In birdwatching circles, the UAE is known as the "eastern hotspot of the Western Palearctic". And while that might sound very academic, the country is nevertheless a destination for many birders, thanks to a host of hard-to-spot species that are often seen here. "We're very busy," says Steven James, one of five guides that offers tours with the Emirates Bird Records Committee. "Last year alone, I clocked up 57 days of bird tours."
The committee is the only group that offers birdwatching tours in the country, as far as Clive Temple, another guide, is aware. The trips run at the weekend throughout the year and cost Dh600 for half a day and Dh1,200 for a full day. "It gives me something to do at the weekend," he says. "Keeps us out of trouble." The tours, James says, are customised, so experienced bird watchers can email a list of the species they'd like to spot and the guide will plan a route accordingly. For instance, James had one visitor who wanted to see every species of bird in the world in one year. He flew to the Emirates for 12 hours so James could take him on a tour, show him the grey hypocolius, exclusive to the UAE, and then drop him off at the airport. "That's an extreme example," James says, laughing.
For first-time UAE birdwatchers, James says the guides usually pick one of three predetermined routes around Abu Dhabi, Dubai or Al Ain. A fourth possible route is on the east coast. He recommends residents start in their own back yard. "If they're based in Abu Dhabi, I recommend the Abu Dhabi tour and if they're based in Dubai, then I'd recommend the Dubai tour." James, who has been birdwatching for 36 years, says a tour offers a unique opportunity to discover the surrounding area. "I think with birdwatching one of the great things is it gets you outdoors. It gets you to places where you wouldn't have gone."
While different species excite different birders, there are a few "key" birds that visitors flock to see. The highlights include the crab plover, Hume's wheatear, plain leaf warbler and the grey hypocolius. The latter visits the country in the winter months. Many of these birds are hard to spot in the rest of the world, and the UAE is often seen as the safest place in the region to see them. "A lot of the species are in countries that are difficult for westerners to travel to," James says. "The UAE is a ready and easy alternative."
While most of his clients are tourists and business travellers, James says many residents take the tours two to three times before setting out on their own. "When people first arrive here, they need our expertise and go on the tours. Once people get hooked, they keep coming back." He says that the element of the unknown makes birdwatching exciting and addictive. "It's ever-changing. You can go to the same place six times in six weeks and different birds are migrating through."
Interested birdwatchers can visit www.uaebirding.com to book a tour. The guide will provide everything except binoculars, sunscreen and hats. James recommends booking early as the weekends fill up during peak season, which is from October to late March. During the summer months, he admits that the heat makes birding more difficult, but there are a few species, such as the sooty falcon, that can only be spotted then. James says it is "a rare and enigmatic falcon that breeds on small islands and cliffs. And it only arrives in the first week of May and by mid-September it's gone."
Personally, I have decided to go birdwatching soon to follow the footsteps of my namesake. James was eager to inform me that a famous birder named John Mather wrote the definitive guide to the birds of Yorkshire. I reckon it's time for me to begin my work, The Birds Of Musaffah. To ask questions or to provide your own tips, please email firstname.lastname@example.org