Its 12.40 and the intense Arabian sun is beating down around us, but a cool breeze and the shade of a single acacia tree provides us with all the shelter we need. The whooping calls of the fan-tailed ravens echoes around the vast Wadi, which snakes into the distance before us, while tiny iridescent blue-green Sunbirds sip nectar from the acacia flowers metres above our heads.
We are on the northern valley shoulder of the Wadi, two days in to our second research phase. This morning we returned from a 1 night camp at the top of a small tributary 3km from our current location. The schedule for Rigel Fire today covers butterfly surveys (currently in progress) and then a herp search in the rocky Wadi bottom, close to our temporary featherweight base camp in the middle stretches of the Wadi. This is a true wilderness; silent apart from the sounds of the natural living world around us.
Our first week of research in the Wadi provided us with a comprehensive introduction to the complex ecosystems that thrive here. We maintained a constant presence at the biologically rich and verdant estuarine environment close to base camp, and pushed up in to the lower sections of the Wadi and along the coastline. Our bird surveys have revealed over 40 species already, with the Arabian Warbler, Bluethroat and Black-crowned Night Heron as personal favourites. The expedition has relentlessly tackled the difficult task of identifying the diverse raptor communities found here; Verreaux’s Eagle, Short-toed Snake-eagle, Greater Spotted Eagle, Booted Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Long-legged Buzzard, Hen Harrier and Osprey. Shining and Palestine sunbirds have been a pleasure to observe as they move from flower to flower.
Dragonfly and butterfly surveys have begun to reveal the communities found here and as net skills improve we hope to identify more elusive species as the data accumulates. A highlight so far has been the collection of a Grass Jewel butterfly, which is considered the smallest species in the world.
Our large mammal research will expose its most useful data at the end of the expedition when our camera traps are collected, but for the time being scats, tracks and scrapes are providing evidence of Hyena, Arabian Wolf, Caracal and Honey Badger. A Genet was also spotted in the tree Saturday night, given away by its eye shine in the beam of a head torch. Fingers crossed for the Arabian Leopard; panthera pardus nimr. We have been deploying small mammal traps every night where the teams have bedded down, but so far we have only caught Arabian Spiny Mouse, this is useful data though, as they account for a large proportion of the Leopard’s diet.
Hyrax surveys, scat collection and cave and trail mapping has begun this phase to provide data for a Leopard habitat suitability index (HSI) being overseen by Ceres. A HSI can be a powerful tool to examine the quality of an ecosystem for sustaining a certain species.
We are regularly undertaking bat echolocation surveys which so far have revealed several species using the wadi. Members of the team have really enjoyed entering an ultrasonic world for an hour or two each evening, a good way to wind down after a hot and sweaty day of research. The herp surveys have found booming populations of Semaphore rock geckos, a diurnal species, so called due to the tail curling and head bobbing behaviour of the 4cm territorial males.
Larger Fan-footed geckos have been found in caves and Blue Agamids basking on the boulders. A Puff Adder was also observed next to a trail along the coast. The discovery of a Platyceps thomasi, a stunning orange and black banded snake was a real triumph for the whole expedition. Finding this rare and little-known species demonstrates the importance of the wadi as a refuge for wildlife in a rapidly developing nation.
Speaking to Sean just now, he told me of his most memorable wildlife encounters so far; spotting dolphins and sea turtles from the cliff tops, being at eye level with Verreaux’s Eagles and the feeling of being in ‘Leopard-country’ as we entered deeper into the wadi system. I admit, the last one is not so much an encounter as such but certainly a feeling enjoyed by everyone; a feeling of seclusion in a breathtakingly beautiful yet rugged environment.
Lawrence Ball (CS)