In August 2014 I had scheduled a 3-day stopover in Dubai on the way back to Australia from the UK. At first I was worried that birding there in August, the hottest time of the year, would be difficult, but I was encouraged by Ian Reid’s trip report who had done a similar trip a year earlier. Using Ian’s trip report as a starting point, the excellent information available on UAEbirding.com and further information from expats I had designed a 3-day trip around my target species. I had decided to stay in a central location in the small country, to avoid having to worry about hunting around for accommodation, and to have a base where I could retreat to any time if the heat got too much or if I’d get too tired. After some research, I settled on the Hattah Fort hotel. My plane landed just before midnight on Monday 18 August, and the process of getting through customs and immigration was quick and easy.
Tuesday 19 August
I collected the rental car (with SatNav) and hit the road at 1am. I picked up some supplies (including water!) from a service station on the side of the highway and started driving south-east towards Green Mubazzarah, an oasis at the bottom of Jebel Hafit, a steep mountain near the city of Al Ain. My plan was to drive until I’d get too tired, then sleep in the car on the side of the road, then continue driving so I’d get there around sunrise. However it was too hot to sleep, even with the windows open so I just kept driving until I got to the mountain and drove all the way to the top where it was cooler. I arrived here around 3:30am, then slept in the car until about 5am and descended down the mountain again to start birding at Green Mubazzarah. Detailed directions to these locations can be found on uaebirding.com. It was still dark when I parked the car in the oasis which had been turned into a recreation park, but common birds including White-eared Bulbul, Red-wattled Lapwing, Laughing Dove and House Sparrow were already actively feeding by the light of the streetlights and spotlights. Around the back I found some water tanks that were leaking where more of the same birds came to drink and to my surprise a few Sand Partridges scuttled away and wandered off into a dry stream bed. Tick! I followed the dry stream into the slopes and saw a couple of Grey Francolins, another lifer, which was quickly followed by a pair of Humes’ Wheatears on the rocks. The bushes produced White-spectacled Bulbul but the main target of this area, Barbary Falcon, was nowhere to be seen. I explored the dry creek bed for a while, then retreated my steps, and as I was almost back at the green lawns, noticed quite a commotion amongst the Rock Doves near the top of the hill. The reason for the commotion soon became clear as two Barbary Falcons raced along the top of the hill and disappeared behind it! A short, sharp & shiny sighting. Back at the green lawns there were other interesting birds around, including Green Bee-eater, Indian Roller and European Hoopoe. It was getting hot already and time to drive up the mountain of Jebel Hafit for my next targets: Desert Lark and Hooded Wheatear. Desert Larks were easy and present at most lookout car parks; while Hooded Wheatear was supposed to be in the hotel grounds at the summit, on your right as you drive up. And sure enough, driving up the access road to the hotel I spotted one from the car, and saw a pair after I’d parked in the hotel carpark and did a short walk around the small garden. On the way back down the mountain a family party of Chukar Partridge gave great photo opportunities as they crossed the road. And at the bottom of the hill, a raptor that came flying over at close range turned out to be a Bonelli’s eagle!
It was now mid-morning and pretty hot, and I was getting tired. I decided to start driving towards Hatta to see if I could check in earlier at my hotel. The landscape along the road was dry, rocky, undulating to hilly terrain with sparse thorny bushes. There were not many birds around except for some Brown-necked Raven. The shortest route to Hatta led through a bit of Oman before reentering the UAE. Obviously the two countries have some kind of agreement about this as there was no trouble passing through this enclave (quite different to my later experience with Oman!). I arrived in Hatta around noon, found the hotel easily and was allowed to check-in early. A short stroll through the hotel grounds in the mid-day heat produced 2 Purple Sunbirds: another target species done! I treated myself to a nice lunch and then a few hours’ sleep.
My plan was to go to Fujairah on the east coast which would have good coastal birding. From Hatta there are two roads to Fujairah, a curly, mountainous one and a straight one through Oman. Given this morning’s experience with passing through an enclave of Oman I thought I’d take the latter road. Some way out of Hatta was the border crossing – this time a proper one, with long queues of trucks, various offices and people milling about everywhere. Unperturbed I drove out of the UAE and after 10km of no-man’s land, reached the Oman border crossing. Here, one had to stop and enter a large building where custom officials would stamp one’s passport. There was a long queue inside, but somehow I managed to get preferential treatment – or so I thought. After completing various forms, the border official asked about my car’s papers, which presumably were in my car. He asked if it was a rental car, and when I said yes, he pointed out that there was extra insurance to be purchased first, through an office across the hall in the same building. This insurance was quite costly and he suggested that if I just wanted to go to Fujairah, I go back and take the mountain road through the UAE. I took his advice and drove back to the UAE border. However they didn’t want to let me back in! Turns out I had omitted to obtain an exit stamp from the UAE, and having no entry stamp to Oman, I was stuck in no-man’s land. The UAE officials told me in no uncertain terms that I had to get an exit stamp from Oman first. Back at the Oman border, I asked for an exit stamp but a different official was at the counter so he wasn’t aware of the situation and said, you don’t have an entry stamp, how can I give you an exit stamp? Argh! After much to-ing and fro-ing I eventually persuaded him to give me both, which he did just to get rid of me I think. I then drove back to the UAE border again, and was let back in without further hassles. Pfew! This whole episode had left me drained and had wasted so much time that I wasn’t going to make it to Fujairah before dark. So I cut my losses and went back to Hatta, stocked up on some supplies and went back to the hotel. At sunset, Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse were supposed to fly over the hotel. I waited at the lookout in the gardens, thought I might’ve heard one, but couldn’t be sure. There was, however, a Common Sandpiper walking around in the car park! My dinner consisted of a can of baked beans, some muesli bars and fruit, after which I went to bed early.
Wednesday 20 August
I got up at 3:30am, had a quick coffee and jumped in the car. After an uneventful 2-hr drive I arrived at Masafi Wadi (in the north) before sunrise. Had a bite to eat while it started getting light. This unassuming area of rocky hills, dry riverbeds and thornby shrubs is supposed to be a stronghold for Scrub Warbler and Long-billed Pipit. The actual location as described on the UAEbirding.com pages was hard to find, but the GPS coordinates provided there took me to the correct spot. No sooner had I jumped out of the car or a Chestnut-belied Sandgrouse came flying past at close range, at eye leveI, wow! Ten minutes later, four Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse came flying past, one of which quite close. Wow again! I then walked around here for an hour or so, without finding Scrub Warbler. Probably the time of year. However I did hear a pipit-like song, which using Xeno-canto I identified as Long-billed Pipit; later I saw the bird flying and landing, at a distance. Tick! There were also some Humes’ Wheatears here. After an hour at this site it was off to Wadi Bih, which was still another 1.5 hrs further north, near the town of Ras Al-Khaimah. This area was supposed to be great for mountain birds and holds species such as Trumpeter Finch, Striolated Bunting and Barbary Falcon. Using the directions on UAEbirding.com, I found it without problems and started birding the dry, rocky areas on the side of the road at 8am in quite spectacular scenery. There were more Desert Larks and Humes’ Wheatears here, and I heard a Striolated Bunting singing but never got onto it. I then went into the irrigated farm on the right, where there were Graceful Prinias. A weird, loud noise in the dense palm trees kept me occupied for ages only for it to turn out to be a Rose-ringed Parakeet. The irrigated farm on the left was more productive, with bee-eaters, Indian Roller and White-spectacled Bulbul. It was nice birding here but unfortunately I found none of my targets.
It was time to head off to search for one of the main targets of this entire trip: Crab Plover. Following the west coast south, I had very detailed directions from Ian Reid to a coastal site. This involved finding a track around the back of a new housing estate, driving onto the sand until it got to soft, then walking across bare sand for 1.5 km in 42C to the mangroves. When I got halfway, I decided to scope the mud flats visible in the distance, and it turned out to be low tide. For Crab Plovers, the trick was getting there around an hour before hight tide. It looked like I was in for a few hours wait, but not out here in the heat. I retreated to my car and started driving back up the coast road, as I remembered having seen a building with car park on the side of the road overlooking more mangroves and mudflats. Arriving at this location (it was the office of one of the horse-racing companies, I forgot the name) it looked like a perfect spot to stand under a shady tree and scope the coast. However no sooner had I parked the car or a guard comes walking over and tells me I’m not allowed to be here. No amount of pleading helped. Luckily I had spotted a narrow dirt track to the side of the building heading down to the mudflats, so I parked on that track instead, put the scope on the roof of the car, and bingo! 4 Crab Plovers straightaway. I couldn’t believe it! I watched them for quite some time through the scope, every once in a while scanning the flats for other birds, but there wasn’t much else present except some oystercatchers, reef herons and a few Greater Flamingoes.
After this success I treated myself to a KFC lunch before cutting straight across the country to the east coast in my second attempt to bird the Fujairah coast, arriving there early afternoon. First stop was Fujairah Port beach, where from the comfort of my car I had a three lifers in one hit: several White-cheeked Terns, 20 Socotra Cormorants and 2 Sooty Gulls. There were also a few Lesser Sandplovers, Ruddy Turnstones and Broad-billed Sandpipers present, a few Sanderlings, plenty of Common Terns, a Whimbrel and a Bridled Tern. After spending an hour here I drove up to Kor Khalba, just a few km’s south, but on the way I found a mixed flock of roosting gulls and terns on a small sandy island in the inlet. This produced 2 Steppe Gulls, 3 Sooty Gulls, Greater and Lesser Crested Tern, White-cheeked and Common Terns. Khor Kalba is a mix of mangroves, tidal creeks and a beach, and is well protected – in fact, the area has been closed to the public much to the dismay of birders. At the bridge (the only access point), a guard in an office keeps people out. You’re allowed to stand on the bridge and look into the mangroves. The main target here is Sykes’ Warbler, and I needn’t have worried about the lack of access: I found one bird singing persistently in a tree near the entrance. Initially hard to locate, it eventually provided good views. Tick! Graceful Prinias were also present here, as was Crested Lark and a Lesser Masked Weaver. Common birds seen around here included House Crow, Eurasian Collared Dove, White-eared Bulbul, House Sparrow, Rose-ringed Parakeet. The GPS coordinates for the bridge are are N 25 00 55.0 / E 056 21 36.5. My other target along this coast was Persian Shearwater, and so far it had eluded me. So I drove back along the coastal road and stopping and scanning the ocean a few times eventually yielded a Persian Shearwater flying across the water at not too great a distance, which I observed for quite some time through the scope. I was tired but happy with today’s results and went back to the Hatta Fort Hotel where I enjoyed my luxurious room by feasting on another can of baked beans, some crackers and fruit, after which I went to bed early again.
Thursday 21 August
I got up shortly after 3am, had a quick cup of coffee, packed up my gear, checked out and hit the road at about 3:30. The plan was to drive to the Bab al-Shams desert, a couple of hours west. Driving in the UAE is a breeze: the roads are in excellent condition, most of the roads are multi-lane freeways and all the roads are well lit at night. My SatNav got me close to the destination, after which I headed for the GPS location provided on UAEbirding.com. This is true desert: very sparsely vegetated undulating sandy terrain. Target species here were Black-crowned Sparrow-lark, Bartailed Lark and Greater Hoopoe-lark. When I arrived at the site, just before sunrise, there was extensive roadwork going on with noisy trucks and diggers, which were constantly producing very loud beep-beep warning sounds every time they reversed. This was extremely annoying and I didn’t think there would be any birds present under these conditions. Unperturbed I continued along the road until I couldn’t hear the noise anymore and found a patch of habitat very similar to the original site (basically a flat area with more ground-cover vegetation) and drove partway onto this flat, then started walking around. Within a couple of minutes I was looking at a nice Black-crowned Sparrowlark! But wait, what are these other larks near it? They look different… they were at least 6 Greater Hoopoe-larks! And finally, after much walking around and checking each and every lark present, I got onto a Bar-tailed Lark, which was kind enough to give its distinctive call as well in order to eliminate any doubt. Job done, off to the next site: the town of Ghantoot where Cream-coloured Courser frequents the Polo Club. Having found this site without difficulty, the guard didn’t allow me in, and the grounds were surrounded by 3m high concrete walls. Driving around the walls I found a locked gate, from which I scoped the lawns, but no Courser. A bit further along I saw an electricity transformer box of about 1.5 m height, and I managed to climb on top of it, allowing me to look over the walls. After some scoping I found one Cream-coloured Courser on the fields which otherwise held Red-wattled Lapwing, 2 Crested Larks and a European Hoopoe. Tick!
And off to the next destination: the Dubai Pivot Fields. I had heard great things about these irrigated grassy fields surrounded by lush trees and some ditches, close to the city. Many species of bird have been recorded here, but for me the main target was White-tailed Lapwing. There is a gate with a guard here, but they are used to birders, and access is no problem as long as you don’t drive off the tracks. The first grassy field on the left held many birds and White-tailed Lapwings weren’t hard to pick out from between the many Red-wattled Lapwings, tens of Ruff, Eurasian Collared Doves and Cattle Egrets. All in all I counted 8 White-tailed Lapwings on both this and the next grassy field. I drove around the Pivot fields and did some short walks, but it produced very little else, apart from good photographic opportunities of all the Ruffs. As it was already hot again, and I was getting tired, I decided to head to the air-conditioned bird hide of the nearby Ras-i-Knor wetland. Apart from the full-time guard, I had the hide to myself, and ate my lunch here after which I couldn’t resist the temptation to have a little snooze, sitting up leaning my head on my arms on the shelf below the viewing opening. There were quite a few common shorebirds present, as well as a good number of Greater Flamingos (some at close range), a few Little Stints, 2 Kentish Plovers and a Glossy Ibis.
After a couple of hours I drove to my last destination for this trip: Mushrif National Park. To get here I drove right through the middle of Dubai, quite an amazing experience: a multi-lane freeway lined with skyscrapers of all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes (including the Burj Kalifa tower, currently the world’s tallest building) made it look like a scene in a sci-fi movie. The park was located on the outskirts of Dubai, but my SatNav was unable to find it, so after some frustrating driving around I bought a small pocket city map in a service station. Paper beat technology and I found the park easily this time, arriving here around 2:30pm, in the heat of the day. The park protects a native patch of woodland and has recreational facilities as well as a mosque. Apparently there is an entry fee but the guard waved me in. At the mosque is supposed to be a pair of Pallid Scops Owl that come out after dark to feed on the flood-lit lawns. So I had quite some time to kill here, but another target, Arabian Babbler, had thus far eluded me. I drove around to familiarise myself with the layout of the park, seeing only common birds. I then walked around the small dump inside the park looking for Arabian Babbler, which was unpleasant as it was at least 42C and despite there being quite a few birds active in the bushes and trees surrounding the dump, I didn’t find any babblers. Yellowthroated Sparrows, another target here, were no-where to be seen either, but throughout the park I did count at least 15 Grey Francolin, 2 Indian Rollers, 6 European Hoopoes, Red-vented and Whiteeared Bulbuls, an un-identified Buzzard, Green and Blue-eared Bee-eaters, Indian Silverbills and Rose-ringed Parakeets. As I was hot and tired, I spend a couple of hours sitting in the restaurant with my laptop, downloading photos, entering bird sightings etc. and then had dinner there. When it got dark I went back to the mosque and waited around in the heat which was not letting up. I waited, walked around with my spotlight, sat in various spots on the soft lawns and waited, but there was no sign of any owls. At 9pm I had had enough and went back to my car, re-packed my luggage ready for my flight and drove to the airport, arriving there way too early for my flight (which wasn’t until 2am). But at least it was cool, there were comfortable seats to wait and rest, and there was beer.