After a hugely successful independent trip to Oman 13th Feb – 7th March 2011, we wanted to catch up with those species which are either very difficult to find or found at a different time of year even at the cost of an extensive species list, enjoy some great birding and fantastic weather in Oman.
For flights to Muscat we found Oman Air very reasonable, reliable with plenty of luggage weight allowance (thinking of scopes etc) and with 2-4-2 seating configuration (brilliant).
Oman is incredibly easy for the independent western birder to find his/her way around. The birding is wonderful and the local Omani people and the huge number of foreign nationals working in Oman and enjoying Oman’s wealth really are very friendly, honest and keen to help at all times.
When there, ‘Doing what Romans do’ and a couple of words of Arabic greeting (google translate for hello etc) means that people immediately feel at ease and one gets the best out of them. Tempting as it is, alcohol and wearing shorts / tee-shirts in the town is best avoided if one wants to ‘fit in’.
See also our trip report 13 Feb – 7 Mar 2011.
Flights. LHR/MCT £414.47 per person return incl. extra legroom seats with Oman Air. Visa on arrival OMR20 per person payable immediately on arrival at MCT so only exchange sufficient currency to cover this as better rates are available after passport control and baggage collection and outside the airport with reliable rates at LuLu Hypermarket in Muscat.
Currency. Omani Real (OMR) @ 1 GBP/0.5 OMR. The Real is tied to the dollar so the recent GBP rise against the USD was in our favour. Cash is easily changed in ‘Western Union’ banks and within most hypermarkets in larger towns.
Car Rental. Dollar via Rentalcars (UK site) was excellent due to an upgrade deal to a ‘genuine 4WD’ Toyota Fortuner as some SUV’s are not fully 4WD. 15 Days £487.66 + £101.76 voluntary extra cover incl. 2 drivers, airport, etc, etc, £589.42 ‘all in’ for a big, tough vehicle. Brilliant. The usual deposit was taken to cover any speeding fines and other extras.
Musandam. Getting here has been difficult, time consuming and expensive. Flying is completely out of the question as it means returning the car to Muscat airport and re-renting in Khasab. Driving is not easy in Musandam as although the obvious ‘mountain’ route is ‘graded’, it is in poor condition and blocked at the UAE borders. There is also problem with visas into Musandam although that issue either has or is in the process of being resolved, as it is very likely to be an issue taking a rental car from Oman through UAE territory and back into Musandam. Many tour companies from the UAE have their own private arrangements for hotel guests with taxis and hotels from the UAE into Musandam.
4WD is absolutely essential in Musandam for very good reason – the mountain roads are gravel, very steep with a rock wall on one side and a precipice on the other, barely passable in parts and requiring serious attention.
However, we had always wanted to get to Musandam and there is now a ferry (reputably the fastest ferry in the world) from Shinas to Khasab, Musandam. This is the way to go as the journey takes only around 3 hours, but then it is travelling at over 80km/h!! This is a very exciting trip as the ferry weaves around dozens of tankers and freighters ‘holding’ where the Oman Arabian Sea meets the Strait of Hormuz.
I tried to get ferry tickets from several travel agents in Oman without success but persistence pays and I discovered the best way was to go to the National Ferry offices in Muscat in person. Passports are required as is the original ‘Mulkiya’ car registration card which can be obtained from the car rental company giving the right to travel outside Oman (the Shinas/Khasab ferry travels through International waters). This is issued for the vehicle itself not the driver and has to be agreed and pre-arranged with the car rental company. The ferry cost for Tourist vehicles including 2 passengers is OMR 92 so one really needs to want to go to put up with all the red-tape and cost.
Muscat: Pre-paid first and last nights from the UK in the Centara Hotel 4* to give us a good start and ending. OMR 40 Room only, via Expedia. We usually go for 3* but this place was so convenient and good quality that we stayed there for extra nights when in Muscat. After the first night we negotiated B + B for the same rate direct with the hotel.
Sur: Sur Plaza Hotel. 3* We had stayed there back in 2011. Agreed OMR 45 B + B for their ‘upgraded best room’. It’s on a service road just off Route 23 south of the town centre. Eat at the Sur Sea Restaurant, good quality and inexpensive.
Nizwa: This is the ancient capital of the country with a hugely impressive fort and as such the town attracts lots of tourists. As may be expected in a tourist town, it was difficult to find good accommodation at a realistic price and after visiting 5 places we eventually found the Safari Hotel, right opposite the LuLu hypermarket. This was clean, comfortable and close to the mountains but still expensive and not very good value at OMR 40 -50 depending on the room. However, our route north necessitated a stay in this region and it was good to have a look around the town and fort.
Sohar: Al Thuraya Apartment Hotel. Good 3* with helpful staff and good restaurant. This place is quite a bit north of Sohar but that suited our route planning. We first stayed there with the Eriksens on the way north and had found it a good convenient place to stay. OMR 30 B + B and stayed there again en route to the Shinas ferry. Evening meal at the restaurant was good.
Khasab: Diwan Alamir Hotel. Good quality 4* OMR 30 B + B. We met no other foreign ‘tourists’ here, mainly Indian and other nationalities living in Oman and visiting Musandam for a few days break from work. We arrived after dark so finding somewhere to sleep was imperative.
Diwan Alamir was by far the best hotel at an affordable price we could find in Khasab and bearing in mind Khasab’s isolation we were very pleased to have found it. One ‘well known’ hotel was shabby and not good and at the same rate as here, so stress was building as we drove around but then found this one just as we were planning for two nights in the car!
Food and general shopping: LuLu hypermarkets are in most large towns including Khasab, so stock up here.
Books and Maps
Eriksen, J., Victor, R. (2013) Oman Bird List Edition 7, Pub: Center for Environmental Studies and Research, Sultan Qaboos University, Sultanate of Oman
Porter, R. & Aspinall, S. (2010) Birds of the Middle East 2nd Edit. Pub: Christopher Helm, London
Sargeant, D.E., Eriksen, H. & J., (2008) Birdwatching guide to Oman 2nd Edit. Pub: Al Roya Publishing, Muscat, Sultanate of Oman. Excellent on-line updates including new sites.
Eriksen, J., & Porter, R. (2017) Birds of Oman. Pub: Christopher Helm
Reise Know-How. (2017) World Mapping Project, Oman 1:850,000 Bought from Upton before departure and excellent for route planning. GPS essential. n.b. many new roads have opened since the 2009 edition.
During our previous Oman trip we had seen most of the species we expected to encounter and this trip was to find the difficult species and have some great birding at 30C-40C. Our great fortune was to contact Jens and Hanne Eriksen well before we travelled. Even so it was a distinct possibility that may have by then already returned to Denmark after living in Oman for very many years.
Our good fortune held out and we spent two wonderful days with Jens and Hanne birding the Batinah Coast from Muscat to Khatmat Milahah looking for those tricky species. Key species were Plain Leaf Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat halimodendri and Pallid Scops Owl, all of which we found at Khatmat Milahah. Another highlight of our trip with them was to visit the Daymaniyat Islands, Jun and Sawadi Islands off the coast from Ras as Sawadi to encounter Sooty Falcon, Persian Shearwater, Bridled Tern, Jouanin’s Petrel and huge flocks of Red-necked Phalarope.
Sohar Sun Farm does not now exist. It was being run-down on our last visit in 2011 when we were very pleased to meet John Atkins and now, very sadly, the job is complete and the whole area is semi-desert. Since then and very fortunately, several new and productive sites in Oman have been located for birding and one we visited with the Eriksens was the Saham WaterTreatment Plant, near the coast at Saham.
Several people had said that when in Musandam, take a dhow trip to see sea birds, remote villages and Telegraph Island where in the 19C submarine telegraph cable communication was first laid to link India and the UK. Being aware of the gruelling conditions that existed in this barren landscape at the time of laying the cable in the 1860s this was hugely impressive and interesting. The environment has not changed since that time with vast cliffs rising directly from the sea and the sense of complete isolation within nature.
The rest of the dhow trip left us underwhelmed and saddened by the lack of on-board safety. The wildlife highlight was to see the Indo-Pacific hump-backed dolphins. In the morning of our trip there were very few birds by the dhows, just a few terns in the Elphinstone Inlet where we moored for the obligatory swim. Snorkel and masks were provided but rubbishy and practically useless. Neither did the promised on-board wildlife commentary happen.
Our two days adventure in Musandam would have been much better spent with two days in the mountains to see the high altitude birds rather than one day in the mountains and the dhow trip.
See attached spreadsheet for species and number of individuals seen at each site.
7th Oct. Overnight Oman Air flight LHR/MCT dep 20.50
8th Oct. Muscat arrival 07.30, sorted Visa, collected vehicle and straight to LuLu for provisions and an OmanTel sim card. Checked into Centara Hotel then immediately to outflow of Wadi Udhaybah at Al Ghubrah beach for excellent birding on the bridge. Overnight Muscat.
9th Oct. Muscat
Crowne Plaza Hotel gardens, Qurm. In 2011 these were excellent but now very disappointing as much of the natural scrub has been grubbed out for lawns and new swimming pool.
Al Shati Street - a walk along the coast here yielded great gulls and terns on the seaward side and waders on the lagoon. Evening visit to Jens and Hanne to finalise plans for the next two days. Overnight Muscat
10th Oct. Met up at 7AM for a big day with Eriksens.
Ras as Sawadi to Daymaniyat Islands. En-route to Jun Island were huge flocks of Red-necked Phalarope, several Persian Shearwater, Jouanin’s Petrel and Bridled Terns sitting on flotsam. Circumnavigating Jun Island birds included 8 Sooty Falcons, an Osprey, a Montague’s harrier and a Brown Booby.
Sawadi Island. Landed to have fantastic views of 5 Sooty Falcon and some newly arrived migrants, Common Nightjar, Steppe Grey Shrike.
Saham Sewage Treatment Plant. Excellent new site – series of disused settling ponds. All the usual species plus migrant ducks, waders and a ‘very special’ Jacobin Cuckoo. Overnight Sohar.
11th Oct. Second big day with the Eriksens.
Khatmat Milahah. The wooded area included 15 Lesser Whitethroat halimodendri, 2 Plain Leaf Warbler, Asian Desert Warbler, Variable Wheatear, Southern Grey Shrike and a Pallid / Bruce’s Scops Owl near to habitation.
Shinas Beach. Potential site for Saunder’s Tern but difficult conditions underfoot curtailed our search but it proved to be a very useful stop-off to find the ferry terminal and check the time-table.
Sohar Sun Farm. Now derelict and has returned to semi-desert. Species here included Tawny Pipit, Isabelline and Desert Wheatear and Arabian Babbler. Overnight Muscat.
12th Oct. Planning, evaluation and re-stocking day. Overnight Muscat.
13th Oct. Al Ghubrah Bowl
Wadi Bani Harras. Migrants included Black Redstart, Spotted Flycatcher, halimodendri L. Whitethroat.
Wutan/Wukan. High altitude mountain village requiring 4WD. Gardens irrigated by an ancient Falaj system similar to the Levadas of Madeira. Highlights of the day were the first two Hume’s wheatear and two Pale Crag Martin. Overnight Muscat.
14th Oct. National Ferries Office at Muscat Fish Market to purchase Musandam Ferry tickets. Protracted experience but eventual success.
Coast road Muscat to Sur. Highlight was the flock of Lesser Flamingo on Sur lagoon. Overnight Sur.
15th Oct. Ras al Hadd and Ras al Khabbah
Ras al Hadd. Excellent sea watching from the beach including 5 species of Gull, 5 species of Tern, Arctic Skua, Jouanin’s Petrel, Masked Booby, Red-necked Phalarope, a wide selection of waders and Crested and Black-crowned Sparrow Lark, and a Hoopoe behind the huts. Also two Green Turtles out to sea.
Ras Al Khabbah. Fantastic sea watching but this time from a very high cliff. Constant southward movement of Steppe Gulls and a feeding frenzy following a small fishing boat of 200 Bridled Terns, Greater Crested and Sandwich Terns and Jouanin’s Petrels. Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse flew over the road. Overnight Sur.
16th Oct. Nizwa – relocation day, via:
Al Kamil. 13 Indian Roller in garden on the northern outskirts on Route 23.
Al Hawiyah. Beautiful oasis surrounded by 50-100’ high sand-dunes. Highlight here was Marsh Sandpiper skulking in a Falaj channel and very interesting flowering plants.
Birkat al Mawr. Lunch stop with Indian Silverbill and Indian Roller. Overnight Nizwa.
17th Oct. Sayq plateau, Al Jabal al Akhdar, the Green Mountains.
Note: Official requirement of 4WD, Mulkiya and Passport required to pass through check-point although the road has now been metalled - a tremendous feat of engineering.
Wadi al Manakhir - Valley of the Monk. Brown-necked Raven, Rock Dove on the cliffs and Yellow-vented Bulbul and halimondendri L. Whitethroat in the trees.
Wadi Bani Habid. Parked at viewpoint overlooking a deserted village to view Blue Rock Thrush, Pale Crag Martin, Yellow-vented Bulbul and Striolated Bunting.
Sayq village. Walk through Pomegranate orchard to Falaj system – few birds but fantastic views.
Nizwa Fort and museum. Well worth a visit. Overnight Nizwa.
18th Oct. Sohar. - relocation day via:
Al Khadra’a. Small oasis with usual species plus a Blackcap.
Wadi near Seir al Brier. Large wadi discovered on Route 08, half way between Yanqul and Sohar. Possible new site- shallow pools attracting Purple Sunbird and Desert Lark to drink. Also, Common Sandpiper, Hume’s Wheatear, Pale Crag Martin and a Green Bee-eater gorging on Dragonflies.
Saham Sewage Treatment Plant. A 5 mins visit as we passed the gate. Overnight Sohar.
19th Oct. Shinas to Musandam.
Shinas. Return visit to Shinas beach to find Saunder’s Tern. Singleton found in the gull and tern roost on a sandbank, also Ghost Crabs.
Musandam Ferry. Difficult to bird as dusk was fast approaching and once the ferry left port we had to remain inside for the first 30 mins. Arrived Khasab after dark. Overnight Khasab.
20th Oct. Dhow trip.
See introduction for details. Highlight Indo-Pacific Hump-backed Dolphin.
Afternoon recce in preparation for next day’s birding adventure into the mountains. Hume’s Wheatear was very common as were Indian Roller. Overnight Khasab.
21st Oct. Musandam mountains and return to Muscat via Shinas ferry.
Jebel Harim-As Sayh road to UAE checkpoint. Very testing driving as described in the introduction. Significant numbers of Hume’s, Red-tailed and Variable Wheatear, Chukar and a single Pale Rock Sparrow.
Ferry to Shinas. Huge numbers of terns but no petrels nor shearwaters were apparent on the west coast of the peninsula – the majority unidentifiable at speed. This contrasted with the east coast where there were no terns but Persian Shearwaters and Jouanin’s Petrel seen in large numbers together with two Masked Booby. Large white gulls were seen but again, id difficult on the ferry (>80km/h)!
Shinas to Muscat. A very long drive in the dark and heavy traffic. Overnight Muscat.
22nd Oct. Full day on the coast, Muscat.
Chedi Hotel grounds. Direct access is not granted to those not staying at this hugely expensive hotel, but looking through the perimeter fence were large numbers of Green Bee-eaters, Barn Swallow and Indian Silverbill.
Al Ghubrah, Wadi Udhaybah outflow. Return visit for most of the day. Surprising number of gulls, terns and waders passed through, highlights included Red-necked Phalarope and a small flock of Socotra Cormorant. Overnight Muscat.
23rd Oct. Home.
Return day-time Oman Air flight, MCT/LHR departing 13.55/19.05 after two weeks great birding and a huge adventure. We make no apology that the total number of species seen was only 112 as the purpose of the trip was to find the difficult species and see something of Musandam and Oman’s unique culture.
For our day-by-day species list (pdf format) please click here.