Friday, April 1, 2016

Oman 2016

"Ain't it just like the night to play tricks when you're tryin' to be so quiet
We sit here stranded, though we're all doin' our best to deny it"

In 2014 a coworker, Kathleen, emailed me a link about the discovery of a new species of owl in Oman. "Had I had heard all about it?" I hadn't, but a little research revealed it was a Hume's-like Strix owl. I immediately started day dreaming and in early 2016 bought a ticket from Seatac to Dubai. An owling trip to the Emirates and Oman had 7 potential new owls for me: Pharaoh eagle-owl, Arabian eagle-owl, pallid scops-owl, Arabian scops-owl, Omani owl, Hume's owl and Lillith's owl.

A lot of people helped me with this trip, especially Rene Pop, Magnus Robb, Jens Eriksen, Tommy Pedersen, Shaun Coyle and Dave Ward.

March 17th. Although I had originally planned on flying up to Seatac, by the time I priced tickets from Portland they were $400 for the 160 mile trip so I decided to drive. After a day's work, I put the boys to bed and have a coffee on the couch with my wife Tui. "You pack light". "Yep, I know". We say goodbye, and I set off on a cold, mostly clear night. A gibbous waxing moon followed my little white car north along the freeway.

The drive to Seatac went well and I pull into long-term parking just after midnight.

March 18th. It took just a few minutes to catch the bus to the terminal. There I scope out a nice bench to sleep on. I unpack my bag to get my sleeping bag. FUCK. My owling gear was at home! 30 more seconds of frantic digging confirmed the worst. I quickly execute the math. There was time, barring traffic problems, to make the drive home and pick it up. It was 1am and I have a 930am flight. It's painful to wait for the long-term parking bus to pick me up, and then lumber slowly through the terminals back to the car.

Once at the Civic, I bolt onto the freeway and drive eighty. Past suburbs full of sleeping people, farms, and forests, all the way into my driveway. Tui's surprised and confused. I am literally home for twenty seconds, then hit the road again. this time fighting sleep, all the way back to Seatac, arriving at the terminal before sunup. At the gate I sleep profoundly for an hour, then board the big plane. It's 14 hours to Dubai, and I sleep for most of them.

Arriving at Dubai is smooth. At Hertz I collect my RAV4, Maureen at the desk warns I might not be able to get it across the border to Oman, because I don't have the original registration. It takes me a couple of hours to reach the border. I fixate on this problem, but it's redundant as the border crossing is easy for me.

Once in Oman, its about 350 fast kilometers to Rustaq, a small town at the foothills of the Al Hajar Mountains. From there I drive into a large, high-walled wadi, where the Omani owl has been reported. By now it's 730pm, and recently dark.  It had rained last week, and there was lots of standing water and the air was thick with little mosquitoes.I do my best to ignore them. While sorting out my owling gear I hear a distant pallid scops-owl. I track one down and enjoy a great view in a gnarled elb tree. They are common here. They have a surprisingly deep monotonous call. It's yellow eyed, with ear tufts and dark streaks on it's underparts, most strongly marked on it's chest. The bird's gray, lacking brown tones.

I start to explore the wadi. High on the cliffs goats, bleat sounding like calling owls. I do hear Omani owls a few times, but always high above me, calling very sporadically. I fret they are incubating, a time that owls can be elusive. This place is tough, the walls of the wadi tower hundreds of meters above me, and above them mountains for thousands of meters. Its a wild and impossible place.

I walk the wadi for 7 hours, then drive to a side canyon and explore it, until the huge boulders become too much. I return to the wadi, and continue my search 'till 5am. Exhausted I crawl into the back of the car and sleep 'till noon.

March 20th. I had slept with the windows open.

Eventually the assorted biting flies and heat from the midday sun was too much. I get up and re-read the site info I have from my friend Shaun who was hear a couple of months ago and saw two Omani owls at different sites. I realized his second site is about 15km away, and I plan to work that site tonight.

I head into Rustaq, and eat some Pakistani food. After lunch I set out looking for internet, but bad traffic and spotty directions defeat me and I return to the mountains, to Shaun's second site. His photos enable me to pinpoint the exact place he had camped when he heard the owls. This site was very different from the one I worked last night.  It is made up of rocky hills, which were much more accessible, though still no walk in the park. By now it was about 4pm, and I spend a  couple of hours before dusk exploring the navigable wadis and tracks that penetrate the hills.

Waiting by the car, just after sun set, I hear a very distant Omai owl call spontaneously, once, twice, three times. I set off into the area, fast. I need to cover 1-2km before it gets completely dark.
It takes a while to really get into the hills where the owl called from, and once there I don't hear anything. I work my way around to other nearby Wadis. Still nothing. Walking a big wadi I spotlight a pair of eyes on the cliff-I'm thrilled for a minute, until I walk closer and the realization that I'm looking at a fox sinks in. Closer to the road I hear a Lillith's owl, which responds very aggressively to the tape. I get great views of this are strange little owls. It's darker than the typical Lillith's. I work the area until 11pm, then return to last night's big wadi.

Back in the big wadi I worked last night I try the specific patch of cliff where Shaun had had the owl just two months before. Nothing. I try the entrance to this wadi, but it's full of huge car sized boulders and it's slow going. Foxes and wild cats prowl the cliffs, their brilliant eyes fool me every time.

My next gambit is to try a similar wadi 3km to the west. I had checked this out earlier today and it looked very good. Under a beautiful moon I hiked this wadi for a few km. More foxes-their brilliantly reflective eyes owl-like. Hungry mosquitoes torment me. Deafening as I try and listen for the owls that won't call. Jackals do. They sing freely. Rocks fall from high above and far away. Echoing spectacularly.

Back at the original wadi. I walk the road, spotlighting the cliffs, looking for eye-shine and listening.

At 4am I give up and sleep in the car.

March 21st. Beep, beep. Its 6am. It's time to get up. The forecast is for rain and blustery winds, so my plan is to head to the south of Oman. There I can escape the bad weather and search for three other new owls. I take a swig of water of plastic-tasting and hit the road.

I hoped to take a shortcut south through the Al Haraj mountains, but apparently its a bad road, so I ended going the long the long way through Muscat. All 1200km! Once I clear Muscat, traffic calms down. I headed south from there, through Nizwa. South of Nizwa the road crossed a vast plain of featureless, stony flat wastelands.
I listened to Radio Oman, which wasn't good, but I missed it all the same when I lost the signal. At a lonely gas station, in the middle of nothing I find a hitch hiker. He's from Bangalore, and is heading to Salalah. He speaks very little English, but is clearly very happy to be given water. We listen to Public Enemy and drive. The last 200km before town were a struggle to stay awake.

Salalah was bigger than I expect, and traffic was dense. I drop off my hitchhiker as the sun set, and set off up the Coast to Ain Hamran. It was dark when I arrived at the small wooded park in the foothills of the coastal mountains. I immediately heard several Arabian scops-owls. It took just a couple of minutes to tape out two, one I saw really well. It's a tiny little scops, with little ear tufts. yellow eyes and unfeathered legs. It was a lot less crisply marked than the Pallid scops. The chest had a splotchy affect, that gave the owl a smudgy appearance. It's call was very distinctive-a loud cricket-like scratchy trill

While working on the scops-owl I hear a distant Arabian eagle-owl. A few minutes later it had fallen silent and no amount of taping, or wandering around and spotlighting the few big trees revealed it. It was a small area to cover and by 930pm I had decide to try one of the other nearby sites for this species.

 My next site was Ayn Torqua, also situated in the foothills of the coast range. I find a beautiful spring surrounded by big riparian trees. I notice the frogs singing at the pool where the same as those singing on the recording I use. Perhaps they are frog eaters? Despite this I didn't hear any Eagle-owls, though scops called without provocation. By now it was 11pm and I was starting to worry so I pressed on to Wadi Dharbat-a park, also set in the foothills of the coastal mountains.

I park up and walk down to the wadi. In response to my tape an Arabian eagle-owl sang-a two note soft call, the first note longer. It was on the far side of a body of water, that had been helpfully labeled as having bilharzia. Teetering on the edge of the water I play my tape and peer into the trees on the far side for signs of life.  Eventually the owl flew across the water, and over me to some scrubby woodland beyond the car. I scramble up the rocky slope, my heart beating in my throat. I found the beautiful big owl, perched atop of a open scrubby tree. It sang, in silhouette against the moonlight, then disappears back across the water.

I pursue it some more, trying to get a better view, while not getting bilharzia, but never saw it again. By now it was midnight and I am really exhausted. I return to the car and crawl in to the passenger's seat. It was a beautiful night, warm and perfect under a huge white moon. A barn owl screamed in the distance, but I ignore and sleep.

March 22nd.  I wake up feeling good about last night. It's 9am, the sun's high and the car is hot inside. I set off into Salalah. I eat breakfast at a Indian fast food place. Then I track down the internet in an old school gym of all places. I email Tui and solicit help from a couple Omani birding contacts. I am all set and ready to go by noon. I head northeast along the coast to Ash Shuwaymiyyah. It's an amazing drive, with huge limestone cliffs plunging into the Indian ocean.
The road hugs the coast for an hour, then climbs dramatically over the cliffs, then descends to a beautiful palm fringed lagoon, before climbing the huge cliffs again and finally returning to the coastal plane.
At Ash Shuwaymiyyah I eat fish and rice, then head inland up Ash Shuwaymiyyah Wadi. This is an amazing place-a wide wadi, described by high cliffs, set in the austere desert. In the cliffs are a series of beautiful lush hanging gardens fed by springs. the whole place is utterly beautiful. It gets better as the sun begins to set.

At the end of the road I park up and explore. At dusk I climb above the hanging garden and play my tape.
Far away a distant Hume's owl sings back to me. Then another sings, closer. It's across the wadi. I run down the steep rocky slope, and across the expanse of the flat wadi bottom up to the cliffs on the far side. It's a long run, but the owl continues to sing from up on the wadi wall. It's a big cliff, and I am unable to coax the owl into view. I find a buttress to climb up, that will bring me closer. It's not easy scrambling over lose steep rocks, and by the time I'm level with where the owl was singing from it's moved 500m along the wall. I scramble back down the rocks as quietly, and quickly as I can and make my way under the owl. Then climb the steep slope, until the slope becomes a cliff face. there I tape. The owl sings back to me, beautifully. A lonely sincere solicitation: one long note, followed by two shorter paired notes. I start to scan the wall with my flashlight. The scale of this place is vast, and the limits of the flashlight obvious. Then a brown owl flies from high on the wall, closer and lands on the wall level with me. It's far enough away I can only make out the eye shine, its brown mantle and lighter underparts. Still it's a magical bird-an owl I have dreamed of seeing ever since I first read about it as a school boy.

I'm so thrilled I practically floated back across the wadi to the car. I decide to celebrate by setting up the tent. This place is too beautiful to sleep in the crappy car that smells like air-freshener. I find a piece of flat ground and make my pitch. I fall asleep to a singing Hume's high on the wadi wall.

March 23rd.  I wake in the middle of the night, the little tent's rattled by a strong wind. The full moons shining through the tent and it's impossible to sleep. I retreat to the car and sleep soundly until first light.

I decide to head back to the Al Hajar mountains in the north of Oman to try again for Omani owl. I take a walk in the wadi, just to get some exercise before the long day's drive ahead. Then I drive out the wadi and up to a town called Shalim.
My map shows a direct road that runs north to Nizwa and Muscat, Two different guys at the gas station assure me that's not the way, and point me to an indirect coast road. I reluctantly head out that way, hoping that I will meet the direct road along the way. After a couple of hours drive I see a sign for Muscat. I take this road, which for an hours is great, its a fast road through the interior. At an oil field the pavement runs out, but a good grave road continues to the north east. I follow this out into no-mans land of oil infrastructure and desolate wastelands. there is nothing here, certainly no people to ask. All the signs read for different oil fields. After another hour the road starts to zig zag pointlessly across the flat lands. It's incredibly hot out, and it's hard to not be concerned. According to my map, and the odometer I should have met up with the main Muscat-Salalah road by now. Eventally I come to a "road closed" sign, then to my left a  road that followed a pipeline that was marked "private". I travel for a few minutes down this road, but my gas is down to a third of a tank and I don't have the heart to continue. It's a hot tedious drive back to the coast. The whole side trip is 320km. As a further indignity, by the time I make it to the coast I retreat another 20km back to the nearest gas station.

I am back on track-though it's 1pm and a long drive to Nizwa. I eat some Indian food, the drive on. Near Duqm I pick up Salah, a hitchhiker. He's an English teacher from Syria, heading back to his home in Sinaw. Understandably he has a lot to say about Syria.

After a couple of hours of driving under blue skies and a big hot sun, the skies turn chocolate colored.
A big wind picks up, and soon we are driving through a dust storm. It's impossible to see more than 100m and even though the road is straight, the situation feels ominous. Soon the storm breaks and it starts to rain. Cars ahead start to flash their lights in warning. Salah tells me of a wadi ahead that might be flooded. Two weeks ago he had to spend the night at a mosque on the banks of the wadi waiting for the waters to recede.

Sure enough we reach the flooded wadi. It's a big expanse of brown water-about 100m. Uncertain we stop at it's edge and think. Then on the far side a 4wd Hilux starts to cross. The Hilux makes it no problem. It looks like the water is knee height. We set off, very slowly. My foot freezes, barely on the gas as we edge through the brown water. It feels like we are stalling, probably from the effort it takes to push through the water. I'm horrified at the prospect of killing the car. But we emerge triumphantly from the brown water. We are both jubilant. Salah thanks Allah.

It's a little after dark by the time I arrive in Sinaw. I drop off Salah, check my email-no new leads on Omani owl, then head off to a wadi behind Birkat. I work both a couple of side wadi's that are steep and boulder strewn, and the main flat bottomed gravel wadi.  It was a beautiful night with a big moon. I hear an Omani owl and climb quickly up the  rocky side of the wadi to get closer, but the scale of the walls, and the indifference of the owl to my tape is overwhelming. I hear a couple of other Omani owls, but they are all far away, high above and unresponsive.

I do find several sets of eyes, foxes, cats goats and big lizards, each for a moment is exciting, then inevitably disappointing as the truth reveals itself. I did hear four pallid scops-owls, and see one, singing from the wall of the wadi, like a miniature Omani owl. I return to the car at 5am and sleep.

March 24th. I wake in the hot car mid-morning, Dehydrated and groggy I drive to Nizwa.
I find a posh hotel-I think that's the only type here. I shower and wash my stinking socks, then sleep till late in the afternoon.

It's Indian for dinner, then I return to the wadi near Birkat.
Some Pallid scops-owls sing their modest call. I spotlight several foxes and three cats. No Omani owls at all, not even calls. Still it was a most beautiful night, with a big moon illuminating impossibly rugged mountains that rise out of the wadi bed. I pass through a small village in the wadi, doing my best to walk in the shadows and my passing goes unnoticed. I walk twenty kilometers-and venture deeper into the wadi where clear waters flow and frogs sing. It's technical terrain up there and I scramble over a labyrinth of huge boulders to get deeper into the wadi. I'm done by 4am, and return to my hotel to sleep until check out.

March 25th.  I make the most of the hotel's breakfast then head out to the Wadi near Rustaq. This involves a longish drive via Muscat around the Al Hajar mountains. Once in the area I end up exploring an alternate canyon 20km to the west. The cliffs look promising, and they are a little less imposing. I wait for darkness, then walk along the road taping occasionally for Omani owl. In response all I hear area a couple of Pallid scops. The wadi isn't that ideal-their are just too many cars, so I decide to return to the original site I had worked on my first two nights in Oman. 

I begin at Shaun's old site, by the rocky hills. This time, I work a larger area and climb high into the barren hills. I hear a single call from an Omani owl, and climb high into the hills to get close. Alas the bird is indifferent to my taping and reluctantly I give up. I find a Pallid scops-owl singing from a large cavity in the wadi wall and a few foxes. Below a scrub fire, fills the bowl with smoke-illuminated white by the moon, and encircle in huge mountains it's a magical night. 

Around midnight I head back to the original site. On the road I pass a convoy of  a dozen cars. The lead vehicle is a jeep, and hanging onto the roll cage are a couple of guys with big guns. Only in Oman is this NOT a concerning situation. The last car that passes is decorated with balloons and ribbons and it's now clear its a wedding party. I pull up a few kilometers away and hear some spectacular gun shots echoing off the cliffs above. I had a particular wall staked out for the owls, and climbed as high as I could into the cliffs. The view from up high of the long shadows and mountains in silhouette is amazing. The Omani owls remains mute. 

I return to the wadi bed and walk 4km to the end, taping and listening to foxes, mosquitoes, goats and scops-owls. At Shaun's other site, I hear a single distant contact call from an Omani owl-it's 3am on my last night, so it's pretty much my last chance. I run across the wadi bed, and as quietly as I can scramble up the small cliffs and rocks to get up to the calling owl. It calls again and I am able to hone in real close. I really couldn't have been more excited-my heart is pounding out my chest. I'm hearing a  goat cough. I'm a little gutted. Still there are two hours'till dawn. A small shooting star passes overhead.  I walk and spotlight the cliffs for eye-shine. I find a few more goats, but no owls. A muezzin calls the faithful to pray. The sound fills the enormity of the whole place. The sky is unquestionably fading to blue. 

March 26th. I'd drunk a half gallon of mountain dew and eaten 800mg of caffeine tabs last night. All through the night I'd ridden a nice caffeine high. Now I'm trying to sleep and it's hopeless. After an hour I gave up and hit the road, heading for the Emirates. The drive to the border at Al Buraimi was fast an easy.

I ate great Indian food in Al Buraimi. Then get stuck in a long line at the wrong border crossing that was open only to locals. Eventually I get to the Hili crossing and make my way into the Emirates. The first thing I notice are women everywhere in sharp contrast to rural Oman, where the only women I saw where passengers in cars. I headed to Qarn Nazwa, a limestone outcrop in the vast sands that's a known site for Pharaoh eagle-owl. I have really good directions from my friend Dave. I parked up in the heat of the day and set off to explore the outcrop. I have a good idea of where the owl roosted-in some small caves/holes set in a small cliff. I work the area thoroughly, but don't find either owls, or pellets or feathers. Where ever the owl sleeps it wasn't the holes I checked. 

I did scare up three dainty Arabian Antelope and a jackal. I have plenty of time, so walk about checking more holes for roosting owls, but all I find are a couple of feral cats. I set my self up on a small peak and enjoy the sunset.
A pair of ravens starts dive bombing something at the far end of the escarpment. I run along the ridge to get closer-sure they must be mobbing an owl. Eventually when I am a couple hundred meters away I see they are mobbing the jackal. I settle down and continue scanning the skyline for the big owl. It's pretty noisy here-there is a major road just 500m away, and it's hard to listen for owls. I try taping but get no response. Then I notice a group of white figures below. I am amazed to see a group of Oryx. (It turns out the reserve is set aside for Oryx, so it's not such a surprise). 

While walking the ridge, without my snake guards and without the aid of my light I pass and angry coiled saw-scaled viper-not one to stand on. 

I try taping a few more places, but traffic is noisy is so  I decide to set up camp in the sand and try again at 1am, when it's quieter. My alarm goes off and I dutifully go out and tape for the big owl-even though it's quieter out, I get no response. I set my alarm for 5am. I wake instead to the muezzin. It's still dark and I get my gear together and head back up to the escarpment in search of the big owl. Well there is nothing. I pack my little tent and set off in the cool morning towards to glowing sodium light of Dubai. "Fool Gold" plays on the radio. I'm speeding on the empty highway so I don't miss my flight.