13th-23rd September 2007

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Thursday 13th September

Up at 0515, and into the taxi for the novel experience of a train journey to Gatwick. Easy! Arrived in good time, checked in to be greeted with the good news that the plane was almost empty, and relaxed.

And indeed the plane was empty! I had three seats to myself - excellent. I arrived in Doha at about 2100 local (6.5 hour flight), and quickly transferred to a short hop to Abu Dhabi, which took just 40 minutes. Oscar was there to meet me as planned, and we bundled into the hire car and sped off into the (very hot!) night. Once ensconced at his pad, there was time for a swift Guinness, and then into bed - at about 1230.....with the alarm set for 0250!!!! Clearly, I was about to be Oscared....

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Friday 14th September

And so it turned out - what a day! Shattered already, I got up ready for our 0315 departure, and then off we drove into the darkness, heading east for the UAE's east coast, and specifically Wam Farm. We got there shortly after dawn (3 hour drive), and met up with almost the entire UAE birding contingent - all eight of them!

We hit the fields and scrub, and quickly turned up some great birds - most of which I can remember seeing! An excellent UAE rarity in the form of Baillon's Crake (after much confusion!), Blyth's Pipit, Indian and European Rollers, Isabelline, Hume's and Variable Wheatears, a female Ménétrie's Warbler, Citrine Wagtail, Red-backed and Southern Grey Shrikes, Grey Francolin, Little Green and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Pale Crag Martin and Purple Sunbird. Overload already - and also extremely hot by the time we left late morning!

Next, we headed for the coast a bit further south at Ras Dibba, and did a bit of beach and seawatching - more lifers in the form of Bridled and White-cheeked (and possibly Saunders'?) Terns, Sooty Gull and Socotra Cormorant. Also Red-necked Phalarope and an Arctic Skua offshore.

Onwards again in the afternoon heat, and down to Kalba mangroves, where we quickly found the local 'mega' - the regional endemic form of Collared Kingfisher. Also here were Indian Pond Heron, Pacific Golden Plover, Terek Sandpiper and a good variety of other waders, although we couldn't find a Sykes' Warbler in the mangroves.

We called it a day (a very long one!), and drove in the dusk across to Sharjah, where we met up again with Oscar's mate Andrew, had an Iranian meal, and then (really!) crashed out......what a day - thoroughly Oscared.

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Saturday 15th September

A much needed little lie-in, and then off again, this time to Khor al Beida, up on the northern (Gulf) coast in Umm al Quain. We very quickly connected with the major target here - CRAB PLOVER! And in short order, I found my other much wanted wader - GREAT KNOT! Excellent - and all supported by stacks of other waders, Black-crowned Finch Lark and Hoopoe Lark as well. Superb stuff.

Next stop was the Pivot Fields - a bit disappointing (something of a migrant clear out has occurred), but still White-tailed Plover, Temminck's Stint, Richard's Pipit, Turkestan Shrike and a scattering of other migrants.

The Wimpey pits were also poor - too hot now - but Khor Dubai was pretty good - lots of Flamingoes and waders to check through, plus Osprey and Marsh Harrier.

By 1500ish, it was hot and dusty, and we'd checked all the sites needed, so we headed home (via a Cream-coloured Courser dip at the polo club), regrouped, and got ready for the evening....

....which was a very pleasant Lebanese meal with Nick, Becca and Gilly. Ate too much, groaned a lot....

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Sunday 16th September

Up at 0600 and out of the door by 0630, and quickly heading south-east across the Abu Dhabi desert to Al Ain, where I successfully found the café at Green Mubazarrah, where Dave Clark turned up just minutes after me. After a relaxed look at Red-tailed and Hume's Wheatears, Desert Larks (including a stunning, ultra-white leucistic bird), we checked the bushes in a small wadi - Wryneck, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler....and then a bird I called as a Rufous Bushchat hopped out of a tamarisk and proceeded to dip its tails (deeply) on the ground - all fawn/grey, long tailed, long-billed, a bit of a warbler - Hippo?....what?!?

As I write this, and post a look at some photos I managed to take, my mind is split between a form of Clamorous Reed Warbler of which I have absolutely no knowledge, or the extreme possibility of Olive-tree Warbler - which would be a first for the UAE! Let's wait and see what the boys think....

Dave and I checked the other hotspots of this weird little fantasy-oasis in the desert - Isabelline Shrike (and Wheatear), Blue-cheeked and Little Green Bee-eaters, Sand Partridge, and a variety of common migrants - plus brief Little Bittern and Barbary Falcon.

By about noon, it was a cauldron, and it was time for me to hit the road - I crossed the Omani border, and it was then a long, long drive to Muscat - 640km in all today! I hardly saw a bird en route (just a Brown-necked Raven was worthy of note), and reached Muscat and the very welcoming Brown family by just after 1700. We had a cup of tea (AHHHHH!), and then had half an hour down on the sea front by Qurum Park - no Sooty Falcons, but two Kingfishers and a few waders and terns.

Slap up meal, knackered, bed!

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Monday 17th September

Up even before the mullahs, and funnily enough, not even with an alarm clock! I must be getting used to these early mornings.... Anyway, I sneaked out and drove to the Al Ansab sewage plant - not as good as hoped - there's a lot of construction going on, and many of the pits were very overgrown as well. But there were many Night Herons, and a few Purple Herons, and a few Reed Warblers and other small passerines about.

Having failed to find the Sunub waste dump, I cut my losses and returned for a hearty breakfast, and left the Browns at about 0900. More judicious map-reading led me to the dump in the end - not that there were many birds about! Just a Hume's Wheatear and a couple of Egyptian Vultures. So it was time to hit the road for the long drive to Sur and Rass al Had.

The drive was fine, if less easy than yesterday's, and I got to Sur early afternoon. A few waders (including Terek Sandpiper and Black-tailed Godwit), a tickable flock of Saunders' Terns and a photogenic Osprey later, I did the last 40km to Rass al Had along a pristine, and yet totally deserted highway - the place is right off the map, like being on the moon - and eerily silent, too! I found the Beach Hotel OK and checked in for two nights. Plush, with the most astonishing sea view - and a Rufous Bushchat in the only tamarisk!

I dozed the heat of the day away, ate a sandwich, and then decided to go down to Rass al Jinz, where the evening light would be behind me. I found it fine (via a Short-toed Eagle), and excitingly the whole upper beach was covered in massive turtle tracks and pits! But I was here to seawatch, which is what I did. And scored! About 15 JOUANIN'S PETRELS (the #1 target bird of the trip, several quite close), several Persian Shearwaters, plus Bridled, Lesser Crested, Common and Sandwich Terns, Sooty Gull, Arctic Skua, and stacks of Red-necked Phalaropes. Even two Crab Plovers treated me to a fly-by - nice....

Dusk fell, and I headed back to the hotel for a meal and brush up - feeling grubby just now!

And at 2100, I was back down at Ras al Jinz, getting my permit with about six or so other tourists - hard to tell in the dark! After a lengthy (but quite interesting) lecture about the turtles (featuring many references to "small baby turtles"), we headed down to the beach, and soon gathered around a huge laying Green Turtle. Fantastic! In the end, we saw three females, and a couple of "small baby turtles" too, including one that was heading inland and needed rescuing! What a great evening.

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Tuesday 18th September

A bit of a lie-in today, and after breakfast, I drove the 40km or so down to Ras al Khabbah. I parked near the edge on the awesome limestone cliffs, and set up in the lee of the car for the big seawatch - and it was good! Distant Jouanin's Petrels soon showed up, but closer in, other good birds - Crested Tern, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Wilson's Petrel and several Red-billed Tropicbirds. An Arctic Skua was closely followed by a distant Catharacta skua sp. in wing moult - South Polar, or even Antarctic? Also a couple of Green Turtles loafed about offshore, and four Garganey flew south.

Well satisfied, but quite sunblasted, I returned to the hotel, and dozed for an hour or two. In the late afternoon, I went down to the east-facing beach at Ras al Hadd (more turtle tracks, and at least two females already offshore), and enjoyed an hour's seawatch - not so many birds, but some quality: Arctic Skua, Purple Heron, two Collared Pratincoles, more Red-necked Phalaropes and several Lesser Crested Terns.

Walking back up the beach (poetic bit coming up), I was struck by the prehistoric tracks of 100+ year old turtles, criss-crossed by 4x4 tracks. Makes you think about the passage of time.... Poetic bit over!

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Wednesday 19th September

After a disturbed night's "sleep" (an awful nightmare), I got up just after 0400, and drove down to Ras al Jinz. I set myself up in darkness, and soon found a turtle just returning to the sea. About six other tourists were there and seemed well-pleased, but I had my eye on some distant flying sand further up the beach, and when they wandered off for breakfast at about 0600, I closed in. Waiting for her to finish covering her eggs, I did a quick seawatch - which was well worthwhile, with three Masked Boobies and four Common Noddies the pick of the bunch, which also included Jouanin's Petrel, Crested Tern, Arctic Skua, Persian Shearwater and many Red-necked Phalaropes.

Finally, she emerged from her hollow, and I closed in for a fantastic half hour of photography and reptile communion. Awesome! She got a bit stuck in a neighbour's hollow at one point, and so I dug away some sand to help her - did she appreciate it? Hard to tell... I was able to clean all the sand off her carapace for the full photographic effect, and she finally returned to the ocean at about 0715. What an experience.

Elated, I returned to Ras al Hadd (via a Red-tailed Wheatear), and checked out a little migrant trap I had spotted the night before - and what a trap! A tiny, slightly vegetated wadi just behind the beach held 25+ Isabelline (=Turkestan) Shrikes, 2 European Rollers, 7 Quail, 2 Desert Lesser Whitethroats, 2 Rufous Bushchats, 2 Rose-coloured Starlings, 2 Golden Orioles, 15 Black-crowned Finch-larks, a Hoopoe, a Rock Thrush, 3 Sand Martins, 2 Whitethroats and a Spotted Flycatcher. Not bad at all! Who wants to be on Fair Isle anyway?

After a not so hearty breakfast, I headed off north, via the rather attractive town of Sur, and drove long and hard on Route 23 towards Muscat once more. I was really knackered, and at one point had to stop for a snooze under the (feeble) shade of an acacia tree. But finally, I reached the capital. I was a bit early, so I decided to have a look in Al Qurum Park, badly storm-damaged as it was. Rather few birds about, but some real quality in the shape of another Baillon's Crake, Eastern Olivaceous and Booted Warblers, Masked Wagtail, and best of the lot, two Sooty Falcons mobbing a Kestrel high overhead.

At about 1730, I turned up at the Browns' house, was warmly welcomed, and
SHOWERED! Phew! I've almost had enough of this heat.... David and Gilly were going out for a drinkie-do at the Army chief's house (attended by the head of the British Army, no less), so Tom and I settled in for a slap-up pasta-fest and some Twenty20 cricket - England vs. India. I lasted about six overs, and then simply had to crash out - bad choice, it turned out, as I missed the first ever 6x6 in Twenty20.....oh well.

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Thursday 20th September

A leisurely start today - away by 0900, and straight up the busy coast road to Ras as Sawadi, where I easily managed to find a boatman (and son), and quickly crossed over to the very barren, exposed island - what a scorcher! the discomfort was supplemented by 100m or so of climb up to the castle - at least there were steps. Very quickly, I nailed a Sooty Falcon, and I spent a very happy hour photographing three of them as they zoomed about the island - fantastic birds.

Now roasting and drenched with sweat, I gratefully put the AC on full blast, and drove fast northwards towards Sohar, the main town between Muscat and the UAE. With no intention of sampling the urban delights of the place, I checked in to the Al Wadi Hotel on the bypass (fine), and slobbed out with room service and a DVD while I cooled off.

Once it was a bit less searing outside, I drove down to Sohar Sun Farms - sadly, the farm is plainly much less irrigated than it once was, and while birds were hardly in short supply (1000s of Mynas, many Indian Rollers and White-winged Black Terns, stacks of waders on the ponds, a few Grey Francolins etc.), the diversity and "rarity feel" of the place was not great. Still, lots of decent oddities - Shoveler, Ruff, Marsh Harrier, Arabian Babbler (at last!), Turtle Dove, Isabelline Wheatear, Black-crowned Finch-lark, some flyover Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and a large falcon against the light - it appeared to be nothing other than a Peregrine - certainly not a Saker, but I suppose possibly either Lanner or Barbary Falcon.

I gave the coastal Khawr by the hotel a quick try, but the light was now right in my face, and there were lots of picnickers on the beach, so I cut my losses and retired early.

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Friday 21st September

Another quick look at the Khawr was a dead loss, so I hit the road and reached Shiwas pretty early. I managed to drive out onto the sabkha towards the fairly limited mangroves, and very quickly located two Sykes' Warblers - and almost fell into the muddy creek to boot! Other nice birds in this area were two Namaqua Doves, Black-crowned Finch Lark and Indian Pond Heron.

Next, it was further north and over the Oman/UAE border, and swiftly on to Khor Fakkan, where I enjoyed a coffee in the Oceanic Hotel, before hopping on the dive boat and zipping across to the main port where I met up with the other nine or so pelagic birders for the day. Oscar et al. were a bit late in arriving, but we were away by 1230, and soon seeing large numbers of White-cheeked, Bridled, Common and Little Terns close inshore, plus a fly-by Pomarine Skua.

Quite quickly, we also found substantial rafts of Persian Shearwaters, along with quite a few Red-necked Phalaropes. Although we did not add substantially to this species list (apart from an inbound Marsh Harrier), we had a really enjoyable trip, featuring Nick on chum duty with his box of rancid fish remains and the patented "Procellarator" - he did make a pretty decent chum slick, but sadly nothing ultra-rare or tubenosey was attracted.

Back onshore, Oscar and I said goodbye to the others, and headed a short distance inland to a mountain dam, where, sure enough, a few Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse came in to drink at dusk - also here were Little Grebe, Night Heron, Purple Heron and Hume's Wheatear.

Finally, we drove the short distance north to Dibba, and checked in at the rather faded but perfectly OK Beach Motel. We ate an "interesting" curry in a local roadside café, and then retired for some much needed sleep.

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Saturday 22nd September

Up at 0600, and pretty much straight out into the field at Wam Farm once more. Really not as many migrants about as we might have hoped, but some real quality in the form of Glossy Ibis, an Upcher's Warbler, two Montagu's Harriers, Pintail Snipe and two Ménétrie's Warblers. Sadly, yesterday's Black-winged Pratincole appeared to have done a bunk. Still that particular bogey-bird haunts me!

It got roastingly hot very quickly, and by about 1100, we had had enough, so we headed east, stopping at Masafi Wadi in the mountains, in a vain hunt for Striated Bunting, Long-billed Pipit - or indeed almost anything else! All we had was a forlorn-looking Lesser Whitethroat.

I fell asleep for almost an hour as Oscar drove on through the desert to Al Ain, and we finally stopped at some pools just outside town. Immediately, a very dark-looking Pratincole appeared on the nearest shore. Gulp! It flew, showing no visible white-trailing edge....double gulp! But it then banked, flashing the richest of red underwing coverts....and there was, in fact, a narrow white trailing edge. Drat! A juvenile Collared Pratincole - but still a very smart bird. We mopped up a few waders, including Temminck's Stint, and then headed for Green Mubazarrah, where the putative Olive-tree Warbler had still been present mid-week, and where yesterday there had been a Savi's Warbler.

Unfortunately, neither of those birds presented themselves, so we had to make do (!) with Blue Rock Thrush, plenty of Isabelline Shrikes and Wheatears, Hume's Wheatear, two Nightjars and another Upcher's Warbler. This really is a great little spot, made especially atmospheric by the warm evening light as the air (finally) cooled down a little.

We blasted back to Abu Dhabi on the main road, made ourselves presentable, and then joined Nick and Becca next door for a rather good curry, beer and whisky session.

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Sunday 23rd September

Last day! And not a very bird-orientated one, really. I got up after 0700, and didn't head out until after 0800, by which time it was already stupidly hot. NO WAY could I live here.... I birded the golf course/racetrack area first (Alexandrine Parakeet, Red-vented Bulbul), and then checked around the Mushrif Palace Gardens - more bulbuls and Grey Francolins, but the only migrants to be found were a Hoopoe and a Spotted Flycatcher. The best bird was a rather distant thermalling Honey Buzzard - which from the look of it was surely one of the regularly wintering Oriental Honey Buzzards.

I now felt like a steamed haddock, so I retreated to the absurd nonsense of the Marina Mall - almost empty because of Ramadan, and almost entirely given over to ladies' clothing outlets. And no cafés open, of course!

So I bought myself a picnic lunch in Carrefour downstairs, and returned to Oscar's pad to chill out, ahead of him knocking off work at about 1500.

Once he got home, we headed down to the scrubby/tree area at Khalidiyah, where Oscar and I quickly relocated the apparent Pied Flycatcher (a UAE mega), plus a Honey Buzzard sp. raiding a wasp nest (ID still to be finalised!), and finally finaly, te first two returning Asian Desert Warblers.

So that was that - a final meal at the Lebanese Flower, and then off to the airport - unsociable timings for the flights but again they were only about 1/4 full, so I had not only TWO emergency exit seats to myself, but the whole of the row behind to lie down and sleep as well! Business class!

I finally reached home, in cool rain and fresh air (aaah!) at about 1000 local on Monday.

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Simon Woolley

September 2007