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Gazelle January 2002



Getting Their Goat

Report by Gary Feulner

DNHG field trips are notorious for the unexpected. Early January's hike to the abandoned terraced settlements at Sal Dhayah in the Musandam north of Ras Al-Khaimah followed this rule. The five participants earned their 15 minutes of fame by carrying out a mountain rescue of a different kind. As told by Gulf News, they rescued a young feral goat trapped in a deep, dry cistern on an uninhabited plateau. Barbara Couldrey first spotted the unfortunate kid, an adolescent with white "spats" on its front ankles, trapped in the spacious but 12-foot deep, stone-lined cistern.

The young goat was apparently uninjured, but subdued. Its fate was certain – death from starvation or dehydration. The bleached bones of another goat already lay in the bottom of the cistern. What was to be done? Geoff Cosson succinctly told the newspaper, "The walls of the cistern were smooth and it was impossible for any of us to climb down to rescue the animal. If we had got down, we could not have come out." While the would-be rescuers pondered the problem, they threw fruit from their lunches into the pit, which the goat quickly consumed. There were trees in the vicinity but no large branches available to serve as a ladder. Mounting an expedition to return the next day, a Saturday, would be difficult. The volume of stones required to build a ramp up out of the deep cistern was daunting, but Mike Lorrigan was prepared to try.

It was evident that all were concerned – they could not just "turn the page." Conflicted but determined to preserve the value of the field trip, trip leader Gary Feulner volunteered to return downhill to the cars for his tow ropes, but only on condition that the group should not worry and should otherwise continue their tour of Sal Dhayah. He pointed out a few things to look for and then departed downhill, leaving Barbara Couldrey to lead the group across one of the largest high terraces in the Ru'us al-Jibal and show off the beautiful views over Khor Hulaylah from the vantage point of a snow white stone waterfall.

Three hours later Gary was back, down and up, tired but triumphant. Barbara, a prize-winning sailor, tied a bowline in the long tow rope for a harness and the group debated and practiced various techniques in a shallow cistern. It wasn't as easy as it looks in the movies. Finally Mike threw caution to the winds and stepped into the breach, literally, "walking" down the wall without incident as the others held the rope. The goat was frisky, but its efforts to escape were halfhearted and Mike "bagged" it, again literally, in one of those sturdy plastic bags normally used for cases of a popular fermented malt beverage. Once in the bag, the young goat was calm and the bundle was raised by the second tow rope.

At that point the attention of the ladies shifted to the goat, which received a bowl of water (the metal bowl found conveniently in the cistern) from real-life veterinarian Dr. Renata Majka. Her professional instincts aroused, Renata was torn away only with difficulty to assist in the task of raising Mike back to the surface. Suffice it to say that "up" was harder than "down," but it was accomplished with no more than a moment's inelegance at the very lip.

With everyone safe and sound, thoughts turned to photography. Several cameras closed in while the goat, still swaddled in its plastic bag, enjoyed a second bowl of water. Little 'Spats' however took one look at all the lenses aimed his way and bolted from the bag to a safe distance. He soon regained his agility and began to browse on the still-parched vegetation, but, although never coming within feeding reach, he followed the departing group for almost a kilometer, sometimes at a trot, until they had left the plateau and descended via a barren gulley, waving a sad and silent goodbye.

Will he make it? There are foxes in the area, but Spats is no longer a baby, so his chances are probably relatively good. As to food and water, there is no surface water at the moment in the Sal Dhayah area, but goats do not need to drink regularly. Spats must have been in reasonable physical condition when he fell into the cistern, which suggests that there is enough vegetation available to serve as food, at least for one small goat.

More sadly, nearby was found a recently dead goat hanging near the center of a small Acacia tree, its neck having become wedged in a small fork among the branches, head and horns on the other side. Probably, it had been feeding in the tree when it slipped and fell. We hoped it wasn't little Spats' mother, having hung herself in despair – never knowing what miraculous intervention was to come.

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Rat-Tailed Maggots

Report by Gary Feulner

In late November I was hiking in a wadi behind Hatta village, mostly trying to ascertain whether the largest of the native fish species was managing to survive the drought. I found it in only one permanent pool. However, I also encountered and explored an upper tributary of the wadi that was new to me. Seeing mating dragonflies on a gravel terrace alerted me to look for water, and I found the tributary had benefited somewhat from a recent shower.

A few times I lifted up 'tumbleweed' (blown in brush, mostly the dried tops of what seemed to be Crotalaria aegyptiaca and possibly Salvia macilenta) in small, shallow, pothole puddles in the bedrock. Twice this procedure revealed so-called "rat-tailed maggots" – the larvae of certain hoverflies -- in the water underneath. These look like inch-long yellow-pink worms with a hair-like tail. I found 2 in one pool and 5+ in another. Two were actually clinging to the tumbleweed, and a third may have been clinging loosely until I disturbed it. I even raised one out of the water attached to its shrub, hanging by its tail. Although I had seen rat-tailed maggots before, I hadn't realized these tails were flexible, much less prehensile. They are often directed upwards and I had supposed they served a breathing function.

It is the strategy of these organisms to breed in shallow, ephemeral pools, with the larva pupating in the mud and the adult fly emerging when the pool dries out. I observed only a single adult hoverfly in the area, or what I thought was a hoverfly. I duly reported all this to Dr. Brigitte Howarth of Al-Ain, who has a special interest in hoverflies, and from my description she seemed to think the adult fly was in fact a wasp.

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Non-Flowering Plants

Report by Gary Feulner

Former Gazelle editor Neil Curtis is now engaged in conservation studies and public relations projects in Canada, but couldn't resist writing to highlight another interesting Arabian resident. Neil's current interest in plant taxonomy, he says, has led him back to "our old friends" Ephedra foliata and E. intermedia. Both are leafless plants found in the UAE. E. foliata is a straggling climber found in mountain wadis and also in sand deserts between Dubai and Al-Ain, where it can be found climbing in ghaf trees. E. intermedia is a low shrub found only in higher mountains.

The two Ephedra species are the only gymnosperms (non-flowering seed plants) native to the UAE, and, with the coniferous Juniper tree of the Jebel Akhdar, the only gymnosperms native to Eastern Arabia. Most gymnosperms are conifers but the genus Ephedra belongs to a sub-group called Gnetophytes. Neil writes to point out that Ephedra feature "double fertilization," which, he says, "is interesting if you're into plant evolution: 'The occurrence of double fertilization in Ephedra assumes added significance in light of its critical phylogenetic position as a basal member of the most closely related extant group of seed plants (Gnetales) to angiosperms [flowering plants].' (Friedman 1990). Sounds like our friends are some of the closest living relatives of the whole flowering plant group. Interesting!"

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More on Ginger

No one has offered any more information about the Acacia/ghaf-like "ginger" tree reported in the November Gazelle, but the tree in question has since been identified from samples by Prof. Loutfy Boulos, via Marijcke Jongbloed, as Sesbania sericea. Sesbania spp. Are occasionally used as ornamentals in Dubai (especially the shrubby S. aegyptiaca), and Philip Iddison pointed out a single Sesbania sesbana during his tour of the Al-Ain oasis during Inter-Emirates weekend in March. Marijcke adds: "I have a sesbania in my garden that people eat the leaves and flowers and beans of, but no one told me it tastes like ginger - but then I never asked what it tastes like! I may send Loutfy a sample to find out what it is (I tentatively identified it as Sesbania grandiflora from an Indonesian flora I have). In the meantime Gary Feulner, who first noticed the local "ginger" tree, has since been introduced to the real ginger plant -- a low, leafy species – in cultivations and along roadsides on the flanks of the Ecuadorian Andes, bordering the Amazon basin.

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Local Archeology Activities

Report by Gary Feulner

December and January have been busy months for locally-based archeology. The survey of Musandam terraced settlements led by Prof. Derek Kennet, under the patronage of Sheikh Sultan bin Saqr al-Qasimi, visited more than 30 areas in December and returned with several crates of potshards (plus one Chinese ceramic soupspoon).

The survey effort was also the occasion for RAK resident archeologist Christian Velde to catalog, digitalize, enhance and inspect existing aerial photos of the mountain areas. Christian may be the perfect professional for this enterprise, since during a review of land-based photos he demonstrated an uncanny sense of orientation, seeming always to know where the photos were taken and from what direction.

An incidental result of both the field studies and the inspection of aerial photos was the discovery of at least 8 new Hafit tombs (c. 5000 years old) in the high Musandam. Most of these today resemble only large piles of stones but a couple show well preserved corbelled chambers and vestiges of vertical exterior walls.

Emergency archeological surveys were also conducted in Fujeirah (by representatives from ADIAS) and Ras Al-Khaimah (by representatives from the National Museum of Ras al-Khaimah) along the route of the new pipeline from Fujeirah to Al-Ain. We look forward to hearing the results of all of these investigations.

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Rams Beach Argonauta Hians

Report by Patricia Rosetti

At Rams on the second day of Eid (Monday, 17 December 2001), we found 5 paper nautilus - Argonauta hians ­ just below the high tide mark.

  • 2 x 7 cm ­ slightly damaged
  • 1 x 6.5 cm ­ one side badly broken
  • 1 x 5.5 cm ­ in perfect condition
  • 1 x 5 cm ­ in perfect condition

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Herpetological Conference in Sri Lanka

Report by Peter Cunningham

The 4th World Congress of Herpetology was held from 2-9 December 2001 in Bentota, a scenic coastal resort town south of Colombo, in Sri Lanka. Just over 300 delegates attended the conference which is held every four years. Canterbury, Melbourne and Prague were the previous venues.

The scientific programme included topics such as behavioral and morphological asymmetries, ecology, evolution, habitat fragmentation and conservation, medical and veterinary issues, phylogeny, predator-prey interactions, reproduction, social aggregation, snake bites and feeding behaviour as well as tortoise and turtle matters. An in-conference tour was conducted to a local turtle hatchery and a boat cruise to see the local monitor lizards dozing in the mangrove swamps. These can reach up to 2m in length.

I attended the conference as a relative novice compared to the "who’s who" in herpetology, and presented a paper on the feeding ecology of the Spiny-tail Lizard (Uromastyx aegyptius microlepis or "Dhub") from the UAE. Spiny-tail Lizards are large ground dwelling herbivorous (plant eating) lizards found on gravel terrain and inter-dune compact soils throughout the UAE, although nowhere common. Judging from my study population, in the Al Ain area, plants favoured include the coarse desert grasses (Pennisetum divisum and Stipagrostis plumosa) as well as the evergreen herbs, Moltkiopsis ciliata and Monsonia nivea. Perennial plant species form the basis of their diet in the UAE while most other Spiny-tail Lizard studies indicate their preference for annual plant species. This can, however, be ascribed to the lack of rain in the study area since initiating this study in May 1999. The lizards are also almost exclusively herbivorous with arthropods making up less than 1% of their diet compared to 6% for Uromastyx acanthinura (another Spiny-tail Lizard species from Morocco).

Post congress tours to a number of nature reserves were also on offer and I chose Yala and Bundala National Parks, the latter a Ramsar Wetland, located in the "dry" (rainfall only 700mm p.a.) southeastern part of the country. These parks are rich in birds, most unfamiliar to me, such as the Indian Pitta, Open-bill and Painted Storks, Purple Coot, Great Stone Plover and Pheasant-tailed Jacana, to name a few. Elephant, Buffalo, Chital (Spotted Dear), Samba Deer and even the elusive leopard were evident. Interestingly, the first park warden of Bundala National Park was a South African who was interned in the vicinity as a prisoner-of-war during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899-1902.

With 176 reptile species and 59 amphibian species (the highest species density in South Asia – 55% are endemic), Sri Lanka is a must for reptile enthusiasts. It is with sincere appreciation that I thank the ENHG, Al Ain Chapter, for partially funding my Spiny-tail Lizard studies and making my attendance to the conference possible.

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Forts of Oman

Thanks to Geoff Cosson

It is often stated that the restored forts in Oman can only be visited with prior permission. This information was repeated recently in a Gulf News article. This is fortunately no longer true.

I spent a happy few hours in the huge keep at Nizwa & the extraordinary palace/fort at Jabrin at Eid in December.

Visitors are welcome, entrance is only 5 Dhs. (UAE currency accepted), and there is a glossy leaflet giving descriptions of 22 sites, with opening times. The major ones are open seven days a week, from 9.00 till 4.00 (till 11 on Fridays). Smaller forts are open five days.

Bahla is closed, still undergoing renovation.

There is a website, (, and a UAE telephone number, (04) 3971000.

These buildings, beautifully restored, should not be missed.

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Khor Kalba Kingfishers

(Excerpted from Abu Dhabi NHG Nr 13 Bulletin)

The White-collared Kingfisher Halcyon chloris abyssinica was first reported from Arabia in 1973, based on a specimen collected at Khor Kalba in 1962. In 1971 Graham Cowles of the British Museum, Natural History, Tring, Herts., collected two specimens of a similar kingfisher in the mangrove swamps in the same locality. Subsequent analysis attributes these to a subspecies Halcyon chloris kalbanesis.

It is similar to H.c.abyssinica but differs in having a well-defined white superciliary stripe extending from the sides of the forehead to above and past the eye.

Above the ear coverts the while superciliary is suffused with blue-tipped feathers giving a streaked area of light blue-green and white. The bill is smaller than in abyssinica. The upper tail coverts and rump are more blue-green.

The subspecies is apparently confined to the coastal mangrove swamps at Khor Kalba. The nearest population of H.chloris is the race abyssinica, about 1900 km across Arabia to the southwest, on the eastern coast of the Red Sea and H.c.vidali across the Arabian Sea in the opposite direction, about 2000 km to the southeast, in India.

There are about 49 subspecies of the wide spread White-collared kingfisher, ranging from the Red Sea coast to Samoa. H.c.kalbaensis shows more resemblance to H.c.abyssinica than to any of the other subspecies from the eastern part of the H.chloris range.

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Thanks to Marijcke Jongbloed

There has been rain here and there and hopefully this will bring forth some of the spring flowers, which have been conspicuously absent over the last few dry years.

Since there is no plant guide of the region available at the moment (one is in preparation!) those of you who like to know what they are seeing can identify plants in various ways:

  1. The easy way: Taking pictures, including close-ups of flowers and fruits and other salient points of the plants and showing those to other DNHG members who have studied the local wild flora (Valerie Chalmers, Gary Feulner, Dr. Reza Khan, Marijcke Jongbloed – to name a few)
  2. The way to really learn: Taking specimens and comparing those with the herbaria at the UAE University in Al Ain or at the Sharjah Natural History Museum at the Desert Park.

The scientific (but slow) way: Sending specimens to famous centres like Kew Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh Botanical Gardens or Prof. Loutfy Boulos in Egypt (addresses can be had from M. Jongbloed). The reason this way of identification is usually slow, is because the experts are always very busy!

How to collect…

Here are some tips for anyone who is interested in collecting specimens for identification.

Out in the field, all you need are zip-lock polythene bags of different sizes. For identification it is best to collect whole plants (if they are not too big), but never collect a whole plant if there are only a few of them around. You don’t want to prevent them from propagating! For identification especially the seeds are important (from the fruit one shall know the tree!). In any case, take a good-sized sample that includes flowers, fruits, if possible roots, and leaves (note that some plants have different leaves close to the ground and higher up!) Place the plant in the bag, expel the extra air so the bag is flat and seal it. In this way the plant will stay relatively fresh for up to two days, giving you time to get home and put them in the press. It is best to put each plant in a separate bag, because mixed bags could give confusion, if seeds or flower petals are shed. But in a pinch you can put plants together in a large bag. Make notes on the location where you found the plant, the substrate on which it grows and anything else of interest.

At home you need a plant press. Gary uses big books, but a better option is a press, which allows air to pass through. One can be made quite easily by nailing parallel slats perpendicular to each other, like a trellis. If you make the two "boards" the size of a folded newspaper, you can use newspaper as the main drying material. Each specimen has to be put inside a folded piece of paper towel. (In Europe you can get a special type of semi-transparent tissue, but here paper towels can be used.) Also inside the tissue you place a piece of paper with the number of the specimen, the field data, the collection date.

Put plenty of newspaper on the outsides and tie the "trellises" together with strong string or a belt or tape with clasps or a buckle. During the first few days after putting in a new lot of specimens, put the press outside in the sun and wind, standing upright against a chair. Make sure to take the press inside at night (dew!) or when the gardener waters the garden!

If you use an expert abroad to help you with identifications, you have to send a specimen to him/her, which he/she then gets to keep for his/her herbarium. In that case the two specimens can be dried together, and a separate label will have to accompany the specimen to the expert. I send the specimens inside the paper towel, as it ensures further drying and it is light. But cartons have to be placed around each bundle of specimens, so they cannot be folded during transport.

For a good result, the drying paper (the newspaper) has to be changed after a couple of days, especially if the specimens are thick-leafed and juicy. Leave the specimen inside the paper towel until it is completely dry, because it may be damaged if you try to get it off the paper while it still sticks. As the specimens dry, the binding of the press has to be tightened from time to time.

If you want to keep your specimens indefinitely, you have to mount them on acid-free paper, which can be bought here at al Harab’s stationery in Deira, unfortunately in rather large quantity. I have the paper cut to slightly larger than newspaper size, with some papers a little more than double that size to serve as Family folders (grasses: Poaceae, Daisies: Compositae or Asteraceae, etc. (the proper names can be found in the Checklist of UAE plants). Several mounted specimens of different genus can then go in the same folder.

In order to get rid of minuscule bugs that may be lodged inside with the plants and could destroy your specimens, it is important to freeze the specimens before putting them away. You place a five inch stack of mounted cards inside a large Spinneys bag, and shove another one over the opening. Tape the bags together with masking tape and make sure every opening is covered. Then freeze it in any freezer for about 5 days. This action has to be repeated once per half year.

In this way plant specimens can be kept for hundreds of years. Making a herbarium specimen is good fun. You can be very creative, putting the specimens on the paper in a nice way, adding photographs and sometimes drawings, and most importantly, the label with all the data.

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