Black-crowned Finch Lark Bird of the trip for Dave? (photo: Derek Moore).
This trip has been a bit like one of those makeover TV programmes, where things keep going wrong and it looks like it won't be successful - and then right at the end it all comes good and everyone's happy. If you read my instalment from the first week, you'll know that I was failing miserably to get footage of eagles or sandgrouse, two of the main things we'd been hoping for. At the start of this second week we briefly abandoned our search for these and spent our time travelling into the Al Hajar mountains, then on to Masirah island.
It was getting very hot by the coast and we'd hoped to be cooler in the hills, but it was a scorching day with unremitting sunshine. Our target birds were Long-billed Pipit, Lappet-faced Vulture and Scrub Warbler. Our search for Scrub Warbler led to us finding Desert Lesser Whitethroat, Eastern Orphean Warbler and some remarkably grey-looking Siberian Chiffchaffs, but the Scrub Warblers eluded us. We did get a view of a Lappet-faced Vulture but by the time we'd screeched to a halt and got the camera set up, the bird was directly overhead - great for a binocular view but hopeless for trying to film using a tripod. Even without flapping, it had disappeared across the valley within seconds, too quick to be caught on film.
Lappet-faced Vulture (photo: Renee Thomas).
Some strong calls from a hillside sounded like they could be from Long-billed Pipits. We scrambled up the slope towards them, only to flush a pair of big pipits across the other side of the gully. We eventually caught up with them and sure enough they were Long-billed Pipits - we managed to film one creeping around the rocks.
Long-billed Pipit (photo: Ian Boustead).
Of all the birds that were possible on this trip, the one I personally wanted to see the most was Crab Plover. What an amazing thing it looks in paintings and photos. There are two good sites in Oman, but the Birdwatching Guide to Oman suggested that we'd need a 4-wheel drive vehicle to reach either of them. The site which seemed to offer the least off-road driving was on Masirah island on the east coast of Oman, so that's where we headed. Once on the island we drove south from the town of Hilf to the site called Sur Masirah; we'd expected a 34-km drive down a 'graded' road but were delighted to find tarmac all the way to Sur Masirah. The small amount of off-road driving needed to get us to the beach didn't seem too risky and when the beach came into view, sure enough, there were some gleaming white dots along the shore that could only be one species - Crab Plovers, about a dozen of them. We had the late afternoon sun behind us so the birds were beautifully lit as we stalked them across the wet sand. Flocks of other birds, such as godwits, Redshanks, Turnstones and Curlews, scarpered as we approached, taking several of the Crab Plovers with them. But one or two of these immaculate birds lingered long enough to allow us to get pretty good shots (hopefully). Maybe it was the light, but these seemed like the cleanest, most Persil-white birds I'd ever seen. What a weird combination they are with a body that's most like an Avocet but a bill that's more like that of a Yellow-crowned Night Heron!
Crab Plover (photo: Derek Moore).
The next day we pursued our other reason for visiting Masirah island. We got ourselves in position at the sewage ponds, near the main town of Hilf, to await the arrival of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, which are said to drink there each morning. While waiting, we couldn't help but notice some remarkable whistling, even yodelling, sounds coming from the surrounding trees. I'd heard that sound in India - these were Asian Koel, apparently quite rare in Oman but we had at least two, possibly even four, birds chasing and shouting at each other.
Eventually, sure enough, we heard the soft coughing sounds of approaching sandgrouse. The first group, of maybe 15 birds, flew straight over the ponds to settle somewhere near the beach, out of sight from within the compound. So did the next group. "Don't worry", I said, "Sandgrouse often land nearby before coming to the drinking site. They'll come soon." But they didn't! (What do I know?) When we left the ponds, we checked the beach to find a very attractive, presumably freshwater, stream and pool. The sandgrouse must have done all that they needed to do here then flown off unnoticed, because by the time we visited, they'd gone.
So, do we spend another day on Masirah island, trying again for the sandgrouse, or dash back to the Muscat area to catch up on missing species and try another site for eagles? Our time was running out - we couldn't do both.
We chose Muscat, having read that there was another dump, with potential for eagles, at Qurayyat, about 80km from the capital. We made an early start to look for small birds first, before the heat made them go skulky.
We picked Khawr al Milh as our first stop because the book said there were Black-crowned Finch Lark in that area. As we drove past the wetland we noticed a Spotted Eagle in a bush on the other side of the pool. We parked behind a bush so we could set up the camera out of sight. The bird was a considerable distance away but might be stalkable. Sadly it flew as soon as I stepped into view, even at that range - hopeless.
Before I put the camera away I noticed a strange noise, a prolonged beep, repeated at regular intervals, like the digital alarm on a watch. I actually pressed my head to the camera to see if it was giving me a warning about a low battery or something. But there was another sound too, that was part of the rhythm, so I was hearing 'tit-ick beeep, tit-ick beeep'. It must be a bird! The only other bird I knew to make such a long high-pitched sound was Bar-tailed Desert Lark. Maybe this was a lark too. Maybe Black-crowned Finch Lark. Was it coming from the ground? Or from the air? And how far away was it? We used the microphone to direct us to where the sound was strongest and eventually found the source of the 'digital alarm'. A male finch-lark was performing a song-flight, jumping into the air, wheeling around in little spirals, giving a few bursts of song then disappearing into the gaps between the scrubby bushes. They look remarkable while doing this because they are so short-tailed, round-winged and, of course, black below that they almost look more like bats than birds. Looks like a bat, sounds like a digital watch - what a bird. We just had to film it but that was easier said than done. Between flights, they silently crept about between the grass clumps, giving no clues to their whereabouts until they jumped up again to give another twirl. An hour of pursuit yielded hardly any views at all of a bird on the ground, let alone a filmable view.
However, our creeping around the dunes led us to another bird high on our hitlist. A Blue Tit-like scold indicated that there was an Asian Desert Warbler nearby. In fact, during the course of the morning we must have had four or five of these birds and they were much more obliging than the larks. It was particularly pleasing to have recordings and footage of these Asian Desert Warblers to compare with the African Desert Warblers we'd filmed in Morocco.
We had another surprise too. As we walked the dunes, we put up several parties of Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse. Maybe this was a drinking spot. But there was no water. The khawr was only a few hundred metres away but the favoured area seemed to be a completely dry channel of gravel, surrounded by low scrub. These birds would be as difficult to see on the ground as the finch-larks but, if we returned in the evening, we might at least film them flying in. Maybe the larks would be singing again in the evening too.
Steppe Eagle (photo: Derek Moore).
So, we dashed to Qurayyat tip, hoping it would have more birds than the one at Sunub. Sure enough we had maybe 30 Egyptian Vultures, with some dark birds amongst them, not all of which were juvenile Egyptians - yes, there were some eagles, but almost as soon as we appeared, they took flight. A couple of Spotted Eagles settled on a very distant slope - they were as jumpy as the one we'd seen in the morning - but we did get a shot of one soaring and the distant sound of one yelping. We also got some shots of at least one of the 3-4 Steppe Eagles that were present, including one bird perched not too far away. But it was the rarest eagle that gave us the best views. There was only one juvenile Eastern Imperial Eagle but we filmed it, both on the ground and in flight at reasonably close range. This wasn't the 'hundreds' of eagles that we'd been led to expect at Sunub but we did film almost all we wanted here. Only 'Spotted Eagle perched' eluded us.
Eastern Imperial Eagle (photo: Ian Boustead).
Here, at our second rubbish dump, we also enjoyed our fourth set of sewage ponds. When I say 'enjoyed' you have to imagine how hot, smelly and fly-infested it was. It wasn't exactly what my partner Liz had hoped for when she agreed to come to Oman - I sure know how to treat a woman.
The pools had sandpipers, Temminck's Stints, Citrine Wagtails, Slender-billed Gulls, Water Pipit, White Stork and even flamingoes, so that kept us busy for a while. Qurayyat itself was also a good place for birds. I spent some time trying to get the best shots I could of the Pallas's Gulls and Crested Terns at the Khawr just south of the harbour. I also noticed that there were some 'Siberian Gulls' amongst the many Caspian Gulls. While stalking the gulls I fluked another of our target species. I'd given up trying to catch African Rock Martins in flight so I was delighted to find a spot where a couple were coming to collect mud. These would be great comparison shots with our footage of Crag Martins doing the same.
Slender-billed Gull (photo: Derek Moore).
By late afternoon we were back at Khawr al Milh, trying to stalk Black-crowned Finch Lark. They were as elusive as ever but we did get more birds like Red-tailed Wheatear, Desert Wheatear and Arabian Brown Babbler (yet another key gap filled). Sure enough, sandgrouse started to appear but, once again, they disappeared into the dry patches between the bushes. Even seeing them on the ground was almost impossible; filming was a hopeless dream. So, I set up in the hope of catching them as they flew off. When they did, I was surprised by how many different parties there were, maybe 10 groups totalling almost 100 birds but all coming up from different places. There was no central point on which to focus my attention, nor any pattern to the route they took when lifting off. While standing waiting for the sandgrouse, I noticed a movement only a few metres away. It was a finch-lark, disappearing behind a clump of grass, really close. If it comes out from behind there, I should get a great shot. I waited. Meanwhile, more sandgrouse took off. Oh no! Should I spin round and try to get the flying sandgrouse? Or stand still and hope for the lark? I stood still, lost the best opportunity with the sandgrouse, but was rewarded when a male Black-crowned Finch Lark stepped out into the open for long enough to be filmed rather well. Perhaps surprisingly this was probably the bird of the trip. Sure, Crab Plovers are spectacular, but I pretty much expected that. But the finch-larks, with their weird song, extraordinary song-flight and bloody-minded elusiveness had given me far more of a thrill than I'd anticipated.
There was one more moment of satisfaction before we left for our hotel. On the drive back to the main road we noticed a perched Spotted Eagle much closer than any we'd seen earlier. It allowed us to stop the car, switch off the engine, wind down the window and film it from inside the car. It's not the best shot in the world but having had no eagles in the first week, we'd now filmed Steppe, Imperial and Spotted Eagle all on the ground and in flight. We'd also, at last, captured birds like Asian Desert Warbler, Black-crowned Finch Lark, Arabian Brown Babbler, African Rock Martin, Siberian Gull and flying Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse, all of which we'd feared we might dip out on. So when we board that flight later today we'll be feeling a whole lot more content with our achievements.