07/02/2010
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Filming in Yemen for BWPi: Part Two

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See also Part I and Part III.

Wadi Sara didn't produce much more: a glimpse at our first Bush Petronia, a number of distant Grey-headed Kingfishers, and where the track joins the Hodeidah Road at Khamis Bani Sa'ad, a long sequence of Hammerkop. Halfway through the wadi I spotted a Jacobin's Cuckoo in good light on my side of the car, but as soon as Yousuf stopped we were assailed by a quartet of shouting women that I hadn't noticed. Throwing stones, they made it very clear that they didn't want me to film the cuckoo, which had long since flown off anyway.


Hammerkop (Grab: David Stanton)

At the tarmac we turned back towards Sana'a to spend the night in Manakha in the Harraz Mountains. The Yemeni subspecies of Southern Grey Shrike was another target and we saw our first and only specimen perched on a road sign shortly after passing a petrol lorry that had overturned and was still burning. "Yousuf, there's a shrike." "Do you want me to stop?" "Yes, stop!" "Should I go back?" "Yes, go back!" After turning around, we parked opposite the shrike on the busy, narrow road. Since the shrike was on Yousuf's side of the car, he tilted his seat all the way back, I leaned over him and started filming. Three seconds into the clip a juggernaut eclipsed the bird as it rolled past. Three seconds later, both the lorry and the shrike were gone.


View of Al Hajjarah (Photo: David Stanton)

After checking into the Al Hajjarah Tourist Hotel in Manakha we went to Bait Al Maghlad near the village of Al Hajjarah. It was a bit slow at first and when a heavy mist rolled in we decided to abort filming in order to protect the camera. A gap appeared in the mist so we changed our minds and headed into the acacias, where I staked out a woodpecker hole only to find that it was being used by a pair of House Sparrows. I tried following a Brown Woodland Warbler as it foraged in a pollarded acacia but the autofocus doesn't "know" what to focus on and with my level of expertise I could only hope that the depth of field was sufficient to keep the bird in focus amid the tangle.


en route to Wadi Sharif (Photo: David Stanton)

The next morning we hiked into Wadi Sharif where we hoped to find Golden-winged Grosbeak and African Paradise Flycatcher. En route we stopped for a Yemen Serin perched obligingly on a rock, but it departed as I went through the now-familiar routine of setting up the camera. An Arabian Partridge jumped onto the rock, not more than 10 metres away, though it didn't stay long. This led to a frantic quarter hour during which the partridge was more obliging. I was also able to take another long sequence of Long-billed Pipit foraging at close range, making sure that I checked the neutral density filter every other second.


Arabian Partridge (Grab: David Stanton)

At Wadi Sharif the grosbeaks and flycatchers evaded us completely, though we did find Arabian Serin, more waxbills, and a very cooperative male Palestine Sunbird that kept returning to the same perch. Thinking that we had exhausted the habitat, I was jolted by Yousuf's declaration that he could "... see a hawk eating a mouse". I peered through his scope and briefly stared into the piercing orange eyes of a Shikra. It dragged its prey out of view and I desperately searched for gaps in the cover that lay between us. Seeing a possibility, I moved the gear about 30 metres along the terrace we were on and by lowering the tripod a few inches was able to get an unobstructed view of the Shikra, which had, in fact, caught a Sinai Agama. For the next 13 minutes I bracketed the exposure and adjusted the focus to ensure that I caught at least some of this amazing action clearly. Starting at the head, the Shikra ate about a third of the lizard before hopping up to a higher branch and leisurely preening. By this time I was ready to sign my contract with the BBC, although I secretly acknowledged that this success might be attributable to incredible luck and Yousuf's keen eyes.


Shikra eating a Sinai Agama (Grab: David Stanton)

From Wadi Sharif we descended into the Tihama, Yemen's Red Sea coastal plain, which apparently takes its name from hammi, an Arabic word meaning "very hot". Our first destination was the Bajil rubbish tip, a haven for Abdim's Storks and several million houseflies. Yousuf, who was fasting for Ramadan, found the flies and stench a bit much, so he retreated to a safe distance while I captured minutes of tape of storks in this pristine environment. It seemed a good idea to try and catch the diagnostic white backs of the storks with some flight shots, but no matter how hard I tried willing the autofocus to keep the birds sharp, it simply refused. I still wasn't ready to try focusing manually on a moving bird and the results were correspondingly abysmal.


Abdim's and White Stork at Bajil tip (Grab: David Stanton)


Jebel Bura' (Photo: David Stanton)

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The day's final destination was Jebel Bura', one of Yemen's few protected areas and the best site I know for White-browed Coucal among other species. Camping in the fields at the base of Bura' can be lovely during the relatively cooler months from October to February, but in early September there are two problems: suffocating heat and abundant mosquitoes. My strategy was to hide in my tent, but even though it is predominantly screen, I sweltered and sweated all night. Yousuf hid from the mosquitoes by wrapping himself in his sleeping bag and lost several litres of sweat before committing himself to the equally hot but mosquitoless confines of his tent.

I awoke in the predawn of the following morning to the descending notes of a coucal in the Dobera glabra tree under which we'd camped. The foliage was as dense as the gloom at the bottom of Loch Ness and though the bird remained tantalizingly close, its call was spaced unpredictably which made it impossible to record without wasting minutes of tape. Leaving Yousuf to sleep, I headed into the bush solo where I found another coucal sitting on top of a Ziziphus tree. Both the lens and the viewfinder were covered with a film of condensation and, intensely uncomfortable and dehydrated, I considered abandoning the quest ostensibly to protect the equipment, but really because I was experiencing new heights of misery.


Male Bush Petronia. (Grab: David Stanton)

On the walk back to camp a pair of Bush Petronias obligingly foraged at my feet. Wiping my specs on my damp T-shirt, I did my best to focus, but I was beginning to get seriously fed up. I stumbled around in the vicinity of the camp, looking for something to film when I heard a new sound, "wit, wit... wit wit", which I just couldn't place. It seemed to come from underfoot, but given the fog on my specs and my deteriorating mental state, I just couldn't find the bird. It continued calling and I continued to scrutinize the habitat to try and find it. My impatience resulted in one of the worst cases of my "blowing it" on the entire trip. A Harlequin Quail exploded from the ground about four metres away and disappeared into a sorghum field. I tried relocating it, but finding a Harlequin Quail in a sorghum field makes finding needles in haystacks look easy so the opportunity was lost forever.

We decided to enter the protected area at Bura' for another chance at African Paradise Flycatcher, a decision which was at least partially inspired by the fact that further up the mountain conditions might be a bit cooler and more tolerable. The best strategy for African Paradise Flycatchers, I've found, is to enter their territory and wait for one to perch nearby as it makes its rounds. Since this involves a lot of waiting and the protected area was as uncomfortable as the lowlands surrounding it, I quickly lost interest in African Paradise Flycatchers. It was time to move to Hodeidah and the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room.

We checked into the Taj Awsan where a group of Yemeni military officers and businessmen were sitting in the relative cool of the lobby. Though I normally greet everyone in Yemen, the look of disdain on these men's faces as I walked past induced me to keep quiet. In my room, a glance at the bathroom mirror revealed a pathetic human specimen that I barely recognized: three weeks of scraggly beard, drenched filthy Tt-shirt, knobby scab-encrusted legs protruding from stained shorts, and an expression of complete enervation; no wonder the Yemenis in the lobby had looked askance. I realized that using the air-conditioning would chill the camera, which would then attract condensation and possibly induce equipment failure so I contented myself with the ceiling fan. The artificial breeze it created was still a huge improvement over conditions outside the hotel.

I took a shower, wrote up the morning's notes, and tried to rest. We had an appointment with a Nubian Nightjar that afternoon and I wanted to be in good form. The strategy for this species involves finding a place where they're likely to rest during the day and then searching. We chose a date plantation to the south of Hodeidah and started combing the depressions surrounding each palm. About 20 minutes into the search my eyes passed over a bit of detritus until I did a double take and it registered that I was looking at a recumbent nightjar with half-lidded eyes resting not more than two metres away. This is bird cinematography at its best: rock-steady shots of a co-operative subject. If the bird shows signs of leaving you can simply step on its tail until you've finished the job. The nightjar provided the silver lining to an otherwise cloudy day.


Nubian Nightjar (Grab: David Stanton)

The misery of the Tihama was a necessary evil because of the possibility of a number of target species, including Arabian Golden Sparrow, Spotted Thick-knee, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Arabian Bustard. The sparrow was our first quarry so we drove to Al Kedn where they often turn up. En route we found lots of African Collared Doves and got some beautiful shots of Thick-knees, but no Sparrows. Arabian Golden Sparrows are somewhat nomadic and it's never possible to tell with absolute certainty where they're going to show up. Al Kedn, normally a fruitful location, was failing us so we headed north to Al Luhayyah where I'd happened upon a large colony some ten years before. Between Al Rabua and Al Luhayyah we found several empty colonies comprising at least 200 nests, but not a single bird in evidence.

At 5:30 the next morning we headed towards As Salif where we hoped for the Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, which feed on grain spilled from cargo lorries leaving the harbour at Salif. Arabian Golden Sparrows sometimes show up on this stretch during their wanderings but we only found feral pigeons in their hundreds with nary a sandgrouse or sparrow in sight. We tried Al Urj, site of Yemen's last confirmed Slender-billed Curlew and the place where I found the Middle East's only Black-billed Wood Doves several years ago. Unfortunately the tide was low, which gave the waders many square kilometres of mud to forage over and us few opportunities to film anything interesting. We abandoned Al Urj and moved inland again towards Al Kedn where I saw our first flock of Golden Sparrows right next to the highway, but they failed to alight and we lost them.


Arabian Bustard (Grab: David Stanton)

One of the highlights of birding in Yemen is the Arabian Bustard, a bird that is becoming increasingly difficult to find due to unregulated hunting. Yemenis have managed to live in harmony with these spectacular birds for millennia, but recently hunters from neighbouring countries have started paying incentives that are difficult for impoverished Yemenis to resist. Bustards being so hard to locate, we enlisted the help of Yehia who tracks them with an accomplice. Yehia found one but was able to contact us until 11:30 when it was already very hot. We rendezvoused with him an hour's drive north of Bajil and then we followed him on his motorcycle along obscure tracks in the scrub for about half an hour. There his partner Mohamed waited some distance from the Bustard, which was sheltering from the mid-day sun under an acacia. The first shots from about 300 metres show a dark shape shimmering in the heat haze. Uneasy because of our presence, the bird stood up and walked away. I set the tripod at its lowest height and knelt in the scorching sand in order to be less intimidating to this obviously shy bird, and sent Mohamed on the motorcycle in a wide arc around the bird to try and herd it in my direction. I managed a few more distant shots before the bird disappeared forever into the scrub. We tried waiting for several hours for it to reappear, but a dust-storm blew up and in order to protect the delicate camera from the Tihama's intrusive dust, we left. Returning to Hodeidah we drove slowly in order to try and find some Golden Sparrows, but again we were skunked.

Our final day on the Tihama would afford our last opportunities for Golden Sparrow, so we pulled out all the stops, driving back into the agricultural land around As Sukkinah, south of Jebel Bura'. A scrubby section gave us another chance at Jacobin's Cuckoo but the birds were shy and only afforded a few brief, distant shots. Our focus remained on Golden Sparrows and our vigilance was rewarded when a flock of 30 flew overhead and into the valley we were surveying. Keeping our eyes riveted on the flock we were dismayed when it disappeared beyond the range of our optics.


Filming at Al Khowkha (Photo: David Stanton)

In spite of some successes, the Tihama had been difficult and discouraging work so we ascended back into the highlands via the coastal village of Al Khowkha. Crab Plover was on our list and we found about six of them almost immediately. After many long, fruitless hours in the Tihama, Al Khowkha was a pleasure. A juvenile Striated Heron allowed me within a few metres and stretched dramatically for the camera. A Black-tailed Godwit in breeding plumage probed the mud with its long, slightly upturned bill and then bathed exuberantly for several minutes. Dark and pale-phased Western Reef Herons fished in that frenetic manner that makes them so comical to watch. Towards the end of our session at Al Khowkha I focused on an adult Crab Plover being shadowed by a very demanding juvenile. The adult caught a fiddler crab with surprising speed and agility and then fed its noisy chick. It was time to head back into the mountains.

See also Part I and Part III.

Written by: David Stanton