Newsletter February 2001

Newsletter February 2001


Inter Emirates Weekend program highlights Al Ain sites

The upcoming Inter Emirates Weekend (Thursday, April 19 and Friday, April 20) will be an opportunity for members of the Al Ain chapter of the Emirates Natural History Group to share some of the activities and sites we take for granted with our colleagues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This year we are also hoping to welcome some of our colleagues from Muscat.

Three years ago, when Al Ain last hosted the event, the focus of discussions was Jebel Hafit. Individuals lead special survey trips of the Al Ain landmark to study birds, plants, reptiles, mammals and archaeology. Some of the work undertaken that weekend contributed to the official report regarding Jebel Hafit, a copy of which is in our library. In addition to the survey work, Al Ain members also offered a variety of day trips.

The weekend began with a dinner and presentations at the Intercontinental Hotel on the Thursday evening followed by the field trips and Jebel Hafit survey work on Friday.

This year, the committee thought it appropriate to offer a traditional meal on the Thursday evening, in a desert setting, with the opportunity for all ENHG members, and our friends from Oman, to socialize in a relaxed setting. We hope to include some examples of traditional social activities including break making and coffee making, for example.

The program for Friday is intended to demonstrate the diversity of interests among ENHG members and share some of the sites in and around Al Ain with our guests. Individual ENHG members will lead trips to the Al Ain Oasis, the Hanging Gardens, Fossil Valley, arthropod collecting, Wadi Khutwah, Dhub Valley, Al Ain fallaj watchtowers, Al Ain Museum, Buraimi camel souq, Jebel Hafit tombs, and so on. The weekend concludes with an informal luncheon.

How can individual members participate?

The easiest method would be to join the Thursday and Friday program and meet other ENHG members from outside Al Ain.

Members could also volunteer to coordinate any of the activities during the weekend. If you are interested, please contact any member of the committee as soon as possible.

There may also be some demand for billeting of the guests. We would like to offer individuals coming from out of town the opportunity to stay with Al Ain members. If you have a bedroom or two to share, or can offer some other form of accommodation, please contact the committee so our visitors can be advised.

Do you have a favorite place to visit? If so, this is an opportunity to take our special guests to the site and share the experience. No, you do not need to be an expert on geology, archaeology, flora or fauna! Remember, most of the Natural History Group members are amateur naturalists, too. If you have a program idea, please contact a committee member.

At press time, the budget for the weekend is being finalized so any costs are still being calculated. The plan is to keep the weekend program costs to a minimum.

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Date spathe, symbol of date pollination season in Al Ain

Spathes on sale in Al Ain suq, 1/2/2001 (photo by P. Iddison)

by Phil Iddison

From late January to March each year the Al Ain suq has an unusual commodity, date palm pollen. The usual mode of sale is in the form of the whole flower spathe from the male palm. The local name is tal-la and the pollen is nabat. The male palms tend to flower ahead of the female palms, my earliest sighting of a male spathe was on 30/11/2000 but this was unusually early. The spathe is a greenish brown flattened sheath, 30 to 100 cm, long, narrowing at the ends and in some specimens with a substantial bulge in the middle. This protects the date palm flowers as they develop, just as the sepals on a flower protect the petals before they open. Both male and female palms bear these spathes, they appear from the bases of the palm leaves in the crown of the palm. Obviously the female flowers have to be left on the palm to develop. However as most of the date palms in Al Ain are female plants and wind-born pollination is erratic, to ensure a good crop artificial pollination is carried out. This is where the male flowers in the suq come into their own. People with only a few female palms on their land can obtain the pollen to ensure a good crop. The male flower pollen is not affected by being severed from the palm and is still viable. Inside the spathe dozens of spikelets are lined with small male flowers.

Traditionally to pollinate a spathe on a female palm, a piece of mature male spikelet is inserted into the female spathe as it splits open and by loosely binding the spathe so that it is not disturbed the flowers on the female spikelets are pollinated.

The sale of these male flowers is quite a ritual in the market. It usually entails much questioning and discussion, and the spathe is examined minutely. Often a strip of the covering has been peeled back to expose the spikelets. The spathe is than bound with a piece of date palm frond to prevent it opening further, as it would otherwise quickly deploy into a open brush of spikelets. The unpeeled spathe may be pressed with the thumb and finger whilst listening to the resultant sound, this seems to indicate whether it is ripe for pollination. The exposed flowers may be smelt, they have a sweet scent. The opened spathe can be tapped against the back of the hand to see if it is shedding pollen. However I have noticed that this operation has to be done with a high degree of finesse. Novice salesmen who have inverted the entire spathe and have then given it a solid tap on their hand have been rebuked by experienced buyers. The latter will then give the spathe the lightest tap with their finger and see if a puff of pollen appears. The pollen has to respond to the slightest movement to spread and do its work! This is a timeless ritual.

As the season progresses, vendors may have a box or bag of individual dried spikes from the male flower. These are still viable as a pollen source and may be kept until next year to pollinate any early bearing female palms. Again tapping the spikes releases a cloud of pollen.

The male flowers are sometimes eaten directly as a fresh vegetable, the pollen is considered to enhance fertility. I cannot report on this supposed effect but they do not have a great deal of flavour.

One extraordinary sight in the hot spring of 2000 was the appearance of a second flush of female flowers on a well established palm in the gardens of the Municipality building in Al Ain. This group of bursting spathes appeared about eight to ten weeks after the palm had produced its first crop of flowers. They did not appear to be pollinated and withered and died back.

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‘Super day’ of flora observations at Wadi Sabaitnah

Al Ain members had a "super day" touring Wadi Sabaitnah with Marijcke Jongbloed earlier this month. Ms. Jongbloed is the author of the checklist of UAE flora, copies of which are available to members at a modest cost. A total of 50 plant species were observed (some samples collected) during the Sabaithnah walk.

9-3-2001 Wadi Subaitha oasis and wadi

  1. Andrachne aspera
  2. Cocculus ?pendulus
  3. Cometes surattensis
  4. Dyerophytum indicum
  5. Ficus carica
  6. Grass?
  7. Launaea spinosus
  8. Lindenbergia indica
  9. Pluchea arabica
  10. Polygala erioptera
  11. Pseudolotus makranicus
  12. Pulicaria arabica
  13. Schweinfurthia papillionacea
  14. Sclerocephalus arabicus
  15. Silene sp.
  16. Trichodesma eretotrychum
  17. Unknown composite

Seen (recorded) but not collected:

  1. Acacia tortilis
  2. Adiantum capillus-veneris
  3. Aerva javanica
  4. Aizoon canareisne
  5. Anagallis arvensis
  6. Andropogon sp.
  7. Argyrolobeum roseum
  8. Blepharis ciliaris
  9. Blumea bovei
  10. Boerhavia elegans (not in the wadi)
  11. Calotropis procera
  12. Capparis spinosa
  13. Cenchrus pennisetiformis
  14. Centaureum pulchellum
  15. Chenopodium album
  16. Chloris gayana
  17. Chloris virgata
  18. Chrozophora oblongifolia
  19. Cleome rupicola
  20. Convolvulus arvensis
  21. Convolvulus virgatus
  22. Conyza bonariensis
  23. Corchorus trilocularis
  24. Crotalaria aegyptiaca
  25. Cucumis prophetarum
  26. Diplotaxis harra
  27. Dodonea viscosa
  28. Echinops spinosissimus
  29. Epipactis veratrifolia
  30. Euphorbia geniculata
  31. Euphorbia hirta
  32. Euphorbia indica
  33. Euphorbia larica
  34. Euphorbia peplus
  35. Fagonia bruguieri
  36. Farsetia linearis
  37. Ficus palmata
  38. Forsskahlea tenacissima
  39. Gnaphalium luteo-album
  40. Gypsophila bellidifolia
  41. Haplophyllum tuberculatum
  42. Heliotropium calcareum
  43. Hibiscus micranthus
  44. Iphiona scabra (not in the wadi)
  45. Jaubertia aucheri
  46. Kickxia hastata
  47. Lacandula subnuda
  48. Launaea massauensis
  49. Launaea procumbens
  50. Launaea sp.
  51. Melilotus albus
  52. Melilotus indicus
  53. Misopates orontium
  54. Ochradenus aucheri
  55. Oxalis corniculata
  56. Paronychia arabica
  57. Pennisetum setaceum
  58. Pergularia tomentosa
  59. Phyllanthus maderaspatensis
  60. Physorrhynchuis chamaerapistrym
  61. Plantago afra
  62. Plantago ciliata
  63. Portulaca olereaca
  64. Pseudogaillonia hymenostephana
  65. Pteropyrum scoparium
  66. Pulicaria glutinosa (not in the wadi)
  67. Reseda aucheri
  68. Rhynchosia minima
  69. Ricinus communis
  70. Rumex vesicarius
  71. Sacharum ?ravennae
  72. Salvia spinosus
  73. Senecio flavus
  74. Sida urens
  75. Sisymbrium erisymoides
  76. Solanum nigrum
  77. Sporobolus spicatus
  78. Tephrosia apollinea
  79. Teucrium stocksianum
  80. Torilis nodosa
  81. Viola cinerea
  82. Vitex agnus-castus
  83. Withania somnifera
  84. Zaleya pentandrus
  85. Zizyphus spina-christi

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Festival volunteers needed

by David Pratten

As you may know, the organisers of the Al Ain Festival (4 - 13 April) have offered us a booth in the Public Gardens, opposite the Khalifas Palace on the edge of the city centre. We intend using this opportunity to promote the ENHG to the general public by erecting displays of photos and giving talks and presentations representative of the activities of the group.

This is a great opportunity to introduce the general public to the activities of our group; to inform them of the very useful work our "amateur" botanists, photographers, archaeologists, bug hunters and others undertake; and to show them the varied flora and fauna our surrounding desert and mountains harbour.

If you will be able to give one or two hours of your time to help "mind" the booth in the company of a fellow member, one or more evenings during the festival, then please contact me by e-mail, phone (050-4910018), speak to me at the next meeting or simply add your name to the list at the bookstall. What could be easier!

Many thanks to all those who have already offered their help with the booth. Such an enthusiastic response is very encouraging and much appreciated.

The opening hours for the booth and other details are still to be finalised and more specific information about this event will be announced later by e-mail and at our fortnightly meetings.

However the Public Gardens festival hours will be as follows:

  • Wednesday 4th April - 4.00pm to 10.00pm
  • Thursday 5th April - 5.00pm to midnight
  • Friday 6th April - 5.00pm to 11.00pm
  • Saturday 7th to Wednesday 11th inclusive, - 4.00pm to 10.00pm
  • Thursday 12th as for 5th,
  • Friday 13th as for 6th.

We will be trying to open the booth on as many evenings and for as long as possible, during these hours.

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Discovering Al Ain’s falaj watchtowers in each oasis

by Phil Iddison

Several falaj watchtowers are still in existence in Al Ain. They are usually located close to the point where the falaj enters the oasis and on high ground. Falaj security was paramount and the towers enabled at least some of the route of the falaj to be watched at times of disturbance whilst still being in touch with the local community. There do not appear to have been towers all along the route of the falaj which could stretch for kilometres.

Examples can be found at Hili, Qatarra and Jimi. They are simple round or rectangular towers constructed of mud brick with some use of stone. The entrance was usually at second storey level in common with many other fortified towers in the Emirates. Access was by means of a rope thrown down the side of the tower and toeholds in the tower surface.

The Qatarra tower is on the south east corner of the oasis and is unrestored. It is not very high but the top may have eroded and anyway it has a commanding position. There are a number of restored and original mud brick dwellings along the east edge of Qatarra oasis, they are behind the shabiya housing south of Qatarra club.

The Jimi tower is also on the south east corner of the oasis and seems to have been restored some time ago. It now has a ground floor entrance but this is not original as the old entrance can still be seen above and to the left. This is a tall tower and is located near the Jimi fort which has also been restored.

There are two towers at Hili quite close to each other, tribal rivalry perhaps? They are on the north side of the oasis, the falaj originates to the north of Hili Fun City. One is square the other rectangular, each on its own mound with entrances at ground level facing the oasis. Both have been restored quite recently and the rectangular is occupied by a watchman. They are clearly visible from the east-west dual carriageway which bisects Hili district.

(Editor’s note: on the group’s website, there are several photos of watchtowers around Al Ain including: Qatarra tower, unrestored and in its context; Qatarra tower, from the (originally!) open country side; Jimi tower and fort in the distance; Jimi tower, original entrance, toeholds and tower top; Hili towers; Hili, detail of the rectangular tower parapet; Hili, detail of the round tower; and Hili, entrance facade of the rectangular tower.)

Watchtower at the Hili Oasis, entrance facade of the rectangular tower

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Desert landscape photography tips from an expert

by Nigel Ingram

(Editor’s note: the following article is reprinted by request from an earlier issue of the Newsletter and is based on a presentation by Mr. Ingram.)

(I am indebted to Chris Wray's Desert Photography Primer on

  • Advantages of SLR (single-lens reflex camera)
  • Interchangeable lenses and filters
  • WYSIWYG (What you see is what you get)
  • Equipment
  • KISS (Keep it simple, silly): body, lenses (wide & telezoom; possibly a macro)
  • Tripod - not always necessary unless you're serious about macro / low light photos.

Film: slides have better colour, contrast and sharpness than print film, but less convenience (Fuji Velvia / Kodak Elite Chrome especially good colour saturation slide films)

Try b.&w. (esp. with yellow / orange / red filters + tripod, to darken sky, vegetation)

Filters (polariser to darken blue sky, UV Haze or Skylight is a must to protect lens, reduce glare); grey graduated to accentuate dark clouds, reduce glare

Remember film speed setting (automatically set on most new cameras) can be set to lower ASA / ISO to darken picture - see your manual and tell studio that you've changed it.

Print film: slow (ISO 25 or 50) good for detail, colour; fast 200, 400 etc. good for telephoto zoom (birds etc.), low light, action (e.g. camel race)


Most modern cameras meter for average, middle grey. ISO number on film: the lower the number, the more exposure to light. Avoid contrasts in same scene (both sky and shadows) or bracket ( + / -) - see your manual. Keep to film you know works well for you.


Use "AE lock" on your SLR (see manual). Meter off a good middle grey area and hold that meter reading by "locking" it. Isolate an area to exclude very bright or dark areas. The hardest challenge is combining sun and shade (NB most desert shadows are lighter than urban ones). "The desert offers one of the greatest extremes in photography", with constant changes of light. Bracket slightly with slides. Approach / "vision"

Most people walk no more than five or six paces from their car to shoot a picture.

Vary your position: move around; notice where the sun is; come back at different times / different weather; bring a blanket and lie down; try vertical format as well as horizontal; get there early, fully equipped (check batteries, enough film).


  • Light
  • Colour
  • Shape
  • Form

"…Visualisation…this is the total conscious process of 'seeing' the final image in the mind before actually taking the first steps to photograph a scene" -

"…I photograph the light, not the landscape." - Les McLean, photographer

Useful sources of information / inspiration:

  • Practical Photography (monthly magazine)
  • www.photoforum.html
  • www.emirates.on.line
  • Books on / by Ansel Adams and other landscape photography masters


Tel. O3 5056276 Fax 03 820766 (work)

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Breakins of vehicles at wadis still an issue for visitors

There continue to be reports of breakins of vehicles parked at some of the popular wadis near Al Ain.

The latest incident occurred at Wadi Sabaitnah several weeks ago. Omani police investigated, including taking fingerprint impressions, though it is unlikely the individuals responsible will be apprehended without witnesses.

Members are advised not to keep valuables inside vehicles when visiting such sites. In addition, it is important that your insurance policy include comprehensive coverage and coverage for Oman. Any incident should be reported to the police as soon as possible (the nearest police station for most is near the roundabout which leads to Mahdah [Fossil Valley, Hanging Gardens] from Mahdah, just past the Buraimi Hotel).

Other actions which might be taken include assigning members of the group you are with to remain within eyesight of the vehicles (take turns watching the vehicles) or hire an individual to keep watch. The Al Ain chapter of the ENHG is considering a meeting with local officials to discuss the situation and what might be done.

In the meantime, please be vigilent.

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Web Sites for ENHG types

  • NARC’s home
  • Organized and attractive
  • Your own ‘Window on the Sky’
  • Hubble Space Telescope
  • Links to sites in the UAE
  • Information about Islam
  • Exhaustive links
  • Fujairah petroglyphs
  • Links to the world’s Arab countries.

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

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