Trip Report: United Arab Emirates, January 7-14, 1996

Joakim Hellkvist and Elisabeth Djerf, Forsmark 6705, 742 94 Östhammar, Sweden;

We arrived Sunday evening and checked in at Lou Lou'a beach resort Hotel in Sharjah. We rented a car early Monday morning at the hotel from Budget [in fact three different cars, the two first (Nissan Sunny cars) had some serious defects like malfunctioning temperature meter, worn out break-pads and other interesting problems...]. Our third car, a Honda Civic, was all right. The prize was about 900 Dirhams (about 1700 Skr) for one week including insurance. Fuel is almost free, full tank for 30-40 Dhs (55-75 Skr)! The weather was very good the first three days +25degC and a lot of sun. In the middle of the week we had some rain (a few showers) and the last days the weather was fine again. The roads are extremely good if there are any. There are only two choices, very good roads or no roads at all. You don't need a 4-wheel drive unless you want to go off-road into the desert. The country is small and the distances you need to drive is never more than 200 km (one way).

One important thing is the tide. Low tide and high tide. You have to be at Khor al Beidah in the morning (or at least not to late in the evening) at high tide to see the gathering of Crab Plovers and you have to be in Khor Kalba in the morning at low tide to see the White-collared Kingfishers (which we didn't see but they are supposed to sit on the branches at the sea-side early in the morning). Tide changes every six hours and the tide is four hours earlier on the east coast. Check the local papers for tide-time in Dubai and calculate the rest.

We had of course bought Colin Richardson's book The BIRDS of the United Arab Emirates and we had got a lot of good information and trip reports from Annika Forsten (Finland, who has been in UAE at least four times). We also used Birds of the Middle East and North Africa by Hollom,,, Seabirds of the World: photo-guide by Harrison, Rare birds... by Alström,,, and Lars Jonsson's Fåglar i Europa. In UAE we bought Birds of Southern Arabia by Robinsson,, (a lot of good pictures). As described in other trip-reports, good maps are difficult to get so you are in great need of very exact directions and perhaps "hand-made" maps. We were a little short of these "exact directions" but Colin Richardson helped us out many times. It's a good thing to contact Mr Richardson who is "professional" birdwatcher in UAE and also very helpful.

Monday early morning we started birdwatching in Sharjah and Khor Khan. We saw some of the local specialities like Ring-necked parakeet (70), Yellow-vented Bulbul (4), Red-vented Bulbul (2), Purple Sunbird (1), Common Mynah (10), Graceful Warbler (2), Palm Dove (30) and Pallid Swift (10). In Khor Khan we saw Great Cormorant (5), Grey Heron (10), Yellow-legged Gull (5), Black-headed Gull (150), Slender-billed Gull (50), Sandwich Tern (30), Common Tern (20), Little Ringed Plover (1), Kentish Plover (10), Little Stint (1) and Turnstone (1). House Sparrows and Crested Larks were everywhere.

When we had rented our first car we drove north, passed Ajman and ended up where we thought Khor al Beidah was situated (later we realised that we had been to the wrong place). Beside the road it was a lot of water-filled "ponds" and "khors" (it had been raining for almost one month before we arrived). In these water-areas we saw a lot of herons, waders and gulls. We saw: Great Cormorant (50), Western Reef Heron (50), Grey Heron (50), Greater Flamingo (3), Booted Eagle (1), Pallid Harrier (1 ad female), Spotted Eagle (1 ad), Osprey (1), Coot (1), Oystercatcher (150), Crab Plover (75, at the wrong place!), Ringed Plover (10), Kentish Plover (150), Lesser Sandplover (75), Greater Sandplover (100), Grey Plover (50), Dunlin (100), Little Stint (10), Broad-billed Sandpiper (10), Bar-tailed Godwit (200), Whimbrel (10), Curlew (200, most were the extremely long-billed race orientalis), Redshank (20), March Sandpiper (15), Green Sandpiper (1), Terek Sandpiper (30), Turnstone (10), Great Black-headed Gull (1), Black-headed Gull (200), Slender-billed Gull (50), Yellow-legged Gull (20), Gull-billed Tern (4), Sandwich Tern (5), Common Tern (10), Little Green Bee-eater (20), Tawny Pipit (1), Desert Wheatear (1 male) and Pallid Swift (1). Graceful Warblers, Crested Larks, Palm Doves, Collared Doves, Ring-necked Parakeets, Common Mynahs, Purple Sunbirds, Little Green bee-eaters and House Sparrows are very common species everywhere and will not be mentioned anymore. Monday evening we contacted Colin Richardson and he promised to show us The Fish Farm (or Zabeel water treatment plant) Tuesday evening at 16.30 h. He also told us to go to Umm Al Quwain if we wanted to see the Socotra Cormorants.

Tuesday morning we so went to Umm Al Quwain. We had some difficulties in finding the best spot to birdwatch but we finally found out that the beach in the north was the right place (where you can see the pier in NE on most "city-maps"). A lot of terns, gulls and waders were roosting on the beach and off shore the Socotra Cormorants were passing by in small to medium size flocks (up to 50). We saw: Great Cormorant (3, watch out!), Socotra Cormorant (200), Western Reef Heron (10), Grey Heron (10), Greater Flamingo (50), Kestrel (1), Oystercatcher (50), Greater and Lesser Sandplovers (20), Kentish Plover (20), Sanderling (2), Little Stint (20), Dunlin (30), Curlew (10), Redshank (1), Pomarine Skua (4, flying and lying on the water about 500 m off shore), Great Black-headed Gull (20), Black-headed Gull (500), Yellow-legged Gull (50), Sandwich Tern (20), Swift Tern (20), Lesser Crested Tern (5) and Common Tern (50). After Umm Al Quwain we went back to the wrong Khor al Beidah and saw about the same species as yesterday but another Great Spotted Eagle (juv.), the same (?) Booted Eagle, Western Reef Heron (200), Terek Sandpiper (75) and Crab Plover (40).

After some sun-bathing at the Hotel we went to Khor Dubai where we should meet Colin. In Khor Dubai there were thousands and thousands of waders. Most of the species we had already seen but not in the same numbers. New species were: Great White Egret (1), Spoonbill (15), Mallard (30), Pintail (20), Shoveler (4), March Harrier (1 female), Black-tailed Godwit (1), Ruff and Greenshank. Then Colin arrived and we went to the Fish Farm. This was really a nice place well worth a visit if possible. We saw: Black-necked Grebe (1), Little Grebe (3), Great Cormorant (30), Night Heron (8), Little Green Heron (1), Cattle Egret (1), Western Reef Heron (5), Little Egret (10), Great White Egret (5), Grey Heron (10), Teal (30), Wigeon (1), Mallard (8), Sparrowhawk (1 female), Grey Francolin (1), Moorhen (3), Coot (15), Common Sandpiper (2), Black-headed Gull (20), Indian Roller (1), Hoopoe (1), Pied Mynah (25), Bank Mynah (10) and Common Mynah (200).

Wednesday morning we went to the Emirates golf course, about 25 km SW Dubai on the Abu Dhabi-road. You need a permission to go inside (just call 480222 between 8-17). Colin had told us that there were a few Pintail Snipes there, together with a lot of Common snipes. On the eastern side (outside) of the golf course there were a small "pond" where the snipes were supposed to be. We managed to park on the western side of the golf course and walked inside along the fence. Passed the southern corner and walked about one km on the east side. On our way back we jumped the fence and went outside the golf course. We managed to see at least two Pintail Snipes (probably four!). We thought that the easiest way of identifying the snipes were when they landed (after unavoidable flush). It was quite easy to see the "wing-pattern" on the landing snipes and you were able to locate the Pintails. They also looked a little different in flight. A shorter bill, shorter more rounded wings and a different tail-shape (shorter and more pointed). We also saw a third spices of the snipe-family, Jack Snipe (1). Other interesting observations were: Great Grey Shrike (1 of the race pallidirostris), Grey Francolin (20), Red-wattled Lapwing (8), Hoopoe (1), Wryneck (1), White Wagtail (10), White-cheeked Bulbul (1), Yellow-vented Bulbul (2), Red-vented Bulbul (10), Desert Lesser Whitethroat (1), House Crow (4), Rose-coloured Starling (6-7, a good record Colin said) and Indian Silverbill (2).

In the afternoon we went to the right Khor al Beidah! If you come from Dubai-Sharjah you shall turn towards Umm al Quwain in the junction (round-about) Umm al Quwain - Ras al Khaimah - Falaj al Mualla. Drive approx. 3 km then you see a big red-white "mushroom" (water-tower?). Turn to the right towards this big thing. Then you reach a round-about. If you go straight forward you will end up in a Sheijk-Palace. No good. Take instead the right road which doesn't seem to exist, but it does. Drive on the (quite good) track towards the Palace, follow the Palace-wall, turn 90 degrees when the wall does so. Continue straight forward (wall-direction) about 2-3 km then you see the water. Turn to the right and follow the beach about 3-4 km. Then when you see the Crab Plovers you're on the right place! Except 300 Crab Plovers we saw: Great Cormorant (20), Western Reef Heron (30), Grey Heron (10), Spoonbill (1), Greater Flamingo (20), Osprey (1), Oystercatcher (50), all the other waders including Great Knot (2 in winter-plumage)!

After this successful trip we went on to the east-coast. We turned towards Fajal al Mualla, passed Dhaid, Masafi, Fujairah, Kalba and then at last we reached Khor Kalba. Khor Kalba is most famous for the White-collared Kingfishers of the race kalbaensis who only lives here in the whole world. At least 25 birds should live here in the mangrove. We didn't see them! We visited Khor Kalba twice, both times for at least three hours. We were told to walk in the mangrove and look in the trees. We also tried so watch the mangroves from the opposite shore. We saw a lot of Common Kingfishers but no signs of the White-collared. Two other Swedish birdwatchers saw them the day between the days we were there! This, I think, was the worst miss on the whole trip. But we will certainly visit Khor Kalba again. On the way to Khor Kalba we saw: Brown-necked Raven (5), Great Grey Shrike (3, of the local breeding aucheri-race), Indian Roller (5), Falco sp. (1, Lanner?), Pale Crag Martin (2 in Masafi), camels, cows, goats and a donkey. In Khor Kalba we saw: Indian Pond Heron (2), Western Reef Heron (5), Common Kingfisher (5), some waders and Booted Warbler (1, rama race). Watch out for Squacco Herons which are here too, we probably saw one and the Finnish couple definitively saw one.

Thursday we went looking for an Eastern Pied Wheatear at Qarn Nazwa. Colin had given us a perfect road-description so we found the right place immediately. On the two piles of stones, where the male Eastern Pied was supposed to be, we saw a strange female wheatear. It looked like a male Eastern Pied but were brown on the back and had a rufous/buffish breast-band a few centimetres below the throat/bib. We were a bit confused because we were told that it should be a male and "he's always on those piles of stones". A few minutes later we found the male Eastern Pied, only 30 m from the female wheatear. We filmed and photographed the two birds for about one hour. We also saw: Red-tailed Wheatear (2), White-cheeked Bulbul (2), Desert Warbler (3) and on the way a Kestrel and about ten Great Grey Shrikes. After Qarn Nazwa we continued the road to Hatta. In the village Hatta and in the water-filled "ponds" we saw: Indian Roller (20), Black-winged Stilt (1), Pale Crag Martin (10), Red-wattled Lapwing (2), some common waders, Desert Lark (2 in a Wadi), Grey Francolin (1), Great White Egret (1) and Yellow-vented Bulbul (4). We talked to Colin in the evening and he told us that it had been two Eastern Pied (male and female) in Qarn Nazwa earlier in the season but he didn't know that both still were present. Our description on the female wheatear was very good on female Eastern Pied Colin said.

Friday is the Arabic/Islamic-holiday and a lot of people is outside pick-nicking and so on. A Finnish couple had yesterday discovered a flock of nine Hypocoliuses at the Al Ain-cameltrack so we decided to go there even if it was Friday. You go to Al Ain-cameltrack by driving from Dubai/Sharjah towards Al Ain. You have to drive into Al Ain and there you will find signs pointing to Abu Dhabi, follow them and drive on, pass a really big round-about with four sculptures of horses in the middle. Continue 1-2 km until some big "speed-humps" drive on for about 3-4 km more and then is a sign (brown or purple) which says cameltrack. You will have to do a U-turn because the cameltrack is on the other side of the road. Drive towards the "Grand Stand" and turn to the left just after the Grand Stand and enter the cameltrack the same way the camels does! We didn't know exactly where the hypocoliuses were seen so we started in the middle of the huge cameltrack (about 8 x 4 km!). We saw: March Harrier (1 female), Montagu's Harrier (1, 2nd year), Kestrel (2), Saker (1 with "jesses"), Grey Francolin (10), Bimaculated Lark (50), Short-toed Lark (200), Crested Lark (2000!), Skylark (10), Tawny Pipit (4), Meadow Pipit (1), Desert Lesser Whitethroat (1), Isabelline Shrike (1), Great Grey Shrike (5), Rose-coloured Starling (11), Indian Silverbill (2) and Corn Bunting (2). We didn't see any Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouses even though Al Ain cameltrack is said to be the best place for them, especially between 08.00-10.00 in the morning (several hundreds!). At that time we had quite heavy raining. Perhaps we could have been seeing them without knowing/noticing because we were busy looking for Hypocoliuses! Outside the cameltrack we finally found the Hypocoliuses. They sat in the hedge around the Grand Stand. First we found a flock of seven birds. We were very happy because we thought we had found the "Finnish flock". Then we found more and more Hypocoliuses, we counted 80 birds! This was almost sensational Colin told us later.

After the cameltrack we went back to Al Ain and checked some good places. The Intercontinental Hotel should be a good place for watching eagles and vultures (Egyptian and Lapped-faced) because it's so highly situated. We didn't see anything except a lot of Indian Rollers and three Hoopoes. Al Ain zoo should be good place for Egyptian vultures coming down from the mountains to eat the lion-food at the zoo. We didn't go there, too many people on a Friday. Jebel Hafit is a mountain. You can drive on a serpentine-road, very steep. Good views of half the UAE, a lot of Egyptian Vultures (20), Desert Lark (10), Pale Crag Martin (1) but no Lapped-faced Vultures, no Hooded Wheatear and no Hume's Wheatear! The Lapped-faced and Hooded are rare but why didn't we see any Hume's? One explanation can be that it was quite bad weather and the clouds was low so we didn't drive all the way up on Jebel Hafit. The other Swedish birdwatchers had seen several Hume's but they had better weather. Good advice; drive all the way up to the top next time. Then we visited a place called Ayn al Faidah, we didn't really know where to go (still don't) but we found some nice grounds with a lot of sand, a few trees and some irrigation. We saw at least two Black Redstarts of some of the red-bellied races (phoenicuroides?) and one Isabelline Wheatear.

Saturday we were going for the Kingfishers in Khor Kalba again. On the way there we stopped in Masafi and visited a very good Wadi. The weather unfortunately wasn't very good so we didn't see very much. But: Long-billed Pipit (1 male singing from perch), Kestrel (1 male), Tawny Pipit (2), Red-tailed Wheatear (1), Desert Lesser Whitethroat (3), Chiffchaff (1) and Black Redstart (1). After that, Khor Kalba without the kingfishers but: Little Green Heron (1), Indian Pond Heron (1), Western Reef Heron (4), Osprey (1), Pale Crag Martin (10), Indian Roller (3), Booted Warbler (3 rama race) and Red-throated Pipit (1). Then we drove north towards Dibba. On the beach between Kalba and Fujairah there were incredibly many gulls and terns. We didn't count them all but there were several thousands. Sooty Gull (1), Black-headed Gull (2000), Slender-billed Gull (500), Yellow-legged Gull (100 and perhaps other races), Lesser Crested Tern (1), Sandwich Tern (10), Common Tern (75), White-cheeked Tern (5), Saunders' Little Tern (1 winter-plumage), Indian Roller (40), Desert Wheatear (1 male) and House Crow (100). The Saunders' Little Tern was of course small, we found it standing in a flock of Common Terns. It had all black legs and bill, very little black on the head and the upperparts (wings, back, rump and tail) was uniformly coloured in quite dark grey nuances, almost no contrast between tail/rump and back/wings. The outer primaries was also distinctly blackish. The tern flew around us trying to get the small fishes the local fishermen had put on the ground. One Arab was watching the fish and tried to scare the terns and gulls off with an umbrella which the wind torn to pieces! It was an uneven struggle the birds were in majority. I don't know what the Arabs are doing with the fish on the ground (we saw it on several places), if they dry them or if it's just rubbish? After the white-fowl-studying at Kalba we continued to Dibba. In Dibba we visited the Fujariah Dairy Farm (there are signs in Dibba). They have a lot of cows there and the "cow-shit" are put in a ditch. This ditch holds a lot of birds. We saw: Cattle Egret (12), Pallid Harrier (1, 2nd year), Red-wattled Lapwing (30), Common Snipe (3), Pintail Snipe (2), Whiskered Tern (2), Indian Roller (30), Pale Crag Martin (20), White Wagtail (10 + 1 personata-looking subspecies), Yellow Wagtail (5), Citrine Wagtail (2 females), Bluethroat (1) and a close flock of Indian Silverbills (12). The Indian Silverbills actually sat on each others backs, like a circus-pyramid, seeking shelter from the wind (almost storm)!

The last day, Sunday, we were going back to Sweden but we had time to birdwatch until noon. We decided to go back to the nice Wadi in Masafi. The weather was much better now, sun and almost no wind. This was a good choice, we saw: Desert Lark (2), Long-billed Pipit (1, the same bird we saw yesterday), Yellow-vented Bulbul (2), Red-tailed Wheatear (3), Scrub Warbler (2, one pair!), Ménétrie's Warbler (3 male + 1 female), Desert Lesser Whitethroat (5), Plain Leaf Warbler (1 male singing!), Chiffchaff (1), Arabian Babbler (2) and Isabelline Shrike (1).

Then we went home to Sweden.

We saw 132 species, about 30 new ones for us. We had missed the White-collared Kingfisher, Hume's Wheatear and Black-crowned Finch Lark. But we don't weep so much for this. There were a few good places which we didn't visit because lack of time. Ramtha Tip, Mushrif National Park (4 pairs of Bruce's Scops Owl!) and Al Wathba cameltrack (Oriental Skylark!). If you intend to see all the winter-species in UAE I think you need at least two weeks. You have to count with the weather and birds are birds. We definitely will return to UAE! As fast as possible!

Joakim och Elisabeth Djerf (We got married on the journey!)
Forsmark 6705
742 94 Östhammar
Tel: +46 173 50042

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