The Sultanate of Oman, on the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, is a country whose flora and fauna is as interesting as it is diverse, harbouring such rarities as the Arabian humpback whale and the elusive Arabian leopard. In the north, bordering the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf of Oman, the landscape is dominated by imposing mountains, pristine beaches and fertile plains. The south, bordering the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, is home to a rugged coastline. Between north and south, the midland is composed of desert and gravel plains, including parts of the Rub’ al Khali – the great Empty Quarter.
But it is the country’s southern governorate of Dhofar that is affected by monsoon winds that last for three months every summer, covering the nearby mountains and their adjoining plains with green vegetation. As colder water upwells from the Gulf of Oman in June, winds blowing from the Indian Ocean scoop it up and carry it inland. The mist-laden winds are trapped by the mountains that arch over a major part of Dhofar, transforming them into fertile ground. Temperatures drop to below 26ºC and the newly emerging banquet tempts birds such as the grey-headed kingfisher and the diderik cuckoo to migrate from Africa (much like cuckoos elsewhere, when the dideriks arrive in May they oust the resident Rüppell’s weaver which are more prevalent). Later in the season, thousands of terns lay eggs on the untouched eastern coastline of Dhofar, just a short distance from the flocks of Socotra cormorants dotting the beaches of Hadbain and Hasik further to the east.
As a result of this activity, Oman has in recent years seen an increasing number of overseas visitors interested in birdwatching. At the same time, an increasing number of young Omanis are also pursing birdwatching and bird photography as a hobby, keen to catch sight of the 528 species recorded thus far.
The Oman Bird List has recorded sightings of 528 bird species in the country as of September 2018, belonging to 76 of the 231 families that are said to exist in the world (‘family’ being the higher categorisation level that encompasses groups of related species). The number constitutes five per cent of the total number of species found worldwide.
Oman attracts birds migrating from Asia (the Indian-Malayan region) to Africa, where they winter, as well as migrants from Africa to the southern parts of the country. The Sultanate is also a destination for ‘Old World’ species coming from Europe to the stony plains in the eastern governorate of the South Sharqiya and the southern end of Al Wusta Governorate – the country’s midland region.
The Barr Al Hikman peninsula in the midlands was designated a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance in 2013 and today is a key stopover in the west Asia-east Africa flyway. Surveys estimate that each year, over half a million shorebirds make a stopover at this 150 square kilometre sanctuary of predominantly intertidal mudflats and lagoons. According to the waterbird census carried out in 2013, ‘the population wintering at Barr al Hikman exceeds one per cent of the total flyway population.’
In spite of efforts exerted by the government, volunteers and NGOs, Oman’s avian fauna face numerous challenges, some of which are on the rise. Chief among these is the rapid spread of human settlements, resulting in a loss of habitat for avian and other fauna.
Like its neighbouring countries, Oman struggles to control the wide spread of the invasive Common Myna and House Crow species, thought to be one of the prime causes of decline in numbers of breeding residents such as these owls or birds such as the Indian Roller or Eurasian Hoopoe.
In recent years, an increasing number of Omanis have taken an interest in birdwatching, thanks to the efforts of volunteers and awareness programmes put in place by government establishments and voluntary institutions. Today, an increasing number of photographers have taken an interest in conservation issues as well as ornithology. The Oman Bird Records Committee now shows a steady increase in the number of Omanis who are well versed and highly educated in the biology and behavioural sciences of avian fauna.
Towards the end of one year and the beginning of another, Dhofar becomes a warm retreat for thousands of migrating birds. With its dump site, water treatment facility and lagoons, the port area of Raysut becomes a haven for hundreds of eagles, storks, egrets, herons, ibises and even flamingoes.
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