Birding Southern Oman 3rd-10th Dec 2019

Between Dec 3rd-10th Petteri Lehikoinen and myself were guiding a Finnish birding group around the town of Salalah in southern Oman.  It was my 16th trip to the country since the first one 20 years ago, in Nov 1999. Still, after all these tours, the birding in Oman is still rewarding and always manages to produce some unexpected surprises.

Lying between the Indian subcontinent and Africa, Oman has a massive potential for vagrants, which was evident also on this tour. Petteri hit the jackpot when he on Dec 6th found a Chestnut-winged Cuckoo (Clamator coromandus) at Ayn Hamran, a real skulker, which eventually was seen well by the entire group.  It was a first for Oman and in fact also a first for the entire Greater Western Palaearctic! This was a most unexpected find, since the nearest breeding grounds are in NE India, with wintering grounds scattered from S India and Sri Lanka through SE Asia. Another good find was a Black Heron (Egretta ardesiaca), a wide-spread African species, which turned out to be only the second record for Oman.

During our stay the weather was most unusual for Dhofar, the southern governorate of Oman, which usually offers blue skies and constant sunshine. Except for the last two days it was overcast, even in the deserts of the interior, and we even had some rain on most days. The weather was due to a cyclone to the southwest over the Arabian Sea, which passed close to the island of Socotra and eventually made landfall in Somalia. Maybe the increased cyclonic activity over the Arabian Sea this autumn explains some of the exceptional bird records in Oman. On our previous trip in October we had a Watercock (8th for Oman) and a Stock Dove (3rd record for the country), while now in Dec we had flocks of 7 and 5 Oriental Honey-buzzards in Salalah, with totals higher than ever before. Prior to our Dec trip other groups had seen Pied Stonechat and Asian Brown Flycatcher, both rare vagrants to Oman.

But, there is some less good news, too. Some of the classic birding sites have deteriorated or even been completely destroyed by earlier cyclones. For instance, Khawr Rawri and Al Mughsayl have both suffered severely from storms and floods over the past years and birding at these sites can no longer be compared to what it used to be. Khawr Rawri, which once was one of the best birding sites of the entire area, has lost most of its shoreline vegetation (and its birds), while Al Mughsayl completely lost its reed beds and its fresh water (and the main road to Yemen, too!) to cyclone Mekunu in May 2018 and is today a seemingly lifeless inlet of the sea.

Also the famous landfill at Raysut, on the outskirts of Salalah, is no longer working. When I visited it in Jan 2019 there was still a gathering of perhaps 1500 Steppe Eagles together with tens of Eastern Imperial and Greater Spotted Eagles on the dump, now we only saw a few stray Steppes in the sky looking for something to eat. The dump closed down last spring, so this autumn the returning eagles had to find somewhere else to go when they from memory returned to their old traditional wintering site. Luckily, some of the eagles carried satellite transmitters, which led the researchers to a new wintering site, a rubbish tip in Saudi Arabia, where nearly 7000 eagles were counted in November!

In desert conditions irrigated farmland works as a magnet on birds, so also in Oman. However, one of the two big farms in Salalah, Jarziz Farm, is no longer active, and the once irrigated alfalfa fields are slowly turning back to desert, since the irrigation stopped in 2018.  It still pulls in some birds, but the former farmland has been set off as a construction site, which means it will soon be lost forever as a birding site.

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