Thursday, January 16, 2014

DAY SEVENTY EIGHT - A visit from my "birding friend" Linda

When asked what I needed in terms of an apartment in Abu Dhabi, I requested 2 bedrooms in the hopes that we might have guests during our one-year stay in the U.A.E. Realistically, however, I knew the odds were low that anybody would be able to fly out. It's a very long flight and, let's face it, not cheap, so it would mean a significant investment of time and money. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when my friend, Linda, told me she was coming for a visit in mid-January.

Linda and I go back 29 years to when we were neighbors in Baldwinsville, a town just north of Syracuse, New York, in snow country. Linda was relatively new in the neighborhood and spotted me across the street, 9-months pregnant with Jeff. I was not easy to miss! I remember hearing the doorbell ring one afternoon, and when I answered it there was Linda who, after introducing herself, gave me a little gift for the baby, a small quilted teddy bear in an embroidery hoop frame. It hung on Jeff's door for years, and I still have it tucked away. 

Our children are close in age, so Linda and I volunteered for many PTA events together. We drove our daughters through snow and ice to skate in Fulton, and we hung out at her backyard pool together for many a Summer. Several years in a row we took a weekend Girl Trip: the first to New York City, another to Concord, Mass, and then after Linda had moved to Cary, North Carolina, we met up for a weekend in Ashville. 

Once Linda's girls were in college, she and her husband moved back home to California, and Linda and I continued with cross-continental visits. She came to NYC for a theater weekend, and the next year I flew to Napa and toured the wine country with her. She came back to NYC for another theater weekend, and I flew to San Francisco where she and Randy had relocated. 

In the Fall of 2005 Doug and I and Linda and her husband, Randy, rendezvoused in Paris for a 10-day trip that took us from Paris to London to Tournai (Belgium) and then back again to Paris. By this point  Linda's pastime of looking at birds had developed into a serious hobby. Throughout the trip she was always on the lookout for birds, which amused us all no end. Her excitement drew us in, and it was fun. 

A few years later Linda, now an avid birder, invited me on a birding trip to Panama. She booked a 10-day guided trip with a handful of other birders that took us from the shores of Panama, to jungle trails along the Panama Canal, to the cool Highlands, and finally to a cloud forest on the slopes of the dormant volcano, Baru, on the Costa Rican border. It was absolutely amazing. 

So I guess I should not have been surprised that Linda would, without hesitation, book a flight to come visit me in the U.A.E. As she pointed out over lunch a few days ago, we do have a history of meeting up in some interesting places. 

So without further ado, here are a few highlights of Linda's visit to the United Arab Emirates:

After 24 hours of travel (San Francisco - JFK - Milan - Abu Dhabi) I wasn't sure what kind of shape Linda would be in on her first day here. She slept in, but she was more than ready to go for a walk later in the day. As bad luck would have it, we had uncharacteristically overcast and cool weather for most of her visit, so the water along the Corniche was not as turquoise as it usually is in the bright sunlight. She deemed it beautiful anyway. 

During Jeff's visit a few weeks ago, the two of us spied the cutest little bird along the Corniche, one that was clearly not native to the USA. It took us awhile, but we identified it as a White-Cheeked Bulbul. I was very hopeful that Linda had not yet seen this bird so she could add it to her Life List. As it turned out it was indeed a new bird for her, and we spotted it that first day of her visit. This is a photo she snapped. 

Doug and I took Linda out to eat at a variety of places. Here at Cho Gao we introduced her to a Lemon Mint, which is probably the most common "cooler" in Abu Dhabi. It's basically lemonade that is blended with a whole lot of fresh mint. And I do mean a handful of mint. VERY minty and not too sweet :-)

When Linda read about my trip to the Falcon Hospital with Jeff, she said she just had to go. I made reservations for the morning tour, and as I hoped, it was far less crowded than the afternoon tour Jeff and I had gone on. Linda was absolutely in heaven. Here she is watching the vet clip and sharpen a falcon's beak. 

And of course she got to hold one. We decided this one was a gyrfalcon based on it's size. They are the largest of the 3 breeds of falcons used for falconry in the UAE.

After visiting the Falcon Hospital we went to the Grand Mosque, and Linda loved it. The sun came out enough so that the water in the surrounding reflecting pools sparkled, and the white marble of the mosque dazzled.

But the excursion Linda most looked forward to was a visit to the Ras al-Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in Dubai. We'd Googled "birding in the U.A.E.", and this location came up as one of the best spots to find a variety of birds. Supposedly there was a bird blind complete with a Leica telescope on the sight. We booked a car service for the day, and at 8:30 a.m. the driver arrived to take us to Dubai.

The directions from the website were pretty sketchy as I've discovered is often the case in this part of the world. We had a map we'd printed off the website, but it was not terribly good either. It turned out our driver's English was so-so at best, so we explained as best we could that we wanted to see birds. The driver didn't say a word to that, but I could his eyebrows lift. Most people go to Dubai to shop at one of the duty-free over-the-top malls, and I would bet the farm we were the first clients ever to say we wanted to go to Dubai to find birds. We showed him the map and the directions, and when we said "Ras al-Khor" he said he knew where that was. 

One and a half hours later we found ourselves in Old Dubai along the Dubai Creek. The creek, which is really an estuary, dead-ends in the wildlife sanctuary, about 8 km. from the coast. We knew we were close, so Linda and I were hopeful. We could see gulls gliding above the creek which was filled with the most incredible array of old, wooden dhows piled high with cargo. We drove on, and then, to our surprise, the driver circled around and headed back. We told him to wait, that this was NOT the sanctuary. Clearly he was confused. We pulled out the map once again and pointed, and he told us that "no", that area was all built up. Linda, who would not be denied her birds, declared that she'd seen a bird report from a short while ago, and that there was in fact a wildlife refuge somewhere! 

So off we went along the highway. The driver pointed to the right where the creek opened up into a shallow pond with mudflats. We could barely see anything for the high construction fence blocking the view. He was right about the construction - there was lots of it. We drove on, and I was beginning to despair when suddenly the fence stopped, and I could see the wetlands. Then just ahead I spotted an unmarked turn-off mostly obscurred by trees and bushes, so I told the driver to take it. As we pulled in I saw trash cans with pictures of pink flamingos on them. "This is it!" Linda and I yelled in unison. 

We were so happy to see this sign. We'd just about given up we'd find this place.

It would really have been helpful if this giant flamingo were placed on the highway right at the entrance to the turnoff. It would have made finding this place so much easier. The man in the blue was our driver, and the other person in uniform was the full-time guard who could not have looked more bored.

We could not see out to the water and mud flats very well from the parking area as there was a fence and shrubbery in the way. The entrance to the bird blind was at the end of this walkway. We didn't know what we'd find till we walked through the door.

We walked inside and found a nice-sized room with windows on all three sides. There were stools, and a narrow shelf ran around the perimeter so we could lean on it to peer out with our binoculars and spread out our bird guide and note paper. The promised telescope was in there as well. 

Linda at the scope looking very focused (hah hah - bad pun!)

When we looked out the windows we literally gasped at the number and variety of birds. These pictures cannot possibly do the scene justice. Ducks were in abundance in this photo: Mallards, Northern Pintails, and Green-Winged Teals.

There are flocks of Greater Flamingos and Eurasian Spoonbills in the distance. Closer in you can see herons and egrets (Great and Little) on the left.

Great Cormorants and ducks and herons (Grey and Western Reef) galore.

I loved watching this Black-Winged Stilt. Other shore birds included a Red-Winged Lapwing, Common Ringed Plover, Kentish Plover, Common Snipe, and Ruddy Turnstone. Linda also saw two new gulls to add to her Life List: the Common Black-Headed Gull and the Slender-Billed Gull.

Western Reef Heron. Very cool bird. 

We saw a pair of Marsh Harriers skimming along the tree-tops, but the best bird of all for me was a magnificent eagle that flew in and landed right in the middle of all the other birds. I was stunned that its arrival did not cause the others to take flight, but not a single one seemed to care. It sat still for quite a long time, so Linda and I got beautiful views, but we were so enthralled we forgot to take a photo. I am going to cheat and paste an image (below) pulled from the web so you can what this bird looks like.

The Greater Spotted Eagle. It was HUGE. After it sat for a good long while it flew off and circled around so we could clearly see the markings on the top and bottom of its wings. 

All in all, Linda and I saw 29 different species of bird on our Dubai Day Birding Trip, and she added 4 new species to her Life List. 

For her last day, Linda and I mostly talked and talked. We had a leisurely lunch, she shopped for gifts at the Central Souk, and we just hung out. 

Linda took the red eye home last night, and as I type this she is on the last leg of her trip, flying from Amsterdam to San Francisco. I was amused to see her Facebook post from Amsterdam where she said was birding out the airport window, trying to identify a particular gull. 

I don't know when I will next visit with Linda or where it will be. But one thing I can guarantee is that no matter where it is we meet up, some birding will happen.

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