Seeking flamingos on a golf course

December 24, 2018

Muscat Daily photos/Syed Fasiuddin 

The golf course on the right as one drives to Al Mouj is often overlooked. More so for me. I’ve tried to stay away from anything to do with golf since being stranded once watching a six-hour game with no option to slip away. Then again, the idea of being fatally struck by a golf ball flying at 250kmph never really appeared to be an exciting option. So I kept driving past the golf course imagining happy golfers on the other side of the ‘green-creeper-embossed-wall’. Never once did I think of being back on a golf course and that too in search of flamingos.

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These migratory birds were once seen in large numbers in the sultanate. However, over the past two years, sightings of the pink-white plumaged birds have been rare apart from the wetlands of the Governorate of Al Wusta region. Not native to Oman, the flamingos undertake a seasonal journey when the temperature begins to drop in their native shores.

Flamingos, often compared to the mythical firebird ‘phoenix,’ have long captured my imagination. (My four year old niece had declared it as the national bird of our imaginary island). A colony or a pat of flamingos can create the illusion of a blazing fire with their flaming hues of pink (or red or orange in some cases) plumage. Their colour is derived from the algae that they consume. But if not for the colour, their colonies can also be found by the high decibel of noise they make. Both species - greater and lesser flamingos - are found in Oman. I was told that if luck was on my side, I would see these majestic creatures at Al Mouj Golf. There’s a disturbing amount of skepticism about finding flamingos here in the city but the opportunity of ‘bird-watching’ during office hours silenced all doubts and my ‘flamingo-luck’ was on trial.

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The GEO (Golf Environmental Organization) certified golf course, which is also a natural habitat for many other bird species, is like a hidden wonderland within the city. A complete Alice-in-wonderland-moment, it only took minutes to slip into the rabbit hole and to hop onto a golf cart. Ahmed al Qasem, the course marshal at Al Mouj Golf, navigated the path to avoid disturbing any game in progress. A couple of minutes into the course, Qasem told us about the different species of birds that make this golf course a migratory path. Among the many birds he mentioned, we spotted seven varieties within the first 20 minutes of our flamingo quest.

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The golf course has over 300 species of birds that pass through its wetlands, over 173 of which have been identified. These 173 species have been documented by famed bird watchers and authors Hanne and Jens Eriksen. A book on these species is expected to be released early next year. The efforts to preserve the biodiversity at Al Mouj has been appreciated by the environment education organisation Audobon International, making this the first golf course in the Middle East and North African region to be certified as an ‘Audobon Cooperative Sanctuary’.

Qasem took us to hole number 15, where an impeccably preserved natural reservoir is the hub of a variety of birds. Eagles, ravens, seagulls, grebes, ducks and many others were in the middle of their own social gatherings at this site. “There,” said Qasem, pointing to a long legged, long necked bird. Before he even finished, I was crawling in stealth mode like a character out of Assassin’s Creed towards the long legged bird. I was trying to confirm the trademark pink feathers from afar. At this point, the excitement was slowly deflating as I began to consider the possibility that the bird was a heron, another long legged bird, which can be mistaken for a flamingo by the untrained eye. By then the bird took flight and I was left without any confirmation.

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Qasem insisted that it was a flamingo and I kept slipping into my own dramatic despair. He offered to take me to another spot in the golf course but by then I was convinced that he had mistaken herons for flamingos.

A squabble of seagulls put on an acrobatic performance for me by the reservoir: A circus in the sky. They touched the surface of the water and hovered back up above it, maintaining a formation and then dispersing  like the explosion of a firework. It was like watching the petals of a cherry blossom tree blowing in the wind over the water. I’d forgotten my misery and sat there blissfully watching the performance of these birds in nature’s theatre.

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Just then, ‘flamingo-luck’ struck. Pink plumage manifested amidst shoots of greenery. A flamingo wandered unperturbed by onlookers. Suddenly there’s a lot to see and forgetting stealth mode, I ran to the flamingo and tried conversing with the bird. Of course, it ignored my mumbling, and strut around in search of food.

“In January, there’s going to be a big colony of birds coming in,” said  Qasem of the flamingos. I believe him on this one.

(Visitors are welcome to tour the Al Mouj golf course for birdwatching with prior appointments)