Gazelle November 2001
|Character||U. aegyptia microlepis||U. leptieni|
|Juvenile colouration||Grayish-brown with pale to bright yellow cross-bands and sometimes reddish spots (ocelli)||Reddish brown with dark brown stippling (vermiculation)|
|Ventral scales between neck (gular) and groin (inguinal) folds||149 - 193 (mean 171.9)||112 - 130 (mean 121.3)|
|Scales around mid-body||255 - 391||238 - 294|
|Tail whorls||20 - 24||22 - 24|
|Flank scales||No enlarged scales||Enlarged tubercles extending from sacral region almost to insertion of front legs|
For at least ten days in late September, one or more raptors (migrants? escapees?) displaced the normal kestrels at Emirates Towers. The visitors were sufficiently larger and darker than the kestrels to attract my attention immediately as I gazed out from my office on the 28th floor. The very first one I saw swept by close enough to let me guess that it was a peregrine falcon. A second bird was also in flight, at a greater distance, but seemed much browner - possibly a saqr falcon or some kind of eagle.
I thought first of the pigeon chasing operations - the subject of the DNHG's monthly lecture last February. The falcons and falconers from Al Maha Resort perform this service periodically at Emirates Towers. On a sidewalk below, I saw some eight people standing amongst large umbrellas and boxes and various equipment. One box resembled a large cage but they seemed to be using it as a platform, apparently to give directions and film each other across a low wall. That seemed a large number of people and unusual behavior for falconing, but it would have been a bit of a coincidence to observe two such oddities at exactly the same time (although Emirates Towers are becoming a popular Dubai backdrop for advertisers), so I tentatively assumed they were related.
Nevertheless, the new birds were back the next day (or one of them, at least), sans people, and remained through at least the following week. Despite eventually remembering to bring my binoculars into the office for a closer look, I was never able to get another good view. One bird flew past my window on several occasions (typically a few floors lower) but it no longer soared over the adjacent highways and construction. Instead, it was usually seen heading inland towards the lush and well landscaped racehorse breeding and training area near Dubai's Central Veterinary Research Laboratory. Only a full 2-1/2 weeks after the first sighting could I confirm that the kestrels had returned, and, presumably, that the visitors had left.Return to top
The "thumb" of Omani territory that projects north across the Hatta road in the area of the Madam Plain has been steadily developed in the past decade, first with a large police station and then with numerous plantations relying on pumped groundwater and expat labor.
Driving past a new-ish such plantation late one weekend morning (after the birds and the bees had retreated to the shade) I noticed an erect, wispy tree that I had never seen before, being used as a breaker between rows of ground crops. It resembled a sort of ghaf tree, but more delicate, with yellowish bark, pinnate leaves and long, thin, slightly sinuous pods.
I stopped to examine more closely from the fence and was greeted by a friendly worker. He apologized. He didn't know the name of the tree in English, and it doesn't have an Arabic name because it isn't normally found here. But in Urdu, he said, it is called "ginger." "Ah," I said, "We have the same name in English. So that's what it is!" Sophisticate that he was, he reminded me that I should not be surprised, as there were many words the same in Urdu and English - "button," for example (or "batan").
My friend Sher turned out to be from Baluchistan ("the Makran," he said) and I accepted his offer of tea. The barasti dining hut was all but covered by a climbing Ipomoea sp. (Morning Glory family), a relative of the sweet potato. I have now seen this insulation technique in several places, but only in the past few years. After scalding my palate as usual on the sweet white tea (those thermos flasks really work!) I enjoyed a brief tour of the plantation, about 250 meters on a side.
The principal crops here were shamam, a yellow mallow, bamiyah or okra, whose seedlings are grown under white plastic until they are about 8-10" high, and lubyan or peas. The latter I mistook for broad beans until I was given the Urdu name of matar, familiar from many a restaurant menu.
Despite my initial assumption, the "ginger" tree does not seem to match up to the spice of the same name. Knowing Gazelle editor Anne Millen to be acquainted with useful plants such as henna, I asked her about ginger. "The sort of ginger that the spice comes from is a native of SE Asia, Zingiber officinale, Family Zingiberaceae" said Anne. "It could scarcely look less like a ghaf. It's a low-growing, perennial plant with very large green leaves (lance head) which spreads laterally from rhizomes. It is usually found in damp situations or where there's frequent an abundant watering. The plump rhizomes provide the delicious spice. Sounds like more research is needed to identify the new version." Can any members enlighten us?
Anne also recalled her own unsolicited lesson in comparative linguistics, learned from a Salalah policeman. He had her practice a number of Arabic words before moving on to "hrah'jo." When she'd had quite a few goes at this, he patted the communication device on his belt and said, "English same-same."Return to top
Looking for "action," I set out early on several weekend mornings in September to examine various patches of desert in the area inland from Dubai to Sweihan where I thought there was a greater than average chance of finding life or signs of life. All of these areas, of course, suffer to a greater or lesser extent from overgrazing, which afflicts the entire Northern Emirates. Nevertheless, by choosing carefully among ghaf groves and vegetated hollows I knew from past exploration, and by watching carefully, I was able to make quite an interesting time of it. One site was sufficiently attractive that I returned by night.
In some areas that at first glance appeared to be totally drought-stricken, there was a bewildering array of small tracks. These show up especially well in the early morning light. Some looked like mini tire tread - insects, I suppose. Others showed the clear feet and tail marks of small lizards. Isolated small, vaguely star-like marks are made by grasshoppers and robberflies, that come and go by air but are heavy enough to leave an imprint.
The large, nocturnal Urchin Beetle, which has a spiny perimeter, seems to be particularly abundant in this area at the momemt (by night I saw dozens) and I learned that it makes a track that can easily be confused with that of a large scorpion.
The tracks of a sand skink or sand fish (Scincus sp.) were punctuated with intermittent small depressions beside the track where, it seems, the sand skink had "tested" the sand with its snout, for food or consistency. The tracks gave the skink's identity away when they showed clearly that the animal had dived underground, still leaving a faint surface trail.
In an area near a roadside plantation the tracks of grey francolin were abundant and I got an education in how different they can appear in hard or soft sand, and on flat or sloping terrain.
At another location I saw the clear tracks and probable burrow of a grey monitor lizard (Varanus griseus), with its large outstretched "little" toe. A nighttime visit revealed more tracks in the same area.
Some of the tracks I encountered, although relatively large and distinctive, still puzzle me, and I can only speculate as to such unlikely possibilities as lame hares or limping jerboas. I have kept photos to show to experts.
In the air, roadside plantings of the toothbrush shrub, Salvadora persica, continue to attract large numbers of Blue Spotted Arab butterflies, which spill over into adjacent desert areas.
Antlions were also seen - various kinds: blotched wings, speckled wings and crooked bodies - just a few each morning (and also by night), but still more than I have seen at other times of year. Antlions, which in flight resemble dragonflies, are the adult form of the larvae that make the small conical pits frequently seen in silty patches of ground.
At least two kinds of squash bugs were about, and I photographed them to make a record of the different color patterns. In each case they attracted my attention initially by flying past me. A lone and scraggly, but flowering, Calotropis (Sodom's Apple) was an oasis for insect life. Ants, wasps and butterflies (Small Cupid and Blue Spotted Arab) fed on the pollen.
At several sites ants (of various kinds) were among the most abundant creatures observed, although some of the smaller ants might easily escape notice unless you are looking for them. In one ghaf "forest" the Desert Runner ant (Cataglyphis sp.), a large, fast ant that carries its abdomen pointed in the air, was the most conspicuous animal species present.
Beside the Calotropis was a midden of gazelle droppings. Fencing, not only along the roads but also within the desert, restricts the movement of larger animals such as gazelle and forces them (as well as occasional observers) to enter and exit under gates and through holes in the fence. That they did so was evident from their tracks.
Fox tracks, normally fairly common, were not, at the sites I visited. I encountered only a single one. Might this have something to do with the drought?Return to top
Watch closely. The UAE has not just one or two, but five species of fringe-toed lizards (all Acanthodactylus species). In fact, southern Arabia seems to represent a center of evolutionary radiation for this group. All are diurnal (active by day), although they are not necessarily seen during the heat of the day in summer. Their habits are not well known but the sand dwelling species are reported to rely heavily on ants as prey. This seems a relatively good strategy for a daytime desert forager, since ants are prominent among the diurnal, ground-dwelling desert insects.
Three species of fringe-toed lizards, A. schmidti, A. gongrorhynchatus and A. haasi, are sand dwellers. Their habitats appear to overlap, being vegetated sand, although A. schmidti (the aptly named white-spotted lizard) is by far the most common and may be the most at home in dune areas. It has lots of closely spaced white spots on a skin about the color of coffee with milk.
A. gongrorhynchatus has been seen regularly (if not spelled regularly) over the years in the Sweihan an Al-Hayer areas, but has also been reported throughout western Abu Dhabi. It can be distinguished by its bold brown longitudinal stripes on a pale body and by its blue-white tail, which is often in motion as if signaling.
A. haasi is much rarer, having been reported only twice, from the coastal plain of western Abu Dhabi. The only published photo shows a sand-colored animal marked with pale grey-brown spots and stripes. It is thought that this species may be inactive during the winter. All of the sand dwellers live in inconspicuous burrows whose opening is just a semicircular slit.
A. opheodurus has been found in the UAE only on hard sandy plains near Al-Ain and A. boskianus is thought to be limited to the boundary area between the sands and the gravel outwash plains from the Hajar Mountains.
For all of these species, however, their presence and distribution is not well studied, especially in the Northern Emirates, so your careful observations can make a contribution. As always, a pair of binoculars that can focus at short distance (3-4 meters) permits closer observation without spooking the subjects. Unfortunately, it remains difficult for laymen to distinguish most of the rarer species using available guides, so patience and careful observation are recommended. Of course your photographs, if possible, can help to remedy that situation.
A final tip: Don't confuse these fringe-toed lizards with the (usually) much smaller Mesalina lizards (2 species) found on firm sand and gravel areas along the mountain front and the coast.Return to top
(Ed. note: Gary Feulner made a short visit to the tropical rain forest in October 2001, hiking and canoeing on a natural history oriented trip to the upper Amazon. Says Gary, "The local guide was a son of missionaries to the Cofan indians who grew up in the forest and now lives with the Cofan and works with various experts from Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. He was extremely knowledgeable and was a real asset to the trip.")
Our American guide was an enthusiastic birdwatcher so we saw and identified plenty of birds, including the primitive Hoatzin with its Mohawk hairdo (which I was said to resemble after one motorboat ride); the Russet-Backed Oropendola, which dips its whole body with each call and sounds like a large drop of water landing in a still pond; the raucous Yellow-Rumped Cacique; the cryptic Common Potoo; a flock of two dozen Scarlet Macaws; and the imperturbable, kingfisher-like White-Eared Jacamar. By night I learned to identify the faint burbling call of the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl and the more obtrusive calls of the Tinamou and the Parauque. The only avian overlaps with the UAE were the Great Egret and Cattle Egret.
The Amazon also has the richest butterfly fauna in the world (much of it still unstudied). On my own I was able to distinguish more than 50 varieties (I about ran out of evocative field names) including several species of giant, brilliant blue butterflies of the genus Morpho, which includes some of the world's largest. I was also able to distinguish some 20 dragonflies/damselflies, including river, pond and forest species.
The undoubted highlights, however, were (1) a giant anteater at close range (but our Cofan guide backed me off quickly - they are considered unpredictable and have very powerful claws) and (2) a band of red howler monkeys that we successfully stalked in the forest (they were calling like an army of banshees - if you didn't know what was making the noise, you would never, ever approach). Special treats were pink river dolphins and tree snails the size of baseballs. I also managed to see (but otherwise avoid) electric eels, stingrays, piranha, barbed catfish, and leeches. Blissfully unencountered was the despicable candiru.Return to top
At Al Awir and Pivots last Friday, in search of elusive rarities, I found only the pectoral sandpiper although there had been reports of a little pratincole. Then I went to Mushrif Park on Sunday night hoping to spot a striated scops owl on the lawn under the floodlights outside the admin. block and there were 400 picnickers on the grass! Al Awir is always interesting and possible at any time, and has little competition from sightseers, cricketers, etc. Right now it has a good wader population and plenty of ducks, but later there may be more raptors too. However work has started in the surrounding area to build a massive housing estate and its days are numbered. The same holds true for the formerly great area at the back of Emirates Golf Course. Think I'll take up plane spotting!Return to top
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