Sunday 11 January 2015

UAE - Trip Report

·        A five day trip in early January (2nd – 7th) booked well over six months in advance following several inspiring trips being to arid areas in the Med. Tons of new and exciting birds on offer although outside of the Western Pal for listing purposes. Went with two Gull-fanatics who were basically only interested in Gulls, but the UAE has much more than that to offer.
·        British Airways flight to Heathrow to Dubai departed 2015h on Friday evening, arriving at 0710 UAE time, allowing for a full day at work and thus maximising holiday. The return on Thursday morning at 0225h gets in at 0620h London time, and thus I went straight to work. I did however benefit from an upgrade to a flat bed seat, clocked in a decent sleep, and felt fine.
·        Car hire via Avis was a frankly awesome Nissan Maxima, all mod cons and a whopping 3.5L engine. It went like the clappers on the UAE's fantastic roads, and drank petrol in an American kind of way. But when petrol is cheaper than water..... Be aware that people drive very fast indeed, and some roads have speed limits of nearly 90mph and even this is frequently exceeded. Many people will storm up right behind you and flash their lights. This is entirely normal UAE behaviour so don't, as I did, flip them the bird out of the window....
·        I couldn't find many budget hotels in the UAE, so was forced to stay in nice places. Such a shame. Fortunately as we were three this meant the costs were only £30-45 a night each for one large room and an extra bed, and all came with as much breakfast as you could eat thus solving the issue of what to do for lunch.
·       I couldn't find any decent maps of the Emirates, so instead I save a number of detailed Google maps offline on my android tablet. We then used the GPS functionality of this to navigate around, which proved very easy.
·        Research was monumental, and I relied heavily on the excellent UAE Birding website, and the very useful site section that it has to produce a itinerary that basically covered the entire country and a variety of habitats. Once on the ground however the itinerary changed a bit as some sites were simply not as productive as hoped. And didn't have Gulls.....


Day 1: Flight arrived at 0710h, and we were away by 0900h. First stop Qarn Nazwa, east of Dubai, followed by the afternoon at Fujairah beach.

Day 2: Morning at Dibba, midday stop at Masafi, afternoon at Fujairah again. Evening drive to Al Ain.

Day 3: Al Ain - Green Mubazzarah in the morning, Zakher Lake in the middle of the day, Jebel Hafeet in the afternoon.
Day 4: Al Wabtha Camel Track at first light, a short stop at Al Wabtha Wetland Reserve followed by Saih el Salam at lunchtime and Dubai Pivot Fields in the late afternoon.
Day 5: Hanraniyah Fields in the morning, high tide at Khor Al Beida, and one last crack at Fujairah beach in the afternoon, returning to the airport late evening.

The trip looked like this, we basically went in a clockwise spiral

Main Sites I went to

Qarn Nazwa - a rocky outcrop 40km east of Dubai. Various desert birds.
Fujiarah Beach - Gull and Tern roosts, plus feeding frenzies when Seine-netting. The best area is south of Fujairah city closer to Kalba.
Wamm Dairy Farms - Cattle pens and irrigated fields attracted many birds, of note Indian Roller and many Red-wattled Lapwings. Have a photocopy of your passport handy.
Masafi Wadi - rumoured to hold Plain Leaf Warbler, but very unproductive in the heat of the day. There are several wadis, but the main one is the most easterly.
Khor Kalba - you can look into the Mangroves from the bridge near the roundabout. Lots of waders and egrets.
Green Mubazzarah - a watered leisure area south of Al Ain, incredible numbers of birds. The wadi to the west of the C Chalets was the most productive for interesting birds, but anywhere you look you will see things.
Jebel Hafeet - there is one road up this mountain, with birds seen from the regular carparks. The Mercure Hotel gardens looked good, but we were not staying there. Wheatears and Vultures.
Zakher Lake - fantastic for wildfowl and waders. Scope the lake from the shelters just off the road. The reeds held Clamorous Reed Warbler and Bluethroat, and there were Wheatears around the parking area.
Al Wabtha Camel Track - Larks and Pipits, Desert Wheatear and Warbler. . We drove around the track, as well along sandy tracks in the middle. The marshy area to the east of the main racetrack is well worth exploring for Bluethroat and Citrine Wagtail.
Al Wabtha Wetland Reserve - thousands of Flamingos and good numbers of waders. Had our only Marsh Sandpiper here.
Saih al Salam Desert Reserve - primarily plastic ducks!
Dubai Pivot Fields - brilliant place to visit as at January 2015, despite being inoperative. Many Plovers, Mynas, and all sorts of birds enjoying the lush grass.
Hanraniyah Fields - excellent birding from the car, with many birds typical of the region attracted to the irrigated fields. Bee-eaters, Babblers, Plovers and much more.
Khor Al Beida - we couldn't find the wintering Crab Plovers, but the area is huge. Plenty of waders as the tide rose, with the best views being as you walked down to the Mangroves on the eastern edge near a new walled housing development.

Day by day account

Day 1
A relatively easy flight after work arriving at essentially first light in Dubai. Out of the airport and we easily found the E44 after following signs for Abu Dhabi, upon which we headed east for about 40km, aiming for Qarn Nazwa, a rocky outcrop in the desert. Access was difficult to work out, and former tracks seem no longer to exist. We found the best place to head in was from the road itself past the roundabout, at the point the boundary fence ended. The first bird I saw was a Red-tailed Wheatear, keeping company with a Purple Sunbird. By now mid morning, the sun was already intense, and photography was kept to a minimum as a result. Plenty of White-eared Bulbuls, a couple of Southern "aucheri" Grey Shrikes, as well our first Green Bee-eater on distant fence. Although we doubtless could have gone up the hillside in search of more birds, the guys were keen* to get across to Fujairah beach where Gulls would be served up on a plate, so we carried on.

Next thing we knew we were crossing into Oman having missed a turning that took us around the top of that country. Some unintelligible conversation about where we were going and did we have insurance, which we blagged our way through, and we were on the road again, passing across the border again only a few kilometers later and being insured once more. A brief stop for a Variable Wheatear near Hatta, where we also found a Desert Whitethroat, but time was pressing so we continued onto Khor Kalba where we saw our first Gulls and the guys piled out the car and started buying fish. Yes really. I left them to it and went to have a look at the Mangroves a little further south in the hope of Indian Pond Heron and the resident Collared Kingfishers, neither of which I could find, perhaps due to the time of day and the state of the tide. Plenty of common waders though, and a pale-morph Western Reef Heron. Most interesting was the presence of a large Tern I did not recognise which the guide called a Swift Tern. As it turns out this is Greater Crested Tern, and I'd seen them many years ago in Australia, but it still felt like a new bird! I returned to the others to find them engaged in their usual deviant practices - I mean who flies to the UAE with popcorn FFS?! Present were Sooty Gull, Heuglin's and Steppe, as well a a Caspian. I took a few images, and suggested we head for the main beach area further north. This proved far better, with fishermen dragging in Seine nets, and masses of birds both on the beach and offshore. All the previous Gulls, with a few Slender-billed and masses of Black-headeds. Terns were also present in huge numbers, and included Lesser Crested, Whiskered and White-cheeked. All were there for one thing - tiny fish that escaped from the nets as they were being dragged in. Although we had missed the main action, there were plenty of birds still around, and we passed a happy couple of hours seeing what we could get. A few waders were also on the beach, including Greater Sand and Kentish Plovers, as well as a stack of House Crows who also like fish and a Socotra Cormorant that thought it was a Penguin. Gradually the mass departed, and so did we, pretty shattered by this point, to our hotel in Khor Fakkan. 

Day 2
An early start saw us arrive at Wamm Dairy farms shortly after first light. This is up at Dibba, on the border with the tip of the Arabian pensinsula that is part of Oman. We presented photocopies of our passports to the guy on the gate and went for a poke around. Heaps of White Wagails and Red-wattled Lapwing in the cattle sheds, with attendant Indian Rollers on the roof. Most birds were fairly skittish, and not finding any photographic opportunities there I went out into the irrigated fields behind the sheds. Here were many more Lapwing, but best of all many Rollers sat on the sprinkler heads, often displaying to each other. I spent a lot of time with these birds. Also in the fields were Snipe, various PipitsHoopoe and a Graceful Prinia in the longer grass. A flock of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse flew over mid-morning, but didn't land anywhere close to the farm. Overall we found fewer species than we were expecting, but we probably weren't looking hard enough due to the Rollers

Leaving the cattle farm, we walked the diagonal track to the east of the goat farm on the opposite side of the road, finding Tree, Tawny and Richard's Pipit, as well as a pair of Green Bee-eater, a Desert Wheatear and another Variable Wheatear.

By now it was lunchtime, so we started heading south. We checked Masafi Wadi, starting near the southern end of the truck road that bypasses the E89, but in the heat of the day this was completely useless with very few birds seen, so we went back to Fujairah....for more Gulls. This time we were a little earlier, and some nets were still being dragged in. The action was completely mental, we had no idea which birds to look at - an incredible scene. All the same species as the previous day, but far more birds, and we spent the rest of the day here wasting our shutters. As the sun set we set off on the drive to Al Ain, our base for the next two nights. This only took an hour and a half, the UAE is not a big place.

Day 3
Another early start, this time nowhere near a coast thankfully, and decent too as a couple of Crested Honey Buzzards flew over as we left the hotel! We started at an area called Green Mubazzarah, which is essentially a place where people go for picnics as far as I could tell. Birds everywhere on account of the incredible irrigation as well as left-over food, with White-eared Bulbuls being especially numerous. So too were Desert Larks and Tawny Pipits. A short excursion into a wadi at the end of the park netted two other Bulbuls, White-spectacled and Red-vented, as well as a party of Arabian Babblers that moved swiftly on. Pale Crag Martins flew overhead along with Pallid Swifts, and of course the whole area was carpeted in Laughing and Collared Doves. We spent about an hour or so here before the area started getting busier with more leisure-seekers, and then repaired to Zakher Lake a short distance away. 

This was a stellar place for birding, with hundreds of ducks and waders, many common, but also a few surprises such as dozens of Little Stints and a Red-necked Phalarope. Citrine Wagtails worked the edges, and Clamorous Reed Warbler chacked from the reeds. Mick spied a first winter Pallas's Gull on an island, so he was happy for a little while, and this turned out to be the only one we saw the whole trip. Above the lake were swarms of hirundines and swifts.

We passed the heat of the day under one of the shelters here before heading up Jebel Hafeet, a monumental rock that rises from the desert, with a spectacular road running up it to the Omani border. We found Hooded Wheatear at the very top, as well as in the Hotel Mercure gardens, and Hume's Wheatear were in every layby. A phone mast two thirds of the way up had a number of Egyptian and a Lappet-faced Vulture perched on it, and we also saw Chukar and Sand Partridge. The views across the desert were phenomenal, but the bird photography opportunties less so as the whole place is fenced in and you cannot go off-piste. Or that's my excuse for the next two photos anyway.

Day 4
A change of plan as Mick and Richard did not want to spend any more time at any of the locations visited yesterday, so we were up before the dawn and birding Al Wabtha Camel Track at first light, which had been planned for an afternoon visit. This was a major disappointment really, with none of the hoped-for species seen on the track. The scrubby interior had plenty of Desert Wheatear and Desert Warbler, along with Tawny Pipit and Crested Lark, but we couldn't find any Black-crowned Sparrow-larks or Bimacs. We found a small party of Greater Short-toed Lark once the morning camel training was over, but overall not a great deal going on. A reedy area to the east of the track proved better, with several Bluethroat, Citrine Wagtail, and Graceful Prinia, with Marsh Harrier and Greater Spotted Eagle hunting nearby. I was lucky enough to see a White-tailed Plover fly up, and at one point I thought I heard a Sparrow-lark but could not pin it down.

We then drove about an hour and a half north to the Saih al Salam Desert Reserve, but this was shockingly poor. We were looking for rumoured semi-tame Bustards but found only a motley assortment of plastic wildfowl. A few Western Reef Herons were around, as well as a few waders, but overall this was a miserable man-made disappointment that we didn't linger at. A roadside stop just outside netted a ringtail Pallid Harrier, multiple Marsh Harrier and an unidentified large Falcon being harried by Brown-necked Ravens

We finished the day at the Dubai Pivot fields, and this was excellent. Although the site is shutting down, there were loads of birds. Isabelline Wheatears, Hoopoe, loads of Wagtails and Larks, and I finally found Bank Myna, having only had Common Myna up to this point. The highlight for me was stalking one of the many White-tailed Plovers - I managed to slither to within twenty metres in lovely light. 

Day 5
We had found a hotel at Umm al Quwain, which was close to both the Hamraniyah fields and Khor Al Beida. We started at the former, a network of small irrigated fields that naturally attract a great deal of birdlife. The star was the brief Sociable Plover that we twitched, but there were birds everywhere, easily one of the most avian places we visited - Green Bee-eaters, Babblers, Bluethroats, Redstarts, Bulbuls and Mynas. We managed to get the car stuck in some deep sand at one point and had to dig it out with the help of a local, and then just drove some of the tracks.

Mid-morning we went to Khor Al Beida for the high tide. The sun was against us, but there were stacks of waders out on the mudflats including Great Knot and Grey Plover. Unfortunately no Crab Plover to be seen, and all the locations Mick and I tried were missing them too. I got the car stuck in sand again, and by this point the tour members had had enough of birding, so in an attempt to revive their flagging spirits we drove all the way across the country back to Fujairah beach again. Despite arriving earlier, we had completely missed the nets this time, and for several hours it was dire. However towards the end of the day the fishermen started to stack up their nets onto boats, presumably in preparation for setting them again, and this caused another feeding frenzy. Once again we had no idea where to point cameras and it was non-stop. As the light faded we packed up and set off back to Dubai for the flight home.

Overall it had been a good trip, but it could have been better and I missed several birds. Surprising was how unapproachable almost all the birds were. Maybe I've forgotten what I'm doing, but this was by far the hardest place I have been to for photography in recent months, and very little that we tried worked out. In particular I missed out on decent photos of any of the Wheatears, which for me was one of the main draws of the trip. I saw them all well, but I wanted images that stood up against some of the other Wheatears I've already photographed and that didn't happen. I'll be going back in other words.

The Emirates themselves are an acquired taste I felt - for a start the whole place is basically one big building site. The pace of construction is incredible, but is also ruining many areas. Many birding sites are seemingly not as good as they once were, and a relatively recent guide that we had was extremely out of date - publications simply cannot keep up. Many areas were off-limits, and there were many fences that we could not pass. On the plus side, and as a direct result, the road network is outstanding, and the country as a whole is so small that it's incredibly easy to get between sites. Petrol is cheaper than water, but you have to watch out for appalling driving from many people who have acquired money and fast cars before road-sense and caution. The hotels were all excellent for the money, clean and comfortable, and finding provisions en route was no problem.

Trip List - 124

Chukar Partridge - Jebel Hafeet
Sand Partridge - Jebel Hafeet
Grey Francolin - widespread
Egyptian Goose 
Little Grebe
Black-necked Grebe - Fujairah, offshore
Greater Flamingo - Zakher and Al Wabtha
Common Crane - roadside in Dubai
Glossy Ibis - Fujairah 
Socotra Cormorant - behaving like a Penguin on Fujairah beach, later a bird found dead.
Grey Heron
Purple Heron - Zakher
Black-crowned Night Heron - Kalba
Striated Heron - Kalba
Squacco Heron - Zakher
Cattle Egret
Great White Egret
Little Egret
Western Reef Heron - common at Khor Al Beida
Crested Honey Buzzard - Al Ain Hilton
Marsh Harrier
Pallid Harrier - Desert near Saif el Salam
Egyptian Vulture - Jebel Hafeet
Lappet-faced Vulture - Jebel Hafeet
Greater Spotted Eagle - Al Wabtha
Black-winged Stilt
Red-wattled Lapwing
Sociable Plover - Hamraniyah
White-tailed Plover - single at Al Wabtha Racetrack, plentiful at Dubai Pivots
Grey Plover
Ringed Plover
Little Ringed Plover
Kentish Plover
Greater Sand Plover - Fujairah beach
Black-tailed Godwit
Marsh Sandpiper - Al Wabtha Wetlands
Green Sandpiper
Common Sandpiper
Little Stint- 100s at Zakher Lake
Great Knot - Khor Al Beida on exposed mudflats
Red-necked Phalarope - 1 at Zakher Lake
Sooty Gull
Black-headed Gull
Slender-billed Gull
Common Gull
Caspian Gull
Pallas's Gull - 1 at Zakher
Heuglin's Gull
Steppe Gull
Lesser Crested Tern
Swift Tern
Gull-billed Tern
Sandwich Tern
White-cheeked Tern
Whiskered Tern
Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse - small flock at Wamm Dairy Farms
Rock Dove
Collared Dove
Laughing Dove
Ring-necked Parakeet
Pallid Swift - huge swarms at Zakher Lake
Indian Roller - great view at Wamm Dairy Farms
Green Bee-eater - best views at Fujairah outfall and at Hanraniyah
Daurian Shrike - singles in a variety of habitats, including Dubai Pivots
Southern Grey Shrike 
House Crow - great views on Fujairah beach
Brown-necked Raven
Arabian Babbler - small parties at Green Mubazzarah and Hanraniyah
White-eared Bulbul - very common
Red-vented Bulbul - introduced. Green Mubazzarah and Saih al Salam
White-spectacled Bulbul - only at Green Mubazzarah
Pale Crag Martin - common
Greater Short-toed Lark - Al Wabtha Racetrack
Desert Lark - Green Mubazzarah and Jebel Hafeet
Crested Lark
Hoopoe Lark - in the desert near Saih al Salam
Graceful Prinia
Purple Sunbird - only at Qarn Nazwa
Clamorous Reed Warbler - Zakher Lake
Desert Whitethroat
Bank Myna - Dubai Pivits
Common Myna - huge roosts everywhere
Starling - 1 at Hanraniyah
Blue Rock Thrush - Green Mubazzarah and Masafi
Stonechat - Al Wabtha Racetrack
Isabelline Wheatear - Green Mubazzarah
Desert Wheatear - commonest Wheatear
Red-tailed Wheatear - Qarn Nazwa
Variable Wheatear - Near Hatta
Hume's Wheatear - Jebel Hafeet
Hooded Wheatear - 2 Jebel Hafeet and 1 Zakher
House Sparrow indicus
Grey Wagtail
White Wagtail
Citrine Wagtail - Zakher, Al Wabtha
Richard's Pipit
Tawny Pipit
Water Pipit
Tree Pipit
Meadow Pipit
Indian Silverbill - Wamm Dairy Farms

* dribbling


  1. A great read! I am lucky enough to have had several trips out there now with work and the birding is fantastic. You had a really good list for a short trip and several species I haven't seen yet. Cheers, Gareth.

  2. I enjoyed this post. Superb images too