Monday 2 January 2017

UAE - Mission Wheatear Trip Report


  • A three day trip in mid-November with the express aim of getting better photographs of Hume’s and Hooded Wheatears, which I had been disappointed with on a previous visit.
  • Direct and very cheap flights from London on a Friday night after work, arriving in Dubai early on Saturday morning, returning in the early hours of Tuesday morning (the flight departs at about 2am arriving in London at about 6.30am, so this trip only used one day of holiday)
  • Car hire was some kind of basic Japanese thing that had no frills, but neither did I need any. Driving in the UAE is simplicity in itself, excellent roads and extremely cheap fuel. You just have to watch out for the very poor yet highly aggressive driving of the locals in their enormous 4x4s.
  • I booked my two nights accommodation in advance based on where I wanted to be. The first was the Mercure Jebel Hafeet, mere steps from the Wheatears I was targeting, the second the Hilton at Fujairah beach where I hoped to see the range-restricted “kalbaensis” Collared Kingfisher. The beauty of the flight times means that the other two nights were spent in the air. I flew economy on the way out but made sure to drink enough that I fell asleep bolt upright, albeit that I didn’t feel wonderful on arrival, but on the way back I burned some air miles on a flat bed so that I could get some proper sleep to be ready for a day at work.
  • Used the Helm Field Guide to Birds of the UAE.

Day 1: Flight arrived at 0730h, some birding north of Dubai until lunch, then a longish drive over to Al Ain for late afternoon atop the Jebel Hafeet. 
Day 2: Morning at Mercure Hotel Gardens and Green Mubazzarah, quick stops at Ain al Fayda and Zakher Lake, and then drove to Khor Kalba. 

Day 3: Morning and afternoon at either end of Fujairah beach, late afternoon at Khor Kalba, evening drive back to Dubai for night-time flight home.

Main Sites I went to

Fujiarah Beach - Gull and Tern roosts, plus feeding frenzies when Seine-netting. The best area for the fishing is south of Fujairah city closer to Kalba. The drainage ditch at the northern end is an excellent spot for land birds.
Khor Kalba - you can look into the Mangroves from the bridge near the roundabout. Lots of waders and egrets, and the endemic Collared Kingfisher.
Green Mubazzarah - a watered leisure area south of Al Ain, incredible numbers of birds. The wadi to the south-east of the chalets had many specied. Avoid on Saturdays.
Jebel Hafeet - there is one road up this mountain, with birds seen from the regular carparks. The Mercure Hotel gardens are excellent.
Zakher Lake - Good for wildfowl and waders. Scope the lake from the shelters just off the road. 

Hume's Wheatear on an unsatisfactory perch

Day 1
Arrived in Dubai right on time at 7.30 in the morning and was in my car by 9.30. By the time I got out of Dubai and into useful habitat it was too late for any meaningful photography as even in November it is silly hot for many hours of the day. I killed a bit of time up at Um Al Quwain in a vain attempt at Crab Plover but drew a blank again. Red-wattled Lapwing, House Crow, Hoopoe and Greater Flamingo were all seen here, but Wheatears were always in my mind so it wasn't long before I headed across the country towards Al Ain. As mentioned the roads are pretty easy and so I made good time - plan for about two hours from Dubai. I had enough time to stop at a roadside restaurant called Nader, just after the Abu Dhabi-Sweihan Road heading south on the E66- pro-tip: always eat whatever the locals eat, it will be good and it will be cheap - here I had a chickpea curry, a flatbread, salad and water for about £1.10. 

I arrived in Al Ain for about mid afternoon and before heading up the Jebel Hafeet, loaded up the passenger footwell with a number of pleasing rocks. Bear with me, it will make sense. Once on the winding road up, I stopped in every car park looking for Wheatears. I eventually found what I was looking for in the fourth car park (the long thin one), a Hume's Wheatear, sentinel-like on the top one of the wooden structures. I watched it for while as it flitted between perches, pausing to feed on the ground before perching up again. Very promising! During one of the feeding sessions I nipped out of the car, selected some rocks, and quickly put them on top of every place I had seen the bird perch, before getting back in and driving up to the top of the mountain looking for more birds. On my previous trip in January 2015 there had been a Hooded Wheatear in this top car park, but unfortunately it had only perched on a bin and I had not had time to enact the rock plan. Sadly on this trip I couldn't find one, although there was a Red-tailed Wheatear on a fence which I couldn't get to, and a couple of Desert Larks in the car park. Amazing views from up here regardless of the birds, you can see for miles, mostly across the vast empty reach of Oman.

A perch on a perch

Egyptian Vulture

I had a brief pap at the Egyptian Vultures near the radar mast, but hand-holding the 800mm lens is pretty hard so I did not persist and instead went to check into my hotel, the very conveniently located Mercure Grand. I dumped most stuff off and went back out with my camera only, set up on the tripod on the passenger seat, with one leg in the footwell amongst the remaining rocks, one behind the drivers seat, and then one against the passaeger door. I can't really describe it but you can basically set up a fantastic photographic platform with very little effort, albeit that you look a bit odd driving around with what looks like a bazooka next to your head. So, back to the fourth car park and even from a distance I could see that the plan was working perfectly - on top of one of my expertly placed rocks was a small black and white bird..... I carefully rolled the car up to it, cutting the engine as I approached, and was soon looking through my viewfinder at an image I had mentally created nearly two years previously, and in perfect light too, the sun still high enough to light this eastern side of the Jebel, but late enough in the day that all the harshness had gone. Cue serious shutter abuse. I love it when a plan comes together. 

Hume's Wheatear on a satisfactory perch

When the bird moved off I went and removed the rocks, packed up the camera and allowed myself a short dance. I returned to the hotel on a high and went for a brief swim, before enjoying a celebratory beer in recognition of a job well done as the sun set. It gets cold quickly in the desert, and I was glad of my fleece. 

Day 2
I was up and birding the hotel gardens before sunrise the next day, as was a birding tour group. None of us however could find the Sand Partridges that frequent these slopes. I spent a bit of time photographing a Black Redstart, some Bulbuls and Sparrows. As the sun got higher the Pale Crag Martins that nest at the hotel started getting up and about and I knew that it was time for plan B - the wadi behind the Green Mubazzarah, at the foot of the Jebel.

White-eared Bulbul

Black Redstart

No sign of my Wheatear in the car park as I drove back down, but as luck would have it when I peered over the edge a Sand Partridge whirred away. Good brief bins views as it curved around the side and was lost to view, so far so good. Back at sea-level I was soon in the Mubazzarah, a popular irrigated park with various attractions. As expected it was being cleaned up after Saturday, which is a hugely busy day for this local attraction. I wouldn't dream of birding it then, however on Sunday mornings it seems to always be empty, so it was just me and the work gangs and there were birds everywhere. African Sacred Ibis, Hoopoes, Red-wattled Lapwings and Tawny Pipits fed on the short lush grass, a Blue Rock Thrush and Red-tailed Wheatear occupied a rocky slope, all the while observed by Southern Grey Shrikes and Indian Rollers. I spent a bit of time here trying for a few photos, but really I wanted to get away from the manicured and into the wild. The big wadi lies behind the chalets, and is accessed immediately to their right, down a sandy slope. I turned right and was into the decent birds immediately. Green Bee-eaters, Purple Sunbirds, Plain Leaf Warblers, Orphean Warbler, more Wheatears and some Chukar. I picked my way slowly up getting great views of many birds although very few photo opportunities. 

Red-wattled Lapwing

Blue Rock Thrush

Tawny Pipit

Then disaster! Negotiating my way down a fairly steep slope I turned my ankle viciously, falling over and putting yet another crack in my camera body for good measure. Immediate and incredible pain, coupled with a new inability to walk properly. Bugger. I made it down and then paused to assess the situation. Nothing broken, but I couldn't put any pressure on my left foot. Slowly I picked my way back down the wadi, birding the last thing on my mind. Back at the car and after a good drink of water I decided that I was going to live, and seeing as the car was automatic I could still drive so the trip was still on, but I probably wasn't going to be walking anywhere remotely challenging. I had a brief hobble around a desert area at Ain al Fayda, adding Arabian Babbler and Arabian Desert Warbler, and then drove the short distance to Zakher Lake to add a few species of wader and egret to the trip list. I could now barely walk, my ankle was really seizing up. 

Purple Sunbird

Back at the hotel I packed up and set off up to Fujairah for part two of this grand adventure. This is a good two to three hour drive, but this was now the heat of the day. The plan had been to spend the late afternoon in the Hatta mountains looking for more Hume's Wheatear photo opportunities, but my ankle put paid to that so barring a couple of brief stops I basically went straight through to the mangroves at Kalba. Here I eventually got a very distant view of the endemic Collared Kingfisher as well a close Striated Heron, but far better than either of these were the Loggerhead Turtles observed from the bridge here, probably half a dozen including an enormous one. Note that in theory the bridge is off-limits and there is a resident security guard in a hut. However as long as you make it clear that you have no intention whatsoever of going onto the island the guard seems happy to let you wander the full length of the bridge, which means you can scan a far larger area for the Kingfisher.

As the sun went down below the mountains I sensed a photo and hobbled over to a nearby roundabout to take a picture straight down the long road that leads to Sharjah, and then drove the short distance up to my hotel for the night. A nice cold beer on the beach awaited me, but I was still anxious as to quite how bad my ankle would be the next morning. Was the trip over?

Day 3
As usual the day dawned bright and clear, but I was caught in two minds as to what to do. As expected I could barely walk, and this - at least initially - caused me to abandon plans to walk up Masafi Wadi, a great birding site only half an hour away into the mountains. So instead I went the short distance to the drainage ditch at the north end of Fujairah beach that I had visited last time and where Green Bee-eaters has showed very well. It is a very unprepossessing site, a rancid ditch adjoining a noisy industrial complex, replete with stray dogs, litter and loads of biting insects, but precisely because of this it is great for birds. To reach this site you drive north along Fujairah corniche alongside the beach. Once the road moves slightly inland from the sea (at roughly the level of the Hilton Hotel), watch out for a large roundabout after about 2km, with an Adnoc petrol station on your left and a McDonald's on your right. Aim for the MaccyDs, at which point you should be driving right alongside the main road. Once past the 'restaurant' this becomes a dusty track which bends to the right after about 100m. The ditch and vegetation will be on the left hand side. The pace of construction in the Emirates is such that I have no idea how long this will continue to be a good site, but as of late 2016 it is still excellent. 

Green Bee-eater

All sorts of birds were busy - gulls and terns wheeling about, Redshank, Stilts and Common Sandpipers, Graceful Prinia, Grey Francolin, Bulbuls and of course the Green Bee-eaters. I took a few shots of birds in the ditch as I liked the light, but it was really the fantastic Bee-eaters that I was after, and so I braved both the insects and my ankle to try and get some nice shots. Not being able to bear weight on both legs made this slightly tricky...

Graceful Prinia

Grey Francolin

After exhausting the possibilities here I felt that I was beginning to move a little more freely, so plan A of visiting Masafi Wadi was back on the agenda. It's a half hour drive from Fujairah and I would have arrived at about 9am. The wadi is not that easy to find, but if approaching from the south you need to pass the hospital on your left and bear right alongside the town (i.e. not the E88 to Al Dhaid). After about 3-4km you leave the town behind and pass over the bottom of the wadi just before a large roundabout. Bear right here and then immediately pull off on the right hand side and leave the car. From here you can pick your way down into the wadi, which runs NE from here. There are three main watercourses, and you want the easternmost one, which starts at a fly-tipping area from the huge amount of residential construction taking place at the north end of the town.

It was very hot already, but I felt I had a good chance to see some birds still. This unfortunately proved to be unfounded. Either that or as I was walking so slowly I just didn't get far enough up the wadi. Little of note seen other than a few Bulbul and Plain Leaf Warbler. I think it would be best to arrive at dawn really, uninjured.... It didn't take long to get back to Fujairah and I was just in time for the last few minutes of the free breakfast included in my room rate. The fruit juice was first rate, the various imitation western breakfast items less so, so I dumped them and went with fruit to eat as well. The swimming pool was in full swing with families enjoying their holidays, so I did not linger and after a quick freshen up, packed and left on my final afternoon of birding. 

Plain Leaf Warbler

Wanting better views of the Kingfisher I headed south back to Kalba. Low tide is best for views and that was at about 5pm today, which left me a few hours to kill. Happily the seine net fishermen were out, which meant huge congregations of gulls and terns. Black-headed Gull were the most prevalent, but also quite a few Slender-billed. Almost no large gulls though, one fly-by Sooty Gull + one large white-headed gull was all I got, I think I put it down as Steppe (barabensis). Loads of terns though, mostly Common Tern but also some White-cheeked and Lesser-crested. Non sea-birds were mostly House Crows and a solitary Osprey. Mostly the birds loafed offshore or on the beach, however as the nets came closer and closer to the shore the activity really picked up and when they were finally dragged in it was mayhem, a cloud of white. Whilst I was here the fishermen also caught two turtles in their nets, one massive one that needed two men to drag down to the water where it slowly heaved its way back in. 

Loggerhead Turtle


House Crow

By now the tide was approaching its low point, so I carried on south to Kalba, and this time I got far better views of the Collared Kingfisher in the mangroves, as well as Common Kingfisher. Too far away for meaningful photos, but given I had dipped this last time I came and had had such poor views the day before it felt really good. I enjoyed the last of the nice weather and had good views of what turned out to be a Sand Gazelle over on the peninsula. Then it was time to go. Back towards and through Masafi, this time turning left at the hospital, I stopped for a while at the Friday Market which despite its name operates every day. I had a roadside dinner for the princely sum of £2, bought some tat and an amazing mango, and then drove through the warm night to Dubai. I parked up in Mushrif Park to while away a few hours, ate the fruit and had a nap, and finally got changed into less dusty clothes and made my way over to the airport. As is normal with my birding trips I had made sure to pack loads in and so was pretty tired. Departures at 2.25am are never ideal, but once settled into my seat and at cruising altitude I refused all food, turned it into a bed and sank without trace for a full six hours. 

Trip List - 80

Little Grebe Steppe Gull Fujairah beach
Cormorant Lesser Black-backed Gull
Socotra Cormorant only off Fujairah beach Gull-billed Tern
Grey Heron Lesser Crested Tern Fujairah beach
Great White Egret Sandwich Tern
Western Reef Heron Khor Kalba Common Tern
Little Egret White-cheeked Tern Fujairah beach
Cattle Egret Pigeon
Straited Heron Khor Kalba Collared Dove
African Sacred Ibis Green Mubazzarah Laughing Dove
Greater Flamingo Um Al Qwain Common Kingfisher
Mallard Collared Kingfisher Khor Kalba
Pochard Zakher Lake Green Bee-eater Green Mubazzarah, Fujairah ditch
Osprey  Fujariah Indian Roller Green Mubazzarah
Egyptian Vulture Jebel Hafeet Hoopoe Green Mubazzarah
Common Buzzard Desert Lark Jebel Hafeet, Green Mubazzarah
Hobby Crested Lark
Chukar Jebel Hafeet Pale Crag Martin Jebel Hafeet   
Sand Partridge Green Mubazzarah Pied Wagtail
Grey Francolin Green Mubazzarah, Fujairah ditch Tawny Pipit Green Mubazzarah
Moorhen Red-whiskered Bulbul Jebel Hafeet   
Coot White-spectacled Bulbul Green Mubazzarah
Oystercatcher Zakher Lake White-eared Bulbul Jebel Hafeet   
Black-winged Stilt Zakher Lake, Fujairah ditch Red-vented Bulbul Green Mubazzarah
Red-wattled Lapwing Green Mubazzarah Graceful Prinia Fujairah ditch
Ringed Plover Clamourous Reed Warbler Zakher Lake
Kentish Plover Plain Leaf Warbler Green Mubazzarah, Masafi Wadi
Lesser Sandplover Fujairah beach Asian Desert Warbler Ain Al Fayda
Black-tailed Godwit Eastern Orphean Warbler Green Mubazzarah
Whimbrel Blue Rock Thrush Green Mubazzarah
Redshank Black Redstart
Greenshank Hume's Wheatear Jebel Hafeet, Hatta mountains   
Common Sandpiper Red-tailed Wheatear Green Mubazzarah
Green Sandpiper Arabian Babbler Ain Al Fayda
Turnstone Purple Sunbird Green Mubazzarah
Sanderling Southern Grey Shrike
Little Stint House Crow
Sooty Gull Fujairah beach Brown-necked Raven
Black-headed Gull Common Myna
Slender-billed Gull Fujairah beach House Sparrow

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