James Borrell is a biodiversity scientist and science communicator researching how people and nature can adapt to environmental change.

Birds of the Middle East

One of our aims in Oman was to assess the biodiversity and abundance of bird species in the area. Having never been to that part of the world before, I clutched a crisp new copy of ‘Birds of the Middle East’ with ‘Common Birds of Oman’ as a backup. Whilst sleeping bags, stoves and food were all essential pieces of kit, to me, books and a notepad paired with pocket binoculars were tragically essential for day to day life.

I’m not an avid bird watcher, more an interested observer, but in the space of a few weeks the scientific necessity of identifying and counting what we saw turned from a research theme to an obsession.

Surveys would start subdued, but rapidly calls of Fan-tailed Raven, Cinammon-breasted Bunting and White-spectacled Bulbul would start flying across the group. Facing an expanse of wooded hillside, a simple comment of “you see that bush next to the rock” would immediately meet with half a dozen nods of approval and a rank of binoculars swiftly panning right or left. Was this a crack team of twitchers? No, a group of ordinary students from the UK, immersing themselves in something worth doing and getting a huge amount back in return.

“Oh no, a Warbler.” The dreaded sighting of an S.B.J. (Small Brown Job) would result in furious skimming through books,  a see-saw of glances from book to bird to book to bird and so on, eyes straining to pick out minute details. Warblers are notoriously difficult to identify. After a month, we could pick out an Abyssinian White-eye at a hundred paces and casually distinguish Shining and Palestine Sunbirds on size alone.

I think the lesson here is not so much that everyone should go bird watching, it’s certainly far too unfashionable for that. Instead we all should simply take time to stop and watch. We race through life from A to B, but rarely see all that’s in between. If we hadn’t spent hours studying the birds of Wadi Sayq, we wouldn’t have seen the bittern hiding in the reeds or the eagles fighting overhead. More than that though, we wouldn’t have seen dolphins, turtles and rays from the cliff tops. We wouldn’t have come face to face with Hyrax. We wouldn’t have seen the Arabian Cobra slipping through the undergrowth (and we wouldn’t have had to retreat). Most importantly, we wouldn’t have glimpsed the Caracal race across the rocks at dawn, and our Omani colleagues would still be waiting to see one in the wild.

I’m back home now, the Buzzards aren’t Verraux’s Eagles, Gold finches aren’t Golden-winged Grosbeaks and there’s not an African Paradise Flycatcher in sight. Returning to an England in the grip of Spring has had the added bonus of magnifying my appreciation of our native birds too.

After so long spent studying Wadi Sayq, in retrospect we have all reached a collective understanding of quite how important it is. Now, our work shifts from sitting and watching to sitting and writing. Few surveys of this depth have been undertaken in Dhofar, so an understanding of the diverse and precious wildlife of this area is crucial to conservation. After so many treasured experiences, conserving it into the future is the least we can do.

P.S. Apologies for the unnecessary frequency of bird references, if you’re keen on birds of the Middle East then I’d love to hear from you, or share your experiences in the comments below.