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The general impression of Oman is one of never-ending desert and sparse wildlife. But in the summer months, the country’s 2,000-mile coastline becomes a lush, green siren call for hundreds of species of migrating birds

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.

Cinereous VultureCINEROUS VULTURE

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.

Laughing DoveLAUGHING DOVE, AN ABUNDANT BREEDING RESIDENT

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.

Juvenile Black Crowned HeronA JUVENILE BLACK CROWNED HERON

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.’

Tristram StarlingA TRISTRAM STARLING DRINKING WATER FROM A MAN-MADE POOL BUILT FOR CAMELS

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.

Little OwlA COMMON BREEDING RESIDENT, THE LITTLE OWL IS ONE OF TEN TYPES OF OWLS RECORDED IN OMAN

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.

Ruddy ShelduckRUDDY SHELDUCKS ARE PASSAGE MIGRANTS AND WINTER VISITORS

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.

Ruppell's WeaverA RÜPPELL’S WEAVER, A BREEDING RESIDENT IN DHOFAR PARASITISED BY THE SUMMER VISITS OF DIDERIK CUCKOOS

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.

• Nasser Al Kindi is a photographer, writer and filmmaker who has published two books on birds, Birds in Oman (in English and Arabic) and Birds of Oman and the Arabian Peninsula. This November he is scheduled to publish Dhofar’s Weaver, a story for children inspired by nature. He has filmed two wildlife documentaries, Wilderness Dhofar and The Weaver’s Nest and contributed to the making of Wings of Oman. Al Kindi is a recipient of His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Award for Voluntary Work and holds a Master’s Degree in Wildlife Documentary Production from the University of Salford in the UK.

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GEOGRAPHIC FACTS
• Geographic location: Pacific Ocean
• Latitude/Longitude: 0°37’09”S, 90°21’29”W
• Population: 25,124 (2010)
• Ethnicity breakdown: 81% Mestizo, 7.5% Native Indian, 7.3% Caucasian, 4.2% African-Ecuadorian(2010)
• Land area: 3,093 sq miles (8,010 sq km)
• Ocean area: 23,000 sq miles (59,500 sq km)
• Number of islands: 127 (including 19 large, four inhabited)
• Language: Spanish
• Currency: US dollar

WILDLIFE
Aside from the Galápagos’ most famous residents – the giant tortoises – the islands are also home to the world’s only marine iguanas. They can be primarily seen lazing around in the sun sneezing excess salt everywhere, or occasionally diving into the water – they are excellent swimmers – in search of a meal, nibbling marine algae off submerged rocks. The islands are also home to land iguanas, including a bright pink species classified for the first time in 2009, after being located in a remote part of Wolf Volcano. Sharing the rocky coastlines with the marine iguanas are Galápagos penguins, the only penguin that lives at or near the equator. The roughly 2,000-strong bird population is mainly located in the colder, nutrient-rich waters of Fernandina and Isabela, and this small population size and restricted range means they are graded as ‘endangered’ by the IUCN. Further out to sea, the islands are also a hub of utmost importance for over 2,900 marine species, including sea lions and turtles. To the far north, the remote uninhabited Wolf and Darwin islands witness vast gatherings of hammerheads and even whale sharks, whose presence helped establish the Galápagos Marine Reserve in 1986, now – at 133,000 square km – one of the largest such reserves in the world.

TIMELINE
1535 Discovered by Spanish
1832 Annexed by Ecuador
1835 Visited by a young Charles Darwin
1859 Darwin publishes his theory of evolution by natural selection, based on observation in Galápagos
1941 Used as a base by the US military for the duration of WWII
1959 Official creation of the Galápagos National Park
1978 Designated the world’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site
1986 Creation of the Galápagos marine reserve
2012 Death of Lonesome George

DEMOGRAPHICS
In 1941, the Galápagos’ human population consisted of just 810 people. The number of residents sky-rocketed during the 20th century, reaching 18,640 by 2001, and 25,124 by 2010. Population pressure meant that the islands were added to UNESCO’s ‘in danger’ list in 2007, promoting then-Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa to make reforms to the country’s ‘Special Law for the Galápagos’, essentially creating a separate citizenship for Galápagos residents. Its purpose was to act as a control on the number of mainlanders moving to what has become the richest province of the country (thanks to tourism) and threatening the sustainability of the biodiversity which made it such a profitable international tourist destination. Only authorised Galápagos residents are now allowed to work on the islands. Recognising these efforts, UNESCO subsequently reversed their decision in 2010.

PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY
The islands famously occur at the meeting point for three major tectonic plates, the Nazca, Cocos and Pacific. Tectonic activity is ongoing among the youngest, most western islands, such as Fernandina and Isabela, which are less than a million-years-old. Further east, where continental drift has carried them away from the volcanic hotspots which cause the islands to emerge from the sea in the first place, the oldest islands, such as Española and San Cristóbal, are between three and five million-years-old, and are still only just beginning the long process of erosion.
Each of the major islands consists primarily of one main cone-shaped volcano, with the exception of Isabela which is formed of six that have since merged together. Many of the islands have enormous underground tunnels formed by the cooling outer crusts of lava, with fast-flowing liquid inside. These were often used as habitats by native species for years, with the skeletons of extinct animals such as giant rats found inside.

FLORA
The islands are home to between 552 and 614 known native plant species, more than 30 per cent of which are endemic. The flora of the Galápagos is predominately desert vegetation, given how only the humid highlands generally receive enough rainfall to sustain lush green plant life. The more common dry areas of the islands are frequently populated by shrubs and cacti, plants which are well-adapted to drought-like conditions, only flowering during rare periods of high rainfall. By the coasts, mangroves play a very important role in the local ecosystem, providing breeding sites for birds such as pelicans and frigate birds, as well as a shady refuge for marine wildlife.
Across the Galápagos, there are hundreds of threats posed by invasive plant species. There are at least 866 recognised introduced species now settled in the wild, the majority brought deliberately by humans. One of the most urgent threats is quinine, a tall, rapidly-growing evergreen tree introduced in the 1940s which has spread across Santa Cruz, significantly altering the ecological composition of the vegetation and making survival more difficult for native species. Similarly, the spiny Asian blackberry shrub, introduced in the 1970s, has been observed invading wetter parts of the archipelago and forming impenetrable thick forests, negatively affecting the seed germination of native species.

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