Central to any birder’s quest into the Middle East is this bird. A ghostly nomad of desert nations, it is a stalker of date palms. Somehow both demure and dapper, it is neither a bulbul, nor a shrike or waxwing, and confounds not only those hoping to see it, but also those who study it. But if you want to see a representative of every bird family in the world, then see it you must, and there are few places better than India’s Great Rann of Kutch, the United Arab Emirates or the Sultanate of Oman.
For some, it is the massive expanse of nothingness that is the Rub’ al Khali, or as most of us call it, “the Empty Quarter”. The largest contiguous sand desert (larger even in total area than France), with hardly a plant or an animal, it is wondrous and beautiful in part because it is so very bleak. Spanning parts of Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the Rub’ al Khali also borrows pieces from more accessible countries such as the UAE and Oman, and here one can imagine the ancient frankincense trade routes, the nomadic Bedu (Bedouin), or conjure images of Wilfred Thesiger on expedition. For some, it is the opportunity to experience and explore an area that offers glimpses of old Arabia in the Hajar and Dhofar Mountains and Nizwa, versus the bizarre bustling novelty that is towering Dubai. And, for the keenest amongst us, the UAE and Oman offer better than a sliver of hope for seeing the fleeting and distinct Grey Hypocolius.
More Grey Hypocolius images courtesy of Mike Pope
Do not let the image above of the flock of hypocolius mislead you. During the breeding season, hypocolius are in pairs, and the breeding range is mostly within Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan, which makes them off limits for a lot of us currently. But in winter months, they head for the edges of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, or the Arabian Sea, and then we have a chance. Occasionally, they form flocks, especially as they roam in search of food, but just as often, or more so, they are seen singly or in twos or threes, hanging around fruiting trees. Quite secretive at times, they will surprise us too, suddenly taking prominent perches and becoming confiding. And when they do present, they sure are attractive for a grey bird. One can see why this now monotypic bird was once thought a waxwing, as it does resemble a silky-flycatcher. Pleasingly streamlined and proportioned with a long tail, and a strong flier, the white-tipped wings are a curiosity, while the mask across the face lends it a serious expression.Relatively few get to see this bird, but on most of our trips to Oman and the UAE, we do connect with it, and of course there is so much else to see as well. The khawrs in southern Oman, estuarine areas, fed by desert springs that empty into the Arabian Sea, attract a great variety of waterfowl, waders, and wandering and wayward vagrant birds too. There are enormous and impressive raptors, such as Lappet-faced Vulture, Eastern Imperial Eagle and Pharaoh Eagle-Owl, and there are massive shorebird spectacles and oddities like Crab-plover as well.
Join us in Oman & the UAE, or in India to visit the Great Rann of Kutch, to seek the hypocolius, and let the wonders of the deserts, wadis, or the coastal khawrs of Salalah unfold before your eyes. Join us today and discover more.