Arabia: Round-up and pictures 2019

Biosphere Expeditions returned to Dubai in 2019 for its eight consecutive expedition to the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR). A group of 17 citizen scientists from six different countries, including two local placements from the UAE, spent two weeks working in the reserve collecting ecological data on the wildlife and habitats within the DDCR.

Greg Simkins, the DDCR Manager, comments on the expedition: “It is great to have citizen scientists from Biosphere Expeditions coming back year after year, as it gives us an opportunity to collect a large amount of data over a short period of time that can be compared between years to determine changes in species population sizes and vegetation communities”.

During the expedition, the expeditioners worked closely with Greg and the other DDCR staff, including Moayyed Sher Shah, the DDCR Conservation Officer, who provided training during the initial phase of the expedition and then assisted the newly trained citizen scientists out in the field. Moayyed says: “This was my first year working with Biosphere Expeditions and it was a great experience to be involved with such a motivated and enthusiastic group of people from a wide variety of backgrounds”.

Whenever possible Biosphere Expeditions provide opportunities for local students or early career conservationists and this year’s expedition was joined by Areej Jaradat from the UAE. Areej has studied environmental science, but previously found it difficult to get field work experience. The expedition gave her an opportunity to confirm she would enjoy the life of a wildlife conservationist working out in the field. Areej has volunteered to assist Moayyed with the analysis of several thousand camera trap images captured during the course of the expedition. This analysis, amongst other things, recorded the presence of the rare Gordon’s wildcat in the reserve, the first confirmed sighting in several years, as well as rare lappet-faced vultures.

The data collected during the expedition will help the DDCR formulate management plans for the reserve and its wildlife populations. The expedition also provided a great opportunity for citizen scientists from a variety of backgrounds and nationalities to experience the stunning environment and wildlife of the Arabian desert.

The expedition was kindly supported with vehicles, fuel and a desert dinner by Arabian Adventures. Dr. Matthias Hammer, executive director of Biosphere Expeditions, is “very grateful for this significant support by Arabian Adventures whose 4×4 cars are an invaluable tool for the expedition.”

Arabia: Wrap-up

A great big thank you to all expedition participants from both week 1 and week 2. Biosphere Expeditions and the DDCR are really grateful for the hard work that everyone has put in to collect a lot of good data that will be of long-lasting benefit to the reserve and it wildlife. As well as working hard, I think everyone has really enjoyed their experience here in the Arabian desert.

We had a beautiful misty last morning here in the DDCR, well worth the extra half an hour wait for the tents to dry. Thanks for everyone’s efforts this morning to get the camp packed up.

I have really enjoyed the expedition this year and, as well as the wildlife and the beautiful environment, a big part of that was the great company in both teams. I know that Moayyed and Greg have also really enjoyed having Biosphere Expeditions at the DDCR again this year.

As you know, a lot goes on behind the scenes at the DDCR to keep the place running and all the DDCR staff work very hard. A big thank you to them and we hope you like the T-shirts 😉 I also hope that Greg, Moayyed and Tamer enjoy the diverse selection of slightly sandy tea bags and left-over biscuits I have left for them in the DDCR office kitchen :))

As the group 2 know from this morning’s final de-brief, we were lucky enough to record Gordon’s wildcat on one of our camera traps. This is great news, as the rare feline has not been recorded on the reserve for a couple of years! There are many thousands of camera trap images, which now need to be carefully analysed and Areej, our UAE placement in group 2, has kindly offered to assist Moayyed with this task in the weeks ahead. Areej told me that she has really enjoyed the expedition and it has been a great opportunity for her to get some real field work experience and find out if she enjoys the life of a wildlife conservationist working in the field. I think her expedition journal entry sums up the experience nicely (see below). Thanks also to Elena for her artistic contribution to the expedition journal (also see below) and mammoth effort of desert clean up with Ulrike yesterday.

Thanks again to everyone, you have been amazing! I hope you enjoy the selection of images below from the camera traps and our last days of field work.

Paul Franklin
Expedition leader

Arabia: All squares covered

The second group of the Arabia 2019 expedition is now underway after completion of training on species identification, research methodology and use of equipment and traps.

We have split into three groups each day. The first job for each group is to check the live trap and grid of ten rodent traps in the area of the reserve they are covering that day. On most days each group then goes on to complete circular observation counts of target animal and plant species in two of the reserve’s quadrat squares. By the end of the week, the plan is that a circular observation will have been completed on all 62 of the reserve’s 2 km x 2 km square quadrants, giving us good data on the distribution of oryx, gazelle and the main plant communities. The team have also been collecting plenty of random observations while driving and walking within the reserve. Today we recorded lappet-faced vulture, hen harrier and toad-headed agama among many other species. Our rodent traps were successful this morning with a couple of captures of Cheeseman’s jerbil.

Our placement student Areej is enjoying being out in the desert getting some field experience in conservation research. The experience and talking with Moayyed and Greg also provides some ideas regarding prospects for work in the field of wildlife conservation within the UAE. Areej was rewarded on her birthday with the capture of three Cheesman’s jerbils in the rodent traps.

The camera trap results from the few days between groups 1 and 2 recorded a group of ten lappet-faced vulture, a Bonelli’s eagle and a female pallid harrier. We will collect the SD cards again on Friday and the results will be analysed in full by Moayyed after the expedition. As well as the science, we are managing to do a bit of litter picking in the desert, Elena is showing particular enthusiasm and energy for this.

Tomorrow is our last day of circular observations; the whole reserve will then have been covered by our citizen scientists. We will celebrate with dinner at the Arabian Adventures camp and on Saturday morning we will have a debrief from Greg to summarise what the team has achieved this week.

Arabia: Group 1 summary

Time has flown by and team 1 is done. It’s been a great week. We collected a lot of data and I am confident in saying that the team all really enjoyed their experience here in the Arabian desert.

Yesterday we collected in the small mammal traps and the memory cards from the camera traps that were set at the beginning of the week. Team 2 will deploy the small mammal traps in three new locations. The camera traps have been left in place and we will retrieve the second set of memory cards at the end of next week.

The camera traps recorded over 6,000 (!) images this week (not including the 11,700 images of tree branches blowing in the wind caught on a single camera trap, which we will re-position next week). Species recorde included Arabian red fox, oryx, both gazelle species, sand grouse, pallid harrier and brown-necked raven. There was also a great shot of a southern grey shrike catching an insect. Greg and Moayyed will undertake a detailed analysis of the camera trap results over the next few weeks.

The large mammal traps did not catch anything, so will try with a different type of bait next week.

The small mammal traps were more successful with captures of Egyptian spiny mouse on the rocky outcrop in the north of the reserve and Cheesman’s gerbil in the south of the reserve. The team also made observations of jerboa and jird during daylight, which is unusual. At the southern trap grid location, we also recorded cat tracks.

Fox den surveys went well with 49 dens checked for activity, including the discovery of 14 new fox den locations. There were also several sightings of Arabian red fox during the week.

The team managed to undertake circular observations in 35 of the reserve’s 64 2×2 kmquadrants. This leaves 27 quadrants for the team 2 to survey next week. Circular observations recorded 285 oryx, 112 Arabian gazelle and 114 sand gazelle.

The team’s random observation data yielded 470 records, including 1,829 oryx, 566 Arabian gazelle and 90 sand gazelle. Also 4 MacQueen’s bustard, 10 lappet-faced vulture, 4 desert eagle owl and 2 Bonelli’s eagle.

Last night we were treated to dinner at the Arabian Adventures camp, where some of the team had a go at sand boarding, camel riding and henna painting.

I would like to thank the team 1 for all their hard work this week and also for being such great company. I know that Greg and Moayyed are really appreciative of everyone’s hard work and the data will be of significant long-term benefit to the DDCR, enabling comparisons with other expedition years where data has been collected in the same way. A special thanks also to Mohamed, a UAE national, who was part of the team 1 and enriched the experience by sharing his knowledge and experience of living in Dubai, as well as his great enthusiasm for the wildlife and habitats of his country.

We wish all of this week’s team a safe journey and are looking forward to meeting next week’s team.

Safe travels everyone.

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”.

Arabia: Almost ready

I arrived in Dubai yesterday evening and was picked up at the airport by Moayyed. The hour-long drive to the DDCR gave us an opportunity to get acquainted and to start discussing some of the logistics and science objectives of this year’s expedition. As well as our annual expedition count of the ungulate species (Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and sand gazelle), we will be doing some small mammal live trapping to determine population densities of the prey species that sustain the red fox, sand fox and Gordon’s wildcat.
Today (Thursday) was an early start. Following a quick catch-up with Greg, we drove into the city to collect the expedition vehicles (Toyota Landcruisers) from the office of Arabian Adventures.
Left to right: Jorg Schaffler, Operations Manager, Arabian Adventures; Paul Franklin, Expedition Leader, Biosphere Expeditions; Moayyed Sher Shah, Conservation Officer, DDCR; Suhaib Vayyakkarth, Reserve Attendant, DDCR; Greg Simkins, Conservation Manager, DDCR
Then it was off to take my chances on the Dubai road system to buy essential supplies (tents, tea, coffee, biscuits, toilet rolls, etc) for base camp. Thanks to my sat nav, I got back to the DDCR early afternoon, which left some daylight to start getting everything organised out at basecamp. Before leaving the DDCR office, I let some air out of the vehicles tyres to aid traction in the soft sand, we normally run the tyres at about half the normal tarmac driving pressure when driving on the reserve’s sand tracks. The camp is about a 15 minute drive from the DDCR office in a very pleasant spot among Ghaf trees, one of the tree species you will learn to recognise for our vegetation surveys.
Ghaf trees (*Prosopis cineraria*) near base
Tomorrow Moayyed and I will finish preparing base camp, organising the scientific equipment and make sure we have plenty of copies of the data sheets on which the science of our citizen scientists will be recorded.
We are looking forward to meeting the team on Saturday morning (09:00 in the lobby of the Premier Inn). The weather forecast is for sunny skies and day temperatures in the 20s C.
Once at the DDCR, there will be introductions (to each other and the research), teaching of survey skills and methodologies and some training in off-road driving and an opportunity to practice. Safe travels to Dubai and we’ll see you all soon!

Arabia: Opener for 2019 expedition

Dear Arabia 2019 expedition team

This is the first diary entry for this year’s Arabia expedition and an opportunity for some introductions and to let you know what has been going on behind the scenes to prepare for the expedition.

I am Paul Franklin and will be your expedition leader this year. I led my first expedition with Biosphere Expeditions back in 2005 and this is my second year on the Arabia expedition. I am a professional ecologist and have also been lucky enough to travel to many of the world’s different environments.

Paul Franklin

It always fascinates me how fauna and flora has managed to adapt so well to different environments and in the Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve (DDCR) we will witness many examples of superb adaptation, to what seems to us, harsh conditions. One of my favourite wildlife sightings from last year was the toad-headed agama, which is definitely a creature built for desert life.

Toad-headed agama

At the DDCR preparation for the expedition has been happening for the last few weeks. Greg Simkins is the DDCR Manager and knows the reserve like the back of his hand. Greg has defined the scientific objectives for this year’s expedition and will focus on planning and allocation of daily work.

Moayyed Sher Shah is the Conservation Officer at DDCR and will be out in the field with the expedition survey teams most days. Moayyed and Greg will jointly lead the scientific part of the expedition.

Moayyed Sher Shah

Moayyed has recently joined the team at DDCR. He was born in Saudi Arabia and started his conservation career with Saudi Wildlife Authority at the age of 18. He has a BSc in Zoology and is currently finishing his Masters in Environmental Sciences from the University of South Africa (UNISA).
His first project was on the re-introduction and monitoring of Asian houbara in Saudi protected areas and he has worked on the sand cat project studying population status, home range, den use and morphology. Moayyed has worked on several re-introduction projects including Arabian gazelles and Arabian hares. Before joining the team at DDCR he was part of Mahazat as-Sayd Protected Area management team managing ungulate populations, including Arabian oryx, ostrich, Arabian and sand gazelle.  Moayyed is a member of the re-introduction specialist group (RSG) and the IUCN Commission of Ecosystem management (CEM). His primary role at DDCR is to plan, control, develop and regularly monitor the conservation practices and environmental work within the 225 square km reserve.

Greg and his team at the DDCR have been busy preparing the base camp and checking the scientific equipment, including GPS units and camera traps. We will use four wheel drive vehicles to access the study areas on the reserve. One of our project supporters, Arabian Adventures, has kindly provided us with three vehicles to use on the expedition this year.

Expedition vehicle, courtesy of Arabian Adventures

Arabian Adventures provide desert experiences for visitors to the local Al Maha resort, also a project supporter, and will also host us for an evening of local food and star gazing.

We encourage expedition members to drive the vehicles and will provide some training on desert driving. Of course the vehicles can only get us so far and there is plenty of opportunity for trekking through the desert to the survey vantage points, often located on higher dunes that enable us to complete 360 degrees counts of the Arabian oryx, Arabian gazelle and sand gazelle; and to map vegetation communities.

I will travel to the desert very soon and continue to set up things ahead of you. When I get to Dubai, I will also share weather and other news, as well as my local number for emergency purposes. Watch this space for updates

The team and I look forward to meeting group 1 on 19 January at 9:00 in the Premier Inn and wish you all a safe journey.

I leave you with some impressions of the expedition you are about to join. Do swot up on the recently published expedition reports too. The more you know before you arrive, the easier you will find the training.

Best wishes

Paul