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focus May 2002





ENHG: Chairman's Report 2001

2001 was quite a successful year for the group. We held twenty indoor meetings, including one as late as the 3rd July, which was very well attended. It would be interesting to see if indoor meetings in August would be equally popular. The major drawback is the lack of committee members to organize them, as nearly all are away!

Subjects were as usual, very diverse: we were told about conservation youth training; archeology; eco-tourism; conchology; satellite mapping and its uses in conservation; sea turtle biology; close up photography and even what creatures to avoid when swimming in the sea!

Places that the arm chair naturalist visited were no less diverse: Bahrain; Jordan; Namibia; Antarctica; Uganda; South Africa and New Zealand. As well as the more local, but just as fascinating, Oman and the UAE.

Allestree Fisher and Arun Kumar organized an excellent selection of both daily and weekend field excursions, which were well attended and enjoyed by all who participated on them. Few realize the amount of work that goes into organizing one of these events, never mind the 16 forays that were undertaken. A big vote of thanks must go to them both for their tireless efforts.

Charles Laubach was yet again present over the summer and lead two excursions, at the height of the big heat. Thank you Charles.

Arleen and Andrew worked hard on the sales and once again provided an excellent service to members. Richard Perry helped in so many ways, but especially in the putting together of our monthly newsletter Focus. Thank you Richard.

Peter Hellyer yet again editored two excellent editions of Tribulus and he is to be congratulated on the amount of work that this involves.

Arun is also the group's treasurer and a big thank you again goes to him for keeping the group solvent and to Nick Benge who once again auditored the accounts: thanks to the both of you.

Corporate sponsorship was excellent during the year and a very big thank you must go to: Al Fahim Group; Al Sayegh Richards Butler; BP; Denton Wilde Sapte; Emirates Holdings; GAMCO; Hyder Consulting; Jashanmal; METCO; Mohammed Bin Masood and Sons; Nama Development Enterprises; National Bank of Abu Dhabi; Omeir Travel Agency; Penspen; Ready Mix Abu Dhabi Ltd; Beach Rotana Hotel; Simmons & Simmons; Tabreed; Trowers & Hamlins; Union National Bank and WESCO. Without their help life would have been so much harder! Thank you very much indeed.

Now it comes to my final words, as I am resigning as Chairman and from the committee of the ENHG. I have been involved in the group's activities for ten years and served in various capacities on the committee for nine. I am currently engaged in doctoral research and this has to be my major priority for the next few years. I have enjoyed every minute of my involvement with the group. I have met some wonderful people; listened to some great lectures; participated in memorable discussions; visited some wonderful places and witnessed some amazing sights! I sincerely hope that you all experience the same excitement and elation as I do when studying our natural world. My thoughts and wishes go with you all and I hope the group goes from strength to strength in the coming years. I wish you well.

Thank you.

Stephen L. James ( Outgoing Chairman of the ENHG).

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Treasurer's Report for the year 2001

The Group's activities for 2001 resulted in a surplus of Dirhams 3,359 comparing income to expenditure.

The main sources of income were corporate subscriptions (Dirhams 21,050), the sale of books and other items (Dirhams 12,930) and member's subscriptions (Dirhams 13,600).

A donation of Dirhams 5,000 was made towards archaeological survey. The cost of printing "Tribulus" amounted to Dirhams 13,800. The other major expense during the year was the purchase of books and other items (Dirhams 16,731).

The Group's current assets as at 31 December 2001 (comprising cash at bank and hand) totalled Dirhams 30,157 and fixed assets after depreciation totalled Dirhams 1,030.

Copies of the Group's Financial Statements and Audit Report as prepared by the auditor and this report for the year 2001 are available for distribution to members on request.

G.Arun Kumar

Note: Full accounting is available for all members to read if they contact the treasurer.

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Surprise! Surprise!

Scops Owl
Photograph by Steve James

On 11th April, an ENHG member Martin Dodgson was working in Musaffah, just outside Abu Dhabi. As construction work was progressing, they noticed a small Owl fly out of a building. They thought it might be a fledgling, as it was so small, but couldn't find the nest.

Martin called me and said that they had caught an Owl. It was very small, so they thought it might be a baby. What should they do with it? I asked them to look for the nest site and put it back. They said they couldn't find it and they had the bird in a box. Did I want to see it?

So that's how the bird was in my living room in a cardboard box! Once I opened the box, I realized I was looking at an adult owl, not a young bird at all. It was in fact a migratory Scops Owl, no doubt on its way north to Russia to breed. They feed mainly on insects, so they have to migrate to Africa to avoid the harsh winters found in the north. Of course their migratory route takes them through the Middle East in spring and autumn. So, this was a perfect date for finding one on its way north. It had probably been sheltering in the building, to keep out of the sun.

The bird was kept overnight and released unharmed on the evening of the 12th, but not before its picture was taken!

Steve James

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A Note about David Bellamy

David Bellamy & Steve at Al Wathba
Photograph by Richard Perry

Regular readers of Focus, will no doubt have read in an earlier issue about David Bellamy, the famous British botanist and conservation campaigner, visiting Abu Dhabi recently. Several members of the committee were very fortunate in meeting David, and all had an instructive and entertaining time with the great man.

According to Radio 2 in Abu Dhabi (no doubt a very reliable source). David was driving in England listening to a local English radio station, that was having "a sound like David Bellamy competition". The man himself, having a great sense of humour, thought he would phone in and do an "impersonation" of David Bellamy. All went well, and he got on air, and did his bit as David Bellamy. And, wait for it, came third in the competition!

Absolutely priceless!

Steve James

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The Hanging Gardens in April

April may not seem to be the best time of the year for local flora and fauna. However we decided to go following reports of rain in the area. For our first-time readers, the Hanging Gardens are so named because of the trailing vines that hang down from the cliff face of Jebel Qatar. You can get there by driving 16kms towards Mahdah from the roundabout near the Buraimi Hotel, and turning off along a sandy track towards the mountain. The climb takes about 45 mins to the bottom of the cliff, and a five-minute scramble up a cleft beside a large jujube tree will take you to the top.

Usually there is an abundance of flowers and shrubs in all seasons, as the elevation provides a cooler habitat than the plain below. Roy Richards told us that the mountain is no more than 600 meters high, but given that the flowers are in shadow for most of the day, many can survive into the summer with a little life-giving rain.

When we first arrived we could see that there had been rain from the patches of green beside the road. There was tribulus (Tribulus terrestris) everywhere and some of it had already fruited. Rob Western describes five species of this plant in the first edition of Tribulus, April 1991. The common one is prostrate and has a small yellow flower with five petals. We found a pit, presumably dug by a grader, close to the main road, which had filled with water during the rains, and in it were at least 30 different species of flowers and shrubs in it. The soil was still damp immediately beneath the surface. Keith and Molly found some Plain Tiger caterpillars feeding on the Sodom Apple (Calotropis procera) in the middle of the pit. Farther along the track we counted a number of Maerua crassifolia (We know the name in Arabic : sarh, but not in English. Does anyone have a name for this one?) This tree is very rare in the UAE, is related to the caper, and when in bloom attracts many butterflies and insects. Even in the undisturbed areas in the foothills of Jebel Qatar, there are not very many. Fossil Valley, which is the next valley, has a few, too. The largest we saw was beside the car parking area, like a huge tent, covered with new growth and with its branches bent right down to the ground.

On the plain we saw a few budding dipcadi lilies (Dipcadi biflorum), protected from the wind by larger plants, and as we climbed the mountain we came across many more, all in protected positions. The wadi bed leading up to the waterfall was full, as always, of Tephrosia apollinea. This is a perennial with a beautiful purple flower. It prefers wadi beds and gravel plains, although it grows all the way to the top the mountain, too. There are too many plants to list all of them in this short article (which may serve to interest budding botanists to go and look for themselves), so we shall mention just a few of the more obvious April blooms.

At the base of the cliff there is a variety of trees and shrubs, in particular: the toothbrush tree (Salvadora persica), the jujube tree (Ziziphus spina christi), a number of acacias and a few very healthy maeruas. In the wadi below Pam had spotted the only Acacia ehrenbergiana, which was a mass of yellow bloom (the tortilis variety has white flowers), but there were none to be seen higher up.

At the base of the cliff between the two waterfalls - only a drip at present - is an amazing "field", which must have been cultivated by the villagers of the past. This field is covered, not only with dipcadi lilies, but with abutilon (Abutilon pannosum) and ra' (Aerva javanica). This is the only place in the region where we have found abutilon, and would be grateful to hear of other sightings. Unfortunately we have never managed to find this plant fully in flower, just a mass of bright yellow buds all tightly closed. The fluffy seeds of the aerva were used in the past to stuff cushions and pillows. They look rather like stems of white catkins. On this trip we found a number of Argyrolobium roseum, which is a member of the bean family, having a beautiful light pink flower and trifoliate leaves.

There were a number of dried-out fungi between the rocks and masses of the dried out seed pods of "little star" (Asteriscus pygmaeus) The sepals of this flower dry out and enclose the seeds within it, opening up on contact with water. You can watch them open in front of your eyes! We saw masses of sorrel seedlings (Rumex vesicarius) in the shadow of the cliff, and an impressive number of Leucas inflata with their white flowers in whorls blowing in the breeze.

There are many reasons for visiting the Hanging Gardens, not the least of which is for the view from the top of the mountain of the surrounding plain and sand dunes of the UAE. For amateurs of wadi eco-systems, there are toads, tadpoles, water beetles and other creatures to be observed in pools formed by the wadis. The foothills of the mountain can provide interesting finds for the fossil hunter, and there are some large raptors to be seen along the cliff, looking for lizards and rodents. We watched a pair of Palestine sunbirds with their iridescent plumage darting from bush to bush. Roy identified a Hume's wheatear enjoying the up currents against the cliff. Chirri the dog also enjoyed his trip up to the cliff, too. He did about three times the distance that we did, running back and forth, and found shade under a brand new Nissan at the bottom of the mountain.

Allestree Fisher

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New members for Tribulus Editorial Board

With the approval of our Group Patron, HE Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan, two new members have been added to the Tribulus Editorial Board. One is Associate Professor Drew Gardner (also a new Group Committee member), who is professor of biology at Zayed University, and an acknowledged expert on the reptiles of south-eastern Arabia. The other is Dr. Mark Beech, a Visiting Fellow in the Departments of Biology and Archaeology at Britain's University of York, who takes up a two year appointment as the ADIAS Resident Archaeologist in October. Mark is a specialist both in fishes and in environmental archaeology.

The new appointments will add significantly to the range of expertise represented on the Board, which is assisted in the task of evaluating contributions by an Advisory Panel of experienced scientists.

Peter Hellyer

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Local Archaeology Opportunity

As many members will have seen in the Gulf News (8th May), the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, has made important new discoveries from the Late Stone Age period at an archaeological site at Abu Dhabi International Airport.

ADIAS first worked on the site back in 1995, undertaking a survey and a detailed surface pick-up of material during June and July that year - not the best time for fieldwork, but necessary because of the proximity of bulldozers which had already destroyed part of the site. The results from the work showed that the site, on a low range of hills overlooking the edge of the sabkha, and on a former shoreline, had been occupied at four distinct periods, the Late Stone Age (c. 5,500 - 3.500 bC), the early and mid Bronze Age (c. 3200 BC to 2000 BC), the beginning of the Christian era, (around 100 BC to 200 AD), and then, finally, in the Late Islamic period.

The 1995 summer fieldwork was made possible largely because of the efforts of a host of willing volunteers, including many members of the Emirates Natural History Group, who helped to collect artefacts from the surface and to sieve lots of sand in, and despite, summer heat.

Flint arrowhead in situ
Photograph by Peter Hellyer
Abu Dhabi airport arrowhead front
Photograph by Peter Hellyer

The latest discoveries, made by Dr. Heiko Kallweit and Dr. Mark Beech, in April, included a flint arrowhead of a type not previously recorded in the UAE, and three tiny flint 'microliths,' probably once parts of a sickle blade used for cutting grass or other vegetation. Again, these were the first discoveries of their type known from the UAE.

As a result of the new discoveries, ADIAS is now planning a further season of work next winter. Provisionally scheduled for December or early January, this work will involve further survey work, and a detailed pick-up of material across the surface of the site. Although a large area was subjected to a pick-up during the first season of work, erosion by the wind over the years, as well as the recent rains, have exposed a lot more material that needs to be collected carefully and analysed.

For this winter season, ADIAS will, once again, be inviting volunteers to come and lend a hand. No experience is required, just a willingness to get down on your knees and carefully go over the surface of the site, which will be divided into one metre squares, collecting anything on the surface, bagging it, and helping with preliminary sorting.

The work will be directed by Heiko Kallweit and Mark Beech.

Over the years, ADIAS has received frequent offers of help from volunteers. Because most of its work takes place on far-flung islands, or on private property, it has not, unfortunately, been possible to accept volunteers. This time, though, we not only welcome then - we will need them!

Interested members contact either Peter Hellyer ( or Simon Aspinall (, before the summer break, while Mark Beech will be taking up a full-time position with ADIAS from the autumn.

Peter Hellyer

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Twitch It Guide

Red-throated Pipit
Photo by Mick Dryden

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

Migration was in full swing, as usual in the month of April. It is one of the best months to see a great variety of birds, and so it proved again this year.

On 1st, an Abu Dhabi Island rarity, in the form of a Turtle Dove, was at the Health and Fitness Club. Nearby, in the park, were Woodchat, Masked and Isabelline Shrikes, along with a mixture of wintering and summer migrants, 3 Chiffchaffs, 2 Willow Warblers and a Tree Pipit.

A visit to the favoured Al Wathba Fields on 4th produced, 2 nice male Lesser Kestrels, a beautiful male Pallid Harrier and for comparison a Montagu's Harrier. A single Pale Martin and Red-rumped Swallow kept observers looking up while nearer to the ground were Grasshopper and Reed Warblers, plus several Pied Wheatears. The same day, in the afternoon 2 Black-eared and a Northern Wheatear were on Khalidiyah Spit, along with 3 Common Redstarts, Blackcap and a fine male Yellow-throated Sparrow. However, pride of place went to a pair of Little Green Bee-eaters which were excavating a nest burrow. This appears to be the first breeding attempt on Abu Dhabi Island.

The next day a thorough search of the Al Wathba Fields produced a deluge of records: Sociable Plover, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Collared Pratincole (this bird stayed all month), at least 6 Common Swifts, winging northwards, Brown-throated Martin, 2 Pale Martins and just as rare (if not rarer) 2 Crag Martins. 6 Richard's, 4 Blyth's and 100+ Red-throated Pipits (most of the latter coming into superb summer plumage). 2 Pale Rock Sparrows and a Cinerous Bunting were also noted.

A Cuckoo in Mushrif Palace Gardens was a welcome spring sight on 7th April. Other migrants there were 5 Tree Pipits, 4 Blackcaps, 2 Common Whitethroats, 39 Willow Warblers and the Goldfinch found last year, still singing! Looks like it could be an escape cage bird, as it should have moved north by now. The same day on Khalidiya were Nightingale, Barred Warbler and a Black-eared Wheatear.

The next day Mushrif Palace Gardens held a few migrants, including a couple of surprises: Scops Owl, Hobby and Turtle Dove were all noteworthy. In the next few days there, up to 10 Upcher's Warblers were noted, along with a dark morph Crested Honey Buzzard, Hobby and Sparrowhawk.

Al Wathba Lake was visited on 11th and as usual produced lots of good sightings: 4 Spotted Redshanks, 3 Marsh Sandpipers, a lone Avocet, 4 Black-tailed Godwits, 2 Pintail Snipe and at least 4 Reed Warblers were singing in the reedbed. Where else would they be? The nearby fields produced 4 Ortolan Buntings. On Futaisi Island the next day were 82 Crab Plovers, 110 Lesser Sand Plovers and 360+ Bar-tailed Godwits. Hundreds of Bridled and White-cheeked Terns were back on their breeding grounds. On the land were White-throated Robin, 3 Rufous Bush Chats and 6 Rock Thrush.

European Bee-eaters flew over Abu Dhabi Island in the next few days and a Black-headed Bunting was a good find there as well.

On 25th, a visit to Al Wathba recorded Namaqua Dove, Barn Owl, 2 European Nightjars and 12 Pacific Golden Plovers. The very next day at the same location was a fine summer plumaged White-winged Black Tern hawking over the fields for insects. Red-backed and 6 Lesser Grey Shrikes were also seen. However, the biggest surprise for one observer, was the lone falcon perched on top of a tree, in the central reservation of the main Dubai to Abu Dhabi Road. It was a fine adult female Eastern Red-footed Falcon, a rare bird in the UAE.

What a way to end the month!

Steve James

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STOP PRESS! Noted Speaker in Dubai

After many months of waiting in vain for the arrival of Berkeley herpetologist Dr. Ted Papenfuss, he finally turned up rather suddenly and will be in and out of Dubai several times between now and the end of June.

His research is concerned with studying the DNA of the reptiles (mostly lizards) of the arid countries, and linking the spread of the various species to the geological changes that took place in the region over time. His work has taken him to remote areas of Afghanistan, Iran, to Socotra and Somalia and many other countries.

His journeys have been chronicled in National Geographic magazine and the Smithsonian magazine. He has agreed to give us a talk on Tuesday June 4th at our usual venue. We are very fortunate to have someone of his fame and repute as a visiting lecturer! He will even bring some live lizards from a trip to Somalia, from which he will have returned the day before (inshallah).

We realize that this talk comes immediately after our regular June meeting, but we thought this was too good a chance to pass up. Even those of you who are not exactly nuts about reptiles - don't let that prevent you from hearing Ted's fascinating stories and seeing the amazing lizards that share this world with us.

To get to the Emirates Academy for Hospitality:

Turn off the Abu Dhabi-Dubai highway at intersection nr 4 (Police Academy, Burj al Arab), and head for the Burj al Arab (left). turn right at the roundabout at the end of the road and pass the next roundabout. Then turn right opposite the Jumeirah Beach Hotel, where all the taxis are standing.

Go on the curb, to get to the gravelly empty lot. There is a way through all the construction, just behind the fencing. This leads straight to the academy, on your left, with a lit-up facade and a fenced front and a parking lot with palms. (if your car won't jump the (low) curb - it is only a two-minute walk from this point)

M J's mobile phone is 050-6262411 if anyone runs into difficulties.

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EXCURSION - Wadi Asimah

There will be a camping weekend on the 23-24 May taking participants to the East Coast. Departure from Popeyes will be at 08.00hrs on the 23rd to allow for a longish drive via Qarn Nazwa, Al Dhaid, and to the Al Ghail area for the overnight camping. Friday morning will involve a drive through Wadi Asimah (4-wheel drive required for this section) to Dibba, and for a swim on a beach near Sharm. Return will be via Masafi. Approximate time of arrival in Abu Dhabi: 19.00hrs. This trip will involve a little archaeology, some birds, trees, plants and a beach stop.

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Committee members

Steve James (Chairman)
Simon Aspinall (Deputy Chairman) Wafa Morda (Secretary)
Hazim al Chalabi (Membership Secretary)
Peter Hellyer (editor of Tribulus)
Charles Laubach (Member at large)
Arleen Edwards (Sales)
Andrew Twyman (Sales)
Richard Perry (Member)
Arun Kumar (Treasurer)
Dick Hornby (Member at large)
Ingrid Barcelo
Allestree Fisher

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Corporate Sponsors of the ENHG 2002

The following companies are supporting the ENHG's conservation efforts in the region. Each company has made a commitment, each has made a difference and the environment thanks them all. We hope you, as ENHG members will in turn support these companies whenever you can.

Al Fahim Group
Al Sayegh Richards Butler
Emirates Holdings
Hyder Consulting Middle East Limited
Jashanmal National Company
Mohammed Bin Masaood & Sons
Nama Development Enterprises
National Bank of Abu Dhabi
Ready Mix Abu Dhabi Limited
Simmons & Simmons
Trowers & Hamlins
Union National Bank

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