Oman: Two Prized Bird Families at the Crossroads of Asia and Africa

The Sultanate of Oman is truly unique. For many, this will be the first and perhaps only Sultanate that they will visit, a “mega-tick” straight off the bat. Beyond this though, it is a land of stark and wonderful contrast: towering desert mountains to deep azure ocean, and ochre desert to the lush Afrotropical southern coast. Sitting on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula, flanked by the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea, Oman sits far enough from the rest of the Middle East to have entirely avoided the troubles that currently plague the region. It is an ancient land, with strongly traditional values; crime is almost non-existent and the people are incredibly welcoming. Not only does it have some of the best and most varied birding in the region, but it is also an easy and safe place to visit, with great infrastructure, comfortable accommodation and excellent food.

Oman is unique in its bird life thanks to its position at the southern tip of Arabia, making it a natural bridge between Asia and Africa. This tour takes in the Oriental north, the African south, and the starkly Arabian interior in a two-week adventure. There are many resident target birds, plus a huge abundance of wintering migrants from the three continents that meet here. For the growing group of birders interested in bird families, the main tour visits one of the strongholds for the strange Hypocolius, a monotypic bird family.

For those wishing to ensure the addition of the two very important bird families – Hypocolius as well as Crab Plover; and for those interested in avian spectacles, the short extension to Barr al Hikram must not be missed. We travel south from Muscat to the town of Al Hij and spend two nights at Barr al Hikram, a sandy coastal spit that features some of the most mind-boggling numbers of shorebirds anywhere, including the unique Crab Plover.

Crab Plover; one of two important bird families offered on this tour
Crab Plover; one of two important bird families offered on this tour (Ken Behrens)

Day 1: Arrival in Muscat. Meeting at Muscat International Airport today, we’ll take an afternoon and evening to explore the outskirts of Oman as we acclimatise and take in our first views of the Sultanate of Oman. We’ll skirt the shores and a local wetland in search of shorebirds and a myriad of gulls and terns, and explore city parks and the Qurm peninsula for passerines and wintering migrants that get funnelled into the few green spaces in this starkly arid land. We’ll overnight near Muscat.

Day 2: Jazeerah al Fahl island to Sohar. This morning we’ll take a short boat trip to the offshore island of Jazeerah al Fahl. On the short crossing, we’ll likely encounter our first Persian Shearwaters and perhaps Jouanin’s Petrel, as well as Osprey, Great Crested Tern and Pomarine Jaeger (Skua). The waters off of Oman are also a cetacean hotspot, and we may be lucky enough to see Indo-Pacific Humpback, Long-beaked Common, or Spinner Dolphins. As we arrive at Jazeerah al Fahl we’ll marvel at the enormous colony of Sooty Falcons, interspersed with serenely gliding Red-billed Tropicbirds.

The Arabian Desert is great for wheatears!
The Arabian Desert is great for wheatears! (Mark S. Jobling)

This afternoon will be spent travelling northwest along the coast, stopping at a number of beaches along the way for Kentish Plover, Lesser & Greater Sand-Plovers, Terek Sandpiper, Sooty, Black-headed, Slender-billed, Caspian, Steppe, Pallas’s, and “Heuglin’s” Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and Caspian and Lesser Crested Terns. We’ll also take time to bird the inland salt flats which we’ll search for Southern Gray Shrike, Asian Desert Warbler, and Desert, Isabelline and Pied Wheatears. The Oriental influence on this northern end of Oman is obvious, and we’ll likely see such eastern goodies as Indian Pond Heron, Gray Francolin, Red-wattled Lapwing, Indian Roller, Purple Sunbird, Rose-ringed Parakeet, Asian Koel and Indian Silverbill. An all-round attractive supporting cast should include Little Green Bee-eater, Bluethroat and White-eared Bulbul, while green and lush irrigated fields should hold common migrants like Common Nightingale, European Turtle-Dove, and a variety of pipits, wagtails, larks and other passerines.

Day 3: Khatmat Milahah & return to Barka. This morning we will search the mangroves near the UAE border for the rare kalbaensis race of Collared Kingfisher as well as Indian Reed-Warbler and Sykes’s Warbler, two of the other specialties in this far-flung corner. From here, heading back toward Muscat, we’ll spend time in Acacia and Ghaf woodland in our search of wintering specialties, which include the handsome Variable Wheatear, Ménétres’s Warbler, Eastern Orphean Warbler, Black Redstart, and Isabelline and Rufous-tailed Shrikes. This afternoon we will return to Barka, our base for three nights.

We'll be on the lookout for a hanful of shrike species, like this Woodchat
We'll be on the lookout for a hanful of shrike species, like this Woodchat (Durzan Cirano)

Days 4 & 5: Al Hajar Mountains. The Al Hajar Mountains loom over the Omani coast in a series of jagged limestone ridges and endless parched wadis. We’ll take two full days to explore this area and search for targets including Lichenstein’s Sandgrouse, Sand Partridge, an isolated population of Common Wood-Pigeon, Little Owl, Pale Crag Martin, Long-billed Pipit, White-spectacled Bulbul, Hume’s and Rufous-tailed Wheatears, Blue Rock-Thrush, Streaked Scrub-Warbler, Arabian Babbler, Southern Grey Shrike, Desert Lark, and Striolated Bunting. We’ll also likely find some of the remaining negevensis Lappet-faced Vultures and Egyptian Vultures on our travels.

After dark we’ll emerge into the refreshingly cool night and search for the first of the many hoped for owls of this tour. Our focus here will be the recently-described ‘Omani’ Owl, now rather confusingly found to be Hume’s Owl, but a separate species to what had been considered Hume’s Owls in Israel (which are now named Omani Owl!). The diminutive and cute Pallid Scops-Owl is also a possibility, but you never know what we may find in the darkness; with extraordinary luck perhaps even one of the world’s best felines – the Sand Cat.

Green Bee-eaters bring a touch of color to the stark landscapes of the Middle East
Green Bee-eaters bring a touch of color to the stark landscapes of the Middle East (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 6: Muscat to Salalah to Qitbit. This morning we’ll take a short flight from Muscat to the southern city of Salalah. From here, we’ll make our way deep into the heart of the superficially barren and desolate Rub al Qali, or “Empty Quarter”. The name is not deceiving, this really is a land like no other, completely barren and, at first glance, lifeless. However, we will undoubtedly break our journey with stops for such desert gems as Greater Hoopoe-Lark and Cream-coloured Courser, as well as a bounty of migrants at irrigated farms, before arriving at our accommodation in the remote town of Qitbit. Here, a handful of lush oases and parched Ghaf-adorned wadis create a living heart to this barren land. We’ll arrive in time to have a look around the gardens and town for wintering migrants like Common Quail, Rufous-tailed Rock Thrush, European Turtle-Dove, Common Chiffchaff, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Eurasian Golden Oriole, Common Rosefinch, Ortolan Bunting, and perhaps Nile Valley Sunbird, Asian Koel, or even Hypocolius.

Day 7: Muntasar Oasis to Thumaryt. Early this morning we’ll make our way to the famous Muntasar Oasis in Wadi Mughsin, where ancient and parched Ghaf trees survive without water for years on end. Our primary reason for visiting this other-worldly spot is to watch hundreds of Spotted and Crowned Sandgrouse arriving for their morning drink from the spring. Other birds we should encounter here include Pied Wheatear, Asian Desert Warbler, Southern Grey Shrike, and maybe even one of the area’s resident Golden Eagles or a wandering Hypocolius.
Eventually we will start to make our way toward our base for the night, Thumrayt, traversing a landscape dotted with irrigated farms. These areas of irrigation form a lush and green patchwork that is often filled with bird life, likely including large numbers of White Stork, European Roller, pipits, wheatears, wagtails, and larks, including Bimaculated and Black-crowned Sparrow-Larks. We’re also likely to encounter good numbers of Cream-coloured Courser and Greater Hoopoe-Lark, and this area gives us our best chance at the elusive Dunn’s Lark.

Great Hoopoe-Lark is one of the most striking larks on offer
Great Hoopoe-Lark is one of the most striking larks on offer (Lisle Gwynn)

Day 8: Inner edge of the Rub al Qali to Salalah. We’ll spend the majority of today in and around the numerous oases that lay between us and our next base, Salalah. Birds we hope to see today include Sand Partridge, White-tailed Lapwing, African Collared-Dove, Nile Valley Sunbird, and if we’re very lucky perhaps even Macqueen’s Bustard, which is now very scarce in Oman. We’ll also hopefully add two more attractive sandgrouse to our list, Chestnut-bellied and Lichtenstein’s, and enjoy a bevy of common wintering migrants. This evening we’ll arrive near Salalah, our base for five nights.

Days 9 – 12: Around Salalah. Situated on the Arabian Sea coast of the Dhofar region of southern Oman, Salalah sits amongst a landscape quite different to that of the north. Having felt the oriental influence in the initial days of the tour, there will now be no mistaking the African influence on the south. White-sand, palm-fringed beaches lie against a backdrop of mottled-green ‘drought deciduous woodland’, punctuated by baobab and frankincense trees. We’ll take a full four days to explore the area, taking in a variety of habitats as we go.
We’ll make a visit to the Jabal al Qara foothills a priority. Here, in what may as well be an enclave of Africa as far as the avifauna is concerned, we hope to see a mix of Afrotropical species that have spilled over the edge of the Dark Continent and onto these Arabian shores. With luck we’ll find the stunning Bruce’s Green Pigeon, Dideric Cuckoo, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Black-crowned Tchagra, African Paradise-Flycatcher, Shining Sunbird, Abyssinian White-eye, Rueppell’s Weaver, African Silverbill, and Cinnamon-breasted Bunting. To add some contrast, we’ll also search for Arabian specialties like Blackstart, Arabian Warbler, Tristram’s Starling and perhaps even the scarce Arabian Golden-winged Grosbeak. As is the case with many mountain ranges, the Jabal al Qara holds a host of birds of prey, and we may encounter Short-toed, Booted and Bonelli’s Eagles, Eurasian Hobby, or Barbary Falcon. With some luck we may also find the regal Verreaux’s Eagle. Adding a little European flavour, we should enjoy a range of migrants including Common Nightingale, European Nightjar, Eurasian Hoopoe, Rufous-tailed Scrub-Robin, Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, and Upcher’s Warbler. We will also take time to look for two special birds; the first is a set of swifts that have caused much debate but are now widely considered to be Forbes-Watson’s Swift, and the second is the diminutive Arabian Scops-Owl.

Hypocolius is unique and a monotypica family which will be high on our target list
Hypocolius is unique and a monotypica family which will be high on our target list (...)

We’ll also be sure to traverse the Jabal al Qara escarpment to reach the grasslands and wooded slopes in search of a few local specialties. We’ll enjoy Arabian Wheatears on the rocky plateau before exploring an enormous limestone sinkhole in search of an isolated population of Yemen Serin, here in the only part of its range where it can safely be seen. Other new birds should include the handsome Arabian Partridge and Palestine Sunbird.
Another site we’ll visit is a series of brackish lagoons and creeks near Salalah, which holds a number of new species for the tour. Migrant crakes can be a big draw here, and it is one of very few places worldwide where Little, Spotted, and Baillon’s Crakes can all be easy to see. Yellow Bittern is at the very edge of its breeding range here, as is Pheasant-tailed Jacana, lending an oriental vibe to the area. We’ll also likely encounter a wide variety of waders and waterbirds, including Lesser Flamingo and African Spoonbill, as well as a number of attractive wagtails, including Citrine, and several different subspecies of Yellow. European Roller and Blue-cheeked Bee-eater will add some vibrant colour, and this area is known for turning up rare wanderers, which have included Cotton Pygmy-Goose, Small Pratincole, and Caspian Plover. We’ll search local farms and scrubland for Namaqua Dove and Singing Bush Lark, and hopefully the Critically Endangered Sociable Lapwing.

Following the recent closure of large dumps in northern Oman, huge numbers of birds have begun to gather around the Salalah rubbish tip. It is worth visiting for the spectacle of 500+ Steppe Eagles alone, but add a supporting cast of Greater Spotted and Eastern Imperial Eagles, and large numbers of White and sometimes Abdim’s Storks, and it becomes clear that this is something not to be missed.

The elegant White Stork is common species in Oman
The elegant White Stork is common species in Oman (Keith Barnes)

The continental shelf sits extremely close to the coast near Salalah, and it has become known as a hotspot for pelagic activity in recent years. One morning we’ll take a boat trip out from Mirbat in search of offshore activity. In addition to the hoped-for Flesh-footed and Persian Shearwaters, Jouanin’s Petrel, Bridled Tern, Brown Noddy, Masked and Brown Boobys, Socotra Cormorant and rafts of Red-necked Phalaropes, there is a distinct possibility of something much rarer, for example both Atlantic Petrel and Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel have been recorded in recent years. In addition to the birds, we may encounter Indo-Pacific Humpback, Long-beaked Common, or Risso’s Dolphins, and with some luck Orca, Humpback or even Blue Whales.

We’ll also, of course, take advantage of the night-time opportunities here in the south. We’ll make an effort to find the rare Desert Tawny (Hume’s) Owl, the Arabian subspecies of Spotted Eagle-Owl, Arabian Scops-Owl, and Egyptian Nightjar, as well as a distinct possibility of Arabian Red Fox, Ruppell’s Fox, or Gordon’s Wildcat.

Day 13: Salalah to Muscat. Departure After a final couple of hours birding the coast this morning, we’ll take a short flight back to Muscat in the north, to connect with our flights back home.

Where Asia meets Africa: African Paradise-Flycatcher
Where Asia meets Africa: African Paradise-Flycatcher (Derek Keats)

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EXTENSION OPTION

Barr al Hikman extension (3 days)

Day 1: Muscat to Al Hij & Barr al Hikman. Around midday we’ll depart Muscat International Airport and make the long but well worthwhile drive to Barr al Hikman, passing through striking and varied landscapes and stopping for birds as we go. We’ll make our way from the jagged mountains on the outskirts of Muscat, through the desert interior, to the idyllic Arabian shores of Barr al Hikman, where we’ll base ourselves in the small town of Al Hij for 2 nights.

Day 2: Barr al Hikman. Barr al Hikman is a simple sandy spit on the Omani coast that is also an under-appreciated shorebird heaven. The main feature of this interesting site is the astonishing numbers of a wide variety of shorebird species, including Crab Plover (over 2000 recorded), Great Knot (up to 1000), Broad-billed Sandpiper (around 5000), Eurasian Oystercatcher (10,000+), Lesser Sand Plover (11,000+), Greater Sand Plover (4000+), Sanderling (9,000+), Little Stint (16,000+), Curlew Sandpiper (17,000+), Bar-tailed Godwit (50,000+), Common Redshank (50,000+) and records of a staggering 60,000 Dunlin, as well as a variety of other species in spectacular numbers. Other interesting waterbirds here include phenomenal gatherings of Sooty and Slender-billed Gulls, Greater Flamingo, Eurasian Spoonbill, and Gull-billed, White-cheeked and Saunders’s Terns. Offshore we may see Persian Shearwaters and Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphins.

Day 3: Barr al Hikman to Muscat. This morning we’ll make our way back to Muscat, as always stopping for birds along the way, before checking in for our afternoon and evening flights home.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Moderate to intense. Early starts are necessary on most days since birding is almost always best early in the morning. On most days we will leave the hotel at around 5:30am and have breakfast in the field. On a few days we may have some downtime in the middle of the day, but most days are quite full. Driving between base hotels involves drives of 2.5 hours in all but one case, where it could take up to 4 hours to travel from Salalah to our hotel in the Empty Quarter. On the extension it is about a five hour drive each way to and from Barr al Hikman. All of these drives, however, are broken with plentiful birding and cultural stops. Once at our bases, the driving distances between sites are much shorter. Birding will be a mix of birding on foot and from the vehicle. There are two boat trips planned for this tour, though they are weather dependent. Lunches will be packed or picnic style lunches on at least several days, and in local restaurants where available.

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Moderate. Nowhere on this tour is the walking particularly challenging, and so it is suitable for anybody with a good general level of fitness. Most of the birding will be on flat or slightly inclined roads or wide tracks and you can expect to walk 2 to 3 miles (3.2 to 4.8 km) per day on average. During our time in the mountains it is unlikely we will exceed 3,250 ft. (1000 m.) in elevation.

CLIMATE: This tour is timed at a pleasantly cool time of year when the birding is at its best and most productive. Throughout the majority of the tour the temperature will be in the range of 64°-82°F (18°-28°C), however our time in the desert interior of the south will likely reach lows of around 57°F (14°C), at night or perhaps cooler.

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent, all have private, en-suite bathrooms, full-time hot water, and 24h electricity.

PHOTOGRAPHY: This is a birding tour, but casual photographers will find opportunities to photograph some birds, with the wintering migrants often being particularly obliging.

WHEN TO GO: We run the set-departure tour in winter to target certain key birds as well as enjoy the plethora of wintering migrants. As a custom tour, it could be run from November until March (summer heat is oppressive and we do not recommend visiting then).

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are required; they currently may be obtained upon arrival in Oman by citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia, New Zealand, EU European countries, South Africa, and Japan, among others. For citizens of most other countries, a visa must be obtained in advance. Travel requirements are subject to change; it is a good idea to double check with the nearest embassy or consulate six weeks before you travel, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night day 12, and to the night of day 2 of the extension if also taking the extension; meals from dinner on day 1 to lunch on day 13, and to lunch on day 3 of the extension if also taking the extension; reasonable non-alcoholic beverages with meals; safe drinking only between meals; Tropical Birding tour leader with scope and audio playback gear from the afternoon of day 1 to the morning of day 13, and from mid-day of day 1 to the afternoon of day 3 of the extension if also taking the extension; ground transport in a suitable vehicle driven by the tour leader for the group to all sites in the itinerary from the afternoon of day 1 to the afternoon of day 13, and to the afternoon of day 3 of the extension if also taking the extension; tips for included meals; entrance fees to sites mentioned in the itinerary; one way flight from Salalah to Muscat on day 13; two planned boat trips, though these are weather dependent and subject to cancellation in the event of poor weather; a printed and bound checklist to keep track of your sightings (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the tour leader; tips for luggage porters in hotels (where available and if you require their services); flights other than the one mentioned as being included; snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess baggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.