OMAN BIRDING TOUR, WITH BAHRAIN: DETAILED ITINERARY
Oman: Day 1 Our tour begins this morning at Muscat airport. The capital city of Muscat and its sister city, the port of Mutrah, command a series of rocky bays guarded by beautifully restored watchtowers and fortresses. Muscat is one of Arabia’s oldest trading centres and from here, until relatively recently, the seamen of Oman used the seasonal changes in the monsoon winds to sail with their sturdy dhows as far afield as India and Sri Lanka. From here we will drive westwards across the Batinah plain of coastal northern Oman to the town of Barka for a three nights stay. This afternoon we will be sleeping in readiness for our first excursion in search of the enigmatic Hume’s (or Omani) Owl.
Oman: Days 2-3 We will make several excursions inland to the Al Hajar Mountains, enjoying dramatic scenery of jagged limestone ridges and deep cavernous wadis in search of the special birds of this area.
The main reason for our visit is to find Hume’s Owl in the strict sense. Early in 2013, whilst recording the vocalisations of Pallid Scops Owl here, our friends at the Sound Approach made the exciting discovery of a previously unknown Strix owl call. Subsequent events resulted in them describing a ‘new’ species, under the vernacular name ‘Omani Owl’. However, a recent study has demonstrated that, rather than being a new species, ‘Omani Owl’ actually refers to the type specimen of the bird we have long known as Hume’s Owl Strix butleri, but which is now postulated to comprise two separate species, Hume’s (or Omani) Owl and the recently-described Desert Owl (or Desert Tawny Owl) S. hadorami, which many of us will have already seen in its extensive range from the Red Sea coasts of Egypt and Sudan across Israel and Arabia to southern Oman. Adding to the interesting situation is a recent definite observation of Hume’s Owl from northeast Iran, supported by some stunning photographs, while the type specimen of butleri came from the Makran coast of southwestern Pakistan, indicating that Hume’s Owl in the strict sense still has a wide distribution.
We were the first bird tour company to show people Hume’s (or Omani) Owl in the strict sense, as well as playing a part in the discovery of a second site in Oman for the species.
Pallid (or Striated) Scops Owl is a common breeding bird in this area and although they have long since finished their breeding activity we should still be able to find this sought-after Middle Eastern speciality.
Other interesting specialities we are likely to encounter in this area include a number of restricted-range species, including Hume’s Wheatear, Red-tailed (or Persian) Wheatear, the diminutive Plain Leaf Warbler (which is not much larger than a Goldcrest), Arabian Babbler, Striolated Bunting and Lappet-faced Vulture of the declining Arabian form negevensis. If we are lucky, we will also encounter the lilith form of the Little Owl (occasionally split as Lilith Owl). More widespread species include Egyptian Vulture, Common Wood Pigeon (an isolated population inhabits these Arabian mountains) and Streaked Scrub Warbler (now considered a monotypic bird family).
We will also visit Ras as Sawadi, a headland on the coast where the nearby rocky offshore island of Sawadi holds a breeding colony of Sooty Falcons (a bird with a restricted breeding range in the Middle East that winters in Madagascar). The birds regularly visiting the adjacent coast to hunt, but we can also walk across to the island at low tide or take a short boat trip.
At another costal site we will have the opportunity to admire a number of Crab-plovers, the sole member of a monotypic bird family and surely one of the most emblematic birds of the western Indian Ocean region.
A series of natural colonists from the Oriental Region can also be found along the Batinah coast, including Grey Francolin, Red-wattled Lapwing, the colourful Indian Roller, White-eared Bulbul, Purple Sunbird and Indian Silverbill. In addition, Red-vented Bulbul has been introduced to this area.
Oman: Day 4 We will return to Muscat airport and catch a morning flight to Salalah, where we will stay for three nights. We will spend much of today exploring the Salalah region.
Oman: Days 5-6 Salalah, situated on the Arabian Sea coast of Dhofar province, the southernmost region of Oman, is very different from the north of the country. Here, over 800 kilometres (500 miles) from the capital Muscat as the sandgrouse flies, the cooler temperatures and rain of the summer monsoon make their influence strongly felt and, behind the coastal lowlands with their swaying coconut palms and white sand beaches, the rugged mountains of the Jabal al Qara will still be glossed with green as the specialized ‘drought-deciduous’ woodland (which includes baobabs and Frankincense trees) will still be in full leaf. During the monsoon period relatively cool air moves in from the sea and is trapped against the steep mountain escarpments, creating enough rain to transform the coastal plain into a lush meadow, favoured by grazing camels, and the usually dry hillsides into verdant woodland. During our stay in this fine area, which has a distinctly Afrotropical flavour to its resident avifauna, never mind some exciting South Arabian endemics, great seabirds, interesting Palearctic migrants and regular vagrants from Africa or South Asia, we will visit a superb selection of attractive, unspoiled habitats.
A high priority will be to explore the natural springs in the foothills of the Jabal al Qara, where the best of these is Ayn Hamran. Our prime target species in these beautiful ravines, where a luxuriant strip of palms, trees and bushes along the perennial streams contrasts strikingly with the rugged mountainsides, will be such regional specialities as White-spectacled Bulbul, Blackstart, Arabian Warbler and the whistling Tristram’s Starling ( or Tristram’s Grackle). There is also a fair chance of finding Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak, a South Arabian endemic species which is largely a monsoonal visitor to Dhofar. If we have not had any luck at a day roost, after dark we will look for the splendid little Arabian Scops Owl (now considered to be a good species and endemic to South Arabia). We will also seek out the Arabian form of the Greyish Eagle-Owl, a potential split.
A series of predominantly Afrotropical species which extend into southern Arabia also occur in this habitat, including the smart but furtive and well-camouflaged Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Didric (or Diederik) Cuckoo, Grey-headed Kingfisher, the showy and restless African Paradise Flycatcher, Black-crowned Tchagra, Shining Sunbird, Abyssinian White-eye, Rüppell’s Weaver, African Silverbill and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting.
The almost bat-shaped Fan-tailed Raven and Pale Crag Martin (split from Rock Martin) can often be seen overhead and the escarpments and ravines are also good for raptors including Short-toed Snake, Booted and Bonelli’s Eagles, Eurasian Hobby and, with luck, Barbary Falcon. If we keep a close eye on the heavens we have a good chance of seeing a Verreaux’s Eagle drifting along, its strange wing silhouette giving it away at once. These predominantly hyrax-eating eagles nest in caves on the face of the towering coastal escarpment.
The thick cover at the bottom of the ravines, which includes acacias and a few large fig trees, holds migrant Common Nightingales and Common Whitethroats of the sombre Asian form icterops, while other species likely to be seen in these valleys include Laughing Dove, European Nightjar, Eurasian Hoopoe, Long-billed Pipit, Grey Wagtail, Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, Blue Rock Thrush and Eastern Olivaceous Warbler.
The most fascinating birds of this fascinating area are undoubtedly the pale-looking swifts, now generally considered to be Forbes-Watson’s Swifts, which breed in the coastal cliffs and quite possibly in the inland escarpment as well. There has been much debate as to whether these birds were Pallid Swifts or visiting Forbes-Watson’s Swifts from northeastern Africa, or even a new species, ‘Dhofar Swift’.
On another occasion we will visit a remote wadi where, with persistence, we have a very good chance of seeing the poorly-known Desert Owl (now split from Hume’s or Omani Owl), as well as Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse. We will also climb the escarpment of the Jabal al Qara and explore the grasslands and partly wooded slopes. Once we reach the plateau above the escarpment, Arabian Wheatear (split from Eastern Mourning and endemic to South Arabia) can be found perched on boulders and roadside wires, while at Tawi Atayr a huge and spectacular sink hole in the limestone hosts an isolated population of Yemen Serin, another South Arabian endemic which was only discovered to be resident here, around 1000 kilometres to the northeast of the previous known range, in 1997. At Tawi Atayr, or elsewhere on the escarpment, we should also find another South Arabian endemic, the striking Arabian Partridge, as well as the regionally-endemic Palestine Sunbird. The escarpment also attracts many raptors, including Egyptian Vulture and Steppe Eagle.
We will also visit several creeks and lagoons (known locally as khawr) not far from Salalah. These wetlands are unusual in being adjacent to the sandy coastline, but cut off from the sea by natural sandbars. These conditions have created brackish lagoons fed by the mountain springs, with consequently less saline conditions in their upper reaches. East Khawr, Khawr Taqah, Khawr Rawri (or Rouri) and Khawr al Maghsayl (or Mughsayl) between them provide great birding and we are sure to turn up a series of interesting species.
Undoubtedly the star attraction of these khawrs are the crakes that pass through every autumn: there can surely be nowhere else where Spotted, Little and Baillon’s Crakes are, in most years at least, easy to see!
The wide range of additional waterbird species we should encounter includes Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shoveler, Northern Pintail, Garganey, Eurasian Teal, Little Grebe, Greater Flamingo, Glossy Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-crowned Night Heron, Squacco, Grey, Purple and Western Reef Herons, Western Cattle, Great and Little Egrets, Common Moorhen, Eurasian Coot, Eurasian Oystercatcher, Pacific Golden, Grey (or Black-bellied), Common Ringed, Little Ringed, Kentish, Greater Sand and Lesser Sand Plovers, Common Snipe, Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits, Whimbrel, Eurasian Curlew, Common Redshank, Common Greenshank, Marsh, Green, Wood, Common and Curlew Sandpipers, and quite likely also Terek and Broad-billed Sandpipers, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderling, Little and Temminck’s Stints, Dunlin, Ruff, Slender-billed and Caspian Gulls, Lesser Black-backed Gull (the common form here is sometimes split off as Heuglin’s Gull), Gull-billed, Caspian, Greater Crested, Lesser Crested, Whiskered and White-winged Terns, and the range-restricted Saunders’s Tern.
Pheasant-tailed Jacanas migrating from the northwestern part of the Indian subcontinent winter regularly in the area and we may well find one or two already present. We will also be looking out for Yellow Bittern, recently discovered to be breeding here in very small numbers at the western extremity of its range. The ‘khawrs’ are good places to find rarities and we may find one or two, such as Intermediate Egret, Cotton Pygmy Goose, Small Pratincole, Caspian Plover or Long-toed Stint.
Additional species we are likely to encounter around the khawrs or elsewhere along the coast include Western Osprey, Western Marsh, Pallid and Montagu’s Harriers, Common Kestrel, Blue-cheeked and Green (or Little Green) Bee-eaters, European Roller, Rose-ringed (or Ring-necked) Parakeet, Crested Lark, Citrine, Grey-headed, Sykes’s and Black-headed Wagtails, Graceful Prtinia, Bluethroat, House Crow and Common Myna.
Other good venues are the local farms, where large hay fields and some scrubby patches attract resident Eurasian Collared and Namaqua Doves, and Singing Bush Larks, as well as migrant Tawny Pipits, Siberian Stonechats, Isabelline and Desert Wheatears, Red-tailed (or Turkestan) and Isabelline Shrikes, and Steppe Grey Shrikes (split from Southern Grey). Here we may also see one or two of the first returning Sociable Lapwings that nowadays spend the winter here.
A recent phenomenon, following the closure of many of the dumps in northern Oman is a large gathering of eagles at a rubbish tip near Salalah, where over 800 Steppe Eagles now spend the winter, not bothering to continue further south and across the Bab-el-Mandeb strait into Africa. Smaller numbers of other raptors can also be found here including Greater Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles, as well as large numbers of White Storks and occasionally also Abdim’s Storks coming from Africa in the opposite direction.
A nearby water treatment plant always holds a good selection of waterbirds and sometimes a rarity or two, such as Greater White-fronted Goose, the elegant White-tailed Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing or Spur-winged Lapwing.
From Ras Mirbat, a headland projecting into the Arabian Sea, we will travel out by boat to look for seabirds. The edge of the continental shelf lies close inshore here, and the rich up-welling attracts pelagic seabirds and most notably good numbers of the rare and poorly-known Jouanin’s Petrel, which nests on the remote island of Socotra, while Persian Shearwaters (which were for a time lumped with Audubon’s) are common here. This is the only place we see either of these mega-specialities. We should also see Flesh-footed Shearwater and Bridled Tern during our pelagic. In 2005 we recorded the first Atlantic Petrel for Oman off Mirbat, while other rarities off Mirbat have included both Wilson’s and Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrels.
Sooty Gulls, a regional speciality, are extraordinarily numerous along the Dhofar coast and we may see hundreds, or even thousands, during our visit, while careful checking of the Common Tern flocks may turn up some White-cheeked Terns, which are yet another regional speciality. Masked Boobies can be watched not far from shore making dramatic dives in pursuit of fish and we should also see a number of Socotra Cormorants, a species largely restricted to Arabia.
Oman: Day 7 After spending the morning in the Salalah area we will head inland, crossing the coastal escarpment and entering the interior desert of Dhofar on our way to the remote settlement of Qatbit (or Qitbit) where we will stay for two nights. Here we are not far from the edge of the Rub al Qali, or Empty Quarter. Roadside birds are few in this forbidding region, apart from Greater Hoopoe Lark and the hardy Brown-necked Raven.
It is usually well worth checking the guesthouse garden and adjacent areas at Qatbit for migrants. As well as more regular migrants such as such as Common Quail, European Turtle Dove, Tree Pipit, Common and Black Redstarts, Common (or Rufous-tailed) Rock Thrush, Ménétries’s Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Common Chiffchaff, Spotted and Red-breasted Flycatchers, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Common Rosefinch and Ortolan Bunting, we have found such rarities as Asian Koel, Olive-backed Pipit, Forest Wagtail, Black-throated Thrush, Hume’s Leaf Warbler and Yellow-browed Warbler here over the years.
Oman: Day 8 This morning we will visit a small oasis where we will await the arrival of hundreds of Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse to drink at a small spring. (During the breeding season, adult sandgrouse may fly up to 50 kilometres (30 miles) in each direction on a daily basis to springs like this. There they soak their belly feathers before travelling back to their breeding sites to provide the young with drinking water!)
We should find a selection of other dry country species, including wintering Pied Wheatears and Asian Desert Warblers, and resident Southern Grey Shrikes. The area, rather surprisingly, also supports one or two pairs of Golden Eagle and we may also encounter Long-legged Buzzard.
A major speciality of the edge of the Empty Quarter is the partly nomadic Asian Dunn’s Lark. These days there is increasing tendency to treat the African and Arabian forms as sibling species. This can be a difficult bird to find in Oman, as elsewhere in its range, so we have allowed a fair amount of time for searching.
Oman: Day 9 We will have another chance to look for Asian Dunn’s Lark today and we will also visit one or more of the irrigated farms which are scattered across this southern edge of the Rub al Qali. At the latter we may find large numbers of European Rollers and White Storks fuelling up on the abundance of grasshoppers and crickets before the next leg of their long journey to Africa, as well as other migrant species including a variety of larks, particularly Greater Short-toed and Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks and, with luck, Bimaculated Lark, as well as a selection of pipits, wagtails and wheatears. This area often attracts Cream-coloured Courser and large numbers of Greater Hoopoe Larks. Eventually we will reach the town of Thumrayt, where we will spend two nights.
Oman: Day 10 Today we will explore desert habitats, oases and more irrigated farms in the southern part of the interior desert, looking for such interesting species as Sand Partridge (a regional speciality), Cream-coloured Courser, Sociable Lapwing, Chestnut-bellied and Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, African Collared Dove, Desert Lark, Hooded Wheatear, Nile Valley Sunbird (another regional speciality) and maybe even the threatened Macqueen’s Bustard. We also have another chance for Asian Dunn’s Lark in this area.
There is a real chance today of finding an early migrant Grey Hypocolius or two. The enigmatic hypocolius is nowadays usually treated as a monotypic family, Hypocolidae. These remarkably soft-plumaged birds, which have characters that recall both waxwings and shrikes, typically favour dense cover and palm thickets in particular.
Oman: Day 11 After some final interior desert birding we will return to Salalah for a two nights stay. Depending on what we still need to look for this morning, we may have the afternoon for birding on the coast.
Oman: Day 12 A last full day in the Salalah area for tracking down things we still need to find.
Oman: Day 13 The Oman section of the tour ends this morning at Salalah airport.
Bahrain Extension: Day 1 The extension begins this afternoon on the island of Bahrain, where we will stay for two nights in the capital, Manama.
Bahrain Extension: Day 2 The island of Bahrain lies in the central Arabian (or Persian) Gulf and is connected to Saudi Arabia by a long causeway (popular with Saudi visitors in search of forbidden fruit, in particular alcohol, as Bahrain is a liberal paradise in comparison). The patches of greenery on this otherwise very arid island act as magnets to passing birds and the small farms, in particular, attract a wide variety of migrants, including Egyptian Nightjar (a speciality which is regularly seen here at this season), Eurasian Skylark and Water Pipit, while the creeks hold Socotra and Great Cormorants, Black-headed Gull and occasionally Armenian Gull, and the rocky hills of the interior harbour Mourning Wheatears (the form here, Iranian or Eastern Mourning Wheatear, is a proposed split).
Best of all, Grey Hypocolius can occur in good numbers in Bahrain at this time of year, some of those arriving from breeding grounds in Iraq and Iran are destined to stay all winter, but others are moving through en route to winter quarters in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. Bahrain is one of very few accessible wintering areas where this species can be encountered with any certainty.
Bahrain Extension: Day 3 After some early morning birding the Bahrain section of the tour ends at Bahrain airport.