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Gazelle June 2001



Toad Heaven

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 present.

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 last paragraph.

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 steps.

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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Bird News

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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Saiq Plateau

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 were.

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 gardens.

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
  • Moss

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