Newsletter October 2000 No. 196

Newsletter October 2000 No. 196


In search of nesting Sea Turtles in Oman

by Ellen McFarland

From July to December, endangered green sea turtles come to the beaches at Ras al Jinz and Ras al Hadd, on the eastern-most shore of Oman near Sur. August 23-25, nine ENHG members traveled via Nizwa and Sur to the turtle nesting and conservation reserve at Ras al Jinz in hopes of seeing both nesting turtles and emerging hatchlings from previous egg lays.

Day 1

Our group left Al Ain mid-afternoon, traveled through Ibri and Bahla, and stayed overnight at the Falaj al Daris Hotel in Nizwa. Total travel time, including the usual Mezyat border stop, about 2.5 hours.


After breakfast, we visited the Nizwa souk. In the morning, the livestock souk is humming with Omanis trading the sheep, goats, cows and fodder. Coppersmiths hammer out bowls and washing dippers in open sheds located in back of the livestock souk. Other sights include the spice souk, vegetable souk, a nicely renovated handicraft souk offering Omani silver, khanjars, coffeepots and other local items. The Nizwa fort is adjacent to the souk. We left Nizwa by 10:30 and headed out for Izki, Sanaw, Ibra and finally Sur. Travel time was about 5.5 hours including a lunch stop. Outside of Sur, we headed out on a wide, unpaved but well graded road to Ras al Hadd, our intended destination. Debbie Handley had arranged in advance with Omani authorities for our camping permits which we understood would be waiting for us a the beach with the Omani rangers at the reserve. However, Ras al Hadd lacked a ranger station and we were unable to find anyone there to affirm our permits. Additionally, we didn’t see a campground there, so we decided to go a bit further on to Ras al Jinz. There we found an established ranger station staffed to receive visitors to the reserve. We each paid OR3 (Dh30) for our permits to camp next to the beach and be escorted onto the beach at night by the rangers.

The campground at Ras al Jinz is equipped with a number of open sided shelters with picnic tables. There is also an indoor bathroom with flush toilets and handwashing sinks. The evening we were there, all shelters had been taken by earlier arrivals, including a groupof some 70 school children and their teachers, so we made our own campsite in an open area just back from the path to the beach. The weather was cool(!) and windy.

At 9:30 pm, when it was fully dark, rangers came to our campsite to conduct us to the beach. We were allowed to use a fed flashlights shared among our group to see our way along the uneven path and beach. The ranger leading our group led us to the beach, then had us wait. He left us to scout out the beach in order to spot the turtles which, by this time, had already come up onto the beach and were in various stages of nesting: scooping out body pits with egg chambers in the sand with their large flippers, laying clutches of eggs, covering the eggs with sand, and just resting before dragging their considerable bulk back to the water.

Green turtles weigh 136-158kg and have a carapace about one meter long. When the ranger returned, he led us from one nesting hole to another, each occupied with a turtle in some stage of nesting. From time to time, we were told to turn off our flashlights. The nesting cavities were so numerous and large — over a meter deep and at least 1.5 meters wide — and the narrow paths between them so churned up that getting around without light was very difficult.

One question in our minds was what effect our presence on the beach had on the nesting process. Our source material warned that the turtles are easily disturbed by human presence and by lights and may abort the laying stage if sufficiently disturbed.

During the next hour, we observed at least a dozen turtles, including one in the process of laying her eggs.

Day 3

At dawn, we were allowed on the beach unescorted. This was our first chance to see the beach in its churned-up and cratered entirety. We could easily see the distinctive tread tracks of turtles from the night before. In one case, the tracks led quite a way from the water to well into the beach scrub, made a clear U-turn, then led back to the nest that was eventually dug. The nests are made above the high water mark in order to prevent the babies from dying of suffocation, so the large holes, at least 1.5m in diameter, likely remain there for some time. We wondered about this, as the beach was completely covered with pits and well-churned sand, creating a very difficult terrain for both adults and hatchlings to cross in getting to the surf’s edge.

The hatchlings face many predators: birds circle overhead in search of a meal, sharks and other predators wait for them in the offshore waters. The unhatched eggs are a target of foxes and humans. I spotted an Arabian fox the previous night in the middle of the campground and saw numerous dog-like tracks around the nesting sites in the morning, in addition to a number of empty eggshells on the sand. Hatchlings leave their eggshells behind them in the underground egg chamber, so these surface egg shells were possible evidence of predator activity.

Seeing the turtles up close, and understanding the hazards of nesting and hatching, was a marvelous experience. This kind of personal experience can shift species conservation from an ethical abstraction to a very memorable and concrete activity.

Debbie plans to organize another trip to Ras al Jinz in November. I highly recommend this excursion especially for families with school-age children. To prepare, search some of the excellent web sites, such as, which have pictures and information about sea turtles and their threatened status.

Beach at Ras al Jinz churned after a night’s activity.

Some facts about green sea turtles

Green turtles nest on over 275 beaches in Oman, from the Musandam to the Yemen border. Nesting season varies with the location. For Ras al Jinz, peak activity is between July and December.

Around 20,000 female green turtles lay an estimated 50,000 clutches per year in Oman, with about 100-150 eggs per clutch, resulting in over six million eggs. Of this six million, only a small fraction will actually survive past the first year.

Females take from 20 to 50 years to mature. They mate in the shallow water just offshore the nesting beach.

They may lay until they are over 70. Since each turtle typically lays three clutches of 100-150 eggs per laying season and mates every two to three years during her life, she may produce as many as 11,250 eggs in her lifetime.

The ping-pong sized eggs take about 55 days to hatch. The entire nest hatches at the same time. Hatchlings work their way up through as much as a meter of sand to the surface, where they frantically flail their way to the sea.

Sex of each egg is determined by the temperature at which the egg incubates. Female turtles come from eggs incubated at warmer temperatures (30-34’C) and males from cooler incubation temperatures (26-28’C). Temperatures in between produce mixed sex nests with females from the warmer top of the egg chamber and males from the cooler lower level.

References and further reading

  • Foxall, I., How not to go turtle hunting. (ENHG Bulletin archives)
  • Gardner, A., Time Travellers, Oman Today, pp 73-73, 77-78.

Female turtle returning to the sea at Ras al Jinz, Oman

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Spiny-tail Lizards suffering from lack of rain

(Peter Cunningham has monitored twenty Spiny-tail Lizard individuals since May 1999 in the Al Ain area as part of his requirements for a Ph.D. study on the conservation ecology of the species that he is currently busy with. Since the start of the study no rain has fallen in the study area. This, coupled with a large number of camels in the area, has resulted in the visible decline of the desert vegetation.)

The coarse desert grass, Pennisetum divisum, which is a favored plant utilized by the Spiny-tail’s, have been particularly badly affected. Between May 1999 and June 2000 11 individuals had succumbed indicating a 55% mortality rate over a 1-year period. In another study area where Moltkiopsis ciliata, of the Borage family, is the dominant plant, the Spiny-tail’s are faring much better with no fatalities since January 2000. Moltkiopsis ciliata is closely cropped through active browsing by Spiny-tail’s making it unavailable to camels. The Moltkiopsis area is a favoured habitat with a high density (±10 individuals per hectare) of Spiny-tail’s in the area.

Very little work has been done on the diet of Spiny-tail Lizards throughout their range. During my current research, ten perennial plant species from 8 different families have been identified as being included in their diet. These include species from the Milkweed, Pea and Gourd family, to name but a few. Interestingly the Desert Squash, Citrullus colocynthis, is also eaten. It is expected that many more plant species, especially annuals, would be consumed once (if) the rains arrive.

Another interesting aspect is that the majority of burrows face in a southerly and easterly direction. During summer this makes sense as burrows facing in a northerly and westerly direction would be warmer and receive more windblown sand, as the prevailing wind is northwest during summer.

It has also been determined that the burrow temperatures are on average 6°C cooler than the ambient temperature 30cm below ground. This is significant when ambient temperatures are regularly in the mid-to-high 40°C during summer with soil temperatures above 60°C.

(The author would welcome any other interesting data concerning Spiny-tail Lizards as observed by members. If any Spiny-tail Lizard road-kills are encountered please collect, freeze and inform Peter whereupon he will come and collect it.)

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Field Trips: Camels, castles and lunch in the oasis at Wadi Aboul

by Laurence Garey

Where to go, that was the question. Friday, October 6 threatened to pose the heart-rending decision of which trip to go on: the Hanging Gardens, Buraimi and beyond, or even an archeology outing. The last was cancelled, and as Josette and I had had a late night at the Irish evening at the Hilton the day before, we chose the "easy" option of Buraimi with Debbie. It sounded short and sweet from the invitation (9.30 start at the old Choitrams), but to newcomers like us this might as well have been "13th Street, Al Ain". In any case, we got to the wrong Choitrams and missed the start but caught up at Buraimi fort, which was luckily closed, so a group of white faces (some familiar ones!) in the car park betrayed the presence of the group we were looking for.

So, after a brief visit to the old souk at Buraimi (where much discussion revolved around Donald's revelation that frankincense was an aphrodisiac, with the inevitable question of how and where it was applied), on to the camel market. What a revelation to the newcomers! The sights, the smells and those superb beasts. Lots of oohs and aahs (especially from the children) and "how sads" when we considered the fate of these charmers with the long eyelashes. The sight of them departing four-by-four in a 4x4, all carefully parcelled up, but looking so serene! And those who just did not want to be there. Mind those hooves.

Then Debbie took us (three 4x4s and a couple of "ordinary" cars) via some spectacular scenery (including a short stop at fossil valley - no collecting please) to the village of Mahda, with its system of falaj irrigation, used by the villagers for their pre-midday prayer ablutions (discretion please). Then on to off-road type roads heading towards Aboul (prompting the remark by one of our group, who shall be nameless, "Look at that funny roadsign - "About 11km". Don't they know exactly how far it is?" or something like that. As the road got worse and worse and the scenery better and better, we cast off the toy cars, rescued their terrified passengers into our real vehicles, and set off undaunted into the wilderness. Through the wet wadi bottom, to lunch under the trees (thank you Debbie for the date rolls and the cantaloupe - you think of everything). A quick survey of the fauna and flora (toads and tadpoles, even partridges, a mango tree?; we wondered where the reptiles that ate the toads might be). Then a brisk walk to the fort, a scramble to the roof for some of us ("how do those cracked beams, hundreds of years old, stand the weight of those foolhardy people upstairs?"). We admired the centuries old wall inscriptions, and fumed at their desecration by modern graffiti. Then back via the Sohar road to the UAE, and the Hare and Hounds.

Thanks Debbie, we shall come again.

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Record turnout for Wadi Tarabat

Perhaps it was the billing as “Al Ain’s best kept secret.” Perhaps it was the fact that Geoff Sanderson was leading the trip. Perhaps it was a byproduct of Marijcke Jongbloed’s inspiration talk the previous Tuesday evening, and the launch of the floral Special Interest Group. Perhaps it was one of the first outings of the season and our members were anxious to get out into the field.

Whatever the reason, the September 29th trip to ‘the Hidden Valley’ on the eastern slopes of Jebel Hafit was a record for an Al Ain ENHG field trip with 22 vehicles and approximately 60 members. And one dog!

After a brief stop at a quarry near the base of Jebel Hafit, the convoy moved to the entrance to the valley where Geoff gave an explanation of the plant life in the wadi, notably the varieties of natural vegetation to avoid.

The group was not collecting specimens but was recording flora by noting the plants which were present as well as taking photographs of specimens. The botanist and director of the herbarium at the University of the United Arab Emirates joined the walk and did collect a few specimens.

The floral group, the newest and seventh of the Special Interest Groups of the Al Ain chapter, will be represented on most, if not all, field trips in the future to continue the work of recording the plants, trees and other flora of the district.

In a related development, Ms. Jongbloed has asked the Al Ain group to consider joining other chapters of the ENHG in supporting the publication of a checklist of the flora of the UAE. The committee has asked for more details before deciding.

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Food & mountain hiking SIGs

Food! The variety of food available in Al Ain is remarkable considering most of it arrives by plane and ship from overseas and by truck from around the UAE and Oman. The Al Ain chapter is fortunate to have the expertise and enthusiasm of Phil Iddison who recently returned from the UK where he presented his latest paper on food and the food culture of the Gulf.

The Food Special Interest Group (SIG) is intended to share interest and enthusiasm in cuisine and ingredients. Phil offers a guided tour of the downtown souq sharing his expertise of the plants, fruits and fish available daily. Contact Phil to arrange a Friday morning to join him there. Phil also plans to organize field trips to locations here in Al Ain to view sheep farming and date processing.

Howard Trillo is the volunteer coordinator of the mountain hiking SIG. This group is for individuals who enjoy a casual hike around one of the mountains near Al Ain. In addition, the climbing group coordinates the annual Triple Crescent challenge. The Triple Crescent involves the climbing of three of the district’s tallest mountains, including Jebel Hafit.

The mountain hiking group begins the new season at Jebel Qatarrah this month. The plan calls for the ascent to follow the “tourist” route up the mountain, a moderate climb. This is not a Triple Crescent event. Those interested should meet at the Intercontinental lower parking lot at 7:30 am for a 7:45 departure, The group will meet Howard at the Mahdah roundabout near the Buraimi Hotel at 8 am.

If you would like more information about these groups, please contact the coordinator. If you are able to assist, please contact Phil or Howard.

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Birdwatching remains most popular activity for members

“Some 410 bird species have been reliably observed in the United Arab Emirates over the course of the last 25 years,” Simon Aspinall and Colin Richardson begin in their ‘Shell Birdwatching Guide to the United Arab Emirates, “although only just over 100, including several naturalized exotics, breed annually. The balance of 300, it stands to reason, must compromise passage migrants or winter visitors — many of these not easily seen elsewhere in the world, and certainly not together in the same place in the UAE.

“Two biogeographical regions meet in the UAE, which, coupled with the fact that the country straddles a major migratory flyway from Eurasia to Africa, makes for some rewarding birdwatching.”

The UAE, from some accounts, is one of the few countries of the world where the number of bird species which can be observed is actually increasing each year. Take all this into consideration and it should not come as much of a surprise that birdwatching is the largest single activity identified by our members on the annual membership application forms completed each year.

For more than a year, our group in Al Ain has not had any volunteer come forward to assist in the coordinating of birdwatching activities. As a result, we have been able to offer few related field trips though the birders among us join other regularly scheduled events.

Our members are kept up-to-date about news of birds in the UAE courtesy of the Twitchers’ Guide, a weekly report of birds produced by Aspinall and Peter Hellyer, with reports from naturalists and birdwatchers throughout the UAE and Oman, among them Peter Cunningham, Al Ain’s Recording Officer.

The Al Ain chapter is prepared to support the Birdwatching Special Interest Group with whatever assistance is appropriate. For example, the Committee has agreed to purchase bird telescopes to aid in the identification of migrant and resident birds alike.

There are several birdwatching locations in and around Al Ain, as outlined (complete with maps) in the Shell Guide. In addition, Aspinall and birdwatchers from Abu Dhabi invite our members to join them for regular Friday morning trips to the lake at Al Wathba (adjoining the Truck Road between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi). Contact Aspinall at 050-642-4357 for details.

There are numerous bird-watching locations throughout the Emirates including the mangrove swamps of Abu Dhabi, Umm al Qaiwain and Fujairah. The Shell Guide (copies of which are available at Al Ain meetings) list more than 50 sites including “coast and islands, mountains and wadis, Acacia savannah and Ghaf groves, sand and gravel desert, and mangroves and khors.”

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