Arabia: Training & working hard

We (Moayyed, Paul and Greg) met the team on Saturday at the Premier Inn in Dubai and we arrived at the DDCR at 10:00. We got started straight away with Greg’s introductory presentation about the history, fauna, flora and conservation objectives of the DDCR, as well as the importance and reasons for the data collection the team will be doing over the next week. We then did round the table introductions for everyone to learn names and something about why people had come. It is always interesting to hear of the diverse backgrounds, which make up our citizen science teams. We have four nationalities in this team including the UK, Germany, France and Mohamed who is from Dubai and was telling me on the drive back to DDCR how much he loves being out in the desert with wildlife and how if he goes out on trips into the desert with his friends, they will all be sitting around the fire checking their phones while he is off searching for interesting creatures. I have also since discovered that his other passion is for English football, so when he is not out in the desert, he is checking his phone for the footie scores.

Following my expedition introduction we ran through the risk assessment before getting started on the survey training. We managed an introduction to the most essential equipment and data sheets before lunch. Seven of the team were keen to drive the vehicles on the expedition, so went for a 4×4 training session in the Arabian Adventures Landcruisers.

Finally we headed off to the campsite to put up tents and get settled in. Greg joined us later in the afternoon and took the drivers for practical sand driving training on one of the trickier sections of tracks in the reserve. All the drivers picked it up really well and managed to get up a track going over quite a steep dune. It’s really good having quite a few drivers, as it gives us more flexibility during the expedition.

On Sunday we continued the science training, starting with use of the GPS. This is an essential piece of kit on this desert expedition. We use GPS to locate all our survey points, live traps and the fox dens we are recording. They are mounted in the vehicles when we are driving to navigate along the various tracks in the reserve to reach the required survey quadrant. Then we use the GPS to mark the vehicle as a waypoint before setting off on foot, so that it can easily be relocated even though not visible across the dunes. Then it’s a navigation tool while walking on foot through the desert and gives us the latitude and longitude co-ordinates to record observations on the data sheets. As part of the expedition preparation Greg had already loaded all the essential survey waypoints onto the GPS such as fox dens, trap locations and circular observation points, as well as the base mapping for the track network.

Training continued on Sunday morning with the team’s first foray into the desert. We went as one group with Greg and Moayyed to learn how to find and record fox dens, how to make the circular observations and how to identify the main large tree and shrub species on the reserve. Then came the last main part of the training on how to set the live traps, rodent raps and camera traps.

Sunday afternoon the team were let loose. Dividing into three groups of four, we went out to set traps, one team heading into the north section, one team central and one team south. After a long day, all the groups managed to navigate safely back to the campsite where we met Greg for our debrief of the day’s activities.

Monday was the first full day of data collection. Again we split into three groups (north, central and south) and each team headed out , following a briefing with Greg. The first job was checking live traps and rodent traps, then each team had three circular observation points to cover and three or four fox dens to check, as well as the random recordings, which are observations of all the key species sighted while driving or walking during the day. The last field task of the day was to reset the rodent traps before returning to the campsite for data entry and debrief.

During the debrief we all sit around the campfire (although the fire is not actually alight at that time of day) and each team recounts its experiences of the day. This includes recounting what the team did, interesting wildlife observations as well as some often amusing stories.  We had one successful rodent capture of a spiny mouse in the rocky northern sections, good observations of Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle, sand gazelle and lappet faced vulture. Also various good reptile and bird sightings. As well as filling out the data sheets, we keep a record of all the species we see during the week. I was pleased to learn that one of the team is a keen bird watcher, so that should help us get a good bird list. The hoopoe lark was heard today, which is one of my favourites because of its amazing call and flight display that it does from the top of dunes.

In the debrief, I now include a confessions section and a most interesting thing learnt section. In the confessions section we learned one group had forgotten to take spare GPS batteries (tut tut! Mary, Marilyn and Juliane) and another group got their vehicle a bit stuck and had to be rescued by Greg. Good lessons learned included smoothing the sand around the rodent traps so fresh tracks can be easily seen the next day and how to take compass bearings so that if you forget your spare GPS batteries you can still navigate!
I get the feeling that the whole team are really enjoying this experience in the desert, it truly is a very special place. As Deborah said “the desert is my happy place”.

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