Escaping the depressions battering Western Europe, a small band of intrepid Birdquesters gathered in Muscat ready for a significant challenge ahead. After checking into our comfortable resort, we headed to the coast for an introduction to birding in Oman.
Along the Batinah Coast lies Ras as Sawadi, a low-lying promontory with magnificent limestone islets offshore and a nice khawr (coastal lagoon), which is open to the sea. The sandy beach was dotted with small flocks of gulls and terns as well as what looked like the entire collection of off-road vehicles of Oman, tearing up and down and constantly flushing the birds. There was plenty of wheel-spinning and sliding all over the place but activity waned in the afternoon long enough for us to be approach some of the 30 or so Pallas’s Gulls present amongst the Slender-billed, Heuglin’s, Caspian and Sooty Gulls. We also noted a couple of Black-headed Gulls, which are fairly scarce in Oman. Terns included Caspian, Greater and Lesser Crested and Sandwich as well as a distant Little/Saunders’s. A pair of Egyptian Vultures and a Western Osprey rested on offshore islets and a movement of Pallid Swifts built up to around 100 by dusk. Shorebirds included Kentish Plover, both Lesser and Greater Sandplovers, and a large number of phalaropes offshore, fluttering over the waves out to sea like insects as Arctic Skuas chased distant terns.
This expedition was always going to be ‘Omani Owl or bust’ but I was keen to ensure that ‘bust’ included some of the many interesting birds to be found in northern Oman, which make a trip to the Sultanate in winter well worthwhile in their own right. Sohar Sun Farms, lying on the outskirts of Oman’s second city, is unfortunately closing down and we were very lucky to make what will probably be our very last visit to one of the most productive birding sites in the whole country. Many of the cow pens have fallen into disrepair but the sewage treatment tanks are still intact and we were delighted to find a couple of recently cut pivot fields of alfalfa. These have always been magnets for migrants.
After some considerable searching we found a small wintering flock of Sociable Lapwings. At first eleven birds were feeding on a sandy track by one of the fields before moving out onto the grass to join the many Red-wattled and a couple of smart White-tailed Lapwings gathered there. Counting again it became apparent that another three birds had joined them, making a total of 14 of this critically endangered species. WOW! This was more than most of us had seen in total in our lifetimes, and flocks like this will soon be a thing of the past as they slip further towards extinction. It was a wonderful experience to watch them around our vehicle, feeding by shuffling a foot forward in the grass to disturb invertebrates and flashing their black-and-white wings as they moved to another area of the field. Few other birds could put the nearby super-smart White-tailed Lapwings in the shade!
Cruising the surrounding scrubland (formerly cultivated fields – it is amazing how quickly they return to desert) produced around 20 Namaqua Doves amongst many Eurasian Collared and Laughing Doves, four Isabelline Shrikes and a single Southern Grey Shrike. A couple of Arabian Babblers and Ménétriés’s Warblers provided added interest but there was only a single Isabelline Wheatear and no Deserts at all! Small numbers of Indian Silverbills also appeared, but there were generally far fewer birds than we have seen on previous late autumn tours. The supporting cast at the Sun Farms included several good raptors: Greater Spotted (2), Steppe (1), Eastern Imperial (4) and Bonelli’s (1) Eagles and the area surrounding the water tanks held a good variety of shorebirds, notably Wood Sandpiper (c.10); Temminck’s Stint (c.15); Ruff (c.40) and a single Curlew Sandpiper. With our first late night owling session looming we headed back to our resort for a rest before the serious business began.
Rolling up at the Omani Owl type locality in the Al Hajar Mountains for the first time this evening I was instantly struck by how big the landscape was compared to the impression given by the photos in the Dutch Birding paper and the view on Google Earth! Yikes! The cliffs were massive and the scree slopes far too precipitous to encourage my group to traverse. This was not going to be as easy as I hoped despite the fact that I already knew the Sound Approach team had a roughly 25% success rate per attempt here. A few characteristic birds of the mountains entertained us while we waited for darkness, a Red-tailed Wheatear was chased around by a Hume’s Wheatear and Pale Crag Martins zipped along the sides of the cliffs.
As darkness fell the sound of Pallid Scops Owls filled the air, their metronomic song is the night heartbeat of the desert wadis of Northern Oman. We were fortunate to be able to watch three of them in the spotlight this evening, including a very nice encounter with a bird hunting moths from an acacia, hovering like a kingfisher at times. I have never seen them do this before, nor have I seen them call from the cliff faces rather than the small trees, as all of the birds seem to do here. This solved a long-standing mystery as to why I could so rarely spotlight them in Oman – previously I ignored the cliff faces and just scanned trees and bushes with my torch. We stayed out very late playing several of our target’s hooting calls, but did not get a reply. We thought we might have heard one reply once, but it is possible this was the last echo from the speaker and the fact that it was not heard again supports this theory. It was windy at times this evening and also quite chilly, which probably did not help our chances. Frequent traffic noise and headlight beams also made things more difficult, as did the dusty air which diffused the spotlight beam. At least we did not return to our beds empty-handed after the Pallid Scops Owl show, this is usually one of the hardest birds to find on our autumn circuit and we had seen it so easily to take it for granted this time.
Next morning we explored a small farm adjacent to our resort, gaining some nice views of Desert and Isabelline Wheatears, and the desert scrub beyond it produced the hoped-for Asian Desert Warbler, another winter visitor to Oman from points north. A nearby dump held an extraordinary gathering of 12 Eurasian Marsh Harriers, which were presumably hunting rats there. Unfortunately the only eagle here was a distant Steppe flying by. An Isabelline Shrike was the highlight of a drive around some irrigated crops before we took a quick look at the coast again. The Pallas’s Gull count reached 51 and we got to grips with at least one Steppe Gull (ssp. barabensis) before the gulls were flushed by some locals but there was nothing else new except for 20 sharks’ heads dumped on the beach by the fishermen’s boats that included one that looked like a Great White. We speculated that with small boats incapable of landing one of these beasts the fishermen must be buying them for meat from someone in a bigger boat who did not want the shark’s bodies? A sign of the times all over the world, this was a depressing sight.
Now for round two of our quest for the Omani Owl. Checking suitable areas in daylight, we ran into Plain Leaf Warbler, a fairly common wintering bird here, and Striolated Bunting. During our late-night search we struck lucky this time with a contact ‘wu-ib’ call at the type locality but too far away for any sighting, and then a distant sighting in the spotlight beam of a medium-sized owl with orange eye-shine, a facial disk, round head and pale underparts. That ought to do – or so we thought. But the alarm call that drew our attention to this bird, around 500m from the type locality, was unfamiliar. Magnus had not sent me the alarm call of Omani Owl, he said for obvious reasons, however, in hindsight it would have been useful. We heard several calls here, yelping alarm calls as well as a ‘quick’ Strix-like call as well as some rasping calls.
We returned the following morning in daylight to try getting closer to the cliff face from which the calls emanated. We found our way into the wadi bed and walked along it for some way, seeing Plain Leaf Warbler, Hume’s Wheatear and several Striolated Buntings again as well as a Long-billed Pipit and an immense Lappet-faced Vulture high overhead with a couple of Egyptians. The extended scree slopes looked good for Sand Partridge so I tried some playback and to our amazement we heard the owl call from last night in response. After some scouring of the rock face eventually picked up the maker of the call, Lilith Owl, the middle-eastern form of Little Owl! Argh! Could we have been mistaken the previous evening? Johnny Mac also checked the owls later in the day and agreed that they were responsible for the calls the previous evening.
A wave of panic spread through us – had we made a stupid error in our excitement? However, well after dark we spotlit the Lilith Owls again and were relieved to see they looked completely different in the dark to what we had seen the night before, let alone being half the size. Phew! It may have been that the Lilith Owls were alarming for an Omani Owl that had come in to our playback? This still took the edge off our previous day’s exploits and left us feeling somewhat deflated that there could be any question, which in itself said something about the poor quality of our view. Must try harder! We stayed out until the wee small hours and returned to catch some sleep before moving on to explore another wadi system in the mountains.
A late breakfast proved perfectly timed with a magnificent male Crested Honey Buzzard in the resort gardens. Shouting its name across the dining hall (and in the gents toilet!) resulted in panic, as mobile phones were abandoned and we raced back to rooms for cameras etc. Fortunately it hung around long enough for everyone to manage a good view and some frame-filling photos, including the blood red eyes that identify it as a male. I have learnt that they can be remarkably confiding in Oman and although they are now regular in winter in the south they are still quite uncommon in the north of the country.
Our plan this afternoon was to explore an extensive wadi system in the mountains, which looked to have some very similar terrain to the type locality at roughly the same altitude. We spent a very pleasant afternoon indeed checking some good-looking areas. A warm welcome off-the-beaten-track is so characteristic of Oman and one very nice village elder took us on a guided walk around the field system and date groves. Walking along the intricate ‘falaj’ irrigation system we saw a few Common Chiffchaffs and an out of place Water Pipit in a date palm but we also saw that the locals actively scare away birds from their precious crops and they appeared to be doing a good job. Nevertheless it was a lovely place with patches of coriander, onions and wheat amongst the shady date groves. We also spoke to a few people about owls and one family said they knew Omani Owl and its voice from Arnoud’s wonderful photo and recording we played – “We know this bird but mostly from the high jebel (mountain)”. Birding in the wadis produced Eastern Orphean Warbler of note, several Red-tailed Wheatears and Striolated Buntings and a nice female Common Rock Thrush. Unfortunately our nocturnal efforts to find something tonight were severely hampered by traffic noise and wind and in the end we didn’t even hear a scops owl, a quite disappointing result as surely Omani Owl must be there somewhere.
Another daytime excursion saw us at the northern end of the Al Batinah coast at Liwa, where a moderate wind probably scuppered our chances of something more interesting than the two Short-toed Snake Eagles and a further seven Pallas’s Gulls here. Oman is great for wheatears and we made a special effort to see a sixth species – Variable Wheatear, which necessitated a drive to within a stone’s throw of the UAE border. After cruising around a rather desolate ghaf tree plain we eventually managed to find two of the sought-after picata form of this dainty, sooty brown-and-white wheatear, which crosses the Straight of Hormuz to spend the winter here. It may become even more desirable should Oman be incorporated within a wider Western Palearctic boundary, as it ought to be. There was little else to report in the goat-over-grazed landscape here except for a Red-tailed Wheatear, a female Ménétriés’s Warbler and the construction of a new branch of the coastal expressway, which will further damage this site.
The evening owling session involved a visit to a remote wadi where Johnny Mac had heard a contact call the previous evening. Although he had not seen or recorded anything it sounded like a hot lead. Unfortunately another blank followed, but Johnny had been sufficiently enthusiastic that we decided to return before dawn the following morning. Again we went through our routine of getting everything ready for a sighting but again, after extended playback we heard nothing. We had around another hour of darkness left and Jack suggested, why don’t we just continue down the wadi playing the call. Why not? Well the cliffs down there looked much lower than at the type locality but at least we could walk back through the birdy wadi in daylight. We had walked about another 400m when suddenly we heard the distinctive contact call behind us, from where we had just been waiting. We raced back up the track and were delighted to secure a much better sighting of the owl at around 100m range in the scope, with orange eyes, dark earth brown upperparts and pale facial disk seen as a pair of Omani Owls hopped around some boulders low on the scree slope near the track. All that was missing was the dark streaking on the flanks, but the birds were shy and turned away from the torch beam most of the time, looking at us over their shoulders every now and again. At last an undisputable view! Unfortunately they were a little out of DSLR range so the only solid evidence to support our sighting was a poor recording of the contact call after the owls had retreated to the cliffs behind.
It was soon light again and we could do some daylight birding. A pair of Streaked Scrub Warblers obliged, as did Red-tailed and Hume’s Wheatears and a Sand Partridge called from the scree behind us. A falcon, presumably Barbary, was also screaming from the cliffs nearby, although we didn’t manage to spot it.
Breakfast tasted very good today after which we headed to one of my favourite places in Oman, deep in the Al Hajar Mountains, Wadi al Muaydin. Within its steep canyon walls we saw another couple of Plain Leaf Warblers, their presence betrayed by their sparrow-like calls but little else as a company of soldiers on exercise marched past. Continuing uphill via one million switchbacks to the Sayq Plateau we passed Hume’s Wheatears and Long-billed Pipits by the road.
Wadi Bani Habib delighted with its abandoned village and picturesque almond groves, dotted with cherry trees and pomegranates, as did the various viewpoints over the wonderful terraced fields of Al Ayn (‘the spring’), which cascade over the travertine deposits of the hillsides below. Formed in an earlier, wetter climate the light coloured calcareous travertine was deposited by mineral-laden spring waters flowing from the surface and evaporating. In fact Oman was once part of Gondwanaland and during the last Carboniferous and Permian periods (280-300 million years ago) it was close enough to the South Pole at 40 degrees south to undergo several glaciations! We took a little time to admire these impressive sights and at the same time keep an eye out for birds.
Activity was quite low in the afternoon as is often the case on the plateau but we did manage a White-eared Bulbul, the first I have seen up here, as well as a Barbary Falcon whacking a pigeon above the town and a pair of Egyptian Vultures doing a rollercoaster display high over this natural amphitheatre. The evening was cold and windy so we decided against any owling up here and retired for a drink at our hotel. No beer, only Italian wine this time.
Early morning was excellent on the Sayq Plateau at over 2000m above sea level, with clear cool air and great visibility. Many of my same old favourites were in their usual haunts. The pair of perky Streaked Scrub Warblers appear to have hardly moved in years and we saw three each of Common Rock Thrush (all males) and Blue Rock Thrush, nine Red-tailed and 13 Hume’s Wheatears, a male Pied Wheatear, an out-of-place Desert Wheatear and plenty of phoenicuroides form Black Redstarts. I was happy to see two Oman lifers in the form of a flock of 18 Mistle Thrushes (feeding on juniper berries, the biggest flock ever in Oman by far) and accompanying them a fine male Ring Ouzel! Also of note here were a Green Sandpiper and a coutelli form Water Pipit and at least five Siberian Chiffchaffs, giving their ‘lost chick’ call and one was even singing the ‘speeded up Coal Tit’ song. A couple of Common Wood Pigeons evaded almost all of us and I have never seen hunters up here before but we saw plenty of guns this time unfortunately, which does not bode well for pigeons and partridges. We checked another settlement in the afternoon, which looked very promising but in the now cloudy weather we only managed another couple of Siberian Chiffchaffs. In contrast to the coast, all of the chiffchaffs up on the plateau appeared to be tristis.
A last hurrah saw us back at the new Omani Owl site early on our final morning with Johnny Mac again, who had sped back from the east coast the previous day. Teasingly it started to drizzle as we approached our destination but to our relief the light rain subsided and we could have one last crack at the owls. Following our usual routine we played the hooting call for some time… and after the time of the sighting of a couple of days earlier. We did not hear anything, however, subsequent events suggest that the owls probably did respond very softly and inaudibly beyond around 100m. I usually end each effort with a torch scan just in case anything came in silently… and bingo! Two pairs of eyes looked back at us from the cliff face, eventually flying short distances as they changed perches. To our delight they remained in view as it got lighter and we eventually managed some daylight scope views as well as some tiny image photos from the track far below. Even better was that we saw one bird, presumably the female, disappear into a hole in the cliff face, its partner sitting on lookout for a few minutes more. This time we could see the vertical flank streaking and even the rusty tinge to the side of the breast as well as gaining a good impression of the owl’s size and round-headed Strix owl form. A couple of Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse flew over as it was time to leave for yet more shiny airport concourses.
As well as being relieved that we managed to see the owl we were delighted to have played a part in finding a new site for it and a series of firsts included being the first tour company to see it, locating what looks like being the first nest hole of this species as well as being the first birders to see it in daylight and the first to see a pair together. There is no doubt that we will be back here again in the not too distant future. Thanks are due to Magnus Robb and our friends at The Sound Approach for invaluable information and advice as well as recordings of the bird’s voice and Johnny McLoughlin, with whom we teamed up in our search for the owl. With the owl being so poorly known (from a stretch of wadi only a few km long) and the discovery of a nest site we hope you will excuse our keeping the location secret, at least while it can be studied, including hopefully the collection of DNA, which will add to our knowledge of this special bird. Even as I write, this is happening with the first ever sighting of mating yesterday and further sightings and apparently the ‘best sound recordings yet’ made today. The Sound Approach’s forthcoming book ‘Undiscovered Owls’ is going to be quite something! Just think that at the moment around 50 times more people have been to outer space than birders have seen Omani Owl!