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focus February 2001

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Editorial

Biodiversity refers to the number, variety and variability of living organisms. Many scientists believe that the world is facing a mass extinction of diversity, largely because of human activities. A major contributor to depletion and extinction, second only to habitat loss, is the introduction of species into new environments. They are often called exotic species. Human exploration and colonisation has dramatically increased the spread of exotic species. Whenever and where-ever humans have settled far from home, they have tried to introduce familiar animals and plants, often with catastrophic results.

Some of our most abundant wild animals and plants, especially those that do well in urban or disturbed areas, are introduced species that have become established. The European Starling introduced in North America, Eucalyptus tree around the world and most insect and plant pests are exotic species. It is estimated that over 2,300 exotic animal species and over 4,000 exotic plants are now established in the United States! And the situation is still on-going, numbers are increasing every year.

Many exotics have disastrous effects on native flora and fauna. They often leave behind the factors that have evolved with them and that control their population and in new lands they spread. Very quickly these newly established populations can grow out of control. Exotics are a factor contributing to the endangered or threatened status of 42% of animals and plants on the U.S. endangered species list.

The spread of exotics replaces healthy, diverse ecosystems with biologically impoverished, homogeneous landscapes. A good example are places with a Mediterranean climate in southern Australia, west coast of U.S. and South Africa, previously had few plant species in common (although they did show many examples of convergent evolution, leading to similar landscapes). They now share hundreds of weedy exotic species, mainly from the Mediterranean region.

It seems that no area of the world is safe from introduced species. Hawaii, the world's most isolated island group, over 3,500 kilometres from any major land mass has now over 2,500 alien arthropods. With increased travel, we sail and fly these unwanted guests, to even the remotest parts of the globe.

Here in Abu Dhabi the situation is much the same. The bright, colourful birds we take so much for granted, flying around the city are mostly alien species. The two species of parrot, the three species of bulbul and the vocal Grey Francolin are all non-native species. They have become a part of the Abu Dhabi landscape only because of human intervention. Exotic species are not confined to birds, both Rock Hyrax and more recently the European Red Squirrel have either been deliberately introduced or escaped from captivity and can be found in Abu Dhabi Emirate. But do these exotic species do any harm, here in the Emirates?

Only time and research will provide the answer to this question. But I believe that this is rather missing the point. What these alien species are doing, is detracting from the uniqueness of this country. Social and cultural values are quite rightly, jealously guarded in this part of the world. Surley, we should use the same values to conserve the biological diversity that makes Arabia unique? Do we really want the UAE to look like other parts of the world? To both visitors and ex-patriots alike what draws us to the country, is its rich heritage, culture and social customs, which set this place apart from the rest of the world. For me, the diversity of nature was a natural draw. Species that I couldn't see in my home country pulled me like a magnet to the UAE. The reason I like this country so much, is because its not like other parts of the world, its uniqueness is a national treasure, to be guarded at all costs. Once the UAE starts to loose its distinctiveness then I think this will be a sad day for all.

Steve James (Chairman of the ENHG)

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Photo Opportunity in Peru

A Tall Tale from Steve James

Those of you, who know me well, probably know that I wander a great deal. No, not in my mind, but in body! I like nothing better than tramping jungle trails, climbing mountains, descending gorges and crossing seas, all to see more birds and animals of this diverse world. But sometimes nature can come to you in unexpected ways. This is one of those times and one of those days, which was not a regular day at the office!

My friend Paul, (sadly now no longer with us) and I were in southeast Peru, staying for several weeks at a jungle lodge on the Tambopata River, which is one of the many tributaries of the mighty Amazon. We had intensely birded the area, so we knew the maze of trails that threaded their way through the lowland jungle quite well. If you have never been in tropical lowland rain forest, then its quite dark, a little bit spooky but also very magical. There are a myriad of sights and sounds that occupy your senses for each second, as you gently probe ever deeper, trying to discover just a few of its secrets.

We had been bird and animal watching from dawn till dusk every day for several weeks without a break. So on this particular morning Paul just couldn't get the motivation to leave his comfy hammock (yes, a hammock, not a bed) twenty minutes before dawn. I'm on the trail alone, its dark, very dark as only a tropical night can be. (No electricity here). Its still ten minutes before dawn and the sounds of the jungle are overwhelming. The insects are at full blast and the haunting cry of a Bartlett's Tinamou adds to the atmosphere. Slowly I creep silently forward, ever deeper in to the forest. It starts to get light (which happens very quickly near the equator); suddenly I hear a noise like a gun going off, right above my head. It's a tremendously loud, cracking sound, which can only mean one thing in a forest, TIMBER!

Now, I don't know if you know, that a falling tree is a very common way of dying in the jungle! You hear trees giving up the struggle and crashing to the earth quite frequently. I expected to be crushed by a falling limb any second. So, two seconds after the noise, I was felled to earth. It was like a tremendous dead weight on my right shoulder, it knocked me flat on my stomach and I was stunned and dazed. However, nature had not quite finished with me yet. I was brought back to sudden consciousness by an indescribable pain, a sharp pain, as if I had been knifed. And then to my absolute horror I felt the large dead weight moving on my back and shoulder! I tried to rise but couldn't. This thing had me in its grip, literally. As I turned my head, I looked straight in to the eyes of a most beautiful animal. It looked straight back at me, in fact it looked through me and very slowly it started to move. The vice like grip on my shoulder relaxed and slowly, this enormous weight was lifted from my back.

It seemed like an eternity before I was free of the beast. I tried to stand but I couldn't. I was badly shaken and winded. It seemed the animal was in no rush to leave either. It moved slowly and carefully across the trail, with not even a glance in my direction.

The animal was of course a Three-toed Sloth, quite a big one about the size of a seven-year-old child. It must have been sleeping on a branch, when it suddenly gave way. Gravity did its job, and it plummeted to earth, its fall cushioned by an unsuspecting human! But the story doesn't quite end there. Being one of the slowest animals on this planet means that its not the fastest getaway artist in the world. I marked the spot by dropping my rucksack and hobbled back to the lodge. Paul was woken by my ramblings, as I searched for my camera and big lens. Together we marched to the spot and it was still there, about two metres off the ground, slowly climbing to safety, in its forest canopy home. So that's how and why I got fabulous photos of an eye level Three-toed Sloth. But to see them, you will have to wait for my talk on Peru, won't you?

A very slothful Steve James.

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Amazing animals of the Emirates

(Part Five of a new series)

Cape Hare

Lepus capensis Linnaeus 1758), known in arabic as “Arneb” is thought to have three sub-species living in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi; L.c. arabicus, L.c. cheesmani, and L.c. omanensis. All three are nocturnal and show similar behavioural characteristics.

Desert hares typically weigh less than 1200 grams, with females weighing slightly more than males. Their fur coloration does not show any marked seasonal change, however there is a tendency for the fur to be more rust coloured in summer than in winter, when they tend to become more grey coloured. Hares can breed all year round, but typically peak breeding activity occurs in the cooler winter months.

Social interactions between hares are most commonly observed shortly after sunset when they emerge from their daytime resting sites (known as forms) to feed and interact with other hares.

Desert hares are well adapted to the harsh desert conditions, they can tolerate very high ambient temperatures, using the insulating properties of their fur to prevent absorption of heat. It is also thought that their ears, which when resting cover approximately two thirds of their body, provide shade from the sun. In addition to providing daytime shade, at night, the large ears of desert hares allow them to hear potential predators such as foxes and even the wing beats of eagle owls. They also have very large eyes for watching out for potential predators and also for mate recognition. Their feet are covered in thick long hares, which allow them to move easily on soft, hot sand.

Desert hares, in the past, were hunted for food by bedouin using saluki dogs or falcons and these hunting methods remain a part of Arabic culture. Unfortunately, however, due to over grazing by domestic stock, much of the hares’ habitat has been degraded and the population has declined. In response to this, the hunting of hares was made illegal in the early 1980s.

Chris Drew

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Moon Devoured by Dragon, Restored by Magic

The moon disappeared on Tuesday night, 9 January 2001, as it moved into the earth's shadow in the first lunar eclipse of the new millennium. The sun, earth and moon line up once a month (on the 15th day of each Islamic month) creating a full moon. When the three celestial bodies are in perfect alignment, then the moon passes through the earth's shadow, creating a lunar eclipse. The lunar eclipse that occurred in July of 2000 involved the moon passing directly through the center of the earth's shadow. In contrast, the eclipse that we witnessed in January was caused by the moon passing through the edge of the earth's shadow, producing a lunar eclipse of relatively short duration.

Observers gathered on rooftops throughout Abu Dhabi. The moon was almost directly overhead here in the Middle East, and the totality of the eclipse occurred just before midnight, giving us an excellent view here in the cradle of civilisation. The shadow intruded across the lower right corner of the moon (if you were facing east, as we were on Steve James's roof that night). Lunar brightness diminished slightly when the moon entered the earth's penumbra, but the real event began at approximately 10:50 p.m. when the umbra began encroaching on the moon in stages, lunar surface features highlighted by the advancing shadow. By 11:50 p.m., only the barest sliver remained of the upper left corner of the moon, and its disappearance marked the onset of totality, lasting for about one hour. The colour of the moon during the total eclipse is often described as deep copper in colour. To us, it looked more like the colour of a wet paper bag, especially given the gathering clouds we had to look through. We lit candles and drank fermented beverages to appease the awesome celestial forces so much greater than ourselves. Our duty performed, we headed off to slumber, dreaming of the moon gradually reappearing as the shadow completed its transit, sliding off the moon's lower left corner.

When the alignment of the earth and moon is reversed, which happens on the occasion of a new moon as opposed to a full moon, and when the alignment is likewise perfect, then the earth passes through the moon's shadow, creating a total solar eclipse. There was a partial solar eclipse in California on Christmas day. The next total solar eclipse will occur on the Summer Solstice, 21 June 2001, and it will be observable from Southern Africa.

Anyone interested in a trip to Lusaka for the event should contact Charles Laubach.

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Omeir Travel Agency Sponsors Lecture On Traditional Arabian Gulf Pearling

Rob Gregory, an international expert on Arabian Gulf pearling, addressed a packed house at the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation on Tuesday night. Mr. Gregory, resident in Bahrain, had traveled to Abu Dhabi under the sponsorship of Omeir Travel Agency to address the fortnightly meeting of the Emirates Natural History Group in Abu Dhabi.

After welcoming remarks from ENHG Chairman Steve James, Mr. Gregory delivered a fascinating discourse on the 5,000 year history of traditional Arabian Gulf pearling, centered on the pearlbeds surrounding the island of Bahrain. Beginning with the Epic of Gilgamesh, Gregory sketched the history of pearling in the Gulf, pointing out that by the early 20th century Bahrain was home to a fleet of 4,200 fishing vessels and a total diving population of 30,000 men. His lecture also highlighted the great value placed on natural pearls throughout history, and the touristic value of recreational pearl diving today.

Deputy Chairperson Riemke Riemersma presented a vote of thanks to Mr. Gregory following the lecture. ENHG Committee member Charles Laubach expressed gratitude on behalf of the Group and all in attendance to Omeir Travel Agency for sponsoring Mr. Gregory's trip from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi.

The Emirates Natural History Group is a public interest organization patronized by His Excellency the Minister of Higher Education, Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan. The Group is dedicated to promoting the study and appreciation of the natural and cultural histories of the U.A.E., and membership is open to all residents of the country. The Group holds approximately 22 meetings every year, and conducts an active program of between 15 and 20 outings annually.

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Press Release


Camel Track Capers

Birdwatching can get up your nose sometimes. As a newbie on the ornithological scene in the UAE, resolved from the first not to yield precious time, weekends evermore, to scope, bins and LBJs on pongy ponds, I am proud to announce my 100th tick. I have surrendered.

The 100th was probably the best, a little green bee eater, all iridescent greens and turquoise hues, a spectacular welcome to the world of twitcherdom in the dungpits of Mafraq. Marsh Sandpipers, Citrine Wagtails, Ruffs and Snipes, White-tailed Plovers and did-he do-it's all flew in through the fetid air to offer a wing of welcome. And then we were off, three happy boglodytes, knackered and nauseated, to the great green airy spaces of Al Wathba.

The Emirati earth and sky open up to observant eyes when you're there. No mobiles or Etisalat bills, throat hawking or internet delays, only the occasional twitchy sort of ticking noise from my fellow birdbrains. I had never looked through a scope before at a bird. What a joyous privilege to see a Sociable Plover socialising with Pacific Goldens, an enigmatic Egyptian Nightjar in the pitch of night sitting stupefied in the headlights of the Land Rover, a ruby eye spot catching the glare of the beam. Or a red-rumped and (what a rarity, this!) an Indian Cliff Swallow spotted, identified and ticked by none other than your esteemed Editor himself!

Now, for those in the dark about these things, the origin of the word BIRD. It is an acronym of Bins In (a) Right Dangle, which describes my lamentable efforts at spotting any of the above. Convinced I'd got the Swallow, I found I was pointing my bins 180 degrees away from everyone else at a distant pigeon. I suddenly developed a twitch (a real one) in my leg and had to sit down. Whereupon, in my dread sense of life's futility, I thought of my Eskimo friend, and this curious tale:

One very cold winter's day, he went up to his long-suffering wife in the igloo and asked if he could could borrow the paraffin heater on one of his birdwatching jaunts in the family kayak.

She reluctantly agreed and so off he went, installing the heater in the back of the boat until, after an hour or so, the whole thing blew up and everything sank without trace.

Except my friend, that is. He managed somehow to get back to the igloo where an enraged wife was waiting for him and the heater.

"I've told you before, you idiot Inuit, you can't have your kayak and heat it!"

May your bins undangle this new millennium.

Crispin Allan-Smith

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TWITCHER'S GUIDE

This short article is a brief round up of the most important ornithological activity in December. It is based upon Simon Aspinall and Peter Hellyer's reports, which may be found on the Internet or received direct by e-mail.

Khalidiya in Abu Dhabi on the first day of the month produced a juvenile Honey Buzzard, an Indian Roller (rare here in Abu Dhabi), 2 Lesser Whitethroats, 7 Desert Lesser Whitethroats and a Black Redstart. A visit to Al Wathba camel track on 3rd produced four species of Harrier (one Hen Harrier, still present) and a Brown-throated Martin. A venture down the old Mussafah track found that land reclamation and dredging work had removed the once prolific inter-tidal wetlands, with scarcely a wader to be seen. However 700 Greater Flamingoes were on a newly created pond behind the bund.

On 6th a Red Squirrel was found at Maqta (yes, I know its not a bird!) yet another alien species to add to the ever growing collection.

The next day a trip to Al Wathba had a raptor speciality day. 3 Hen Harriers, 2 Montague's. 2 Pallid and 5 Marsh Harriers, 2 Honey Buzzards, Peregrine and a Barbary Falcon! Also present were 140 Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, 32 Bimaculated Larks, an Oriental Skylark and 4 Steppe Grey Shrikes. An adult Crested Honey Buzzard flew across the road at Mushrif Palace Gardens, while I was on "child picking up duty" on 9th. An evening visit to Al Wathba produced a remarkable 3 Short-eared Owls and 5 Egyptian Nightjars. This is obviously the "new frontier" in bird watching in Abu Dhabi! The next day 2 Honey Buzzards were soaring over Abu Dhabi, but no sign of the Crested. Where else in the world can you regularly see both species of Honey Buzzard, often together, allowing all the identification features to be studied?

Back at Al Wathba on 14th, the Sociable Plover decided to once again show itself and was present till the month end. 2 Blyth's Pipits were to be expected but not so the rare (here) Reed Bunting found feeding in the middle of a fodder field. The same day, one lucky observer found a juvenile Lesser Spotted Eagle over Western Lagoon.

A walk around Khalidiya on 15th recorded 44 Chiffchaffs, an Orphean Warbler and a Black Redstart. The next day the previously reported Tawny Eagle and a Booted Eagle were soaring over the city, while one eagle-eyed observer found a Red-breasted Flycatcher while collecting his mail at the post office!

The hirundine hotspot of Al Wathba once again came good with the UAE's first Indian Cliff Swallow! With it was a nice Red-rumped Swallow. I think we can all stop looking at swallows and martins now, as we have recorded the lot! Anyone out there trying to prove me wrong? 6 White-tailed Plovers were on Al Wathba Marsh.

On 25th, yes Christmas day (don't some people ever stop birding?) 5 Barn Owl chicks were looking very healthy at a secret location in the city.

Two days later a return visit to Al Wathba recorded 2 Spotted Eagles and a Peregrine. And 28th saw an adult Crested Honey Buzzard and a Honey Buzzard over Abu Dhabi's Health & Equestrian Club, while on Eastern Lagoon 140 Greater Flamingoes, 12 Spoonbills and 70 Cattle Egrets were seen.

To close out a very eventful month and year, a brief visit to Mafraq Sewage Plant discovered a Ruddy Shelduck and a Lapwing, both scarce winter visitors here. Who knows what 2001 will bring? One thing is for sure it will be difficult to top the amazing year 2000 for rarities in Abu Dhabi.

Steve James If you would like to contribute to this feature then contact Simon Aspinall at Aspinallsimon@hotmail.com We hope to hear from you.

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Gecko Survey

(continued from last month's newsletter) The ENHG Committee thought that it would be a good idea to conduct a survey of Geckos on Abu Dhabi Island. It something that we can all do from the comfort of our own homes!

Geckos live on both outside and inside walls and are nocturnal; they catch insects and are completely harmless. A favourite hiding place is in the hinges behind doors and unfortunately this is why many of them meet an untimely end. If the door gets closed quickly, that's it for the gecko!

A very good way to observe them is to leave a strong light on either outside or inside your home. When the insects come, so will the geckos, if you have them of course!

Please note that negative results should be sent in, this is very important if we are to map the current distribution of geckos on the island. Nearly all of the geckos you record will be the Yellow-bellied House Gecko, but two other species are also likely. If you purchase the "Wild Reptiles" book currently on sale, you will be able to identify the species of gecko that you are recording.

GECKO SURVEY: UPDATE

We have had quite a good response from members so far, but we would like every one of you to respond, so we have as complete a picture as possible of the distribution of geckos on Abu Dhabi Island.

"Wild about Reptiles" book is invaluable for identifying geckos to species. The ENHG has it for sale on the sales stand at meetings. If you are unsure which species you have, just say so on the form and we can always send someone around to identify them for you.

Yellow-bellied House Gecko is the common one in the city, but there might be Turkish Geckos and perhaps even Fan-footed Gecko.

So leave that light on, get "geckoing" and send in those forms

Abu Dhabi Gecko Survey (Please tick next to Yes or No)
1 Name: _____________________ 2 Home Phone Number______________
3 What is your home district? e.g. Bateen, Muroor etc.  ____________________________
4 Are there geckos in your home? YES (go to Q 7) NO (go to Q 5)
5 If not now, did there used to be any in your home? YES (Go to Q 6) NO (go to Q 9)
6 When did you last see a gecko in your home? Less than three years ago Go to Q 8.
More than three years ago Go to Q 8.
More than five years ago Go to Q 8.
7 Are geckos as common now as before? YES (go to Q 9) NO (go to Q 8)
8 Why do you think there are less geckos now? _________________________________________
9 Do your friends have geckos in their homes? YES (give them a survey sheet)
NO (please fax this survey sheet to 02-4450502 or post it to P.O. Box 4783, Abu Dhabi.

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Lectures

Date Topic and Speaker
6th February Australian Peter Magee talking about ENHG sponsored excavations at Muwaila. Peter is an expert in his field and will be able to shed new light on the history of settlement in this region.
20th February Top ornithologist Tony Morris will be jetting in from "the sunny UK" to regale us with his travels in Antarctica. Not many people get the chance to go there, so this is the next best thing!
The ENHG Committee strive to bring you the very best lectures that we can possibly arrange and these two lectures are in that strong tradition of world class speakers on their subjects. We hope you can join us for two unforgettable evenings.

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ENHG Excursions

Date Destination
February 14-16th Qeshm Island
The largest island in the Gulf and is only a 20 minute flight from Dubai. Tourism is not developed and we will be venturing into the unknown. Be prepared therefore for changes and surprises in the schedule.
There is a good website (http://www.qeshm.org)
Leave Dubai Airport: Wed. 14th Feb. at about 19:00 hrs (tbc).
Return on Fri. 16th Feb. at about 17:30hrs. Staying in a hotel and sightseeing will be organised. There are old villages, quaint restaurants and a very different life style to see on Qeshm. The people are extremely hospitable. The experience will hopefully be of great value and interest.

Remember that Iran has rules that must be respected. Women must wear a headscarf and robe that completely covers the arms and legs and closed shoes.

Best to buy an "abaya" here before departure in the souk. Shorts not allowed for men. Long armed shirts and closed shoes recommended for men. Strictly no alcoholic beverages allowed.

We should be staying in a beach hotel so perhaps swimming costumes are allowed there and more relaxed dress.

I am in the process of organising things. The plane takes between 20 and 30 people. First come first served. Approximate cost 600 Dh plus food (food is cheap) to be finalised.

We plan further trips if this one is a success.

Bill Dibb mob. 050 6222368 wldibb@emirates.net.ae

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Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan