Oman’s Dhofar region is a haven for bird-watchers – especially during its annual monsoon khareef season when global migration routes meet. Aftab H. Kola grabs his binoculars and explores a handful of rare species to be spotted.
Bird-watching is one of life’s more peaceful outdoor pursuits; so, it’s little wonder that it’s one of the fastest-growing leisure activities in the Sultanate.
Oman is home to more than 480 varieties of birds, plus 100 other temporary species who use the Sultanate as a stopping point on their migration routes. It’s also a country well-endowed with habitats where an abundance of species thrive – from Muscat’s Al Ansab Wetlands and Al Qurum Natural Park, the Damaniyat Islands, Sawadi and Fahl Islands, Bar Al Hikman and Masirah Island, to the Dhofar region and the Musandam Peninsula, all are popular sanctuaries teeming with winged beauty.
But it’s during Dhofar’s annual rainy season – or ‘khareef’—that the governorate becomes engulfed with unique varieties of birds who call its verdant haven home, even if only for a short time.
The natural beauty of Dhofar’s landscape is complemented by its varied wildlife – the more diverse, the better. With an already well-established population of bird species, during khareef this number rises significantly due to the annual great migrations of species between Africa and their Eurasian breeding grounds. Soaring across international borders and foreign frontiers, they deftly negotiate and fly over the mountains and sea to reach their temporary resting place in Dhofar.
If there’s a photographer in you, then the governorate is the place to be during khareef as the entire region transforms into a green canvas. While its captivating panoramas are worth the flight (or ten-hour road-trip!), it’s Dhofar’s winged fauna that add to its back-to-nature allure. Sighting flocks of birds on the wing or spotting a rare species in flight or in repose as they forage for food and water is as rewarding an experience as they come for amateur ornithologists. Couple this with the familiar landscape over which they fly, which has evolved over thousands of years and you have a natural tableau unlike any other.
For bird enthusiasts Dhofar is a hotspot boasting a diverse array of species within a relatively modest geographic area – from African, Oriental, and Palaearctic species, to large numbers of sea birds. From coastal ‘khawrs’ (lagoons), beaches, and cliffs, to irrigated farmlands and thickly-wooded wadis, these feathered bipeds are all prevalent – and make for an illuminating spectacle of nature.
Dhofar’s monsoon khareef season is unique to the Arabian Peninsula, making Oman ornithologically unique in that it lies at the centre of three global great migration routes. These temporary species who stopover along their journeys mix and mingle with local endemic species – many of which also have African origins. Many of these visitors are Palaearctic or Eurasian species who have taken up temporary residence on their spring or autumn migrations, while others even spend the entire winter in the governorate. Places such as Mirba, Taqah, Mugsayl Beach, and Salalah are prime locations where you’re more than likely to spot some truly diverse species.
Among those founds in the governorate’s mountainous or wooded areas are the African paradise flycatcher, the shining sunbird, the African rock bunting, Hume’s tawny owl, the yellow-bellied pigeon, African scops, and Verraux eagle breeds. During Dhofar’s winter season, more newcomers show their faces with birds such as the tawny eagle, the long-tailed shrike, and the lesser spotted eagle making appearances. The region is also home to endemic Arabian species too – so keep an eye out for the Yemen serin, the golden-winged grosbeak, and the Arabian red-legged partridge as all are common.
During khareef, the monsoon results in an up-welling of nutrient-rich waters off the coast of Dhofar which support large numbers of fish and attract a plethora of sea birds. Mirbat – around 60kms from Salalah is another place ideal for bird-spotting, with species such as masked boobies, Jouanin’s petrel, the pale-footed shearwater, Audubon’s shearwater, and Wilson’s storm petrel commonly sighted.
Coastal ‘khawrs’ or lagoons in Dhofar are where waterfowl and migratory birds such as the pheasant-tailed jacana, the lesser flamingo, the African spoonbill, the long-toed stint, herons, pintail snipes, Baillon’s crakes, and pale rock sparrows all take refuge. It’s said that more than 70,000 water-birds (herons, waders, gulls, and terns) use Oman’s beaches and coastlines for food foraging and for roosting. Near Taqbah, close to Mirbat, you can watch incredible numbers of birds crouching amid the vegetation – unmindful of the long lenses and inquisitive gaze of tourists. And with more tourism agency capitalizing on the region’s bird bio-diversity by offering bird-watching excursions, your next trip to Dhofar this Eid is as easy as grabbing your binoculars and Audubon guide-book!
• Try to get a field guide which contains information on different species along with appropriate illustrations to help you identify the species you’ve spotted. You can find some great resources on www.birdsoman.com.
• Invest in field binoculars. While there are some species large enough to easily be spotted by the naked eye – others may be much smaller or seen distantly or in low light. Devices like a powerful pair of field binoculars will help you determine the correct species.
• Approach all wildlife with care. Drive cautiously, walk slowly, and speak quietly when approaching birds. Because remember – if they’re spooked, they’ll fly off in a flash.
• Know and respect the environment. Be sensitive to bird and wildlife habitats and know the law when ventured into potentially protected areas.