Crab Plovers can be found wintering in the UAE. Photo:
Sun, sand and serious winter birding – the United Arab Emirates has it all! A mid winter trip to this safe, accessible Middle Eastern country offers a mouth-watering selection of birds that includes such iconic species as Crab-plover and Pallas’s Gull, alongside other species whose ranges make them very difficult to connect with elsewhere, such as Plain Leaf Warbler and Variable Wheatear. Situated at the southeastern corner of the Arabian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates is located at a key migration crossroads and the country’s varied landscape of mountains, deserts, and coastal mudflats supports over 400 species of bird, of which 330 are migrants from Central Asia and Siberia.
Day 1: The tour starts with a flight from London to Dubai, a modern, glitzy city with some great birding on its doorstep. We arrive in the evening and after clearing customs, we’ll drive to our first hotel at Al Ain, a journey of about 1 hour and forty five minutes. Night at Al Ain.
Day 2: Al Ain features an isolated ‘whale-back’ mountain called Jebel Hafeet and we’ll spend the day birding in the shadow of this impressive geological feature. There’ll be optional early morning birding in parkland at the base of the mountain, while those favouring a more relaxed start can check the hotel grounds. In the past the grounds themselves have played host to such wintering rarities as Eversmann’s Redstart, Brown Shrike and Black-throated Thrush, so it’s a great place to wake up! Wheatears will be high on the agenda, with dapper Hume’s commonly encountered, at least one pair of Hooded in the vicinity and Red-tailed to look for too. Barbary Falcon nest in a wadi at the foot of the mountain, where Sand Partridge, Desert Lark and Striolated Bunting can also be found, and Egyptian Vultures circle the crags above. An artificial wetland outside Al Ain holds egrets, herons and waterfowl, as well as drawing in raptors like Marsh Harrier and occasionally Long-legged Buzzard, so we’ll pay that site a visit in the afternoon. Overnight Al Ain.
Day 3: Flexibility is the order of the day, as it may be possible to organise a trip to an island off Abu Dhabi that plays host to a regular wintering flock of Grey Hypocolius. If these fabulous birds are present and access can be arranged, we’ll make the 1½ hour drive to Abu Dhabi to seek them out. Alternatively, we’ll look for birds at sites between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi, seeking out any desert species that we’ve yet to find. Overnight Al Ain.
Day 4: Leaving the mountains we’ll drive to the coast and check various harbours and beaches for gulls and terns; Socotra Cormorant and Sooty Gull are both regular in this area. If access can be arranged, we’ll finish up with a visit to the mangroves at Khor Kalba to look for the endemic kalbaensis race of Collared Kingfisher, Indian Pond-heron and waders. Our other important destination today are the fodder fields near Dibba. At the foot of an inhospitable mountain range, these fields provide an oasis for a wide variety of birds such as Pin-tailed Snipe, Richard’s, Tawny, Blyth’s and Long-billed Pipits, Indian Roller, Daurian Shrike and much more besides. Over the years this site has surely added more species to the UAE bird list than anywhere else in the country so we have to expect the unexpected. Later in the day we return to Dubai. Night in Dubai.
Days 5 - 6: We may begin the day with a visit to Safa Park to check for wintering species like Olive-backed Pipit and perhaps even a Forest Wagtail or Masked Shrike, while acquainting ourselves with some of the more familiar Arabian birdlife. Or perhaps we’ll explore Ras al Khor, a saline inlet with extensive mangroves that give refuge to Greater Flamingoes, herons, egrets, waders and attendant wintering Greater Spotted Eagles.
Just outside Dubai, the Pivot Fields will certainly be on our list of places to visit. Irrigated by huge booms rotating slowly on a central pivot, these fodder and turf growing fields provide an irresistible attraction to a range of larks, pipits and wagtails, as well as our first sought-after wader, White-tailed Lapwing. In some winters, a Sociable Lapwing or two can also be found here. Later we’ll explore the desert near Dubai, targeting some specialist desert species including Cream-coloured Courser, Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse and Pharaoh Eagle-owl. Night in Dubai.
Day 7: Heading north from Dubai, we’ll look for birds at Khor al Beida, a fantastic tidal bay where close views of Crab-plover are our goal. Great Knot should be mixed in with the roosting waders too. Nearby we’ll get the chance to test our ID skills on assorted gulls, with the aim of catching up with the Rolls-Royce of big gulls - Pallas’s Gull! A little further north we’ll head into the hills, looking for Plain Leaf Warbler, Trumpeter Finch, House Bunting and Variable Wheatear and there may be a chance to search for Pallid Scop Owl after our evening meal. Night in Dubai.
Day 8: There will be time for some birding around Dubai before we transfer to the airport for our return flight home to London where the tour ends.
Updated: 22 November 2016