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Early summer sea-watching at Ras al Hadd, Oman,
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This trip report outlines three May visits, each of three days, made to the Ras al Hadd area of Oman. The only serious birding here at this time of year concerns sea-watching and I generally fit in three or four hours of this each day, before 0900 and after 1630. This is generally decent and sometimes very good (some of the best in Arabia, actually) and a species list, compiled from my three visits (at the end of May in 2008, 2009 and 2010) is presented.
Getting there The only way to do this is to drive; from the UAE the trip is about seven hours from the border crossing of Mezyad – Hafit (at Al Ain). From Muscat, there is now a good road running south all the way to Sur (3 hours); Ras al Hadd is approximately 40 minutes beyond Sur.
Facilities and where to stay Ras al Hadd is a small, sparse and dusty town with few facilities (visit the ATM and petrol station in Sur en-route). It sits on a wide sandbar, isolating Khwarr al Hajar, a beautiful shallow bay in lunar landscape, from the sea. Ras al Hadd Hotel, out on the end of the sandbar and quite close to the beach, is one place to stay, especially if you are into Stalinesque architecture or have a soft spot for 1970s Kiev. It is supposed to be ok inside but you would need a lobotomy to consider staying there; better by far is the Turtle Beach Resort, just across the Khwarr from the hotel, but about 12km by road from it (turn left at the signpost at the roundabout just before you start driving into town). Have a look at http://www.tbroman.com/index.aspx or email info @ surtoursonline.com or info @ tbroman.com. Enjoy Oman (email@example.com) is a travel agency based in Muscat that frequently stay at Turtle Beach Resort, and can make bookings and arrange discounts (and sort out travel arrangements for everywhere else in Oman too). The summer seems to be low-season, but the place has been consistently getting busier each time we have visited, so booking would be a good idea. This is a brilliant, low key and unpretentious ‘resort’ comprising comfy barasti huts around a central restaurant designed in the style of a large dhow. It is right on the edge of a beautiful cove with great snorkelling and, best of all, is a two minute walk over a low headland to a decent vantage point over the open sea. Cost in 2010 was 42 OR per room, per night inclusive of breakfast and a decent dinner. If you cannot abide hours on the beach, bring plenty of reading material for the middle of the day. The resort took a pasting from a tropical storm in June 2007 and was out of action for, I think, quite a while afterwards. Luckily, its last skirmish, in June 2010 (four days after we left!) was less catastrophic and they reopened just a week later, presumably having had to spend some time returning the sand to the beach and shoo the Swinhoe’s Petrels from the shadows under the bar tables.
Weather in late May Hot for sure, but not unbearably so, and certainly much less humid than the Gulf or Muscat at the same time of year. During my visits there has generally been a decent breeze much of the time. Temperatures later in the summer should be fairly reasonable (relative to the rest of Arabia) as Ras al Hadd, whilst being remote from Dhofar, still experiences a cooling effect from the monsoon winds and the inshore cold-water upwelling they cause. During my visits, wind direction has been predominately light-moderate offshore (in 2008 and 2010), and light onshore in 2009. Haze at sea can be an issue for sea-watching but generally not before 0900.
Sea-watching in Oman: timing
In Oman, sea-watching is generally best from early summer until late autumn. At this time of year, austral breeders move out of the southern oceans, Arabian breeders (terns, Jouanin’s Petrel, Persian Shearwater etc) are closer inshore and the monsoon upwelling produces good feeding conditions along the Omani coastline from Ras al Hadd southwards. Ras Janjari and Mirbat, east of Salalah, are probably the premier locations and have seen some spectacular movements of birds when a lucky birder’s visit coincides with strong onshore winds (typical before and during the monsoon, i.e. July – September). Later in autumn may be better for Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel, but the relatively limited numbers of birders means that there is certainly much to learn about this species (and others) in Arabian waters. Ras al Hadd is possibly not quite so well positioned as these more southerly locations (but is much, much closer to Muscat) and my visits have been right at the start of the season, so undoubtedly there is a lot more to be added from this location as well.
Sea-watching at Ras al Hadd
The sea-watch point behind the Turtle Beach Resort faces north, and this means that light is never perfect, but never awful either. 99.9% of passage is eastwards and towards the open ocean, meaning that in the morning it is important to get onto birds before they disappear into the harsh glare. Lighting is rather better in the evenings, but passage is generally much reduced. Most terns pass at very close range and views are excellent; many tubenoses (especially, typically, the interesting ones) are invariably more distant and flight action becomes a vital clue to distinguishing Jouanin’s Petrel from Flesh-footed and Sooty Shearwarters. This isn’t difficult, except in very calm conditions. However, on every watch some Persian Shearwaters and at least the odd Jouanin’s or Flesh-foot pass by at close range. A systematic list, summarising species observed and numbers is given below.
In comparing the annual totals presented below, bear in mind the following total sea-watching hours for each year: 2008: 8.2 hours; 2009: 14.2 hours; 2010: 9.6 hours
Totals: 2008: 294; 2009: 732; 2010: 1620. Along with Bridled Tern, this is the invariable seabird passing Ras al Hadd, although morning numbers are vastly greater than those in the evening. 380 per hour on 31 May 2010 was the best hourly rate.
Totals: 2008: 7; 2009: 19; 2010: 163. The 2010 score, a year which saw much greater numbers of Persian Shearwaters (and Masked Boobies and Bridled Terns) as well, culminated in 85 in two hours on 29 May. In contrast to the standard pattern for the former species, this was an evening count. 44 passed in two hours the following morning; otherwise numbers (5-6 per hour) were more comparable to 2008 and 2009 tallies (ranging from 1 to 3.5 per hour).
1 probable in 2008; and singles confirmed in both 2009 and 2010. As most big shearwaters pass at fairly long range, distinguishing this species from the previous one is not easy and some may well be overlooked. This species is annual on the east coast of the UAE in April – May (which is otherwise totally sub-standard with respect to seabirding, relative to Oman) but it remains unaccountably rare (still requiring a description) in Oman.
Seen annually, but never very numerous. Totals: 2008: 1; 2009: 26; 2010: 24. Sticking it out to the end is a good tactic for this one; birds often start appearing very late on (after 1800) during evening watches.
One seen close inshore, 2010. Short, but very, very sweet!
One seen, 2009. Should become (much?) commoner as the season progress; (I logged 6 in 4 days from Masirah Island in September 2009 when there were generally few seabirds around).
Seen annually in small numbers; totals: 2008: 2; 2009: 4; 2010: 17 minimum.
Seen annually in small but variable numbers; totals: 2008: 22; 2009: 1; 2010: 9.
One non-adult male passing, 2009. Should have been Lesser but appeared in the tern stream straight out and was thereafter always going away.
Totals: 2008: 8; 2009: 97; 2010: 50. Never seen especially close.
Three, 2010, plus two more the same year closer to this species than the next one.
One in 2008 and six suspected, 2010. Skuas at Ras al Hadd this late in spring are rarely full blown adults, nor numerous enough to really get your eye in after not seeing any since the previous autumn.
Present in small numbers daily; up to 43 passing per watch, but 10 – 20 more normal.
Two passing in 2008 but more likely in Khwarr al Hajar.
Seen on virtually every sea-watch, with a total of 40 in 3 hours on 26 May 2010 being a high score. However, less than 10 per watch is more typical.
Lesser Crested Tern
Much less numerous than the preceding species, with annual totals ranging from 1 to 4, save for a group of 11 on 23 May 2009 (soon followed by another 40, probably this species but further out) that were purposefully migrating north-westwards.
Scarce, generally 0-3 per watch watch.
Present in small numbers only. Generally up to 6 per seawatch, presumably non-breeding birds (but many are in breeding plumage) and mostly feeding close inshore and passing into the Khwar. At least some match the appearance of minussensis. Nine seen moving steadily north-westwards on one date in 2009.
Oddly sparse; 8 in 2008 but not in subsequent years.
Little / Saunders’s Tern
13 in 2010 but only one other (2008). Never seen well enough to clinch although, by early summer, the latter must be much more likely.
Far and away the most numerous seabird passing, with numbers and views very impressive up until 0800-0900 every morning. Totals: 2008: 1440; 2009: 4520; 2010: 6150. Very hard to keep precise tabs on as they suddenly appear in flocks up to 300 strong, before a short lull. Up to 560 passing in 10 min intervals on 31 May 2010.
One in 2008 and four in 2010, including 3 on 31 May
Other things to try
There is a lot more natural history interest at Ras al Hadd than passing seabirds.
Ras al Jinz and Green Turtles These are abundant offshore, and, at least in summer (the peak breeding season) are easily seen on any seawatch. Far better views, most memorably through a snorkel, can be obtained by taking a boat trip (see below). Another must-do is a nocturnal visit to the famous turtle beach of Ras al Jinz (about 25 km from Turtle Beach Resort, which can make bookings and provide maps). This is now tightly-controlled and very well-managed; we have done a guided walk on each trip and always found it an excellent experience.
Khwarr al Hajar and environs The bay may hold a surprising variety of non-breeding waders (12 species in 2010), at least in some years. These sometimes include Crab-Plover (9 in 2008, two in 2010), Terek Sandpiper plus Greater and Lesser Sandplover. Small numbers of loafing Sooty Gulls and terns are usually present. Osprey and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse sometimes appear. In the arid, unforgiving landscape passerines are nearly non-existent save Brown-necked Raven and, sparsely, Desert Lark and Black-crowned Finch-Lark, all of which breed locally.
More estuarine birding is available in Sur, where Egyptian Vultures sometimes appear in the hills inland from the town.
Migrants Even in late May, these may appear. The few ornamental palms of the Turtle Beach Resort hosted a handful of Marsh Warblers, plus single Whitethroat and Spotted Flycatcher one morning in 2009, all bravely hanging on for grim life on edge of the world. Yellow Wagtail also appeared that year, the odd Barn Swallow still passes this late and in 2010 a Hobby blasted through. A wandering Sooty Falcon must be a real possibility here as well.
Boat trips from Turtle Beach Resort We were approached by a local fisherman, Hamid (well-known at Turtle Beach Resort, or call 00923 93998), in 2010 and spent a couple of hours on his boat one morning. This was not serious seabirding, we merely cruised around close to the beach looking for turtles, which were not difficult to find. We also ventured a mile or two offshore to look for dolphins, seeing plenty, and out here clocked up much better views of a few seabirds. These included a single Jouanin’s Petrel, and Masked Booby and Flesh-footed Shearwaters circling at spitting range. There must be real scope for some proper seabirding here, but the smallness of the boat means that that this would only be comfortable (and safe!) in especially calm conditions.
Hamid’s price was very reasonable; we paid him 25 OR between 6 of us for two hours.
Ras al Khabbah This, the easternmost point of Arabia, is about 40km south of Ras al Hadd. It ought to be great sea-watching, especially in the afternoon (facing east, the morning light is very harsh). However, the cliffs are awkwardly high and my single visit in 2008 produced rather little, although Red-billed Tropicbird is easy here (presumably breeding) if you cannot find any passing Ras al Hadd (and they also occur on the cliffs near Ras al Jinz). We found Hoopoe-Lark close to the road between Khabbah and Ras al Jinz.
Finally If you require any further information, please contact the author at the address above.