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A Report from

United Arab Emirates, April 2004 ,

Phil Gregory

Dubai April 1 Transit to Uganda

Millennium Airport Hotel 0800-1200. Birding in the grounds and from the bus in transit.

Cattle Egret 3, Feral Pigeon, Spotted Turtle Dove 1, Collared Dove 2, Laughing Dove 3, Hoopoe 2, Lark sp. 6, Purple Sunbird 1 male, White-cheeked Bulbul 6, Red-vented Bulbul 4, Common Myna, House Crow, Indian Silverbill 10.

Got my inaugural list up into double digits anyway, with Indian Silverbill Euodice malabarica being a lifer if I give it the benefit of the doubt over its status here. Sadly it seems as if both White-cheeked and Red-vented Bulbuls are introduced, I entertained some hopes of the former being wild but seemingly this is not the case......Still, both are well established and White-cheeked Pycnonotus leucogenys is a new feral species anyway.

Dubai 22 April 2004, Arrive 0200, an hour late from Entebbe. Met by Steve James and whisked off into the desert to try for Desert (Pharaoh) Eagle Owl Bubo ascalaphus desertorum at Qarn Nazwa in Sharjah, an hour’s drive from the airport at Dubai. We arrived about 0330 with no sound or sight of the birds, but enjoyed a great starscape with several meteors. Bedded down on the sand to grab a bit of sleep till dawn. I was awakened at 0520 by a loud nasal call overhead, and sat up to see a Desert Eagle Owl directly overhead, jinking off as it saw us and heading up onto a boulder atop the rocky ridge of the hill. Scope views of it in the pre-dawn light, flying to another rock as the light improved. A huge great thing with a massive barrel shaped body and flattened ear tufts, a great beginning as I’d not seen any form of Eurasian Eagle Owl except a distant probable at dusk in Israel. Owls count double anyway!

Back into the Range Rover and off towards the coast, a little behind Steve’s meticulous schedule but with a key species safely notched. Coming into the bare lunar mountains at Masafi, we quickly found two pairs of Hume’s Wheatear Oenanthe humei right by the road for great close views, a large black wheatear with white belly and much white in the tail.

Lifer number 2 duly logged, so on to the coast and a try for the newly split Sykes’s Warbler Hippolais rama in the mangroves at Khor Kalba before it got too hot. Good views of yet another race of Collared Kingfisher came first after we heard one calling, similar to Oz birds but faster and more high pitched. This is a greeny plumaged taxon with large white collar and big bill, seemed a little smaller than Oz birds and totally unlike the Bismarck birds of course. A Squacco Heron flushed here looked rather dark and streaky, and Steve saw an Indian Pond Heron later that I only got onto flying away, not really tickable on my view.

Sykes’s Warbler came quite easily; a short walk along the inland edge of the mangroves, and then some pishing brought one up very nicely. It did look a bit different to Booted, with a pale horn bill, fawn brown upperparts, whitish underparts, pinkish grey legs and a dark eye. Some 20 pairs live in the mangroves here, sadly threatened by the building of a marina which will destroy much of the habitat, environmental considerations not looming large in the Arab mind, just more excess and consumption regardless of the consequences.

The beach at Khor Khalba in Fujeirah emirate gave me an unexpected and long overdue tick in Western Reef Heron Egretta gularis, a dark phase and a light phase side by side and obviously quite distinct from Little Egret, with a longer, thicker and much more decurved bill. The dark bird was almost blackish with a white throat, legs yellowish-green but much longer and thinner than Eastern Reef Egret.

Gulls proved diverting, with lots of Slender-billed and Sooty, two Black-headed, a second winter Common Gull (rare here, only Steve’s second or third ever). Large gulls were of the Caspian Gull persuasion, with pure white heads, gentle facial expressions, legs greeny-yellow and variably dark grey mantles, my first experience of this taxon whatever it proves to be. An immature heuglini type with a white head and very dark scaly mantle had a banded bill like an Armenian Gull.

Terns were also notable, with a large passage of Common Terns of the longipennis race moving north offshore, seeing several thousand here. Saunder’s Tern was also interesting as I’d only seen this taxon on the Kenya coast in the northern winter- I thought the grey rump and tail very distinctive, indeed five Little Tern going north were obviously different due to the white rumps. Lesser Crested was common, looking very slender billed, heaven knows how you tell this from Elegant Tern, they look much longer billed than Aussie birds. Swift (Crested) Tern was by contrast much the same as at home in Queensland, with stout greeny-yellow bill and dark grey upperparts.

We spent about 90 minutes here, then headed inland to an area of mature gaf trees, which in true UAE fashion were being bulldozed for building development. Luckily the remnant still held the quarry, the Yellow-throated Sparrow Petronia xanthocollis. They had loud rather shrill sparrowy chirps and a distinctive sparrowy song, given from high in the trees. Quite flighty but we eventually got really good scope views- a typical Petronia, male with white chin and bright yellow throat patch, cold grey brown above and buffish-grey beneath, with two whitish wing bars and chestnut lesser coverts. The female lacked the chestnut wing coverts and yellow throat. This is a real Middle East speciality so I was keen to find it, this being a day of obscure species.

A male Black-crowned Finch-Lark Eremopterix nigriceps flying by was a nice tick, my penultimate member of the genus, and seen much better next day.

Next stop was some ponds some 12 km north of Fujeirah port, which gave us various waders including Temminck’s Stint, and Greater Flamingo, plus my first Graceful Prinia for years.

Fujeirah National Dairy Farm (Wham Farm) was rewarding, with a big group of Lesser Kestrel (Steve counted 73), a ringtail Pallid Harrier, and a flock of some 9 Pale Rock Sparrows Petronia brachydactyla. They flew through at speed, but were just about listable as I saw the pale tail tips and odd triangular wings plus the greyish colouration. Luckily I saw where they landed and we were able to go over and refind them. They were wary and flighty, but kept returning to the same area of short marshy grass and giving close flight views. I eventually got one in the scope and watched it for several minutes- a stout rather plain Petronia with a dark eye and heavy conical pale pinkish bill, pale supercilium (rather faint), no throat markings, two whitish wing bars and a complex patterning of pale fringes to tertials and secondaries, grey-brown above and buffish white beneath, tail notched and with whitish tips in flight, and a curious almost starling-like broad triangular wing shape with a pale central wing area. An interesting bird and a lucky pick-up as most have gone through by now, one of those obscure species I sort of never expected to connect with.

Speaking of obscure species, we then tried for Blyth’s Pipit Anthus godlewskii in the long pasture grass, and ended up finding 3 birds, one of which I got in the scope. Now this is the sort of species where I was profoundly grateful to have Steve as my mentor, but talking it through it seemed to stack up nicely and to be even be identifiable without micro detail like tertials and tail pattern. Structurally it was a large pipit, but shorter tailed than Richard’s and with a distinct disyllabic “chu-up” harsh call, quite unlike the shrill “shreep” of Richard’s. The crown was finely streaked dark, quite heavily so, there was a faint eye ring and at some angles a sort of chestnut ear covert mark a bit like Little Bunting. The upperparts were streaked but seemed less heavily marked than Richard’s, whilst the breast streaking was obvious. Very much a jizz bird, it was not quite as theological as I feared, as in almost all cases  (except Meliphaga and Collocalia!), a good albeit difficult species still has a distinct character. Richard’s seen next day were larger and longer tailed with a different call note. Another species like Sykes’s Warbler and the Pale Rock Sparrow that I somehow never expected to see, this stopover has been outstanding for such obscurities.

I missed a Bonelli’s Eagle over the enclave of Oman that I’d had as a geographic tick earlier, but a Peregrine there was nice. Other good birds today were Blue-cheeked and the blue faced form of Little Green Bee-eater.

Our final foray was a 50 km drive to Dibba for a seawatch from the headland, not very productive beyond Bridled Terns mucking about and five Arctic Skuas north, no luck with Persian Shearwater. Back then for an hour and a half drive to Abu Dhabi and a night at Steve and Carol’s lovely home.

Next day were were out by six and combing the migrant traps of Abu Dhabi city around Khadiyah. It is interesting how a people who once lived in such close harmony with their environment are now so totally out of synch- inappropriate green lawns everywhere, huge flower beds and forested strips, all done with fossil or desalinated water. Still, I guess the migrants find it helpful!

The first tick of the day was Socotra Cormorant Phalacrocorax nigrogularis, a group of 3 adults and one pale sandy immature sat on a buoy in the harbour channel by the Intercon Hotel, looking like long necked anorexic shags and not a candidate for bird of the trip! White-cheeked Tern were nearby, my first since one in Kenya about 20 years ago, curiously like small and very dark Common Terns. Grey Francolin Francolinus pondicerianus seem to be native here, and if so these were my first wild birds, otherwise only seen as feral in Seychelles. They were common and noisy in the flowerbeds and tree-lined verges in Abu Dhabi, also at Ghantoot and Al Wathba.

The migrant warblers proved diverting, with Upcher’s Warbler of particular note, a species I ticked in Kenya in the 80’s but never felt very happy about. Having seen these today, I wuz right in my i.d. back then when it all seemed so hard, they are a big rather grey looking Hippo with a large dark broad tail often pumped up and down though I did not note any sideways wagging today. Eastern Olivaceous nearby were smaller and less grey, with a flatter head and much slimmer tail, with pale outers. The song was remarkably like an Acrocephalus warbler. A Barred Warbler seen briefly was my first for ages, and I also saw big grey unbarred job with a yellow eye that I suspect is Eastern Orphean Warbler. The support cast included Wood and Willow Warblers, Whitethroat and Blackcap, plus lots of Red-throated Pipits, a few Tree Pipits, several Nightingales, a Golden Oriole and best of all, a female White-throated Robin. The bright rusty flank patch and dark tail were a dead give away, whilst we also found several Rufous bush-Robins of the eastern syriacus form, no doubt splittable. A Masked Shrike female was only my second record, near some palace in the city.

Al Wathba fodder fields and camel track was very hot, with great views of Black-crowned Finch-Larks, Short-toed Lark, Isabelline, Desert, Pied and Eastern Black eared Wheatear, lots of Red-throated Pipits and a couple of Richard’s Pipits flying and calling. Flushing two Common Quail was also good. Best bird was however a great pair of Hoopoe-Lark, singing and showing very nicely along some sandy waste edges, the bill much longer than I remembered from previous sightings in Morocco and Israel.  The ponds nearby held a few late Palearctic ducks and waders, plus Great Reed and Eastern Reed Warbler.

We then checked the Hypocolius site at Ghantoot, by the former palace cum hotel that has half fallen down, wasting a paltry few tens of millions of dollars. This was fairly unproductive, missing a rufous phase Scops Owl, but a distant Cream-coloured Courser was the first for many years now that Somali Courser is a split.

The final outing came at Mushrif Palace gardens in Dubai, a good stake out for Striated Scops Owl Otus brucei despite hundreds of picnicking locals and a deafening broadcast of superstition from a mosque, plus statues of smurfs (desert race, no doubt splittable)! We arrived just before dusk and checked the best area without result, then spent a half hour after dark using the spotlight and eventually locating an owl in a quieter corner. It gave great views to about 5m, the dark striations on the underparts being distinct and lacking the cross bars of Scops, though it did show a pale buffy looking scapular line. The dark border to the pale face was also very distinct.

Back then to the Millennium Airport Hotel by 2015,ready for the flight home next day. Many thanks to Steve James for being such a great and enthusiastic host, we drove 850 km on the first day and I owe him some 10 lifers plus loads of neat Palearctic species seen for the first time in ages.

Systematic List

132 species * denotes lifer or potential lifer when split
96 species on 22/4 and 82 on 23/4

Squacco Heron 1 22/4
(Indian Pond Heron 1)  22/4
*Western Reef Egret 3 22/4 Fujeirah
Little Egret 2
Cattle Egret 1
Grey Heron 9
Greater Flamingo 3- 2 juv and 4 at Al Wathba ponds 23/4.
*Socotra Cormorant 3 ad and 1 imm 23/4 Abu Dhabi
Mallard 4 23/4
Pintail 1 m 23/4
Eur. Wigeon 1 f 23/4
Garganey 1 m 23/4
Shoveler 1 f 23/4
Pallid Harrier 2 ringtails 22/4 and one on 23/4
Peregrine 1 22/4 in Oman
Lesser Kestrel 30+ 22/4 Wham Farm. Steve saw 73.
Moorhen 9 - 2 juv. 22/4
*Grey Francolin 30 23/4, a new wild species but already on my feral lifer list.
Common Quail 2 23/4 Al Wathba.
Black-winged Stilt 50
Collared Pratincole 7 22/4 Wham farm, 1 at Al Wathba 23/4.
Little Ringed Plover 3 22/4 and 1 23/4
Ringed Plover 3
Red-wattled Lapwing 40+ 22/4 and 20 on 23.4 including a small juv.
Sanderling 30 22/4 on the Khor Kalba beach
Little Stint 4 22/4, 10 on 23/4
Temminck’s Stint 6 22/4, 2 on 23/4
Kentish Plover 10 22/4, 50 on 23/4
Curlew Sand 5 22/4 and 15 on 23/4
Dunlin 4 22/4
Ruff 1 22/4 and 5 on 23/4
Black-tailed Godwit 1
Whimbrel 6
Redshank 1 22/4 and 2 on 23/4
Spotted Redshank 1 23/4
Greenshank 3
Wood Sand 10
Green Sand 1
Common Sand 3 on 22/4 and 1 on 23/4
Turnstone 6
Terek Sand 4 22/4
Avocet 9 23/4 Al Wathba ponds
Cream-coloured Courser 1 23/4 Ghantoot
Pomarine Skua 2N 22/4
Arctic Skua 5N 22/4
Sooty Gull 100+ 22/4
Slender-billed Gull 90+ 22/4
Black-h Gull 7
Common Gull 1 second winter
*Caspian Gull 5 adults 22/4 Fujeirah beach Khor Khalba
Heuglin’s type Gull 1 imm. 22/4
Crested Tern 3 22/4
Lesser-Crested Tern 70+ 22/4
Common Tern 2500 N 22/4
Sandwich Tern 5 22/4
White-cheeked Tern 20 23/4 Abu Dhabi
Saunder’s Tern 2 22/4 and 3 on 23/4
Little Ten 5 N 22/4
Whiskered Tern 2 22/4
Bridled Tern 70 22/4 Dibba
Feral Pigeon
Laughing (Palm) Dove
Collared Dove
Rose-ringed Parakeet 8 22/4, 6 on 23/4. Presumed feral here.
Alexandrine Parakeet 3 23/4 Abu Dhabi. Feral here.
*Desert Eagle Owl 1 Qarn Nazwa 22/4
*Striated Scops Owl 1 Mushrif Palace gardens, Dubai 23/4
Pallid Swift 4 22/4, 40 23/4
Common Kingfisher 1
Collared Kingfisher 1 and 3H 22/4 Khor Kalba
Little Green Bee-eater 2 22/4
Blue-cheeked bee-eater 10 22/4
European Bee-eater 3 22/4, 6 on 23/4
European Roller 1 22/4
Indian Roller 15 22/4 and 1 23/4
*Black-crowned Finch-Lark 1 m 22/4 and 3 on 23/4
Short-toed Lark 7 22/4
Crested Lark
Hoopoe-Lark 2 Al Wathba 23/4
Sand Martin 5 22/4
Barn Swallow
Pale Crag Martin 4 22/4, 2 on 23/4
*Blyth’s Pipit 3 22/4 Wham Farm
Richard’s Pipit 2 23/4 Al Wathba
Tawny Pipit 2 Al Wathba 23/4
Red-throated Pipit 2 22/4, 30 23/4
Yellow Wagtail 2 22/4 and 3 23/4
Yellow-vented Bulbul 2 22/4
White-cheeked Bulbul
Red-vented Bulbul 2 23/4
Isabelline Wheatear 1 22/4 and 3 on 23/4
Northern Wheatear 2 22/4, 2 on 23/4
*Hume’s Wheatear 4 22/4 Masafi Mts.
Black-eared Wheatear 1 f 23/4 Al Wathba
Pied Wheatear 1 m 23/4 Al Wathba
Desert Wheatear 2 f Al Wathba 23/4
Whinchat 3 23/4 Al Wathba
Rock Thrush 1 f 22/4, 1 f and 2 imm. males 23/4 Abu Dhabi
Graceful Prinia 1 22/4, 2 23/4
Clamourous Reed Warbler 2 22/4
Great Reed Warbler 1 Al Wathba ponds 23/4
Reed Warbler 2 Al Wathba ponds 23/4, presumably the Eastern race.
Eastern Olivaceous Warbler 1 22/4 and 4 on 23/4
*Sykes’s Warbler 1 on 22/4 Fujeirah mangroves at Khor Kalba
Upcher’s Warbler 3 Khadiya 23/4
* Eastern Orphean Warbler 1
Common Whitethroat 1 22/4
Blackcap 1 f and 1H Khadiya 23/4
Barred Warbler 1 Khadiya 23/4
Eastern Orphean Warbler 1 Khadiyah 23/4
Willow Warbler 1 22/4, 10 on 23/4
Wood Warbler 1 Khadiya 23/4
Arabian Babbler 1 22/4 Fujeirah ponds
Rufous Bush-Robin 4+ syriacus race 23/4 Khadiya.
White-throated Robin 1 f Khadiya 23/4
Nightingale 3 Khadiya 23/4
Purple Sunbird
Isabelline Shrike 4 22/4 with brown crowns, Daurian or Turkestan race, and 10 on 23/4 of a grey crowned race presumably phoenicuroides.
Southern Grey Shrike 1 22/4-aucheri race and 4 on 23/4 same race.
Woodchat Shrike 1 m 22/4
Masked Shrike 1 f 23/4 Khadiya
Golden Oriole 1 23/4 Khadiya
Brown-necked Raven 1 22/4
House Crow
Common Myna
Bank Myna 6, a new feral species for me
House Sparrow
*Pale Rock Sparrow 9 Wham Farm
*Yellow-throated Sparrow 5 22/4
Indian Silverbill 6
Ortolan Bunting 7 22/4 Wham farm and 1m 23/4 Al Wathba
House Bunting 1 Wham Farm 22/4, seen in flight quite nicely.

©Phil Gregory April 2004


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