A little while ago, Rob and Jean Allan were intrigued to see a couple of
toads, one small, the other larger, apparently marooned on a dusty rock
surrounded by very dry inhospitable ground, not far from the lovely big tree at
the start of the scramble to the Hanging Gardens. Feeling somewhat sorry for the
animals, they drew closer and were amused to discover that, far from being
desperate survivors, the toads were in fact in toad heaven.
A steaming pile of droppings (donkey?) had been deposited beside the rock,
attracting several varieties of fly. Quite a few of these were of the fat and
juicy sort, and the toads were gleefully engaged in stalking and tackling them.
The nearest water at the time was at least 50m away. Do toads have a good sense
of smell, or had they been lurking beneath the rock?
This area is always interesting to visit and obviously popular, as evidenced
by the rubbish left lying under the tree. Disposable nappies abandoned near
water-courses are too revolting for words. Jean and Rob picked all the rubbish
up, although they said it seemed an exercise in futility. Thanks to Jean Allan
for this report.
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Another Chukar Nest
Report by Gary Feulner
It never rains, it pours. Peter Cunningham and I, with two Omani friends from
the Musandam area, did a two-day hiking traverse in mid-March in the NE corner
of the Ru'us al-Jibal. Our campsite for the Friday night before departure was an
"obvious" spot – a large grassy field at about 1450 meters, in the
shadow of Jebel Harim. One of our friends, Ali Suleiman, had used the field for
a sedentary camp and picnic with friends just two days before, and recommended
it. Because it is "obvious," it is littered, for which reason I have
always camped elsewhere in this area. However, birds seemed to enjoy the site.
Pied wheatears were cavorting, including a hovering behavior, by both males and
females, that I have not seen before,. Several other bird species were also
Ali saw that Peter and I were interested in the birds and asked if we'd like
to see the Chukar (Arabic safrad) nest and eggs that he'd discovered nearby
while looking for firewood on Wednesday. Peter's eyes widened. He had, only
weeks before, joined Barbara Couldrey for an ill-fated return visit to what was
probably Arabia's first reported Chukar nest, and he seemed surprised by the
coincidence. I am getting too old to be surprised by anything. We went to see
the nest, about 200 metres away.
There had been seven eggs when Ali first saw it. Now, two afternoons later,
there were nine. Peter noted that this was consistent with the egg-a-day habit
of some ground birds. The nest was within a spiny clump of Convolvulus
acanthocladus (Barbara's nest was in Artemisia herba-alba),
not really very well concealed once we'd noticed it. The eggs were cream colored
and spotted, but not heavily so. Looking at them, we could understand why the
light spotting had not caught Barbara's attention. Hiking with Barbara, Peter
had been prepared to weigh and measure the eggs and nest. Now we had to make do
with hand measurements.
The immediate site was flat scrub ground – clumps of shrubs and stones with
occasional taller Dodonea shrubs and small almond trees, all on a silty
substrate adjacent to the grassy field. The nest was composed entirely of small
sticks, with almost no other material apart from a single breast feather –
this despite a treasure trove of litter from which to choose nearby. Ali had
scoured it and found a broken wristwatch and a photograph among the plastic
bags, chip bags, old rags, bottle tops, food and drink tins, leftovers, etc.
The earlier report had left in doubt whether the nests in question are
Chukar, or whether they might be Sand Partridge. Recognizing that it was already
a coincidence to have the only two reports of such nests arrive within a few
weeks of each other, I felt it further lengthened the odds to suppose that they
might be Sand Partridge rather than Chukar, when the latter are overwhelmingly
the more abundant in the high Ru'us al-Jibal. Indeed, I have never personally
seen Sand Partridge at higher elevations there, whereas Chukar are fairly
common. Nevertheless, we took various photographs and sent them on to Michael
Jennings of ABBA. His verdict: "These eggs look just like the eggs of the
Red-Legged Partridge back home, typical Alectoris. I therefore have no more
doubts that the nest is that of a Chukar." Case closed.
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Exploring the Sabkha Matti
Report by Gary Feulner
The Sabkha Matti in westernmost Abu Dhabi emirate is the largest and most
notorious sabkha (salt flats) in the world, stretching inland from the coast for
more than 100 km into the Empty Quarter. The explorer Wilfred Thesiger wrote of
his difficult and tedious crossing, made more unpleasant by days of steady
drizzle. In late March, several natural history group members from Dubai, Abu
Dhabi and Al-Ain took advantage of the continuing dry spell to try to
investigate the flora, fauna and geology of the Sabkha Matti in relative safety,
using a route handed down from the late Bish Brown.
The sabkha environment is, by definition, an arid environment where the water
table is nevertheless very close to the surface. This occurs over a vast area in
the Sabkha Matti, where the elevation above sea level is no more than 50 meters,
even 100 km inland. Moreover, the Sabkha Matti is thought to mark the historical
outlet of major inland drainage areas. As a result, the lowest lying areas of
the sabkha, between sparse modern sands and cemented fossil dunes and sediments,
can still be treacherous even during a dry period. For more on this, see the
The flora was unquestionably suffering from the prolonged drought. Large
areas of sand within the sabkha bore only the skeletons of dead Zygophyllum
shrubs. Other bore seedlings of a handful of species. One site, however,
attracted attention from a distance because of its cover of green. Apparently
blessed by an isolated shower, an area of less than a kilometer square was home
to seedlings of some 14 species of plants, annuals and perennials – most
notably Zygophyllum simplex, Zygophyllum sp., Cornulaca sp.,
Cyperus sp., Stipagrostis sp., Arnebia hispidissima and a couple
of unidentified daisies (Launaea spp.).
In contrast, in terms of fauna the sabkha was much richer than expected. In
the course of no more than a day of actual observation, the party saw one
monitor lizard and abundant tracks, three banded toad-headed agamas including a
pregnant female and one photographed in its burrow (this species is a sabkha
specialist), three sand vipers, Cerastes cerastes, all around outcrops of
cemented ancient sand dunes, and the tracks of thread snakes within the
"green" area. Is this apparent abundance the result of lack of human
persecution in this remote area? Or do these animals actually find life easier
in the sabkha than in the more mobile sands of Liwa and the Eastern Desert? Live
insects were scarce (except for various flies) but a number of beetle carcasses
were collected. Birds seen within the sabkha included several pied wheatears, a
desert wheatear, short-toed lark, hoopoe lark, and a chiffchaff. The avian
highlight was probably ostrich eggshell, which was abundant, reflecting a
somewhat more hospitable climate in the not-so-distant past.
A word of warning: The expedition re-emphasized that the sabkha can be as
difficult as the desert, or more, so all the basic rules apply. Travel with a
party of at least three cars; one car can get stuck trying to help another. Be
well equipped and have plenty of food and water in case you have to spend time
on a rescue. Carry plenty of shovels to speed the digging. And have two or more
heavy duty tow ropes (10 meters each, minimum), so that you have leeway to
position a rescue vehicle on favorable ground, or to link two rescue vehicles in
tandem. For those who have not tried walking in damp sabkha, it can be about
like stomping grapes. And if your vehicle is in it, well, you can get that
sinking feeling as the water oozes up into your footprints.
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Book Review: The Oxford Companion to the Earth
Members have sometimes inquired about good general reference books on
geology. Chairman Gary Feulner, a geologist manqué, now recommends The Oxford
Companion to the Earth as a volume to which one can turn for information,
enlightenment, enjoyment, and good counsel. It was written with a broad
readership in mind and is intended as a source of concise, readable and
stimulating accounts of the many phenomena, processes and natural materials that
form and shape the earth. Coverage includes not only traditional geology but
also most of earth science – climatology, geochemistry, geophysics,
paleontology and paleobiology, glaciology, soil science, meterology and natural
resources, as well as the history of earth science. It is comprehensively
cross-indexed and includes suggestions for further reading on most subjects.
Individual entries range from Acid Rain, Aragonite and Archeological Geology
through Jet Streams, Joints and Jointing and Jokulhlaup, to Yardangs, Zinc
Deposits and Zone Fossils. Many entries are longer treatments, e.g., Isotopic
Dating, Radioactive Waste Management and Vegetation and Climatic Change. At 1100
pages, this is not a volume to rush through, but to consult again and again.
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How to Build a Stone House
Report by Gary Feulner
The markets may be down and it ain’t rained much for the past three and a
half years, but there's hope in the high Musandam. Significant new construction
was underway this spring in at least three terraced settlements hours from the
nearest vehicle track – Lahsah (400m) in upper Wadi Shah, Tafif (1000m) above
Wadi Kida'ah and Difan (725m) above Wadi Khabb. Lahsah has been permanently
occupied by expatriate labor, mostly from NW Pakistan, for several years and
extensive new fields are now being cleared. Supplies are carried in by hand and
more recently by donkey train from the roadhead about an hour away.
In Wadi Kida'ah, the "abandoned" village at the head of the road is
being refurbished and also serves as a staging post. The trail to Tafif is too
rough and steep for animals, so goods are carried by hand. These are packaged
and carried in large bundles to where the trail leaves the wadi; there they are
broken down into smaller loads for the steep ascent via rubble slopes and stone
At Difan, it was possible to see a stone house, very like the traditional
bayt al-qufl, actively under construction, and to see in particular how it is
possible to shape and manoeuvre large stones into position for the foundations
and the lower tiers of the walls. A limestone block about 75cm x 45cm x 45cm was
shaped at the margins with a small sledgehammer, by a single individual. To put
it into place atop an existing row of stones, it was rolled onto a ramp made of
three 4 x 4 beams. This was accomplished by three men aided by a meter-long
steel crowbar. Once the block was on the ramp, the three men rolled it up the
ramp while two other men raised the lower ends of the beams to lessen the
gradient. Smaller pieces of rock were then used as temporary wedges and safety
wedges to ease the block off the beams and onto the wall.
It was manoeuvred into its final position slowly and precisely, with the aid
of additional wedges and the crowbar. One must nevertheless marvel at the final
fit, which in this case matched an adjacent block whose face was somewhat off
the perpendicular. Had this been measured in advance? If so, it had been very
skillfully done. The 4 x 4 timbers will presumably become roof beams when the
walls are complete.
At the moment, cultivation at Difan appears to be primarily palms, but there
were also a field of barley (plus a modern version of a traditional grinding
hut, complete with a steel pivot shaft overhead) and a small patch of pumpkins.
Moreover, it was understood that the laborers had even managed to grow a small
quantity of rice, despite my own incredulity and despite their admission that it
needed a lot of water. Rice, they said, was a very important food. At least some
of the silt for the fields at Difan is collected locally by the arduous process
of sieving out gravel from Wadi Kharras, a rugged wadi that rises to some 650m
adjacent to Difan.
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Remembrance of Things Past: P.R.M. Aucher-Eloy
Report by Gary Feulner
In an era when we can drive about in the local mountains in air-conditioned
comfort, or at least drive right up to the start of the trail, it's easy to
forget the hardships faced by early scientific explorers of the mountains of the
UAE and northern Oman. The French plant collector Piere Remi Martin Aucher-Eloy
was one of these. He made the first botanical excursion to Oman in March and
April 1838, travelling on foot and by donkey in and over the Jebel Akhdar. His
collection of more than 200 specimens, many of them new to science, was
described by Edmond Boissier in his Flora Orientalis (1867-1888), which remains
a standard reference.
It wasn't easy. Of the precipitous ascent to the Saiq Plateau from Wadi
Mistal, Aucher-Eloy wrote (in translation): "We climbed the mountain for
two hours following an extremely steep path and set up camp near the village of
Oukend [Waken]. Palm trees had by then disappeared and temperate zone plants
appeared. I climbed as high as I could, but I could not reach the summit of the
mountain. I kept coming upon precipitous rocks which proved to be insurmountable
obstacles." In a professional botanical article on the genus Phagnalon in
Arabia, Qaiser and Lack (1985) digressed to describe Aucher-Eloy's most
ambitious expedition to the Jebel Akhdar in late March 1838, travelling with no
less than 12 donkeys to transport food and luggage and 16 people to accompany
him. Of the vegetation he saw, Aucher-Eloy wrote (again in translation): "I
discover on this trip many new plants. All is unknown to me from elsewhere;
scarcely do I recognize from time to time a plant from Egypt or the Sinai."
He reached Nizwa on March 30, but as Qaiser and Lack elaborate:
"'Montant et descendant au milieu d'horrible rochers steriles' (Aucher-Eloy
1838) he had exhausted himself and suffered from recurrent fever attacks; after
a few days of rest he continued his expedition to Matrak, where he arrived in a
bad state of health, having also torn his shoes and thus being forced to march
on the pointed bocks with bleeding bare feet. Reaching Maskat on April 11th 1838
after a stormy passage by boat another strong fever attack set in, which left
Aucher-Eloy almost consciousless. . . . Only a few months later Aucher-Eloy died
in Esfahan in Iran." He is remembered, however, in a very appropriate and
timeless fashion, by the scientific names of numerous plants (no fewer than nine
found in the UAE) which carry the specific name aucheri or aucheriana, in honor
of their discoverer.
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Early one morning this month I walked the dogs in the field between the creek
and the al Wasl football stadium. I often see one or two Red-wattled Plovers
there, and this morning they were very much in evidence, as they strafed the
dogs. They would fly very close to the dogs, crying their loud
"did-he-do-it" cry and then landing a few yards in front of them,
trying to tempt them to catch them. They had never done this before, so I
wondered if they had a nest. I tried to see whether they did their
"broken-wing" act, which would be a sure sign of nesting, but it was a
bit too far away to be sure. They kept at it until the dogs were out of
"their" field and onto the main track. The next few days I walked
elsewhere as I did not want to disturb them, but after a week there was no sign
of them. I e-mailed Mike Jennings to ask if these plovers were known to breed
here. Here is his answer:
The large plovers are very territorial when nesting and a distraction display
directed towards a dog is normally a good indication of breeding in the
vicinity. If they were giving the full wing dragging display then they were
almost certainly breeding, with small chicks or eggs. However it could be that
the flying birds included a recently fledged juvenile, which would probably
still encourage the distraction display response from the adults, even though
they may have been far from the nesting location. For there to have been a nest
at the site, there would need to be some water or marshy ground nearby.
Another question I asked Mike was about a bulbul distraction action that I
witnessed the same week. I had seen a bulbul nest and wanted to collect it after
the chicks had fledged. When I thought this was the case I very carefully put
one finger into the nest (I could not look into it) and up came a wide open
little mouth. The garden that had been peaceful with no birds in sight suddenly
erupted into loud noise, startling me so much that I immediately withdrew. At
least four or five bulbuls that I had not noticed until then were screaming from
nearby bushes and trees. I had only seen two birds visiting the nest in the
previous few weeks, but now I wondered if bulbul babies are cared for by other
family members in addition to their parents.
Mike wrote: Mobbing predators by birds is very often a cooperative venture,
where the usual intra- and inter-species rivalries are forgotten. You can often
see a cat and especially an owl being mobbed by a whole variety of birds
together. As the predator moves through a garden or hedgerow different birds
pick up on the commotion. The noisy warning follows the predator, warning all
the others of its location and encouraging it to leave. I think the same sort of
thing happens as nests are disturbed, one bird may start a frantic alarm call
and this is taken up by others especially of the same species. For many species
there are often non-breeding helpers at the nest but I am not sure whether
bulbuls do this.
You won’t be seeing my photo of the hoopoe baby being fed, for the exposed
film fell out of my pocket and is now lying somewhere on the Saiq plateau.
However, I now have a picture of the cutest bulbul baby being shown the ropes by
its parent in a tree in my garden. At least, I hope I don’t lose that film.
Thanks to Marijcke Jongbloed for this report.
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Report by Marijcke Jongbloed
On the weekend of May 24-25, 2001, Peter van Amsterdam led another trip into
Oman, this time to the Saiq plateau. This high altitude plateau is a restricted
area, for which special permits have to be organised. Since the recent opening
of a hotel on top of the mountain, this has become very easy, as the hotel will
get the permits for its guests.
The trip there and back was long – really a bit too long for just a two-day
trip. We met in Ibri, seven cars with seventeen people, and drove up to Nizwa
together, where we stopped to explore the fort. Then we traveled on to Birkat al
Mauz and up the Jebel Akhdar. The trip up the mountain was spectacular – at
least what could be seen through the clouds of swirling dust. The only wildlife
seen during the drive were Egyptian vultures in two or three separate locations.
Some minor troubles with cars – one stalled perhaps choked with dust, and
another had a flat tyre - did not take away from the enjoyment of the cool air
and marvelous views on top of the mountains. Some people started exploring right
away whilst others took it easy in preparation for the next day’s forays.
Early next morning, a few people explored the direct surroundings of the
hotel and found several species of plants and a nice array of gastropod fossils.
After breakfast Peter and Anne led us first to a spectacular viewpoint, called
Diana’s point, as the princess was helicoptered there several years ago, to
enjoy the view of a canyon and the terraced fields below the ancient villages on
the opposite side. Again, many fossils were found in the black
weathered-sandstone rocks. The thermals were being enjoyed by a pair of eagles.
Since there were no bird experts among us, we have no idea what species they
The next stop was at a wadi called Wadi Bani Habib (the wadi of the nice
people!) The steep scramble down the slope to the bottom of the wadi had been
facilitated by cemented steps. Even so it was a fair bit down, not to mention
back up later! The steps led down through terraced gardens full of ferns,
mosses, small wildflowers, large walnut trees and pomegranate bushes. Birds were
heard but not easily spotted. While the majority of the group went down wadi to
have a look at the old deserted village (the new village has been relocated at
the top of the wadi bank), others stayed in the gardens to look for plants.
Marijcke collected some 30 species of plants on the trip, most of them from the
The middle part of the day was spent driving to another, even higher plateau
which was covered with ancient olive trees and magnificent junipers. John Fox,
who had experience measuring the age of olive trees from a project in Crete,
estimated the age of some of the olive trees to be 300 to 500 years or even
older. The junipers were larger than Helena Reichert had ever seen, though she
knows them well from her native Greece. Some of the group had lunch underneath
the junipers and marveled at the clean air and the absence of flies.
The trip back was memorable for a severe sand-storm that made driving
difficult and dangerous as well as giving a few people respiratory problems. The
new Ibri hotel probably saw a lot of business that Friday afternoon, as we all
stopped for coffee or tea there. Marijcke can’t wait to get back to the Jebel
Akhdar next year in March when the spring flowers are out!
Plants collected at the Saiq plateau:
- Dodonea, probably viscosa (dominant plant)
- Solanum incanum
- Solanum nigrum
- Helianthemum salicifolium
- An unknown ground covering plant, possibly a Trianthemum sp.
- A composite, probably Euryops arabicus (Ghazanfar)
- Teucrium sp.
- Datura sp.
- Geranium mascatense
- Plantago sp.
- Ricinus sp.
- Composite possibly Bidens sp.
- Two Euphorbia sp.
- Dyerophytum indicum
- Juniperus excelsa (as per Ghazanfar)
- Olive (Ghazanfar: Olea europea)
- Flowering tree, unknown
- An unknown amaranthus
Recorded but not collected:
- Calotropis procera – only along the roads
- Ochradenus arabicus
- Incense grass
- Nerium oleander
- Abutilon pannosum
- Oxalis corniculata
- Lycium shawii
- Pergularia tomentosa
- Adiantum capillus-veneris
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