Gazelle September 2001

September 2001

Wasp Weekend

Report by Gary Feulner

Peter Cunningham and I were on the trail of the Dhofar toad when we spent a steamy June overnight at a permanent spring in a tributary of Wadi Bih, now a small pond improved by human artifice. Plenty of tadpoles and baby toads were in evidence, suggesting possible year-round breeding at this site, but only a single adult was identified, calling by night from deep within a damp crack near the source of the spring. Full results of our toad reconnaissance in the Musandam will be published in an upcoming Tribulus.

Otherwise, the spring proved to be a magnet for life of all sorts. A group of some 20 Chukar was present near dusk, and at dawn came yellow-vented bulbuls, house buntings and desert larks to drink, along with more than 100 goats, most traveling in groups of 4-10, calling and gobbling in a language all their own but often surprisingly human. On the way in, we had observed, from a distance, a mother goat and newborn kid too young to walk.

Less endearing was the thick cloud of wasps -- some 200 or more -- above the little pond. Approach was not for the faint hearted, since both of the wasps present, the ochre-colored Arabian Paper Wasp (Polistes wattii) and the red-and-yellow Eastern Hornet (Vespa orientalis), are inquisitive social wasps that readily investigate new additions to their surroundings. This includes human observers, with the result that wasps inadvertently caught in clothing led to a few stings.

Both wasps need to drink regularly. The Arabian paper wasp can normally alight safely on the water surface to drink, and then fly off, but the hornet is heavier and breaks the surface tension, with the result that it can drink safely only from the water's edge or from a floating leaf or other object. A hornet that lands in the water will eventually drown if it cannot exit to dry land. Drowning casualties are not uncommon, but at the spring they were astonishingly abundant. A raft of more than 200 hornet corpses floated on a small upper pond, and the ground beside the main pond was covered by a mat of hundreds more, probably representing flotsam scooped from the pond by local human visitors.

Peter and I also took advantage of the overnight opportunity to blacklight for scorpions, and on the rocky ledges opposite the spring they found four large, brown-and-yellow Hottentota jayakari, probably the most common mountain scorpion, the first one only two metres from Peter's mattress.

On the way out, parched but curious, we stopped to examine the remains of stone dwellings beside the lower wadi and set in cliff ledges above. In the heat of summer and the grip of drought it was difficult to imagine why anyone would have lived here.

Return to top

Drought Scouting Questions

Report by Gary Feulner

A mid-July visit (on Friday the 13th) to upper Wadi Baraq, in the mountains near Fili, revealed a sad state of affairs. Where three years ago there were pools and fish and cattail reeds, the wadi is now bone dry, and examination of a new cistern showed that the water table was some 8-10 metres below wadi level. The cistern is used to water a resident herd of goats (some penned and others free-roaming), sheep and even several cows. Does this make sense?

Along the bedrock course of a nearby gorge, which would have been one of the last refuges of water, were found the charred carcasses of a dozen donkeys, burned, presumably, to minimize odor and disease. Did they die a natural death, from drought? At least four other donkey carcasses (and a cow) were found elsewhere in the area. Or is it possible that they were they killed as competition with livestock for food and water?

At least one pending question has now tentatively been answered. A few years ago, Wadi Baraq was noted as being unusual in having the Arabian killifish Aphanius dispar as its only fish, whereas in virtually all other mountain wadis the endemic Garra barreimiae is present and is more common. If, however, Wadi Baraq is subject to complete drying up, as now appears to be the case, this may periodically eliminate all of the fish. Garra has no way to repopulate in the short term, but the Arabian killifish is available from official sources for mosquito control. The population originally seen there is now more confidently presumed to have been artificially introduced. The test will come when the rains fall again and the wadi fills. Will the fish come back on their own, or will they need "help"?

Return to top

Al Maha by Night

Report by Gary Feulner

Not everybody has the same idea of spending a night at the Al Maha Desert Resort, so off we went with boots, flashlights and blacklights at 9 pm for a walk in the dunes. The guides at Al-Maha are all professionally trained in wildlife and conservation, but had asked for a little help to better acquaint new staff with the specific plants and animals to be found here in the UAE. We were pleased to assist.

Peter Cunningham led by lantern light and did not disappoint. Before long we had turned up several Arabian Sand Gecko Stenodactylus arabicus (an almost transparent gecko, the UAE's smallest, with stumpy, webbed forefeet), the Dune Sand Gecko Stenodactylus doriae (another pinkish nocturnal variety that earns its name), and a small Sawscale Viper E. carinatus. Peter had gone to work even before the evening had properly started, finding a specimen of Pristurus minimus, a small diurnal semaphore gecko that lives on sand, at the Al Maha gate at sunset.

A small number of insects and spiders were encountered. Both the geckos and the spiders seemed to profit from the attention of human observers and particularly their flashlights, which attracted abundant insect prey. Also observed were two of the larger desert scorpions, the black Androctonus crassicauda and the yellowish, broad-bodied Apistobuthus pterygocercus, which has a distinctively enlarged second tail segment. Back at the guest chalets, pale, thin-bodied, fast moving camel spiders were hyperactive under the driveway lights.

In the course of the evening, it became clear that the Al Maha staff are already well familiar with the habits of a number of distinctive resort denizens, and we hope to be able to share their observations and experiences from time to time. One possibility that became evident is that we may have a species of trap door spider in the UAE that has so far gone unheralded.

The next day began at 5:30 am with dramatic demonstration flying by falcons Aisha (a saqr) and Rasha (a peregrine), after which the birds drank from a bowl of water – a phenomenon that would greatly surprise most European falconers.

This was followed by a walking tour of the native plants on the reserve, during which approximately 30 species were identified, with a few additions and subtractions in comparison to a similar exercise conducted 2-1/2 years before. Again, the Al Maha staff had obviously kept their eyes open, since they arranged to pass by several problematic specimens. In light of a perceived tendency to landscape the local desert out of existence, it is also a pleasure to report that the Al Maha property remains very much a desert environment – still the real thing.

Return to top

Hanging Out at Hanging Gardens

Report by Gary Feulner

Where to find "action" on a summer weekend morning? Hanging Gardens, at the foot of the western escarpment of Jebel Qatar near Al-Ain, held the promise of both water and shade. It received at least one and possibly more rain showers last fall, causing waterfalls from the plateau, and live toads were reported during the spring (playing in fresh donkey droppings). Surface water was non-existent by the end of August, but the perennial vegetation on the slopes and wadis below the cliffs looked refreshed compared to most mountain front areas. Annual plants had fared less well, possibly due to the use of this area for grazing. We saw a single herd of 90 sheep, led by one of 5 goats.

Hanging Gardens is one of the northernmost sites for two tree species common in Oman. One is Maerua crassifolia, a member of the caper family that looks superficially like an Acacia, but with mostly drooping branches. This tree is easy to see in the lower wadi. It has a particularly distinctive flower which lacks petals entirely, having only a dozen or so long, thin white stamens. Also present, but only in the amphitheater below the main waterfall, are 8-10 large shrubs of Acridocarpus orientalis, which resembles the wadi fig Ficus cordata salicifolia. To the south of Wadi Jizzi, where wadi elevations rise above 600 metres, A. orientalis seems to fill the usual niche of the wadi fig alongside broad gravel wadis.

Water percolating through the limestone cliffs has created "pipe organ" stalactites on the cliff face near the waterfall. Droplets still formed at the tip one of these, making a drinking fountain for neighborhood birds. Most (Desert Larks and Yellow-Vented Bulbuls) had to hover for a tiny sip; only Hume's Wheatear was able to perch, awkwardly, on the cliff face to drink.

We also investigated a low cave nearby, mostly hidden by brush. On the roof near the entrance we found a few other seeps, but with their drips distorted by the growth of algae or mosses on which the dissolved calcium carbonate was precipitated. In the same area we found the skeleton of a juvenile bat and the headless carcass of a rat. At several points on the slopes below the cliffs Peter Cunningham identified the droppings of both red fox and Blanford's fox, the latter especially rich in seeds and insect parts.

Large vertical crevices at the base of the cliff form occasional slot caves. Some of these seem to be permanently shaded from the sun, creating a specialized mini-environment that may be home to relatively species not typical of the mountain areas. Among other things we saw and photographed several spiders not previously encountered.

Most exciting of all, however, was the discovery – at a distance – of two very large, dark, well-formed and recent looking stick nests on a ledge above the cliffs near the main waterfall. We estimated diameters of two feet (60 cm) or more. Each nest was sheltered by a substantial overhang and near each were the bleached remains of an earlier nest. From experience, Peter reckoned they were vulture nests. In this area, the most likely candidate is the Egyptian Vulture, but the Griffon Vulture cannot yet be ruled out. Both are said to nest gregariously in stick nests on cliff ledges (although there is some expert disagreement about Griffon nests). Although the Egyptian Vulture is relatively common in the Al-Ain area, nesting sites are not. If the nests were from the current year, then they may have been abandoned only very recently, as Egyptian Vulture chicks may remain in the nest until August. This is a site that will repay a visit next winter and spring.

Return to top

Tired and Feathered

Report by Gary Feulner

An August day in the field left us with just enough time for a late afternoon visit to Wadi Bu Qal'ah, near Mahdhah. The gorge in this unheralded wadi has permanent water and gorge-side caves that are difficult for non-flyers to reach. As a result, one of those caves proved to be home to dozens of fruit bats. At the moment the gorge also attracts the largest pigeon population I have seen at a wild site, probably concentrated by the effects of drought elsewhere. Peter Cunningham and I estimated more than 70 in flight at once, but it would have taken several times that number (I estimate, not entirely facetiously) to account for all the pigeon feathers that clogged the pools and falls in the gorge. This made our aquatic exploration of the gorge only a few notches short of revolting in places.

Return to top

An Interesting Perspective

United Arab Emirates: A New Perspective is now available at local bookstores. This book is a revised edition of the 25th anniversary volume, Perspectives on the UAE, but the new volume has updated the best and improved the rest. DNHG members who might otherwise eschew this as a political or socio-economic tome should know that it includes excellent chapters on geology and geography, ancient archeology, Islamic archeology, and tribal society, all by recognized experts such as Kenneth Glennie, Dan Potts, Geoffrey King and Frauke Heard-Bey. For history buffs, there are two chapters on the story of federation of the UAE. New chapters have been added on oil and gas, environmental protection and poetry. If you missed this book the first time around, this a good opportunity to add it to your library. The list price is Dh. 120.

Return to top

Ajman Museum

The Ajman Fort is the second largest in the Northern Emirates and now houses the Ajman Museum. It is conveniently located on Ajman's central square, just a block from the beach and only about 1 km from Ajman's two beachfront hotels. The Museum is well done and features both indoor and outdoor exhibits of traditional mud and barasti (palm frond) buildings, Ajman archeology, traditional costumes, traditional medicine, a traditional souq, functioning windtowers, weaponry, musical instruments, and traditional fishing, pearling and agriculture. The Museum is open mornings and evenings, Sunday through Thursday, and evenings on Friday. Closed Saturday.

Return to top

Other News

Jinn or Owls in Al-Jeer Cave?

Report by Barbara Couldrey

After reading repeated local newspaper reports about strange noises coming from a small cave about 300 metres above the Khasab road near the UAE border post, and hearing first hand from local Emiratis about the new ‘tourist attraction’, I decided to check it out for myself.

It is easy to identify the site as litter left by the many ‘tourists’ scars the landscape. The top part of the scramble is not for the faint hearted as there is already a lot of shine on the rather exposed rocks. The cave is about 3.5 metres wide and is blocked by fine rubble about 8 m inside. As we approached the cave two Hume’s wheatears flew out, while inside crag martins cavorted about in the entrance. There was a fairly substantial nesting shelf near the roof of the cave (out of reach) with dropping marks running down the rock. A feather or two lay on the ground, some downy, another more like a dove wing feather. There was absolutely no noise in the cave so the jinns or nesting birds had flown.

On reaching the road we met two Emiratis who had actually seen and filmed a large owl in the cave (Eagle owl?) during ‘the breeding period’. I was promised a copy of the video! Let’s hope.

One of the several stories I have heard over the last month or two beats all the rest! It came from a well educated Ras Al Khaimah Emirati who had spoken to the now elderly son of a man who had taken a party through the cave many years ago . . . a 20 minute short cut to Fujairah! Only one adventurer survived.

‘The Children`s Encyclopaedia of Arabia

October 6th 2001 saw the launch of ‘The Children`s Encyclopaedia of Arabia’ – which is the work of the Dubai Natural History Group Field Trip Co-ordinator, Mary Beardwood. For many years Mary taught in Oman, Qatar and the U.A.E. and wondered why no one had ever written a reference book for children about the Arabian Peninsula. Children tried to do their project work with books written for adults. They copied pictures, but were unable to read or understand the text. So three years ago she resolved to write a book for them, which has short pieces of information, illustrated with lively photographs and drawings. Of course, such a book relies on contributions from many different people, experts in their own field, and Mary’s many friends at Dubai Natural History Group came up trumps providing help in a wide range of areas. Colin Richardson on Birds, Alan Dickson on Insects, Gary Feulner on Insects and Fossils, Valerie Chalmers on Fossils, Marijcke Jongbloed on Reptiles and Plants, Sandy Fowler on Seashells, Beryl Comar on paper nautilus, Carole Harris on Coral reefs…what a wealth of knowledge they have between them! These same people and Lamjed el Kefi also provided some of the stunning photographs in the book. Ann Holt`s photograph of a turtle digging its ‘nest’, taken on last years field trip to Oman also found a place. Other members of the group lent books. Particular thanks go to Fi Skennerton and Deanne White for their help here. The book will be in local bookshops shortly or visit and order through Return to top


Back Home Up Next

Copyright © 1977-2011 Emirates Natural History Group
Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan

Served from Molalla, Oregon, United States of America