UAE birding, without really trying

Subject: UAE birding, without really trying
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Thu, 22 Apr 2004 14:56:04 +0200


This month I had the chance to see a completely different environment from
the high north, from where I usually report. My son Jan married his Tan
Ming Ping in Dubai on 8 April, and so Riet and I, and all my children,
converged on the United Arab Emirates a few days earlier, coming from as
far away as southern Chile. Our family had not been together in years, and
the two weeks visit therefore to a high degree got the character of a happy
family reunion, with birding taking a distant backseat even for me, and my
birdlist is correspondingly puny.

Still, some glimpses may be of some passing interest to provide.


The first week in Dubai we rented a flat in the World Trade Center
Apartments in Dubai. From the flat we looked down on one of the many four
lane roads in this boom city, lined with lawns and palms----the UAE has a
wonderfully well developed infrastructure in many ways, and the road system
is one of them.

Looking out, the first thing one sees and hears are House Sparrows, which
here still are present in the vast numbers I remember also from my youth in
Holland, but which buy now there are very much a thing of the past. More
insistent sharp calls betray the presence of another intrepid world
wanderer, the Common Mynah, now generally operating in pairs here and
nesting in wall-cracks etc. There are also large numbers of doves,
eternally goo-GOO-goo-ing Collared Doves (the UAE being among the many
countries this species has conquered in the last decades), andas yet less
vociferous small Palm Doves, the latter real big city birds here and
present everywhere in town. More melodious bird calls are unmistakably
bulbullish; after two years of a Red-whiskered Bulbul in Riet's garden we
now know these by heart. Here, however, they are different species; and an
'overgrown tit'  turns out to be the smallish White-eared Bulbul. On the
lawn and sandy roadverges larks walk around early in the mornings, visible
only from the higher floors of the apartment houses; I think they are
Crested Larks, a very commion species here. And on the small lawns now and
then Riet's great favourite also manifests itself; no lawn is too small for
the Hoopoe, it seems, and as  I have often noticed before these colourful
birds are far from shy. Few birds in the sky here, but here and there in
town Swifts are present, i think both Common and Pallid Swifts.

Behind the apartments is a 'club', where one can loll and swim in a vaguely
colonial atmosphere, and where there is also a playground for the kids
(another well-organized part of the infrastructure here in the UAE). There
are trees here, and irrigation, and a small stand of date palms in a
neighbouring area sports tens of beautifully woven weaver nests. The birds
themselves are still in full construction fever, and fly to and from from
the fishtail palms around the pool, that clearly have the desired fibres
for the nest; they also are adept, , together with the sparrows and
bulbuls, at scrounging from the food that people scatter around. I still am
not sure which weaver this actually is, they are blackheaded and look much
like the Rueppel's Weavers in the book, but there are also differences and
I have the sneaking suspicion that it is something else; the books are
sadly of no help in this situation, although clearly there are feral
populations in the UAE of several different weavers.

Also here there are bulbuls. in addition to the small White-eared, there is
a darker, and much more hefty bird, the Red-vented Bulbul. And I am almost
certain that I also spotted a third species, the Yellow-vented Bulbul,
otherwise a bird of the hill country, here around the pool. Doves are
common also here, of course---they continue to be numerous all over the
country, esp. the Palm Doves.

 And there are two sharp high-pitched bird songs around. One is easily
tracked down to a glittering dark purple jewel, appropriately called the
Purple Sunbird, and clearly a bird that needs ony little greenery to find a
niche. The other hasty and somewhat monotonous song, heard much less often
here than later in hotel gardens etc, comes from an archetypical 'little
brown bird' with a swivel tail, the Graceful Warbler (or Prinia), a bird
that to my surprise also comes down from the trees to forage on the lawn
like a mini-pipit. A trio of Hoopoes delight us----but no doubt frustrate
each other--- with a series of threats and chases, all accompanied by a lot
of crest raising; I do not think they even noticed us at all on 'their' lawn.


The little town of Kalba, on the Gulf of Oman coast of the UAE, is most
famous among birders for its isolated and very rare subspecies of the
Collared Kingfisher, called Todirhamphus chloris kalbensis.  In the second
week  of our stay Jan and Ping had designed a wonderful round trip through
all seven emirates of the UAE, with a very nice mix of sightseeing, R&R on
the beaches, and time for each other, and one of the stops the first day
was Kalba. There are mangroves here, but also, as practically everywhere in
the UAE, there is progress, and when we arrived , we met more bulldozers
and draglines than mangroves at first sight. Still,  I thought I glimpsed
colour among all the activity, and when we stopped, we saw a number of
beautiful shimmering Blue-throated Bee-eaters hunting from the sand heaps,
while dapper Crested Larks tripped unconcernedly in front of our car. Also
here there was a playground, and as we had a 3-years old with us, this was
irresistable of course. I myself walked without too much expectations
towards the few mangroves still standing there, when suddenly I heard a
sharp call, and a beautiful blue large Kingfisher arrived with a small fish
in its beak and flew into the tree, ....the famous kalbensis (According to
the latest census there are less than 50 pairs left of this isolated
subspecies, and with 'progress' in full swing here, its  future is no doubt
very bleak.)
But though this kingfisher may be rare and threatened, it is clearly by no
means hard to watch: during our maybe half hour here Riet and I saw two
more, and watched one catch a largish crab. Not too many other birds around
on this hot and dusty late afternoon, although a small flock of
Greenshanks  glying over calling brought our thoughts back to our northern
home and cold and mosquito-ey wetlands.


Among the glories of the UAE in birding are no doubts the various khors,
the salty creeks and lagoons of the low coastal areas. Here I could have
spent many days without a dull moment, instead we only had a few hours, one
afternoon at the Al Jazeera khor (on a separate trip with Riet), the next
day at Khor Al Beida with the entire family group. The first day we were
lucky in having beautiful light in the afternoon, so that we could enjoy
the wide mudflats and Salicornia-flats (easy to get stuck in, we learned)
and all the birds there at leisure. Without a telescope, identification was
less easy than enjoyment, but of course we soon sorted out the dominant
Kentish, Grey and Lesser Sand Plovers, the many Bar-tailed Godwits and the
homely Oystercatchers. The birds were in every conceivable plumage, some of
the sand plovers with gleaming red breasts, others in full winter plumage;
likewise some of the godwits were gloriously 'oxblood' and some Grey
Plovers were much better described by their alternate name of Black-bellied
Plover. Further away, in the heat-shimmer, Western Reef Herons and Little
Egrets fished actively, while a few Great Egrets stood like statues, and
Flamingoes filtered in their incomparable topsy-turvy manner----I also saw
many flamingoes swim here, by the way. Gradually we also identified some
other shorebirds, gulls and terns, but I'll spare you the details, the list
is at any rate grossly incomplete. Graceful  Little Green Bee-eaters
foraged along the dune-foot, and larks were common also here.

The second day we ventured into the vast track-criscrossed vastness of Khor
Al Beida and saw basically the same birds, although this time in much worse
light. Although I after a while almost was ready to give up---Marit's baby
Marte did not at all like the stop-drive-stop regime, and she definitely
has the voice to let us know her displeasure--- my children fortunately are
made of sterner stuff, and were firmly decided to find daddy his new family
of birds. And find it they did! After prolonged further cruising to an area
with small mangroves a far away 'strange gull'  materialized into my first
ever Crab Plover (for which Khor Al Beida is a well-known wintering area),
and shortly afterwards we found one more and could, albeit at some
distance, admire this peculiar and special bird, with its long legs and
outsize bill, and a tiny little bit 'designed by a committee' look. It is
not every day one adds an entirely new bird family to ones life list.

I am very grateful to my family, not only for their patience , but also for
their active help and support for my birding aberration!!

                                                Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                9037 Tromsø, Norway

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