January 2002 Newsletter

January 2002 Newsletter


Share your news and discoveries

This newsletter is published free and is circulated to more than 120 members in the Al Ain area. If you are planning an activity please notify the Editor so other members can be involved. Remember everybody is able to contribute to Emirates recordings. For further details of items listed in this newsletter visit our website at: /index.html or join our e-mail discussion group.

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Dhub Vally Under Threat!

by Peter Cunningham

On a recent (late December 2001) visit to the Qarn Qashash area, approximately 35km north west of Al Ain, more commonly referred to as "Dhub Valley", I came upon a harrowing sight. Bulldozers and other heavy earth moving equipment in the process of establishing a quarry have invaded the area. A large hole is now present in what used to be prime Spiny-Tail Lizard - "Dhub" - habitat. Heavy vehicle tracks scar the area, not only destroying local vegetation on which Spiny-tail Lizards feed, but detract from the aesthetically benefits this beautiful area once possessed. Is no place sacred anymore?

Spiny-tail Lizards (Uromastyx aegyptius microlepis) are large herbivorous (plant eaters) lizards that inhabit gravel plains and/or compact inter-dune flats in the UAE. They are diurnal (active by day) lizards and spend most of their time underground in burrows that they actively dig. Above ground activity is dominated by basking - as exothermic animals, they require an external source of heat (sun) to become active - and a short stint of foraging. They typically feed on coarse desert grass such as Pennisetum divisum and Stipagrostis plumosa as well as the small evergreen herbs Moltkiopsis ciliata and Monsonia nivea. Their numbers are declining throughout their range mainly as a result of habitat destruction and direct competition with domestic stock such as camels for the limited vegetation available. As far back as 1982, 'Bish' Brown who was one of the fathers of the ENHG concept, documented his concern regarding the status of these lizards as follows: "loss of habitat and destruction by man is making it harder to find" (ENHG Bulletin 16:20).

Dhub Valley is one of the largest Spiny-tail Lizard colonies, with approximately 120 individuals, which is [was] well protected, but still accessible from Al Ain. An access route has now been laid to the quarry site, which could easily spell disaster for the colony.

Access routes without doubt increase the number of visitors, including unscrupulous people, to the area that would lead to further habitat destruction as well as lizard road kills. Spiny-tail Lizards are often run over by accident as they are very well camouflaged and, surprisingly for their size, blend into the surrounding area perfectly.

This area is also home to a number of other threatened species such as the Mountain Gazelle and Sand Cat. Reptiles such as: the poisonous Sand and Saw-scaled Vipers, Desert Monitor, Blue-headed Agama, a host of nocturnal gecko's and the smallest diurnal gecko (Least Semaphore Gecko) make this a herpetological heaven. The quarry and associated activity places all the above mentioned at risk not to mention those serendipitous Friday drives to see the "Dhubs". Is it worth it?

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Plant Life

Summary by Geoff Sanderson

On Tuesday 15th January we were treated to a presentation by Dr Abdullah Jaradat a Plant Genetic Resources Scientist on salt-loving plants which he has been working with at the International Centre for Biosaline Agriculture. For those who missed this talk, Geoff Sanderson has prepared a synopsis:

The key interest is the fact that plants appear to have adapted to a non or low saline environment over millions of years and now only a few species are able to tolerate such conditions. Of those species, some may have commercial benefit in place of other grains but history tells us that people will not change willingly. The real opportunity is with animal fodder crops producing beasts and milk which has higher protein and mineral content and lower fatty acids. Further, any such saline water cultivation needs a drainage system to avoid salt crystallising and accumulating and the management of such a system is crucial. The key interest is the fact that plants appear to have adapted to a non or low saline environment over millions of years. The fundamental issue for sustainability is what food crops 'need' to be produced, what is already in excess, and the most efficient ways of growing. It may be that solar powered greenhouse hydroponics are the most cost-efficient way to grow vegetables 'year round' releasing millions of gallons from the present system. Fodder is needed but there are other options than just the Rhodes Grass currently grown. Indigenous grasses could be grown as fodder instead, using whatever is the most appropriate irrigation water. There were many examples quoted concerning beneficial values of salt tolerant species. Unless the production of seed and commercial distribution, follow at a pace, and that seed is cheaper than Rhodes Grass, there may be little impact.

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Shutterbug news

Do not forget to collect your mounted prints of photographs entered in the photography competition held before Christmas.

February newsletter will carry an article about the PhotoSIG's visit to the camel race track by Jerry Buzzell and it includes some neat 'action' shots.

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Spring Photo Competition

ENHG "single-theme" photo competition for this spring has now been launched. The idea is for members to be creative around a theme, which is related to natural history. That theme will be TRACKS.

Photos for this competition will be taken in the UAE or Oman. Within this limitation, please be creative. All kinds of tracks are eligible -- reptile, amphibian, bird, mammal, insect, crustacean, plant, person, vehicle, etc. on sand, soil, water, mud, ice cream, glass, concrete, etc. Please know (or be prepared to guess) what manner of creature (or object) made the tracks. The emphasis of this competition is that it is to be on an amateur basis and to have fun with the subject. All members of the ENHG are eligible to enter a maximum of two photos each. Photos should be mounted and the long side of the photo should be between 8 and 14 inches (20-36cm). The date for the competition has been tentatively set for May 28th. Happy snapping …

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Bookworm: UAE Off-Road Explorer

by Anne Carter
(Jeep) ISBN 9768182-04-0: 95Dhs

I had the pleasure of using this handy little book during a recent trip to the Mussendam Peninsula. The satellite maps are excellent. They allowed me to navigate accurately in a very difficult terrain. In addition, the verbal descriptions of the route, giving landmarks to look for, are a great help. I can honestly brag that I did not get lost once. The book is a perfect size for use in a vehicle (although the pages tend to fall out) and can be easily stored in a vehicle to be handy any time it is needed. The only potential downside to the book is that, with the rapid growth of the population around here, the landmarks will quickly go out of date. The book will need to be replaced by a new edition on a regular basis. The authors, publishers and editors have a good long-term business here. I would recommend the book to anyone.

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Bug Business

Brigitte says that the cases have now arrived and that she intends to hold a "Children's Bug Day" and a pinning evening when we will choose the arthropod species to be displayed on the ENHG stand at the Flower Festival Stand - watch this space…

A fascinating specimen collected on this month's JointSIG trip to Wadi Jazeria was a 'picture wing' fly (family Tephritidae). When the fly is sitting at rest on a leaf the designs on it's wings imply that two smaller insects are actually there instead! It is likely that such markings evolved because predators are specialized in foraging for one type of prey and any protection that allows the fly vital seconds to evade capture is beneficial. If you would like to know more about Tephritidae contact Brigitte.

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Some of you may recall an address last year by Dr. Sophie Mery, from a joint project sponsored by the French Government and the UAE Department of Antiquities. The project has been on-going for several years and recently there have been some exciting developments in the findings. Sophie is unable to talk to us again but has promised to supply a brief update for inclusion in next month's Newsletter.

She has invited our members for an exclusive tour of the excavation of the grave at 'Hilli N' on 14/02/02. Some 300 skeletons have already been found, but there remains a great deal of work to be done. Previous visits to the site by ENHG have been well attended. This time there will be a strict limit on the number of people able to come so please book a place to avoid disappointment (l.garey@uaeu.ac.ae)

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Cartography: In Search of the 'Lost Fort'

by Murphy Turner

On December 7th The Cartography SIG set off in search of "The Old Fort" depicted on a 1972 British military map. Five vehicles punched in the GPS co-ordinates for the site and headed off to Burami and on to the village of Mahda. The co-ordinates had to be 'estimated' as we were not sure of the accuracy of the map. The British were known to incorporate an error factor into their maps, much like the early error factor built into the Global Position System. From Mahda we followed the paved tarmac to the village of Nuway. Once there, we left the pavement and cut southwest, picking-up an old track headed north which took us to a point about 2.5km from our intended destination.

We looked at the sand dunes that stood between the old fort and us and quickly decided that we were not prepared to drive over the intimidating dunes that we faced. As we were so close we decided to cross the dunes on foot to reach our intended destination. Our 'rag tag' group took off across the dessert like true explorers. No trivial sand dunes would avert our goal… Very shortly grumbling was heard about not dressing properly for such an endeavor, yours truly being one; Levis were great for the gold miners in California but of limited value on our trip across the dunes.

Crossing dune…after dune…after dune, we finally reached the garn. Although we could find no evidence of an old fort, the top of the garn certainly seemed a perfect spot for one, or a 'look out' as we could see for kilometers in every direction.

(We could also see a road very close by that serviced the farms to the north and south of us). If we had approached from the other direction, we would have parked within meters of the destination garn! As we had spent most of our time walking into the site, there was little chance to examine the area properly for remnants of the old fort. It was a magnificent trip with the "Swiss Alps" on our right and the dunes to the left. A trip into the desert is always a great experience when we've got a group as congenial as ours. I prescribe another trip, another time (by road), to explore the area more fully.

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Food for Thought: Marmalade Competition

The marmalade making challenge is one of the two competitions open to members this spring. No deadline has yet been set for tasting and testing but it will be around Easter. After all, once it is bottled it can last for years!

Some have asked for more details about the fruit, some of which is grown at Saleh's farm near Madah.

Not all fruit is ripe yet but it may be possible to find some at the fruit and vegetable market near the flyover downtown. When fruit is spotted for sale we will purchase as much as possible and inform other members on enhg@topica.com. Phil Iddison has supplied some photos which Brian has organised into a gallery, you can take a look by clicking here.

There will also be prizes for second and third place, and, if sufficient quantities of toast can be made, a taste test will be conducted at a forthcoming meeting for a people's choice winner!

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Twitcher's Corner: Hume's Wheater

by Fiona Newson-Smith

Hatta is situated in the centre of the Hajar mountain range from northern Mussendam, along the eastern edge of Arabia to Oman and Yemen. The mountains are rugged and desolate and it seems few birds can survive in such an environment. One species that defies nature, in the fierce heat of summer, is the unique and rare Hume's Wheater. This small black and white chat is a resident of the area. The mountains of UAE are amongst it's only world territory. There are few places this species may be found yet it is common around the hillsides surrounding the Hatta Fort Hotel and in its gardens. It is most likely to be found from August to February, usually singly and often silent, appearing as a black and white flash as it darts down to the ground to pick up a small insect. It breeds from March, high up in the mountains, when it is rarely seen.

In winter the numbers seem to increase as migrants arrive from the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan and this is the best time to attempt to see this rare and special bird.

News from the Abu Dhabi bird spotters is that this week they have sighted two 'Hume's Wharblers' in Mushrif Palace Gardens and have named it their 'bird of the week' .

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Kids' Stuff: Making Plaster Moulds from Animal Tracks

When you find a nice clear animal track it is fun to make an imprint so you can show your friends.

You will need: Vaseline/ cardboard/ paper clips/ plaster powder/ water bottle/ plastic cup & spoon.

Follow these easy steps to make your own cast:

  1. clear twigs and dirt from the edge of the animal print.
  2. gently smear surface of track with Vaseline
  3. make a ring of cardboard and secure with paperclips
  4. lay ring around the animal track
  5. add powder to water in your cup
  6. mix 'Plaster of Paris' so there are no lumps or bubbles
  7. pour mixture inside the mould to cover the print
  8. wait 30 minutes until plaster becomes hard
  9. Lift cardboard and plaster off the animal track
  10. undo paperclips to remove cardboard and examine cast

Remember to label cast stating: date, location and species.

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by Jerry Buzzell

Both Jupiter and Saturn are conspicuous in the early night sky. With binoculars the moons of Jupiter and rings of Saturn can be 'easily' seen (especially if you stabalise the binos to alleviate shaking).

Orien is the most recognizable constellation at this time of the year at this latitude. Look for three stars in a row forming 'Orien's Belt'. (To the right of the belt you will see the Pleides or 7 Sisters). Halfway between the Belt and Pleides there are two 'bright' stars, the lower and less bright is Aldebaron; the upper brighter one is Saturn.

Jupiter is a very bright star above and to the left of Orien. It is the brightest star in the sky only outshone by the moon.

If this interests you, visit Heavens Above website. After you register with this program it will produce a real time star map for you from above Al Ain, or at any time or date from anywhere in the world. Great website but it works best if you say you are in Burami rather than Al Ain.

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Diane Evans has now handed over the post of Membership Secretary to Janet Bailey and Brian Holmes has handed over Newsletter Editor's job to Fiona Newson-Smith.

Just a reminder that there is a range of ENHG merchandise available for sale at meetings: posters, CD-roms, videos, calendars and notelets. It may be possible to produce a T-shirt before the inter-emirates ENHG weekend.

A list of all outlets offering discounts to ENHG members is presently being collated, please advise Editor of any new ones so they can be advertised. The Hilton Hotel generously allows ENHG the free use of Conference Rooms for meetings, and offers discount in all its restaurants.

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Editor's Note

by Fiona Newson-Smith

I hope you had a peaceful Christmas and New Year. The good news is that Brian Holmes is now able to move back into his house after the fire and is presently taking a well earned rest in Egypt. I have agreed to take over as Editor although Brian's flair and wit will be a hard act to follow. Some of you may have already met my Husband, Mark, who works at the University and teaches at the Medical School. While still in UK, I received messages about several interesting things that he had participated in through ENHG, so I have been eager to join the Group. I arrived in UAE in November, and have no experience of producing newsletters or indeed knowledge of natural history however, I am keen to learn, and hope you will bear with me. Please do not hesitate to e-mail with ideas for articles, competitions, all will be gratefully received markns@emirates.net.ae ( subject: 'for Fiona')

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