Newsletter February 1999 No. 186

Newsletter February 1999 No. 186


Birders have field day in Dubai; Yellow-billed stork sighted

by Patricia Simpson

Early on 29th January a crowd of enthusiasts set off for Dubai to sample the birding spots there. The day was cold and still.

Getting to Safa Park before the picnickers, gave a rich reward of Indian Silverbill, Graceful and Menetieres Warbler, Song Thrush, Scaly-Breasted Munia (an established escapee), Pied Mynah, Hoopoe, Indian Roller, Red-vented and Yellow-vented Bulbul, Isabelline Shrike, Rufous Bush Robin, House Crow, Swift (indeterminate species), European Swallow and about the waters: Black-necked Grebe, Common Coot, Purple and Striated Heron, Common Sandpiper, Night Heron (a dozen, flushed), Black-headed (and possibly Brown-headed) Gulls, and Common Pochard, Mallard and Pintail ducks.

The group bolted from the Park with the arrival of the in-line skaters but our plans for Zabeel Fish Ponds were interrupted by the police. However, putting no time to waste as our leader flourished both his words of Arabic, the group checked off Red-wattled Lapwing and White Wagtail, before discreetly moving on to Khor Dubai.

A Steppe Eagle was well seen over-flying the mudflats which were packed with waders: Greater Flamingos, Kentish and Ringed Plover, Black-tailed Godwit, Common and Curlew Sandpiper, Temminck's Stint, Black-winged Stilt, Oystercatcher, Great and Little Egret, Reef Heron (dark phase) and Grey Heron. There were ducks, Pintail and Mallard identified; an Osprey and a Marsh Harrier winging in from downtown Dubai and, to our bewilderment, a Yellow-billed Stork.

Now into the noon glare, the mowed fields of Lahbab, got only a glance: Kestrel, Collared and Palm Dove, Rock Pigeon, Hoopoe, Crested Lark, Great Grey Shrike and Little Green Bee-eater.

Farther along the Hatta Road we stopped, trudged into the hills and while seeking shade under an Acacia, had a long look at a female Black-crowned Finch Lark barely moving for ever so long, until the flurried arrival of comrades (8 males and 3 females). An Isabelline Wheatear completed our rest-stop sightings. Farther along in similar rocky scrub terrain were numerous Great Grey Shrikes, a Black Redstart and Desert Wheatear.

Already on the horrid highway we turned off and proceeded into the dunes, decorated on the sheltered leeward with the desert squash (Cittrullus colocynthis). The sun was low, giving long desert shadows, the wind picking up just enough sand to bring alive the dunes and the white daytime moon now with a faint glow. We crossed the dunes, a few rows of them before rousing a Desert Eagle Owl which moved off to make a wide circle about the intruders. Under a Ghaf tree lay a dead specimen, with tissue well cleaned by maggots, but fully fledged and apparently in good form. The cause of death was not evident but surely the circling creature was keeping watch. Or so we thought.

With nothing possible to top this, we stopped for fizzy drinks and headed home.

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Archaeology group find site, pottery in Jebel Hafit survey

A pioneering expedition from the Archaeology Special Interest Group set out to make a preliminary survey aiming to answer baffling questions concerning the early habitation in the area of Jebel Hafit. There are no signs of any dwelling places and no records of any exist, although, of course, the ancient burial mounds that surround the jebel are well documented.

So it was with the bright prospect of making some ground breaking discoveries that a small group of us met Ibrahim and set off for Mezyad Fort to the west of Jebel Hafit. Ibrahim's car was rigged with the Natural History Group's satellite-controlled navigation equipment that would help with accurate surveying.

While Ibrahim tested some of this, the rest of us looked around Mezyad Fort itself. It was on a farm belonging to H.H. Sheikh Zayed. We enjoyed scrambling round watchtowers and wall-top crenellations trying to imagine how the fort would have been defended in time of attack.

The land of the farm had all been extensively disturbed and so our initial survey was to be in an area between the farm and the foothills of the jebel. We spread out with some five yards between members and proceeded to cross the area slowly, looking carefully for anything interesting. In particular, it was hoped that we might find some signs of building or of pottery. Unfortunately, we reached the bottom of the jebel with little to show for our troubles.

Tony and Ibrahim were interested in the large and solid tombs that we had reached. They were also intrigued by some other alignments of stones that may have been some form of marker or related feature connected with the tombs.

Being keen to gain a bird's eye view of these, as well as to investigate some structures a little way up the side of the jebel, some of us started climbing. We were struck by the degree of workmanship that had gone into these structures, featuring large areas of undamaged dry stone walling. Of particular interest was a niche, topped by a flat, hollowed-out lintel. However, Tony and Ibrahim disagreed as to the purpose of these structures. Ibrahim was supportive of their use as burial places while Tony was keen to explore the idea of their use as defense structures that provided excellent views over surrounding area.

The most exciting discovery, however, was saved for the end when Jean discovered some pieces of pottery in the vicinity of one of the ground tombs and the manmade alignment of stones mostly thought to be a habitat of some sort. This pottery was thick, red and quite crudely formed, most likely of the third millenium B.C., providing some basis for possible further investigation.

We hope to show the site to Dr. Walid Yassin of the Al Ain Museum and try to verify. The foothills there we think are still the same, and not covered with silt washed from the mountain in five thousand years. We believe the ground and the tombs are basically the same as they were thousands of years ago, and not covered with debris. We intend to look at this area again.

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In Search of the Green

by Mark

Hands up all those who spent last Friday morning (the 15th) in bed or having a leisurely breakfast. Well we were thinking of you. Those hardy few members of the Natural History Group who believe that being a member of the group means being an active member, not just a paid up member, met outside Choitrams at 8am. By 9am we were in a foreign country ready for action. The plan was to try and find a patch of greenery that can be viewed from the top of Jebel Al Qattar. The clue as to its whereabouts came from Ibrahim (you knew he was going to be in this story somewhere -- didn’t you?).

The last few times Ibrahim has led a group to the top of this well know Jebel he has seen a patch of greenery at the base of the cliff. To try and find this elusive patch of greenery required four vehicles, one doctor, three nurses, an historian and a few other hangers on who hoped the trip ended at Packo’s (it didn’t).

The walk started on a very nice open track, passing some bird watchers from Dubai equipped with monumental cameras and sound recording stuff C probably ruined their morning but they were kind enough to say we hadn’t. I have to report seeing three trees, one reputed to make the crown of thorns for Christ and hence called Sperious Christos. Of the other two one was related to the wattle, a type of acacia, and the other was something like a ‘gaff’. Since both are indigenous to this area and occur in great profusion I will ignore them, pity their thorns didn’t ignore us.

After a scramble over some rocks that appeared to be difficult we reached the hanging gardens as reported in the book ‘the Green Emirates’. Now this is a place I can recommend. You can see where a waterfall falls in wet times, seeing the damaged done by the water. Observe the hanging plants, maybe 20 or more metres long (or 60 feet for the Americans and traditionalists amongst us). Difficult to estimate their size accurately as they are on a cliff face that must be hundreds of metres high. You can watch the stalactites grow before your eyes as the water trickles down and drops to the earth. I didn’t observe any stalagmites, but they would be in places where human hand could destroy. The echo from the rock face, the birds flying around the craggy rocks, the whole place makes you feel very poetic!

This is one place you must all visit. Saloon cars can make it (driven slowly) to within a quarter of an hours walk of the site and the site is easy to find.

But this was not the patch of greenery sought so diligently by Ibrahim. To find that we had to traverse the base of the cliff. This would have been easy if it hadn’t been for the large number of boulders that had fallen from the cliff over the past 5 millennium. These boulders had shattered and they repeatedly blocked our passage. But our slow progress did mean we could observe nature about us including an ant eater that built a cunning house with a front and back door, both of which had a screed around the doorway to cause unwary ants to fall inside and then be eaten. The ant eater was at home and delighted the crowd by coming out to greet us.

Near this find we also observed signs of early human habitation. The remains of a number of stone houses built into rocks could be found all along the cliff. These we have tentatively dated as coming from somewhere between the 3rd Millennium BC and the seventeen hundreds. Whoever lived there had a splendid, defensive position. Views right out over to Al Ain oasis in one direction and a sheer rock face behind. Water would be available at times of rain and at least two natural water storage areas were observed.

Unfortunately our sedate walk turned serious around this time with many rock faces to be climbed or descended. The only happy person was our resident goat, Shamil, who appeared on the top of every high point in the area. Finally we reached the top of something and lunch was declared C at the same time yours truly was nominated to write this missive, hence the rather haphazard nature of the report.

From our lunch site we could see a long stretch of rock that had detached itself from the cliff face and fallen, probably around 1 Km in length (just over half a mile). Behind this fall was the green area. It look very nice in the desert surroundings but moving through it was not to be recommended, well not with shorts and bare arms. But through it we went and back down towards the cars. Once again we passed remnants of ancient civilizations, pottery that may have come either from the Ming dynasty or upstairs at Choitrams. We were convinced that it was the former but the large amounts found tend to suggest the latter although why someone was scattering pottery in that area I cannot imagine.

What else? Well at one point there was a large fissure in the rock full of the noise of bats. Unfortunately they wouldn't come out to play so I do not know which genus of bat they were. A metre long snake slithered quickly out of the way on our approach. Attempts will be made to identify the snake when a book on snakes can be discovered. We observed fox droppings at one point and saw, in the distance, a little group of feral donkeys. We found the remains of a goat that someone (not human) had consumed very recently, a newly deceased shrike and part of a hedgehog's spines.

To sum up the scenery of the walk was spectacular but the walk was very difficult. However I am certain that all those who went felt it was a most enjoyable way of spending a Friday, much better than a late breakfast in bed. Many thanks to Ibraham for his organisation and leadership of the walk.

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Sun-dried and salted fish reminder of market’s original products

(This is the third installment of Phil Iddison’s essay on the fish availablein the Al Ain suq.)

Preserved Fish - Cheseef

A few stalls in the market sell a variety of preserved fish, called cheseef in the UAE and recalling the state of fish consumption prior to modern communications. Mal-lah is another term for dried fish.

Two natural methods of food preservation have been available in the Emirates since prehistoric times.

Sun drying is still used to preserve prawns, anchovies, sardines and shark. The process is simple, effective and preserves excess supplies.

Salting is used for a number of fish varieties and these are still available in the suq. On the Gulf shore there are extensive salt flats where sea salt was naturally produced and I have seen it being collected on the sabkha salt flat between Dubai and Sharjah. There were also inland sources of salt that were collected by the bedouin and taken to the regional markets.

The most common dried fish in the Al Ain suq are anchovies, gashr. Huge bowls are piled high at half a dozen stalls in the central open area. These are sold by the kilo and are relatively cheap at 10 Dirhams. These fish do not seem to be salted and rely simply on the sun drying to preserve them.

Dried shark, awal, is the second most common dried fish and also unmistakable as the whole shark is cut longitudinally for the drying process like the structure of a giant net. Apart from sale as whole pieces, a popular choice for travellers visiting the market, current practice is to cut the dried shark into pieces about 4 inches long, rejecting the less meaty portions and presenting the pieces in a plastic bag at a premium price (25 Dirhams a kilo). It is readily recognisable due to its characteristic pungent smell of ammonia. I received some domestic aggravation for bringing home awal, as the aroma readily permeated our flat in Al Ain. The ammonia smell is due to the presence of urea in the shark flesh. Sharks and rays doe not have kidneys and are hence unable to dispose of urea which builds up in their flesh.

I have also found tuna, kingfish and queenfish, salted and dried for sale as whole split fish. The tuna is also cut into smaller pieces for sale and there are whole small seabreams. The dried shrimps are quite small specimens and are intact. Dried shellfish are also on sale, khart, and were described to me as being dried oysters. I was unable to tell what species had been dried, shellfish are not common in the market despite their abundance in the marine environment. There is a religious proscription against shellfish, however given the number of oysters that had to be processed in the pearling industry, it would seem logical for some use to have been made of this abundant food.

Studying this selection of dried fish reminded me that I had seen my first genuine red herring on sale in the Kuwait suq back in 1980, displayed in a wooden box emblazoned Great Yarmouth. Herring preserved in brine in vacuum packs are a common commodity in the UAE supermarkets.

Fish Sauces - Meshawaa

Meshawaa (mehiawah in Qatar) is a product which I have not been able to track down in the UAE although I suspect that I have consumed it on bread, khamir or chebab, at a demonstration of traditional breads. It certainly had the correct salty taste. It was introduced from Iran to the Gulf countries. It has not entered commercial production. Preparation is from pickled Indian oil sardines, oom, water, spices and salt. These are mixed and left to ferment in a glass bottle in the sun for one to two weeks. The contents are then mashed and mixed with roasted spices to undergo a further fermentation. The sauce is spread on flatbreads and particularly eaten at breakfast with spring onions.

Tareeh is home prepared from dried oom, again fermented with salt, cummin and red chillies. It is more concentrated than meshawaa and is diluted with water for consumption on bread with radish tops and spring onions.

These products bring to mind the fish sauces of eastern Asia. Charles Perry in papers to the Symposium has identified the historic near eastern taste for salty liquid seasonings and fish preserves.

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Web Sites for ENHG types

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Gazelles, lizards, archaeology at Inter-Emirates Weekend

This year it is the turn of the Abu Dhabi group to organise the annual Inter-Emirates Weekend when ENHG members from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Al Ain get together. The Abu Dhabi group has organized a weekend of events on and around Futaisi Island. Trips to the island by ENHG members have been very popular, as the island offers a wide variety of attractions for the naturalist. Individuals have also had considerable success sighting dolphins and even turtles from the boats which taxi visitors to and from Abu Dhabi island.

The Inter-Emirates Weekend will take place over the weekend of 25/26 March, which should be the first two days of the Eid holiday. Accommodation will be in traditional tents, provided by the hosts, the Al Futaisi Tourist and Resort Company, although there is a chance that some chalets, currently under constuction, will be ready by then and available to ENHG members at extra cost. Those participating will be provided three meals while on the island: dinner on the Thursday evening, breakfast and lunch on the Friday. These will be served in the attractive clubhouse used by Futaisi Island Golf Club, whose cooperation is gratefully acknowledged. On the Thursday evening, there will be some challenging entertainment in the form of a natural history quiz organized by Simon Aspinall, with prizes for winners and losers.

On the Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, there will be a number of alternative excursions. Details are still being finalized, but there will certainly be a selection of boat trips and walks. The Abu Dhabi hosts plan to offer separate walks with emphasis on birds, shore life, and archaeology. Similar walks be arranged on both Thursday afternoon and Friday morning, so it will be possible to take part in two our the three (or more) land-based offerings. Every group is likely to see a range of birds, probably with close-up views of the resident Ospreys, and tehre will be a very good chance of seeing sand gazelles and spiny-tailed lizards. The latter are particularly large on Futaisi and in teh absence of persecution, they have become relatively tame. They have even been tolerated while digging holes in the ‘browns’ of the golf course!

For those who do not want to walk too far, there are other things to do in easy distance of the tents. There is an attractive beach; the snorkelling can be very interesting, and there is a swimming pool beside a bar/restaurant.

Further details and registration fees will be announced shortly. If you would like to reserve your place at the Inter-Emirates Weekend, please notify Steve James by fax at 02-653094.

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Publications planned for members

The Al Ain chapter has been most fortunate in recent years to have had some informative articles prepared for past issues of the Newsletter. In order to make this information available to members, the committee has decided to publish some of these articles and distribute them at nominal cost to members.

Scheduled for publication and distribution in September — or earlier, if possible — are Phil Iddison’s reports on food, in addition to his latest article on bread-making in Al Ain and Buraimi. Also being collected for reprinting are Michael Gillet’s articles on beetles, butterflies, moths and other small miracles of the deserts and wadis.

Michael’s first article appeared in September, 1992, and included the following explanation of ball rolling by S. cristatus.

“If you are lucky enough to come across S. cristatus in the action of rolling a ball and you have a few minutes to spare, it is really quite good fun to follow and watch what happens. The ball is propelled backwards by the beetle whose sense of direction does not appear to be too crucial to the proceedings. At any rate, going round in big circles and up and down the same sand dune seems to be part of the plan -- perhaps a devilishly fiendish one intended to throw off pursuit by the erstwhile ball robbers! The funniest moments (for the observer) are when halfway up a slope, control is lost and the ball, with the beetle still clinging to it, gathers momentum and crashes to the bottom again -- rather like a scene from Tom and Jerry! However, our scarab is nothing if not determined; a second attempt is quickly made, and usually proves successful. Eventually, after 50 or even 250 metres of up-dune and down-dune, the ball is brought to rest (usually on a gentle sloping patch of firm, bare sand) and the driver jumps down. Sand begins to fly in all directions nd within about half a minute the ball is superficially buried. The scarab next begins to dig a horizontal tunnel away from the buried ball.”

So the next time you are in the desert, watch out for S. cristatus and share Michael’s unabashed enthusiasm for this remarkable beetle!

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Al Ain climbers return to tackle Jebel Al Qattar North Ridge

by Howard Trillo

A third outing of the “Climbing” Special Interest Group took place recently, tackling the long ridge to the north of the Al Qattar plateau, and which ultimately sweeps south to land climbers on the actual summit of Al Qattar. The full ascent was not completed due to lack of time, but the ridge itself proved a more than worthwhile expedition in its own right – I am already looking forward to the next visit!

Three members of the SIG, Shamil Nuwan, Jo Mortlock (on her first mountain walk) and myself, set off from the vehicle at 8:40 a.m., planning to be back by 4 p.m. at the latest, and immediately the route was unique in my experience in that you could see the ridge actually start from “nothing”, one lump of stone in the sand, and rise up, meter by meter, to the horizon one thousand meters higher. Fortunately, the distance between those two points made the climb a gradual one, but nevertheless within a short time you had a commanding view of the surrounding country, with its myriad colors: the red of the dunes, the gold of the desert and the green of the farms that sit either side of the Mahdah road.

The rock, as always, had marvelous friction properties and your feet seemed to grip the crest of the ridge, and as it was the crest that we were climbing there was very little loose material to be wary of. There were the usual “inner plates” on some of the slabs, which occasionally made their presence felt by detaching themselves just as you put your foot on them, but they were easily anticipated and we made steady progress.

By “elevenses” time, we had reached a spot where there seemed a feasible way down if we needed to retreat back down the ridge rather than descend the usual way down the side valley from the plateau. We were almost directly opposite the cliffs of the plateau and could see, from our vantage point above them, in sharp outline, their serrated edge, with huge sections seemingly poised to fall away into the valley.

We had the advantage of a lovely breeze as we reached our high point of the day, the summit that sits at the top end of the descent valley, and ate our lunch before finding a way down to that valley. It proved more difficult than expected and involved a short and steep climb down a slabby gully, but we made it with sighs of relief all round, and trekked down to below the cliffs we had earlier seen from above.

New ground was broken as we cut right over to the wadi immediately south of, and running parallel with, our ascent ridge, and it certainly provided a pleasant and interesting route back, climbing down boulders and small escarpments to reach the desert plain. A convenient camel track was followed back to the car, which was reached at 3.40 p.m., exactly seven hours after setting out. A long day, but an exhilarating one, up a clean, exposed ridge, with good views all the way!

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Arabian tahr subject of special ENHG meeting in March

The elusive Arabian tahr, last seen in our district a year ago on Jebel Hafit, will be the subject of a special meeting of the Al Ain Emirates Natural History Group and the focus of a special field trip to the Jazira district near Khutwah.

We are fortunate to have David Insall, of Sultan Qaboos University in Muscat, in the Emirates to speak to the Abu Dhabi chapter and, the following day, our group. The presentation in Al Ain will be on Wednesday, March 17 at 7:30 p.m. at the Intercontinental Hotel. The field trip (as noted on page 7) will be held Thursday, March 18.

Mr. Insall will speak on the ‘Conservation of the Arabian Tahr and Related Issues.’

The tahr is a small mammal which inhabits the mountains of the Arabian peninsula and has been hunted to near extinction. It resembles a goat and is often dark brown in color. There are Himalayan tahrs on display at the Al Ain Zoo.

Mr. Insall reported that a sick female tahr was recently brought to the University in Muscat for treatment.

“It is, I believe,” he said, “the first clinically diseased adult tahr ever to have been brought in alive to veterinary care. Having shown some improvement (initially), it sadly died.

“We hope to recover as much information as possible from the carcass and parasites already removed. It had sever Botfly infestation and moderate tick infestation. The good news is that it came from a place in the southern Jebel al Akhdar, discounted as even being potential tahr habitat.”

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Clean up challenge issued

Environment Day has come and gone in the Emirates but it is still not too late to do something concrete. At a recent committee meeting, it was agreed that we should challenge members to help clean up a popular site in our corner of the Emirates.

Several years ago, members got together to collect rubish from a wadi near Al Ain and the committee agreed that it was a suitable contribution for our group to make.

Where and when? We would like to announce the clean-up operation in the next Newsletter for a clean-up day to be held in early March. Please forward your recommendations for a wadi, dune area or other district to any member of the committee.

Our Environment Officer, Dianne Barber-Reilly, has forwarded suggestions and information to members via the email discussion group and there are other initiatives being developed to bring the 3R’s (reuse, reduce and recycle) to Al Ain.

If you have any news of an environment initiative of interest to our members, please post your news to the email discussion group (, contact Dianne or the Newsletter editor.

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News in brief

Archives to be developed

In response to our call for assistance, we have three volunteers to help organize the archival material of the Al Ain chapter of the Emirates Natural History Group.

The committee has already recognized the value of some material from old newsletters and correspondence and is preparing these articles for reprinting to be distributed among members.

It is hoped that an index of archive material will be available for all members. It has also been suggested that valuable archive information be made available via an internet web site.

SIG volunteers still needed

Our special interest group coordinators are still looking for volunteers to assist them in organizing the activities of these groups. If you have a few minutes to spare each month — and who doesn’t?! — then please contact one of the coordinators listed on page 8.

ENHG items for sale

A reminder that the group has calendars and shopping bags for sale to members.

This would be an appropriate time to pick up one of the group’s shopping bags and help to reduce the number of plastic bags used by shopkeepers in Al Ain. The sturdy bags, which are also handy for bringing home fossils from Fossil Valley, and other treasures you uncover, are available for only Dh15.

Field trip levy dropped

Field trip participants will no longer be asked to contribute Dh10 for each trip. The committee agreed it was inappropriate to have a fee for field trips but not special interest group outings.

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