Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Qatar: Desert Waters

From the Arakhiya Farm (see my previous entry) we turned back eastwards to the Abu Nahkla lagoon, an artificial settlement area for treated water that has become a local Mecca for migratory water birds.

The lagoon is actually a fair-sized lake bounded by a raised dike, lined with reedbeds on the landward side of the dike. At the entrance, seen above, are the remains of a tiny mosque.

Here I am, with Gord in the background, waiting for interesting birds to pop out of the reeds.

Here's a bird that did, though admittedly not at close range: a Graceful Prinia (Prinia gracilis), one of Qatar's smallest birds.

The open waters on the reedbed side of the dike attract Black-winged Stilts (Himantopus himantopus) and migrant waders such as Black-tailed Godwits (Limosa limosa). the big bird at the back is a Grey Heron (Ardea cinerea).

On the lake side, shoreline rocks provided perch sites for crowds of cormorants.

Most of them, like this one, were Great Cormorants (Phalacrocorax carbo).

A few, though, were an area specialty: the Socotra Cormorant (Phalacrocorax nigrogularis), endemic to the Persian Gulf and surrounding waters: notice the very thin-looking head and bill. Socotras often associate in large flocks, but they are much commoner on the coast than on this inland lagoon.

They're a bit far off in this photo, but here among the herons and cormorants you can see a flock of Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber antiquorum).

This is one of a pair of Western Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) that circled over the lagoon.

Our last stop was the seaside town of Al-Wakra, south of Doha. This has a fine beach (though a good part of it, including a stretch of mangroves, has been dug up to supply Qatar's insatiable construction industry).

The seaside, of course, is not just of interest to birders, and despite the peaceful blue of the sea itself the beach was swarming with people. This, of course, meant that it was not swarming with birds, though there were some terns and shorebirds about.

A few birds swam about the boats in the harbour, including this Slender-billed Gull (Chroiocephalus genei) and a few Socotra Cormorants.

And that was my Qatar birding trip -- with thanks and a final nod to Gord, for taking us out, and Birgith, for inviting me along!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Qatar: Down on the (Arakhiya) Farm

By the time the CITES Conference had completed its first week of work, I was ready for (a) a break and (b) a chance to get out of Doha. Fortunately, my old friend and colleague Birgith Sloth invited me out for a day of birding with a Qatar expatriate, Gordon Saunders (a fellow Canadian, as it happens, and an editor of the Qatar Bird Club Newsletter). And so, on Friday morning, March 19 (weekends in Qatar, following Islamic practice, start on Friday), we set off - pausing only for a radiator malfunction....

Of course Qatar is almost entirely desert, and the desert has wildlife of its own, but most of the birds on the Qatar list are passage migrants and winter visitors from moister climes. To see them, local birders head for water. We visited three such spots -- an irrigated forage farm, a group of settlement ponds, and a patch of coastline. Our first stop, Arakhiya Farm, lay inland, southwest of Doha near Mekaines (Mukaynis).

Water from irrigation pipes keeps the desert at bay and the crops green, and the artificial oasis it creates attracts a host of birds. Almost as soon as we drove onto the property, we were greeted by the chattering cries of hordes of Spanish Sparrows (Passer hispaniolensis), country cousins of the House Sparrows (P. domesticus) so common in Doha.

The birds were easy to approach as they busily hunted for food and nesting material. Both sexes are striped on their underparts; the male is a particularly attractive combination of black striping and chestnut patches on a clean white background.

This male is eating a quite sizable dragonfly. Did he catch it, or is he just scavenging? We weren't there early enough to tell. House Sparrows, though, are known to flycatch insects in the early spring.

Abundant as the sparrows were, they may have been outnumbered by another species, the Crested Lark (Galerida cristata). Crested Larks were everywhere on the farm, chasing each other about and engaging in song flights over the greenery.

Larks, of course, are quintessential desert birds, and Qatar hosts a number of species. This is a Greater Short-toed Lark (Calandrella cinerea), the only other species we saw in the farm (though in much smaller numbers than its crested cousin.

We frequently heard the jangling songs of Corn Buntings (Miliaria calandra), but only a few birds, like this one, gave us a good look.

Colourful birds are somewhat scarce in Qatar, so I was particularly delighted to see this beautiful creature -- a Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) of the black-headed race feldegg, a form I had never seen before.

The puddles that attracted the wagtail also brought in this genuine wader, a Collared Pratincole (Glareola pratincola). It flew off after a few minutes, and I was just a bit too slow with my shutter finger to capture its bright (and diagnostic) orange-rufous underwings.

Several Pallid Harriers (Circus macrourus) coursed back and forth over the crop fields. This is a male, a handsome silver-grey raptor.

The barbed-wire fence sealing the farm from the surrounding desert provided convenient perches for many birds, including one of my favourites, a Eurasian Hoopoe (Upupa epops).

And here is a Stonechat (Saxicola torquata), presumably a female. I leave it to others more expert than I to determine which of the many subspecies this might be - any ideas?

Just beyond the fence, on the bare ground, we found a Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush (Monticola saxatilis), a very attractive bird that I had also found in Doha itself, where the buildings may make reasonable substitutes for the rocks and cliffs this bird prefers.

Barbed-wire fence or no, the desert is never far away....

...nor are its inhabitants, including scurrying numbers of these sturdy-looking insects - possibly Arabian darkling beetles (Pimelia arabica), but certainly some sort of darkling beetle (Family Tenebrionidae). Tenebrionids include some extreme desert specialists, especially the pitted darkling beetles (Stenocara spp.) of the Namib Desert in southern Africa, famous for their arcane adaptations for collecting water droplets condensed out of desert fogs. Does this Qatari beetle, with a similarly-pitted shell, do anything similar? I haven't the faintest idea.

Finally, encounters with two species of lizard. Out in the desert, a strange shape loomed up in front of us -- it looked rather like some of the famous (faked) photographs of the Loch Ness Monster, but in fact it was a lizard...

...An Egyptian spiny-tailed or dhab lizard (Uromastyx aegyptia microlepis), to be precise, named for the concentric rings of spines surrounding its tail. This was a rather small one, only about 10 cm or so. It let us get close enough for a few photos, then dived out of sight into its burrow.

Our second lizard was a male Yellow-spotted Agama (Trapelus flavimaculatus). We first encountered him as he perched atop a pile of rocks, surveying the scene. As we approached, he apparently took our car for a rather outsize challenger, and scrambled down to the sand to check us out.

We were obviously deserving of a challenge. He bobbed up and down, flared his gorget, and began to change colour - his increasing hues of blue and orange letting us know what was what.

Finally, convinced that he had won the day, he climbed back to his rocky throne and displayed, for all to see, his full colours. We left him there, monarch of all he surveyed.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Qatar: Glass, Steel and Sand

For those readers eagerly awaiting a report of my first travels in 2010 (should such unlikely beings exist), let me take you to the Middle Eastern kingdom of Qatar (pronounced, for those interested, something like "cutter").

I find myself here because its capital, Doha, is hosting the 15th Meeting of Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) (March 13-26), and I spend a great deal of time dealing with CITES issues for Humane Society International and the Species Survival Network (SSN).

Qatar is a friendly and hospitable country, but I strongly doubt that anyone seeking adventure travel in pristine wilderness would choose it as their primary destination. The country is a small one, with little relief and a landscape composed mostly of stony desert, relieved in some areas by clusters of sand dunes. That would not tell against it from a naturalist's point of view, of course (far from it), but the part of the country I have been able to see - within about 50 km of Doha - often resembles little more than a gigantic construction site.

The view from the Sheraton Hotel, where the CITES Conference is being held - shown above - reveals a forest of glass and steel skyscrapers, in a variety of arcane shapes, amid a forest of building cranes -- a reflection of the vast amounts of natural gas hidden below ground and the vast amounts of money on ostentatious display above it.

This is West Bay, and only four or five years ago nothing that you can see in this photograph, or the one above it, existed. A vibrant symbol of burgeoning growth, or an energy-sucking monument to rampant ecological unsustainability? That decision, Dear Reader, I leave up to you.

The Sheraton, besides its role as the conference venue, boasts gardens and shrubbery that may act as a refuge for the odd passage migrant as well as habitat for the few city birds that can brace the skyscrapers.

This rather out-of-focus photo shows one of the passage birds, an Isabelline or Rufous-tailed Shrike (Lanius isabellinus) that hung around the centre for a few days.

When possible, I have tried to take a morning stroll around the grounds before getting down to the serious business of CITES.

Doves can be remarkably hardy creatures, and both Eurasian Collared-Doves (Streptopelia decaocto) and the, smaller, darker Laughing Dove (S. senegalensis) are abundant in Doha and in the desert around it. This is a Laughing Dove.

Not surprisingly, introduced birds are common in town. Most obvious (as almost everywhere else humans have released it) is the Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis).

Another species from India, the Red-vented Bulbul (Pycnonotus cafer), shown above, is also easy to see and hear.

Surprisingly, however, the introduced bulbul is, for once, outnumbered by a native species, the White-eared Bulbul (Pycnonotus leucotis) [also, most confusingly, referred to as the White-cheeked Bulbul (P. leucogenys), which is properly a bird of the Himalayas -- the two species are sometimes lumped, and an examination of books and lists can leave one hopelessly confused as to which bird we are dealing with].

Whatever name you choose (and the Qatar bird certainly has white cheeks!), this is a delightful bird -- charming, tame and striking, with a cheerfully melodic, if short, song. It is worth remembering that the "nightingale" of Persian poetry was a bulbul, and in all probability it was this species.

Another native species, even more abundant than the bulbul, is the House Sparrow (Passer domesticus). The birds in Qatar belong to the race P. d. hufufae, one of the indicus group, and are more strikingly marked and coloured than the birds I am used to seeing back in Canada.

The "real" city of Doha lies on the other side of the harbour, where its chief feature (in my opinion) is the magnificent new Museum of Islamic Art, designed by I.M. Pei. This photo views the museum from a jetty lined with handsome wooden fishing dhows.

Black-headed Gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus) flocked around the jetty, hunting for scraps and generally ignoring the architecture, however well-designed.

This is, of course, a nature blog, but sometimes we have to take our nature where we can get it. Inside the museum are many beautiful objects of Islamic art, a few of which do deal with wild, or once-wild, creatures: falcons, still beloved of Arab hunters, and the now almost-extinct Asian cheetah or hunting leopard. Cheetahs were once tamed by Arab princes, and as this fragment of a 16th-century Indian carpet demonstrates, they apparently were good at their job.