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.