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.