Owls of the Arabian Peninsula

This video from Oman says about itself:

18 June 2015

Saeed and I left Salalah at 7.15pm and headed to Wadi Darbat in the Dhofar Mountains, spotlighting for night-active animals and owls.

Half-way along the flat far bit of the wadi we heard a strange screeching call on the south side of the road. We could not identify it and went by foot to locate the origin.

It turned out to be an immature Arabian Spotted Eagle-owl, Bubo (africanus) milesi.

We left the bird in peace and it continued to call from the same area for another hour. No adults were seen or heard.

Hopefully Saeed made it back there the next night to record it; I was by then well on my way back to Dubai.

From BirdLife, with photos there:

Birds of the Arabian Night

By Faisal Hajwal, 16 Oct 2016

When the Sun begins to set on the Middle East, the majority of the region’s birdlife settle down to roost for the night. Yet for others, the day is just beginning. We are of course talking about owls – those nocturnal birds of prey that bewitch us with their secrets and unusual behaviours.

We are all surely all familiar with owls; this large and distinctive order of around 234 species spreads its wings across the world, and can be found on every continent except for Antarctica. Despite the existence of such an enormous number of species, the Arabian Peninsula is host to a relatively small number of owls that are considered either resident, transient or migrant.

Nonetheless, these charismatic birds have left their mark on the psyche of the region. In some Middle Eastern cultures, owls are often associated with death and ruin, and are said to represent the souls of those who have died unavenged. For this reason, owls are often considered bad luck in this part of the world, but this perception may be changing, particularly among the region’s farmers. Incredibly effective predators who are specially adapted for night hunting, owls offer great environmental services for humans, reducing the population growth of rodents and helping to maintain an ecological balance.

Because owls are generally active at night, they have a highly developed hearing system and extraordinary night vision. The forward facing aspect of the eyes gives the owl its “wise” appearance, but also more practically gives it tremendous depth perception. Additionally, their eyes are very efficient at collecting and processing light, allowing it to hunt effectively in dark conditions. In addition to that, owls have specialized feathers that enable near-silent flight by altering air turbulence and absorbing noise.

Owl size and weight varies greatly among owl species, with the Great Grey Owl, which is considered the largest species of owl, weighing up to approximately 3 kg with a length reaching up to 76 cm. Other species are very small, with a length that does not exceed 14 cm and weigh 40 g. Although the Arabian Peninsula isn’t typically considered an owl hotspot, these stunning images show that the few species that do make the region their home perfectly illustrate the variety and charisma of this iconic bird family.

Pharaoh Eagle Owl (Bubo ascalaphus)

This striking species, with its eyes as orange as the richest sand dune, is found across most of the Peninsula and in particular the east coast. Also known as the Eagle or Pharaonic Owl, it is the largest species in the area. Its size is about 68 cm, with a wingspan reaching up to 147 cm. It lives in desert environments and use rocky formations cavities as a nest.

Barn Owl (Tyto alba)

Resident throughout the year and considered the most common species in the region. It is medium-sized with a length reaching 35 cm, and 89 cm wing span. It is easily distinguishable from the rest of other species, with its heart-shaped face and piercing black eyes. True to its name, it likes to nests in abandoned buildings, especially ceilings and concrete gaps. …

Pallid Scops Owl (Otus brucei)

A rare resident, known in Arabic as the Striped Trees Owl. Small, with a length not exceeding 20 cm and 50 cm wing span. It is a resident to the eastern regions of the Peninsula; however, it is not common. It nests in tree holes, often in arid foothills and rocky gorges, but can be found in urban gardens, too. According to our research there is no certain record for its breeding time. In winter, it migrates to the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent.

Eurasian Scops Owl (Otus scops)

A migrant that is resident in several countries and regions such as northern India, northern Iran, Turkey and the Mediterranean basin. It migrates in winter to Africa, its route running across the peninsula. It is significantly exposed to hunting during the season of migration.

Little Owl (Athene noctua)

Uncommon resident, also known as the small owl or the ringed owl. It reaches 22 cm in length and is often seen in the daytime. Marked by rows of sand colour and a rounded head. It is recorded breeding in most of the Gulf States. It is a widespread species, with a range that spreads from the UK to Eastern China, but the subspecies Athene noctua lilith, which is a softer sandy colour, is found only in this region.

Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)

A rare winter visitor, also known as the Short-Eared owl or the Deaf Owl. Length may reach up to 38 cm. It has been recorded in most of the Gulf States but in low numbers. It prefers open, marshy countryside, where it is active both day and night, flying a few feet above ground and often hovering over prey before pouncing.

Long-eared Owl (Asio otus)

Its size is similar to its shorter-eared cousin, with a length that reaches up 36 cm. This agile predator prefers to roost in woodland, stretching its wings and body to disguise itself as a tree branch. Its migration route does not pass the Arabian Peninsula region, with very few observations in some Gulf countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Altai mountains book, its author interviewed

This video from the Netherlands says about itself:

Reconnecting with landscape in a globalized world. | Arita Baaijens | TEDxHaarlem

1 June 2015

Contemporary maps leave out the human connection, the sense of awe one feels standing face to face with the mountains, the taste of its water, the messages carried by the wind. To really understand our position and establish a sense of place in a rapidly changing world we need to revise our maps and add the human connection.

Arita Baaijens is an explorer, biologist, author, photographer, and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Explorers Club, the Long Riders Guild, and WINGS Worldquest, who recently selected her for one of their distinguished awards.

The Dutch adventurer has already completed over 25 desert expeditions on camel throughout Egypt and Sudan. She is the first woman to have crossed the Western Desert of Egypt solo on camel and the first Western woman to have travelled the Forty Days Road on camel twice. In Mauritania she photographed the last surviving female caravaneers.

Currently Arita Baaijens travels and works in Siberia and Central Eurasia, to research sacred landscapes and traditional cultures. In 2013 she was the first to circumambulate the Altai Golden Mountains in the heart of Eurasia: 4 countries, 101 days, 1500 km on horseback. March 2015 the Spanish Geographical Society honored Arita Baaijens as Traveler of the year.

This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

This December 2015 Dutch video is about Ms Baaijens’ new book, about her journey to and in the Altai mountains.

That book, Zoektocht naar het paradijs, was on a shortlist of five books for this year’s Jan Wolkers Prize, the prize for best Dutch natural history book; though it did not win.

Ms Baaijens was the first one of three prize nominated authors to lecture on 16 October 2016 in the Lakenhal museum. Though it was more of an interview than a lecture: with as interviewer Ms Anneke Naafs, of Vroege Vogels radio. Both ladies wore high heels. A bit of a contrast with the subject of the book, an often arduous journey through mountains and valleys of Kazakhstan, Russia, Mongolia and China. A journey in which Arita Baaijens did not avoid potential dangers; and where, like in an airplane which may crash, high heel shoes should be removed.

The Altai mountains, Ms Baaijens said, are on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Not anywhere else had she seen so many beautiful wild flowers.

Snow leopards live there.

Arita Baaijens talked about the Karakol valley in the Russian part of the Altai.

Some of the local people are Christians; some are Tengrist, an ancient Central Asian religion:

Historically, it was the prevailing religion of the Turks, Mongols, and Hungarians, as well as the Xiongnu and the Huns.

Ms Baaijens told that Altai people were careful about Erlik, the god of the underworld and death.

How can tensions between these ideas of local people, and other ideas, like of scientists, be dealt with? she asked herself.

Arita Baaijens intends to go to Papua New Guinea for her next journey.

Next in the Lakenhal that day came a lecture on crabs, lobsters and other crustaceans. So, stay tuned!

Helmeted hornbills endangered by poachers

This video says about itself:

14 February 2016

Indonesia is home to thirteen hornbill species, three of which are endemic. This makes Indonesia the richest and the most important country for hornbill conservation in the world.

Hornbills are the largest and most effective seed disperser agent in Asia’s tropical rainforests and they are forest dependent. Among Asian hornbills, the Helmeted hornbill is the most unique species starting from species life requirement and features a solid casque that has been recognized for its ivory-like quality. It is the only Hornbill in the world which has this feature.

From Wildlife Extra:

Ivory poachers driving rare bird to extinction

By Nigel Collar, 28 Sep 2016

A sudden explosion of demand for the Helmeted Hornbill’s casque as “ivory” is plunging the species to extinction at frightening speed. Yesterday the government of Indonesia once again explained the issue during the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) – a gathering of 182 nations currently underway in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Perhaps the single most iconic bird species in what remains of the great dipterocarp forests of the Greater Sundas (Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo) has suddenly been discovered to be plunging at frightening speed towards extinction. In November 2015, BirdLife placed the Helmeted Hornbill Rhinoplax vigil on the IUCN Red List in the highest category of threat: Critically Endangered. The reason: a sudden explosion of demand for the “ivory” that its casque (the “horn” on the top of its bill) uniquely possesses.

At 1.5 metres long the Helmeted Hornbill is the largest of its kind in Asia; but this is the least of its remarkable features. It has a surprisingly short, spiky bill, a thick, carunculated bare neck which is deep red in the male and whitish in the female, as well as much the longest tail of any hornbill, with wonderful black and white central feathers greatly prized by the indigenous peoples of the forest.

It also has a very striking sheer-fronted casque rising over the front of its head. Other hornbill casques are ornamental and hollow, but the casque of the Helmeted Hornbill has evolved into a weapon of sorts. “Very striking” is an apt term, because the casque is used in rarely seen aerial jousts in which two birds fly from a treetop in opposite directions, circle round and swoop at each other, cracking their casques together in mid-air in a spectacular contest for supremacy. Casque-butting has been thought to be an elaborate ritual for deciding who gets to stay in a tree to eat its fruit, but it may be more to do with wider territoriality and is perhaps closely related to pair bond reinforcement.

Whatever the explanation, these contests have evidently driven the evolution of the solid front to the casque of the Helmeted Hornbill; old males develop particularly awesome structures. For millennia, indigenous people in the Sundaic rainforests have used the casques of hunted birds to carve various kinds of ornament; when these were traded with Chinese merchants over a thousand years ago, the interest in China in hornbill “ivory” was ignited.

Chinese craftsmen, working within an oral tradition that has left no trace of their techniques, made use of hornbill ivory to carve the most exquisite pieces, engraving them with traditional scenes and themes. Items from buckles to snuff boxes were made from the material; as a demonstration of their sheer genius, some of the carvers left the casque on the head of the bird, producing the most breathtakingly elaborate miniature scenes. The nineteenth century western craze for chinoiserie resulted in hornbill ivory products also being exported to Europe and America.

But the trade dwindled in the early twentieth century, while the Second World War seemed to kill it off completely. There was no evidence of any external trade during the second half of the century although, perhaps as a precaution, the Helmeted Hornbill was placed on Appendix I of CITES from the first implementation of the convention in 1975. BirdLife treated it as threatened in 1988, owing to fears over habitat loss, but further evaluation indicated that Near Threatened was a more suitable listing; it remained in this category from 1994 until the end of 2015.

But two years ago Yokyok Hadiprakarsa, an independent hornbill research expert based in Indonesia, began to uncover evidence that the species was the target of a new clandestine trade for its “ivory”. His further research, using Asian trading websites, now reveals that the demand for hornbill artefacts, far more crudely carved than in centuries past, suddenly took off in 2011, feeding a new interest among the Chinese nouveau riche. His work in West Kalimantan, checking on reports of confiscations and talking to villagers, foresters and officials, suggested that in 2012–2013 as many as 500 Helmeted Hornbills were being hunted in the province every month, a rate of 6,000 birds a year. The heads were then being smuggled to major ports in Sumatra and Java and thence to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Separate studies by the Environmental Investigation Agency and by TRAFFIC South-East Asia have now confirmed the scale of the slaughter in Indonesia. The arrest this year of smugglers in Sumatra, in part to the credit of Indonesian staff of the Wildlife Conservation Society, has also indicated how wide and how fast the network of criminal gangs has spread in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo, with local hunters being recruited to go into the forest and shoot down every large hornbill in the hope that it would prove to be Helmeted. All the evidence suggests that this trade is simply an extension of the illegal trafficking of other wildlife products, as well as in drugs and other illicit goods, being conducted with ruthless efficiency across Indonesia’s two great islands.

BirdLife has moved as fast as possible to lend its support to the international conservation response that is clearly urgently needed to address this crisis. First, it conducted an emergency evaluation of the Helmeted Hornbill’s threat status. The new evidence concerning the pervasiveness of poaching in Indonesia, including reports from seasoned bird tour leaders that the species has suddenly become much harder to find, were obviously decisive; but the facts that the birds have such a low reproductive rate, with the female sealing herself into the nest cavity for around five months, and that killing the male who feeds her in the nest will certainly cause the chick’s death and possibly also the female’s, clearly also mean that populations will be unable to recover for many years. Moreover, the large emergent trees which bear the cavities in which the species habitually nests are commonly the target for logging operations. If being listed now as Critically Endangered has one consolation, it is that the species becomes eligible for support from a number of charitable sources.

The second step BirdLife took, through its regional division and national Partners, was to join forces with a group of conservationists in South-East Asia who are developing a plan of campaign to bring the crisis to world attention and to promote all possible measures to resolve it.

The group will be seeking to achieve a range of objectives: to promote awareness among consumers of both the illegality and the impact of the trade; to arouse expressions of concern by range states; to raise support from high profile sympathisers; to increase vigilance and activity by enforcement agencies at all levels; to involve NGO-backed protection units operating for other charismatic animals targeted by poachers; to create hornbill guardians among local citizenry; and to develop nest adoption schemes and community incentives for conservation.

To date, the gangs appear not to have moved into Malaysia or southern Thailand, but it is surely only a matter of time. Heading them off, while spiking their guns in Indonesia, is going to be a major undertaking in 2016; one for which the newly formed Helmeted Hornbill Working Group will need all the help it can enlist.

Dusky broadbill at its nest, video

This video says about itself:

13 July 2016

Forests are crawling with predators, and young chicks make for an easy meal, so many birds, such as this Dusky Broadbill make sure their nests are hard to raid. Using moss, lichens, and other plant matter these birds build what’s referred to as a pendulous cup nest, dangling from a thin branch and resembling tangled, rotting vegetation. Some broadbills even decorate the outside of the nest with cobwebs, creating an even more convincing disguise.

Dusky broadbills live in Asia.

Blyth’s paradise-flycatchers take turns on nest

This video says about itself:

13 July 2016

Balancing parenting with foraging can be difficult, but birds such as these Blyth’s Paradise-Flycatchers seem to have the schedule worked out. To ensure that both parents have an opportunity to feed without leaving their eggs unsupervised, many passerine parents will take shifts on the nest incubating their eggs.

Blyth’s paradise-flycatchers live in Asia.

Bluethroat nest on video

This video says about itself:

13 July 2016

Bluethroat mothers work hard to keep their nestlings warm and dry in a nest on the ground under grasses or shrubs, lined with fur from cattle and reindeer. The female sits on this nest throughout the night; however, during the day she leaves to find food for herself and her chicks. To keep the location of her nest hidden from predators, she and other ground-nesting species often weave through the low vegetation away from their young before flying into the open.

Bluethroats live in Europe, Asia and Alaska.

Banded kingfishers in love, video

This video says about itself:

13 July 2016

When courting a mate, males of some species, such as Banded Kingfishers, bring females a gift such as food. These offerings, known as “nuptial gifts,” can form or strengthen pair bonds by indicating a male’s ability to provide for future offspring.

Banded kingfishers live in Asia.