day two of our trip.

 

There was no need to climb up to look for Capercailles so we checked riverine forest and low scrub for two late arriving migrants, Yellow-breasted Bunting and Chines Bush Warbler.

 

We certainly added quite a few species to our trip list, many species had arrived during the last two weeks but how ever hard we tried we couldn’t find our two targets. This was likely due to different reasons. the Bush Warbler is a very late arrival from its wintering grounds and by the middle of June would have been common. The tour could have been run later but we would have had no chance for the Capercailles. The Yellow-breasted Bunting was absent for a very different reason. Once abundant it has now become Critically Endangered due to mass trapping for food in China.

 

Among the birds we did see were Greater Spotted Eagle (the most ‘fingered’ of the ‘aquila-type’ eagles) …

 

… Common Rosefinch …

 

… a female Daurian Redstart …

 

… and lots of Olive-backed Pipits … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

… and the inevitable Daurian Jackdaws (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Eventually we headed back towards Ulaanbataar we watched the locals crossing the Tuul River …

 

… and then did it ourselves.

 

Our final camp of the trip was in this grassy meadow beside a large rock outcrop.

 

We searched in vain for Chinese Bush Warbler but had to content ourselves with more Red-throated Thrushes just two weeks ago that had been my number one wanted bird) …

 

… Two-barred Warblers …

 

… and Pallas’ Leaf Warblers. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

János suggested a last spotlighting session but we declined as we were tired, so he sat alone by the mess tent and spotlighted a Wolf trotting away into the forest! The following morning those up before it got light were treated to a Grey Nightjar but I just heard it from the tent. Here is most of the group for a final photo with János second from the left and Terbish on the far-right. The three drivers and two cooks, whose names I can’t remember did us proud with excellent driving and meals throughout.

 

The trip wasn’t quite over, we returned to Ulaanbataar for a final night and after 16 nights under canvas enjoyed the luxury of a hotel with all the amenities . However there was still time for some final birding the next day.

 

Compared to the natural wonders of the deserts, mountains, steppes and forest of Mongolia navigating the industrial heart of Ulaanbataar was a bit of a come down.

 

Our destination was an area of scrub and ponds which was rapidly disappearing due to development and has probably vanished completely by now.

 

Among the birds we found was this beautiful male Long-tailed Rosefinch. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

We also found Azure-winged Magpies. This species has, or rather had, an unusual distribution – eastern Asia and Iberia. I was once told by an eminent ornithologist that this was due to Portuguese sailors bringing them back from Macao and releasing them at home. However sub-fossil remains in Spain from long before humans existed in Europe and differences in plumage and DNA showed that hypothesis to be invalid. They are now treated as two species. The Asian form keeps the name Azure-winged Magpie whilst the Iberian one is know as Iberian Magpie. I was in Spain earlier this year and all the clients still confusingly called the Iberian one Azure-winged Magpie. It would have been better the world checklists had used the rather longer Iberian A-WM and Asian A-WM. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

Well it took a while but we eventually found a singing male Yellow-breasted Bunting. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

This species used to have a breeding range from Finland to the Pacific but now few are found west of Lake Baikal. In the 90s I saw 150+ in eastern Russia and in 2005 100 in Cambodia and in 1993 I even saw one in Dorset but sightings are few and far between now. The reason for the decline is mass trapping for food in China. Apparently its the done thing to knock off work and pop down to a local bar and eat a few ‘rice birds’ which means Yellow-breasted Buntings or related species. This species is echoing the Passenger Pigeon, a once abundant species hunted to extinction for food in just a couple of decades. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

I’ll finish these four posts with one of my favourite mammal from the trip which I’ve wanted to see since about 1960 when I was given a Time-Life book as a present – the enigmatic Przewalski’s Horse.

 

So concludes my trip to Mongolia, some 228 bird species seen but only five ‘lifers’ (out of a possible seven) Altai Snowcock, Relict Gull, Koslov’s Accentor, the recently splt Mongolian Short-toed Lark and Red-throated Thrush. Even the stunning Black-billed Capercaille I had seen before briefly in Kamchatka. But the scenery, the great mammals and the adventure of travelling and camping in such a wilderness was outstanding. If you’ve travelled a bit in the Palaearctic then Mongolia won’t do wonders for your life list but will be one of the best travel experiences of your life.

 

Mongolia part 3: Bogd Mountains, lakes of Kholbooj, Orog Nuur and Boontsagaan Nuur and the Khangai Mountains – 26th May – 1st June 2018.   Leave a comment

In the last post I showed some photos of the southern Gobi-Altai Mountains and parts of the Gobi Deserts that lies to the south and north of the mountain range. This post covers part of the Altai known as the Bodg Mountains, the desert/steppe lakes of Kholbooj, Orog Nuur and Boontsagaan Nuur.

As with the last two posts I have included a number of photos from tour leader János Oláh as they are so much better than mine. These were supplied to the clients with the tour report.

 

As we travelled west from we spent some time to the south of the Bogd Mountains and had to climb up a pass to reach the northern slope. This ‘chorton’ a Buddhist shrike was at the top.

 

Of course once we had descended to the desert on the northern side of the mountains we saw yet more Pallas’ Sandgrouse … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… but our main target was one of Mongolia’s avian specialities, Henderson’s (or Mongolian) Ground Jay (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

There are four species of ground jay in the world, all inhabitants of arid areas in central Asia and named after ornithological pioneers: Henderson’s (above) Mongolia and northern Tibet, Pander’s in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Biddulph’s in NW China and Pleske’s in Iran of which I’ve seen the first two. There used to be a fifth, Hume’s Ground Jay of Tibet but DNA evidence showed that it belonged in the Paridae not the Corvidae – so it went from being the smallest crow in the world to the biggest tit in the world. (although other nominations are available for that honour). (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

From these desert plains we continued on to the lakes at Kholboolj Nuur and camped overnight and later went up to the Bodg Mountains above, however as we visited a number of other lakes after our descent from the Bodg I’ll treat all the lakes together and show pics from the mountains first.

 

The long ascent to the Bogd was up this very rough track.

 

There were wonderful views to the desert to the desert to the north.

 

Eventually we reached the top and started scanning the distant ridges.

 

Having dipped on it in the Gobi-Altai our main quest was the elusive Altai Snowcock. Finding a ‘fat partridge’ in this vast area would be no easy task but eventually one was heard.

 

The bird, seen here in the bottom left of the photo was eventually found on the far side of the valley. This photo is greatly enlarged. Some of the group saw another in flight at much closer range but I missed it.

 

Of course I’d like to show what one looks like close up so here’s a photo from Goyo Mongolia Tours

 

Among the many other sightings we had in this scenic area were Guldenstadt’s Redstart (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

 

… Ala Shan Ground Squirrel …

 

… and lower down Chukar (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

… and Hill Pigeon (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest). However we failed to see our other main target White-throated (or Hodgson’s) Bushchat. They should have arrived from their wintering grounds in India by now so we were pretty disappointed not to find this very localised species.

 

On our descent the views over the desert lakes were stunning.

 

We spent one night at the lake of Kholboolj Nuur.

 

Naasta had brought some small mammal traps with him which meant that as well as spotlighting we had a chance to see Gerboas, Jirds etc in the morning.

 

This is an Andrew’s Three-toed Jerboa (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

We spent another night at a lake called Bootsagaan Nuur. The wind would get up in the afternoon and create mini tornadoes on the far shore.

 

On the north shore of Bootsagaan Nuur was this crescent shaped sand dune know as a a barkan. The wind blows the sand more strongly at the distal parts of the dune and so moves it forwards more creating the characteristic shape.

 

The barkan made a great lookout, the local lad has cycled over to see what we were doing whilst the local goat shows its indifference (photo copyright Liz Charter). The sparsity of people through this remote part of Mongolia meant you could drive for 20km and see one yurt with a couple of horses or motorbikes outside and a herd of sheep, goats or camels and then drive another 20km before you found another.

 

I said in the first posts that our Russian vans were uncomfortable although reliable. This was particularly true for our tall Dutch companions, Wim and Willem, although Tim was almost as tall. On most trips there is daily seat rotation but on this trip that was impossible as the taller guys just couldn’t fit into the smaller of the two vehicles.

 

At Bootsagaan Nuur on one side there was a ridge of alluvial material which could almost hide a camel.

 

You’re looking the wrong way Naasta! Actually there were three Pallas’ Fish Eagles on the ridge and Naasta is trying to photograph one of the others.

 

I don’t know how Naasta’s photo came out but János’ were superb! (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

There was a great variety of birdlife around the lakes from the local race of Merlin … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… resident species like Asian Short-toed Lark … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… to migrant Pallas’ Grasshopper Warblers, affectionately know as ‘PG Tips’ by British birders on the account of the pale tips to the tail. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Particularly interesting were the Pallas’ Reed Buntings. Peter Simon Pallas must have more birds named after him than any other ornithologist, at least as the colloquial names are concerned. Three races occupy the boreal forest zone from north east Russia to the Pacific but the race lydiae occurs only around the Mongolian wetlands. With the increased amount of white in the wing and a very disjunct distribution it must be a candidate for splitting. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Of course it was the wildfowl and other wetland birds that were the main attraction around these lakes. We tend to associate Whooper Swans with northern climes as our wintering birds come from Iceland but here were breeding whoopers at the same latitude as Rome! (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Bar-headed Geese are some of the highest flyers of all birds as they overfly the Himalayas at altitudes of 8000m+ to reach their winter grounds in northern India. Birds incredible ability to cope at altitude seems to have a very ancient origin. 250 million years ago all the continents came together to form Pangea, the resultant massive outpouring of volcanic rock and CO2 at the end of the Permian period caused the greatest mass extinction of all time with 95% of species dying out. Oxygen levels dropped to as low as 12% at sea level. One group of reptiles evolved a highly efficient gas exchange system in their lungs, they went on to become the dinosaurs and as O2 level rose again they were able to become massive due to their improved respiration allowing efficient oxygenation of all the tissues. Birds of course were an offshoot of the dinosaurs and after the next mass extinction 65 million years ago they diversified like never before. Other Permian reptile groups that maintained the inefficient earlier lung system became the mammals and eventually us. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Swan Geese are a rare and localised species seen In Mongolia and parts parts of China and south-east Russia.

 

Just as Greylag Geese are the wild origin of domestic geese so Swan Geese are the wild origin of the domesticated ‘Chinese goose’ (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

The widespread Ruddy Shelduck was plentiful. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

We are used to seeing Goosander on large rivers rather than desert lakes. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

There were plenty of Demoiselle Cranes in the area (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Waders included Greater Sandplovers although we couldn’t find any Lesser Sandplovers in spite of their specific name being mongolicus … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… and the more familiar Little Ringed Plover – usually abbreviated to LRP, was a regular site. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Baillon’s Crakes, here of the nominate race which might be a different species from the European ones, patrolled the lake edges. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

This photo allows for some size comparisons. The smaller birds are Common Terns, (here intergrades between our familiar red-billed birds and the eastern race longipennis). The large terns are the huge Caspian Terns but lauding over it all is the massive Pallas’ Gull – yet another species (the 5th in this post alone) that has been named after PSP. The gull asleep in the middle is Mongolian Gull a somewhat variable taxon that no one really knows what to do with.

 

But probably the most sought after bird on these lakes (except perhaps Relict Gull, which we didn’t see here but did see at the start of the trip) is Asian Dowitcher. I have seen this rare wader a few times in the wintering areas or on migration but this was the first time I’ve seen it in breeding plumage or in numbers – we had 45 in total.

 

Although its head shape is similar to its North American cousins, this is a bigger bird, more godwit sized and has a striking white underwing. (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Well it was time for us to leave the bird rich although windy lakes and head for the Khangai Mountains. On route we stopped at the town of Bayankhonogor to restock and had our picnic lunch. As well as it being the first town we had seen for eight days it was our first tarmac road for eight days as well.

 

As we turned off the road and headed into the mountains we passed the Buddhist monastery of Erdenesogt.

 

Birds regularly seen in the uplands included Red-billed Chough … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… Upland Buzzard (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest) …

 

… and Saker Falcons, regrettably a declining species due to trapping for falconry … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… and the pretty little Mongolian Finch (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

We arrived in the Khangai Mountains in the late afternoon and set up camp in this pass. Hume’s Leaf Warblers and Ortolan Buntings serenaded us that evening.

 

Local yak herders came by on horseback. Much stock herding is now done by motorbike so it was nice to see that the traditional approach is still upheld in some areas.

 

Some came over to see what we were up to and Liz asked if she could have a photo with them. They insisted she get on one of the horses.

 

Birds in the area included the widespread Common Rock Thrush, which breeds in the mountains of Europe as well as Asia … (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

… and the pretty Eversmann’s Redstart (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest).

 

Probably the best bird in this area was the lovely Asian Rosy Finch. This is a different form to those I’ve seen in Japan or in the the Aleutian Islands and is good ‘insurance’ against a future split (copyright János Oláh/Birdquest)

 

The Rosy Finch was seen at the scenic White Rock pass.

 

 

We still hadn’t seen the elusive White-throated Bush Chat and we were running out of options. János suggested another mountain range to the north-west and so we headed in that direction. That, the grassy plains of Hustai NP and our return to the Khentii Mountains will be the subject of the final post in this series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.