In mid-February this yr an outdated mate of mine, Paul Cook, requested me if I fancied working for him doing a fowl survey in a little-known part of the central Saudi Arabian desert. It might take fairly a while for the scars to heal the place I bit his hand off in my haste to answer! Just a few weeks later, after a feverish scramble to resume each our passports and have our visas processed on the Saudi embassy in London, the 2 of us have been sat in a suburban city park just a few hours’ drive north of Riyadh with our undertaking supervisor. The two of them would solely be with me just a few days, exhibiting me the ropes on my survey web site simply outdoors of city, earlier than they’d be heading off 800 km north to a second location, someplace close to the Jordanian border.
It was darkish, 7 pm, and as we sat on a bench going through in the direction of rows of laurel bushes and an acre or two of decorative garden, I had no thought of what I used to be about to expertise there over the next six-and-a-half weeks. The significance of the place we sat on that first night will grow to be extra obvious in the second instalment of this account – suffice it to say for the second, my expectations have been definitely being held effectively in test, primarily based on the ‘habitat’ (in the event you can name it that) which introduced itself in entrance of me.
A later, daytime view of the park the place we sat on my first night in Saudi Arabia.
I’m not in a place to disclose the exact location, besides to say it was a desert space that had not been visited by any birder beforehand. Initially at the least, my work day consisted in having to do three-hour watches from a collection of various vantage factors (VPs) spaced out throughout what at first may greatest be described as a considerably daunting, largely featureless, inhospitable wilderness. Certainly, there have been mornings at the start – arriving on web site on the break of day in off-road autos – when it appeared to all intents and functions that we have been driving over a cross between Blakeney Point and the Moon. Yet, day-to-day, it started to develop on me, and after about 10 days I actually started to understand my success in having a patch with numerous attention-grabbing options that gave every of my vantage factors one thing of their very own distinctive, particular character.
Though having no pretensions to be a geologist myself, I did suppose it may need been good to have been in the presence of somebody who might have speculated concerning the monumental elemental forces that formed the terrain the way in which that it had – particularly to provide me some type of thought as to how outdated this panorama was. Anyhow, simply to concentrate on these ideas lent a frisson of awe to the birding expertise – even on the quietest days, sitting in the silence, considering the enormity of time in relation to my little human life span, was to really feel elevated to a dimension outdoors the standard day-to-day considerations.
One of the extra dramatic historic wadis on web site.
It was quickly fairly clear that my web site was not a spot of serious curiosity for raptor migration – not in the late March to early May interval that I used to be there, anyway. Indeed, on the event my solely Short-toed Snake Eagle of the survey appeared immediately overhead, I mentioned to my two colleagues up nation, I could not have been extra stunned if an alien spacecraft had appeared in its stead!
Long days in the sphere in temperatures as much as 38c might have worn an individual down after some time, however for the very fact there was loads of different avian curiosity on provide to maintain me firm. To start with there have been a half-dozen larks that one way or the other eke out a dwelling all year long in this harshest of environments they usually have been a roughly fixed presence and a delight. The prime instance of this was the enduring Greater Hoopoe-Lark. A haunting, atmospheric sound of two or three of my VPs on the flatter japanese plain was the rising high-pitched stanzas of its territorial tune – sometimes given from the bottom or a bush, however most often accompanied by the attribute tumbling song-flight.
The distinctive fowl that’s Greater Hoopoe-Lark (Paul Cook).
Both Temmincks and Thick-billed Larks have been well-represented on my Saudi patch, affording loads of alternatives to witness facets of their household life that I would not anticipate to see on a shorter journey, together with interplay between adults and younger. Crested, Desert and Bar-tailed Larks made up the rest of the household.
One of essentially the most noticeable breeding birds encountered each day was ‘Southern’ Grey Shrike. There have been fairly numerous extremely popular hours, particularly in the course of the afternoons, when there can be just about no birds by any means to maintain me entertained aside from one or two of those formidable predators going about their enterprise from acacia bush to floor, amassing massive bugs to take again to their broods of hungry younger. Sometimes pairs have been seen asserting their dominance over different shrikes that sometimes handed by their territory – Masked, Woodchat, Isabelline, Lesser Grey and Red-backed Shrikes have been all seen off.
White-crowned Wheatear was additionally the one member of its household staying to breed whereas its congeners handed by on their approach north. They might be discovered not uncommonly on the steep slopes of the western fringe of the positioning they usually might be fairly daring and confiding at instances, the younger in explicit being one of the birds I had essentially the most frequent intimate shut contacts with as they sometimes sat subsequent to me, curiously considering what this weird human creature was doing sitting out in an surroundings that appeared so oppressingly hostile to his presence.
At the alternative finish of the approachable spectrum, Cream-coloured Courser and Pharaoh Eagle-Owl each had a tantalising, mysterious and elusive presence in the realm I used to be working. I noticed the previous on a dozen or extra events, however they have been at all times such ephemeral encounters – if not at a kilometre vary shimmering like little mirages in the desert warmth, then extraordinarily temporary, reasonably close-range affairs that ended when the fowl or the pair one way or the other managed to slink away throughout the stones, seemingly adopting invisibility cloaks in a matter of seconds. Pharaoh Eagle Owl I did handle to see extraordinarily effectively shielded by an acacia for an hour on one event after a month of seeing proof of its presence in the type of pellets and droppings, however after that … by no means once more.
Indescribably sensible. A Pharaoh Eagle-Owl in flight (Paul Cook).
Migration by the desert – what a exceptional factor! The phenomenon, carried out twice yearly by tens of millions of birds throughout the Northern Hemisphere is especially laborious to fathom as a human being if you spend six weeks watching it occurring in an surroundings equivalent to this. The most conspicuous migrants on my patch by far, and in being diurnal migrants in some methods essentially the most compelling, have been bee-eaters. From the very first day to the final, there wasn’t a single day once I did not have at the least one European Bee-eater and, on nearly each single day, at the least one Blue-cheeked additionally.
Isabelline and Pied Wheatears – each very high-quality birds in their very own proper – additionally had a sustained presence from begin to end, however not like these two, European Bee-eaters reached an ornithologically mind-blowing peak for a few week throughout a interval of fairly sturdy, blustery north-easterly headwinds across the second week of April. For 4 days in a row, they introduced me century counts, one of the times being transformed to a double century, together with a fairly memorable flock of 70 flying steadily north simply above the bottom as the sunshine was developing. Although Blue-cheeked have been usually solely a few quarter as quite a few as their cousins, they did appear to hold round for higher intervals, particularly in the primary fortnight, lighting up the desert with their luminous colors as they hunted bugs in free events low to the bottom.
European Bee-eater was simply essentially the most quite a few migrant on Graham’s patch this spring (Paul Cook).
Much of what I’ve to say concerning the passerine migration I’m going to go away to Part Two of this account. The variety of small songbirds I encountered in Saudi Arabia was a lot larger in the city parks than it was in the desert wadis, although in fact a particular admiration was naturally bestowed upon these people that discovered themselves pitching up in the latter scenario merely due to its apparently inherent austerity. I’ve to say, although, this was simply my perspective, for the birds themselves appeared fairly pleased with it – they usually have been doing it for 1000’s of years, so what do I do know!
Aside from the dearth of water (the prime cause for my anthropomorphic concern) there was definitely no scarcity of bugs. The first day on the patch noticed the unbelievable aftermath of a plague of locusts that had hit the Arabian Peninsula in the months previous to my arrival. Tens of 1000’s of corpses lay finish on finish in tyre tracks all through the desert the place one did not must be knowledgeable detective to work out that the swarms will need to have been so dense that they did not have time to get out of the way in which of the wheels of the occasional automotive or truck that had handed this manner, transferring between the nomadic farmsteads that have been strung out throughout the sandy terrain. It was a number of weeks although earlier than I made the connection between the crushed bugs and the myriad strains of tiny creatures that have been the following era offspring munching and hopping their approach northwards over the panorama.
As effectively because the locust plague, in locations there have been big numbers of different grasshoppers and crickets, which offered many a snack for the assorted migrant shrike species that turned more and more quite a few in the direction of the again finish of April.
Flora in a number of the wadis was spectacular.
Perhaps the easiest way to painting the trivialities of the fowl migration by the desert is to provide a few examples of moments that stood out for me personally. Two in explicit occurred with birds I believed I used to be already exceedingly conversant in. I keep in mind one extremely popular, silent, windless morning sitting gazing out at an unlimited stony nothingness so far as the attention might see, feeling myself slowly, mentally starting to disengage with waking ideas, when abruptly what appeared like a loud rush of air nearly made me leap clear out of my chair in startled shock. All it was turned out to be the sound of the air displaced by the wingbeat of a Swallow and the accompanying snap of its invoice because it took a fly proper subsequent to my shoulder earlier than persevering with on its merry approach with no single look behind. Ten seconds later it had disappeared from sight.
On one other event of sizzling, shimmering, quiet stillness, sat on the fringe of one of my loftier VPs, selecting up a tiny dot approaching my station from under. Gradually getting nearer over a minute or extra earlier than finally reaching the highest of the rise, pausing for a second after which off it went once more, low over the stones, watched all the way in which out of sight, this one gone in thirty seconds. It was a Willow Warbler – and in that second I registered its face because it paused on the cliff edge, I swear it was grinning!
Some of the native Bedouin-style farmsteads housing numerous sheep breeds and small teams of camels. Naturally the presence of an odd Westerner dressed in shorts, T-shirt and sun shades and sporting binoculars and a telescope will need to have been one thing of an intriguing sight to them, to say the very least. They have been very pleasant, I need to say, however at any time when one would come up and attempt to interact me in dialog I needed to move them on to my Pakistani back-up driver who was well-versed in the native language, even when his English was considerably restricted. To simplify issues throughout the board I’d normally say I used to be watching birds coming from Africa and flying to Russia and I suppose in a really broad sense from my very own perspective that helped situate me geographically in the very centre of this unfathomably magnificent, mysterious course of I used to be engaged in witnessing.
This sense of time and place was most obvious the morning I picked up a line of unidentifiable dots towards the sunshine, due south of my sitting place, at the least a kilometre away. It took 5 minutes of nagging doubt and intrigue earlier than they lastly materialised as a celebration of 17 European Rollers, flying at a 45-degree angle from me throughout the desert. The ever-handy BWP I had open on my laptop computer just about each night time to background analysis the timings and the instructions of the birds I used to be seeing all through the journey to place my sightings in perspective did it once more, confirming sure, that was precisely what was occurring. Every week in the past these birds have been in Somalia. Every week from now, the place would they be? Iran? Iraq? Turkey? Kazhakhstan? Or even Russia? Again, who is aware of? All I might do was want them effectively on their approach.
Continues quickly in Part II.