At the Mic: Rick Simpson
Rick Simpson of Newport Pagnell, UK, is a bird guide, illustrator, author of Confessions of a Bird Guide, and a Birdlife Species Champion.
Arriving in the hot and dry UAE after the muggy climate of Thailand was something of a relief; our Wader Quest total after Thailand was 46. We landed in Abu Dhabi, but intended to stay in Dubai where our good friend and guide Tommy Pedersen lives. It also happens to be near to some of the best places to look for waders in this desert sheikhdom. The drive up to Dubai was interesting if not wholly exciting but as we approached the city it seemed to rise out of the desert before us, it’s glass panelled skyscrapers twinkling like millions of fairy lights, reflecting the scorching sun.
Despite Tommy’s grave warnings we booked a hire car the next day, driving in Dubai turned out to be significantly less stressful than I had become used to in São Paulo and we headed out to the Pivot Fields with eager anticipation. The pivots referred to in the name of the site are huge wheeled irrigation contraptions that trundle slowly around pouring water onto the soil, enabling crops and the like to be grown. They are fixed at one end and describe huge circles of fertility in the desert.
We knew that some Sociable Lapwings had been seen there recently, we were very keen to see these as it would most likely be our only chance for them during our quest. On arrival we parked outside the gate and walked in. There were a few birds around that were immediately obvious, the striking Hoopoe, the equally striking and common White-cheeked Bulbul and the odd Grey Francolin scurrying across the track. There were also many migrating pipits and wagtails, but their identification went undecided as we pressed on in the direction of the last sighting of the lapwings.
The most obvious wader was the Red-wattled Lapwing, the same noisy species we had seen in Thailand, but here the Thai version’s white cheek patch merges into the white on the underparts forming a bold white line down the side of the neck.
As we were scanning through these a darting movement behind them caught my eye. As I looked all I could make out was what appeared to me to be two bright yellow sticks poking out of the ground. As I tried to decide what they were, they moved and revealed themselves to be legs supporting one of our target species, White-tailed Lapwing. The colour of this otherwise rather undemonstrative bird, blended so well with the surroundings that when it stands absolutely still it all but disappears. That said, those splendid yellow legs do draw attention, but until they are used for what legs are designed for, i.e. walking, they don’t give the bird away, looking like a couple of disembodied sticks distracting would-be predators from the juicy, plump and edible body perched on top of them.
Much heartened by this success a more determined scanning of the fields ensued. Out beyond the birds that we had been looking at were more, smaller waders. The first to be identified was Little Ringed Plover along with several Common Snipe which were hunkering down in the ploughed furrows. With these was a surprise, two ruff trotting about on the bare earth, then several Common Ringed Plovers and three Pacific Golden Plovers.
I was watching these Pacific Golden Plovers and talking out loud to myself, giving a sort of running commentary,
“Pacific Golden Plover, no, two, three… fo… hold on a moment, that’s a (expletive deleted) Sociable Lapwing… yes!” High fives, broad grins and the customary Wader Quest waggle dance became the order off the day, good job there was no-one around to witness it.
The following day we were being guided and transported by Tommy. This was going to be an exciting day, we were going to be whizzed around the desert looking for birds and also interviewed by a national newspaper into the bargain.
We met along a deserted desert highway north-east of Dubai, it almost felt clandestine, certainly out of the ordinary for us. Our reporter friend arrived and we headed over a nearby sand dune which, to our surprise, was hiding a wetland area. This was the silted bay at Umm Al Quwain, as we headed along its southern edge, in the distance, we could see what looked like a large gathering of avocets, large black and white birds wading in the shallow water, but these were no avocets; these were our target for the morning, Crab Plovers. These peculiar looking and exquisite birds are unique in that they nest in burrows, the only wader species to do so. We approached quite close in the vehicle, but these birds were wary and started getting agitated, so we stopped to admire them from a safe distance. Tommy counted 237 of them and then told us the sad news that this bay was destined to be turned into a marina for the rich and famous. This left us feeling rather low despite the wonderful sight of the birds.
After our interview with Colin Simpson, (no relation) for the newspaper, we set off once again with Tommy driving along good roads through the desert. We now headed south-west of Dubai and pulled off the highway at Ghantoot. Here there is a jockey club where Cream-coloured Coursers frequent the manicured polo lawns, this is what we had come to see. These birds are spread right across the desert but they are significantly easier to find on these lawns.
Unable to get close to the bird we settled for scope views under the sizzling desert sun, ravenously consumed the delicious sandwich that Tommy’s wife Maja had prepared for us and after a brief stop at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in Dubai where no new birds were added our short, but successful, desert stop-over drew to a close.
After a short break in the UK, a planned visit to the great United States of America was eagerly anticipated.