I’m a birder with a wife and daughter whose idea of a family holiday encompasses sun, sea, sand and the occasional bout of shopping. That’s not really my scene so I wander around the grounds of our hotel early morning and late afternoon looking for wildlife. Even that pales after a while and I need a day in the wilderness with the birds. Sound familiar?
Now in many parts of the world you can hire a car and, informed by on-line material, go birding all by yourself. So why would you choose to be guided and in particular what can you expect from a day out with Mike?
I have had the pleasure of 4 days’ birding in the UAE with Mike, spanning 3 separate winter or spring holidays. After the first day you might think I had learned enough about birding UAE to go it alone but in fact I enjoyed it so much I would not even book the later holidays until Mike had confirmed his availability.
There are a number of sites in the UAE that are readily accessible, particularly in and around Dubai city. But many of these are being swallowed up by development and most of the other sites are more remote and largely unsigned.
For some you will need to negotiate access and it helps to know the local protocols. Mike has the detailed site knowledge to overcome the lack of signage and the deep cultural understanding of a long-time UAE resident. Mike also knows where you can safely leave your cameras in full view in the unlocked vehicle with key in the ignition and air conditioning on whilst you enjoy a coffee and sandwich!
Mike is a wonderful photographer with a real passion for his subjects. When guiding he brings this skill to bear in lining up his 4x4 as a hide with perfect lighting and subject distance so his guests have the best photo opportunities and the bird is undisturbed. He has his camera to hand but only uses it once he is sure his guests are in business. In fact it is a pleasure when Mike leaps into action as a photographer as you know you’re onto something a bit special. Like the singing Clamorous Reed Warbler, the Rufous Bush Chat, the White-throated Robin and especially the breeding plumage Masked Shrike and Pallas’s Gulls.
A day with Mike is an adventure. We have an agreed rough set of target species and itinerary but have a very flexible approach. On one occasion a massive sandstorm made the Gulf coast unsuitable, so we trashed the entire plan and simply switched to the Indian Ocean coast instead. We have often spent longer than planned at some sites whilst I tried for perfect shots of Greater Sand Plover, Lesser Crested Tern and Socotra Cormorant. Mike keeps in touch with other local birders and news of sightings is exchanged sometimes resulting in new itinerary options.
Mike is completely unflappable. I’ve been battling a medical condition for a while and for my first day’s birding with Mike I remember I wore carpet slippers with my boots in a bag only to be donned when absolutely necessary! Mike’s smile did not falter for a moment. And despite this limitation we scored some great birds like the White-tailed Plover, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Arabian Babbler and the Greater Hoopoe-Lark. Even more remarkably, Mike was willing to guide me again when I enquired the following year.
We don’t just stay in the car of course. More appropriately attired I’ve walked the length of wadis at dawn for Long-billed Pipit, Scrub Warbler, Red-tailed Wheatear, Eastern Orhean Warbler and Hume’s Wheatear, accidentally flushing a Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse in the process. We’ve scrambled up dune faces for views of a roosting Pharoah Eagle-Owl and we’ve strolled along beaches photographing gulls and terns and talking to curious fishermen.
As a driver Mike is fast and safe, on- and off-road. He has the knack of being able to drive, chat and identify birds all at the same time and never seems to tire from before dawn to after dusk. Mike is much-travelled with a rounded world view and a genuine interest in his guests. Conversation ranges well beyond birding and football and there never seems to be an uncomfortable silence.
So for me a day with Mike is much more than a day’s guided birding – it’s a birding adventure with a good friend leaving wonderful memories. Just writing this has whetted my appetite for more. Perhaps I can persuade my wife that we need another holiday.
When I was staying in Dubai for 4 days in January and I had arranged with Mike for a days birding. He took me to fantastic birding sites. I had always thought that Dubai was just desert and a large city with mega roads. However, Mike took me to mountains, scrub land and large mangrove mud flats.
At the end of the day we had nearly 100 species which was more than my expectation.