I had long wanted to visit Socotra, but given recent events in Yemen the circumstances did not seem propitious; however, during checking up for flights for my forthcoming UAE and Oman tour for Field Guides, we chanced upon a flight that went from Sharjah in the UAE to Socotra, and did not go via Sana’a (which seems high on the list of places to avoid at the moment) The website of Felix Airways looked pretty good, but we could not access their booking system from Australia. Luckily some previous tour reports from 2007 (Jon Hornbuckle) mentioned Socotra Ecotours, and we soon found that Abduljameel and friends (as they style themselves) were very helpful, especially Radwan- see http://www.socotra-eco-tours.com
Socotra Eco-Tours email@example.com
They made the bookings for us and we duly sent money to a bank in Germany, hoping for the best. Close to departure time we found that the flight went via somewhere called Mukalla in Yemen, no longer direct, but again this was a long way from Sana’a and more or less en route. We sent passport details and got sent impressive copies of colourful visas, that would be seemingly be stuck into our passports on arrival, all quite unusual to say the least, and we had bookings for the finest hotel in Hadibo, 2 4WD’s and an excellent guide called Abdul Saeed. The stage was set for the adventure. One minor setback was a warning from Felix Airways that we could only take 10kg of luggage, so we made sure we could leave bags the hotel in Sharjah, and arranged to meet there at the ungodly hour of 0200 on January 1. This worked fine, and we went and found the terminal, with a big long line of folks all with huge bags at the Felix Airways desk, all bound for Socotra and so much for the 10 kg thing! Check in was slow, and I had a nasty moment when the check in woman wanted to see the visa, then said it was only valid for a month- luckily it had been issued on Dec 4 so we were just barely OK, and her supervisor passed it. Something to be aware of here though.
The plane was a modern Embraer variety, and we departed on time at 0430, getting to Mukalla an hour and 20 minutes later and getting off there. There was a milling crowd at the terminal door and the guys were calling out names of folks to get their boarding passes for the next flight to Socotra, which happily included us, and we spent a couple of hours here, seeing Yellow-billed Kite, Osprey, Black-crowned Sparrowlark and House Crow (first bird of 2014- thanks Trevor) Trevor and I actually made our first entry into Yemen here, leaving out passports with the security guy and going into the terminal to get an excellent cup of coffee and only belatedly realising we were actually technically in the country only sans passport! The flight came in from Sana’a on time, and we left around 0930 for the one-hour journey across to Socotra.
Arrival was really good, the first bird I saw here was Somali Starling sat in a bush by the entry door, and we were met by Radwan, who grabbed our passports and entry cards and showed us where to get the bags. Mine came through half-open with a busted zip, but the handlers carefully laid it right side up on the belt, something that would not happen at most airports I fear, a good omen I felt as I lost nothing.
Now the immigration computers were down so we could not be formally checked through, but Radwan assured us the officials were his friends and we could do all that later, so we simply waved and walked through, which kind of set the scene for Socotra, which I found a delightful step back in time to an older, slower, kinder and informal Arabia.
Two good 4WD’s awaited us and we set off for the short drive to Hadibo, to meet Abdul Saeed and check into the Taj Hotel. We made one stop en route at a spot where some cucumber trees and dragon trees were right by the road, getting Socotra Sparrow and Socotra Sunbird for our troubles, with Socotra Cormorant on rocks by the road too and the splendidly numerous Egyptian Vulture, this must be one of the last places where they are still common. Abdul Saeed soon finished his official duties and came with us to the hotel, which was fine, quite simple but clean and with aircon and (even better!) power.
Time was short so we went off to some sites near the town, checking a flooded wadi and then birding some coastal scrub at Hoele where Socotra Cisticola was soon found. We then went to a rocky hillside at Danaghan which was good for Socotra Buzzard, and ended up at the wadi with the Sheq River which was surprisingly wet, so much so that our vehicle got bogged in a hole in the stream bed and we had to wade out and get it towed back by the other truck, with me meantime knocking my brand new Canon SX into the creek and thus not having a camera for this part of the trip, though luckily I did still have the video available. Time for the Socotra Scops Owl ran out, so we went back to the hotel and had an entertaining dinner outside, with great freshly made flat bread straight out of the tandoor and some good fish, chicken and bean dishes.
Next morning we met for breakfast about 0600, with the local lad sweeping the ground then shooing the goats off the table and then sweeping it with the same broom, an endearing touch. Coffee, toast, some fruit (and David with his own private supply of bespoke oats) and we were off, heading along the coast then inland to the Dixcem Plateau, a distance of about 70 km in all as I recall. Socotra Warbler was found on the escarpment, and we also got Socotra Starling when we got higher up, coming into a spectacular rocky limestone landscape with dragon trees, acacia type scrub and lots of boulders. Somali Starling, Socotra Sparrow and Egyptian Vultures were common, and after going along a rough track for some km we found Socotra Bunting feeding in the middle of it, the only place we saw this species. Another Socotra Buzzard was nice, and then we managed fair views of a pair of Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak in a well-wooded valley at 915m that Abdul knew was good for them. Abyssinian White-eye, Long-billed Pipit and Socotra Sunbird completed the set here, and after an excellent picnic lunch made by the drivers we set off back to the lowlands.
After a quick foray to the plains near the Sheq River for good views of Cream-coloured Courser and 2 Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, we returned to the date palm groves there for dusk. The Socotra Scops Owls began calling whilst it was still quite light, and we found one sat on some cut stems up in a palm, flying off and landing briefly on a second bird nearby- you can hear the squawk of surprise on my xenocanto cut! These views were tickable but not great, so we hung about and got more Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse for our trouble, flighting in to drink at dusk with a great liquid musical call (also now on xc). Several owls were calling, and we tracked one down and got it sat out in full view, see my video on the Internet Bird Collection (IBC), (only flying when David’s camera began clicking loudly-that thing has the loudest click I have ever heard from a Canon, it’s audible at 50m and is like a Brown Sicklebill, must be the special Sunbird limited edition “Birdscaring” model!) Quite a day, with all the Socotra endemics nailed in one day and nice views of them all.
Next day, and much against my better judgement, it was the dreaded boat trip day out of Qalansiyah port, with an exciting foray in a single engine open boat out to a “nearby” island that proved to be some 3.5 hours out in progressively deteriorating conditions, with no life jackets or radio either. It’s no wonder I have become so suspect about boat trips, they are NEVER straightforward, you always get bloody soaking wet and there is really a fair degree of risk involved. When the boatman began singing loudly I asked Abdul if he was singing or praying, if the latter I was going to worry even more.
We did get nice views of a couple of Persian Shearwater, a nice African tick for me, and as we got near the island a fairly brief and distant Jouanin’s Petrel showed, arcing along nicely but not very close, and that was it beyond lots of Masked Booby on the island, and a few Brown Booby. Coming back we came under the lee of a spectacular huge limestone cliff that had Socotra Cormorant and Brown Booby, then some big waves when we came round the point and found ourselves on a classic lee shore, with an imminent risk of being dashed to bits if we stalled, which of course we did about a minute out into the open water -mercifully away from the cliff -when the fuel ran out and we had to refuel. I am quite surprised I am still here to write this, my advice is don’t go on a boat when Trevor and I are there, as we have a lengthy history of dodgy and very wet boat rides. Still, one lifer and one African tick was the net result, plus continued existence, but it was an interminable 7 hours and I would not do this one again……
Excellent picnic lunch at a camping site, then more African ticks with Pheasant-tailed Jacana and Citrine Wagtail at Qadab Khor near Hadibo, with White Pygmy-goose that morning at the khor by Qalansiyah fishing port. A brief foray to the huge national park at Ihaft was nice (70% of Socotra is NP, and it looks in pretty good shape), in some great wooded habitat got more Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak, and more time here would have been very welcome. Abdul also knew a site for Nubian Nightjar, out not far inland from the Sheq River, so we went out there at dusk and my tape got a distant response, Driving the sandy track we found an obliging nightjar sat in the road, a tiny stubby juvenile bird with some down still on the head, which we left undisturbed. Driving back then got a splendid adult Nubian Nightjar with marked rusty collar sat in the road, and looking totally different to the juv!
Next day we just did some local birding around Hadibo, confirming what I had suspected was Indian Pond Heron and scoring Pin-tailed Snipe, both at the khor near Hadibo, before a departure at lunch time when we got our entry and exit stamps done together, no big deal here, the flight was on time and we got back to Sharjah as planned, ready for the Kuwait venture next. Twelve lifers, and another 10 African ticks, better than I dared hope and what a great place this was, I was well impressed.
My thanks to my fellow birders for their good company and humour, this was a fun trip; let’s do some more chaps! I can’t recommend Socotra Ecotours highly enough; Radwan, Abduljameel and Abdul Saaeed plus the two drivers did a terrific job for us. My heartfelt thanks to my lovely and outstandingly patient wife, Sue Gregory for her persistence and hard work in putting all this together for us, I hope we can do this trip together at some time now we know it works.
African ticks + 22 Lifers* 12 Bold = Socotra endemics
Persian [Audubon's] Shearwater Puffinus (lherminieri) persicus +
A couple seen well on the boat trip off Qalansiyah Jan 3.
Jouanin's Petrel Bulweria fallax *
One seen quite distantly on the boat trip off Qalansiyah, after 3 hours
Masked Booby Sula dactylatra
About 200 on the boat trip Jan 3.
Brown Booby Sula leucogaster
One off Hadibo Jan 1, 10 on the boat trip Jan 3
Socotra Cormorant Phalacrocorax nigrogularis +
400 on Jan 3, small numbers other days
Common Teal Anas crecca
One Jan 1, 3 on Jan 4.
Gadwall Anas strepera
One Jan 4 near Hadibo.
Northern Pintail Anas acuta
Two birds on 3 days, one on Jan 4
Northern Shoveler Anas clypeata
Two Jan 2, single next two days
Garganey Anas querquedula
3, 1, 5, 1
Eurasian Wigeon Anas penelope
Singles on 3 days
Ferruginous Duck Aythya nyroca
5 birds on the khor near Hadibo, 2 near Qalansiyah
Tufted Duck Aythya fuligula
A pair at Qalansiyah
White Pygmy-Goose Nettapus coromandelianus +
Three females on Jan 3 at Qalansiyah khor.
Greater Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber
4, 14, 3
Little Egret Egretta garzetta
Scarce, just a single then 2 Jan 4.
Western Reef-Egret Egretta gularis
3,3, 2 then 10, both light, dark and grey morphs.
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea
Purple Heron Ardea purpurea
1 at Qadab Jan 2
Great Egret Egretta alba
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis
Indian Pond-Heron Ardeola grayii +
A Squacco-type on Jan 1 raised my suspicions, and seeing it again on
Jan 4 convinced me it was this species, it had a dark loral line and looked quite dark maroony above and streaky below.
Eurasian Spoonbill Platalea leucorodia
One on Jan 2 at Qadab Khor
Egyptian Vulture Neophron percnopterus
Happily still common, must be one of the last strongholds, we saw 100 Jan 1 and 40-50 daily thereafter. Pharaoh’s Chicken is fed by the locals too.
Socotra Buzzard Buteo (buteo) socotrae *
Uncommon, I only saw it twice though I missed a couple.
Eurasian Kestrel Falco tinnunculus
3 on Jan 1, one next day.
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus minor
One near Hadibo Jan 1, was not a Barbary.
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus
2 at the khor near Hadibo
Pheasant-tailed Jacana Hydrophasianus chirurgus +
A single on Qadab Khor Jan 2 and 4
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago
1, 2, 2
Pin-tailed Snipe Gallinago stenura +
A single seen well Jan 4 Hadibo khor
Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata
1, 2, 1
Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa
3, 3, 1
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia
1, 1, 4, 6
Wood Sandpiper Tringa glareola
Common Sandpiper Tringa hypoleucos
Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
4 near Hadibo
Curlew Sandpiper Calidris ferruginea
Little Stint Calidris minuta
3. 12, 2, 1
Temminck's Stint Calidris temminckii
7 Qadab khor
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus
10 each day
Cream-coloured Courser Cursorius cursor
Nice views of 2 on the gravel plain near the Sheq R. Jan 1
Grey (Black-bellied) Plover Pluvialis squatarola
1, 2, 2
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula
Little Ringed Plover Charadrius dubius
1 on Jan 4 Qadab
Kentish Plover Charadrius (alexandrinus) alexandrinus
Sooty Gull Larus hemprichii
70, 5, 200, 100
Caspian Gull Larus (cachinnans) cachinnans +
One ad. on the beach at Qalansiyah looked just right, and no doubt various others
Heuglin's Gull Larus heuglini
Seems to be the common large gull here, I noted 100 Jan 3
Common Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus
1 on the khor near Hadibo Jan 1 and 4
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia
Just 1 on Jan 2
Great Crested (Swift) Tern Sterna bergii
70. 30, 10
Lesser Crested Tern Sterna bengalensis
Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse Pterocles lichtensteinii
2 on the gravel plain near Sheq Jan 1, 7 at Sheq R Jan 2, heard Jan 3
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon) Columba livia
Two birds flew over us at breakfast in Hadibo, probably feral
Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis
Bruce's Green Pigeon Treron waalia
2 at Danaghan Jan 1, heard next day
Socotra [African] Scops-Owl Otus (senegalensis) socotranus *
Great views of 3 birds and several more heard Jan 2 Sheq date groves
Nubian Nightjar Caprimulgus nubicus jonesi *
A juv. on the track back of Sheq R Jan 4, and an adult later
Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis +
Southern Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis uncinatus
2, 2, 1
Somali Starling Onychognathus blythii *
100, 100, 6, 8; very common
Socotra Starling Onychognathus frater *
Scarce, I saw just two birds twice up near Dixcem
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti
5, 8, 6, 2
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina
Pale Crag Martin Hirundo obsoleta
One in the broad valley near Qalansiyah
White-breasted (Abyssinian) White-eye Zosterops abyssinicus socotranus
7 up at Dixcem Jan 2
Socotra Warbler Incana incana *
2 and 1 heard Jan 1 en route to Dixcem, heard at Ihaft Jan 4; certainly very Cisticola like, dry reeling posted call on XC. Interesting that Lynes never placed this as a Cisticola.
Socotra Cisticola Cisticola haesitatus *
1 Jan 1, 2 Jan 2 Diham lagoon. Cloudscraping whilst calling “tik tik tik” was unexpected
Black-crowned Sparrowlark Eremopterix nigriceps forbeswatsoni +
5, 8, heard; circling display flight was nice at Hoele.
Socotra Sparrow Passer insularis *
8, 50, 2, 4, the commonest endemic
White Wagtail Motacilla alba
1, 3, 2, 1
Citrine Wagtail Motacilla citreola +
1 at Qadab Jan 2, seen well and heard calling
Yellow Wagtail Motacilla flava
4 on Jan 4 at Qadab, not identified to subspecies
Long-billed Pipit Anthus similis socotrae
6, 10, 2. Call on XC, monotonous chirps
Socotra Sunbird Nectarinia balfouri *
6 Jan 1, 5 up at Dixcem Jan 2, seems uncommon; call posted on XC
Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak Rhynchostruthus socotranus *
A pair up at Dixcem at 915m and then one male at Ihaft Valley Jan 1, also seen on Jan 4 by David and Simon
Cinnamon-breasted Bunting Emberiza tahapisi insularis
4 on Jan 2 on the escarpment up to Dixcem
Socotra Bunting Emberiza socotrana *
Just 2 on Jan 2 on a rough track as we climbed up to the Dixcem Plateau, good views but clearly very local.
Phil Gregory, Tokyo Feb 8 2014
Socotra Buzzard Socotra [African] Scops-Owl Socotra Starling Socotra Warbler Socotra Cisticola Socotra Sparrow Socotra Sunbird Socotra Golden-winged Grosbeak Socotra Bunting