You’re going birdwatching in Oman?” asked friends in that special tone adopted for the near insane. “What on earth can you hope to see in all that desert?” But birders appreciate a challenge, and anyway, even desert countries have their oases, where grateful migrants crowd leafy short-stay hotels.
As I strolled the somewhat scruffy garden of the Al Ghaftain guest house at Qitbit, on the fringes of the Rub’ al Khali or “empty quarter” (the desert that dominates Oman’s interior), I remembered the cynics’ words as I met some fellow travellers. Half a dozen blue-cheeked bee eaters fortified themselves for the next stage of their migratory journey by flying around us, sometimes zooming to ankle height and up again, catching the insects whose attentions we had excited. A bluethroat huddled beneath one bush, a green warbler in another. And for me there was a special excitement.
In my boyhood and since I had often heard a cuckoo. But I had never seen one, and with the number of cuckoos in Britain having fallen by 90 per cent my chances of doing so were declining fast. If you do catch a glimpse of a cuckoo in Britain, it will probably disappear rapidly. Here in the desert, the migrating common cuckoo we encountered was too dazed by its exertions to do more than stare balefully back. It was at Qitbit, too, that I saw my first wryneck, a bird I have sought for 30 years at home. The only worry was the sleekness of five patrolling cats in the garden: the exhaustion of the migrants makes life too easy for them.
Nearly 500 species of bird have been recorded in Oman, some residents, some just passing through on their way to sunny but better-watered breeding grounds in Africa. The best way of seeing them is to join up, as I did, with a group of birders led by an expert organisation such as Birdquest. Leader Mike Watson had two driver assistants, both expert spotters, and our party of 12 travelled in three four-wheel drive vehicles, on and frequently off road. We began in the capital, Muscat, and meandered over two weeks via mountains and coast to the southern city of Salalah.
On the way to Qitbit we had passed tough little desert larks at the roadside. They were eking out a living on the seeds of scrub bushes while handsome bobbing desert wheatears provided their sentry security. Red-necked ravens soared above and we occasionally encountered a hoopoe lark, an amazing little bird whose plumage merges perfectly with the sand. In spring, it courts the female by soaring into the air, then folding its black and white wings and diving down vertically, only re-opening its parachute again just before it hits the ground. There must be easier ways.
Walking in the desert, I discovered, whether through soft sand, rocky scree or ravine, gives you an extraordinary sense of optimism and renewal. Withered little plants cling to some kind of life and suddenly burst forth into vivid tiny lime green leaves or yellow flowers. Suddenly, on the horizon, you catch a glimpse of a wary desert gazelle or a fleet-footed hare. And perhaps, as we did with the aid of bird-spotters’ telescopes, you may happen across a flock of sandgrouse. We found one group of 48 spotted sandgrouse fussing along, feeding on imperceptible seed-scraps with the self-important air of Rotarians at an aldermen’s dinner. Amazingly, the handsomely marked males will fly 30 miles to a waterhole and soak their breast-feathers in water, which they take back to slake the thirst of the young on the nest.
Travel through the desert is not always easy. There are road signs to warn of camels ahead but these beasts, proceeding at their own pace, laconically chewing and unflinchingly meeting your gaze, don’t have any lane discipline.
Trying to board a 15-car ferry to the island of Masirah, we arrived first on the jetty. But tickets and queuing seemed a foreign concept to the other passengers. In yelling bedlam, 50 vehicles converged and jostled to crowd on the boat. We only secured the last space because I stood in front of a Toyota pick-up loaded with goats and defied the driver to run me down.
The trip was then cancelled because of rough seas and that night we had to evacuate our hotel because of rising waters. Yes, as ridiculous as it may sound, the desert flooded. Cars were swept away in the wadis and cross-desert roads were submerged. The migrating birds were not so much beaten down by the sun as buffeted by the rains.
The birders took it all in their stride. They are mostly obsessives whose only thought is to tick off the next “lifer” on their list. Two of the friendly bunch I travelled with, a computer expert from Texas and a clinical pathologist from California, had “life lists” of more than 8,000 birds (of the roughly 10,500 available in the world). One had visited more than 85 countries, most of them several times, in amassing his list. After we had seen the grey hypocolius, a neat but by no means exciting bird that he needed to see to complete his trip list of possibles, he phoned the airport and flew out at 2am the next day, mission accomplished.
I saw more than a hundred birds in Oman that were new to me. The advantage of travelling with experienced birders is that you won’t miss much. Birding is a pre-dawn to post-dusk activity (and then you might be out with torches looking for owls and nightjars) with no time for conventional tourism. “Oh, was that really the Queen of Sheba’s Palace they are excavating?” Birders have their own protocol – “Peter first to the scope please, it’s a lifer for him” – and there are said to be birder partnerships where husbands and wives don’t record a “life tick” until the other has seen the bird too, for fear of putting an intolerable strain on the marriage.
As well as desert a-plenty, Oman has a long coast with mountains and estuaries, farms and lagoons. Take a good camera and you will have wonderful memories from a birding trip. I won’t forget the sight of 400 eagles filling the sky above Salalah rubbish dump, of spoonbills, flamingos and ibises in profusion stuffing themselves in mud flats, of thousands of gulls, terns and waders taking to the air in a feathered swirl as a harrier beat along the beach. You might see 20 green blue and yellow bee eaters on a leafless tree, temporarily decorating it like Christmas ornaments, or a flock of little Indian silverbills clinging precariously to swaying stems of alfalfa. And you might witness, as we did, a positively primeval scrap between an eagle and a feral dog defending her puppy. After even a day’s desert birding, you will never underestimate the instinct for survival.
Birdquest (www.birdquest-tours.com) runs birdwatching tours around the world. Its 17-day trip to Oman and Bahrain costs £3,650 including all meals, transport and guides, but not international flights