Look, I have spotted 20 vultures there," Omar Al Sheikhly pointed to the hilltop at a distance. "It is a good mixture of juvenile, sub-adult and adult birds," he informed while looking through the long-range observation binocular mounted on a tripod. After a while, he posed a challenge to us. "You will win a prize if you can spot more vultures in the same area."
Omar didn't have to give away the prize as none from the large group could locate one extra bird in the vicinity. "One has to be patient while watching these scavenger birds," he exhorts birdwatchers.
It was 7 a.m. on Wednesday. The group slowly grew bigger with the addition of more members. Some of them later went on to encircle the Amerat Landfill site as trucks loaded with waste began to descend on the scene.
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It is time to search for food. It is a joint effort in which juvenile birds with different feather colours join adults with white body feathers and pale yellow faces.
Omar, the wildlife expert from Iraq has been monitoring and surveying the Egyptian vulture population in Oman, as part of a project initiated by the Environment Society of Oman (ESO). "The two-year project envisages to monitor and survey Egyptian vultures in Oman. The first phase involves counting the number of migrant birds. We will conduct a breeding survey in the next phase," he says.
Mike McGrady from Austria, who is involved in the project, feels that it is unusual to find places where vulture population is safe. "At a time when the vulture population is declining, Oman provides a ray of hope. There are plenty of resident vultures here. Besides, migrant vultures from Europe and Asia arrive here during winter. It is a nice place for bird watchers. From the conservation point, it is critical," he observes.
It was in 2012 that ESO launched the Egyptian Vulture project in Masirah Island. Enthused by the study finding, ESO launched the second phase, which will now cover Muscat, Al Dhahirah, Al Dakhiliyah, Al Batinah, Al Sharqiyah, Musandam and Dhofar governorates. The environment body hopes the study results will contribute to an integrated species and habitat conservation plan at the national level.
"We are in the second phase of the Egyptian Vulture Conservation Project (EVCP). The field work involves monitoring and surveying the vulture population in Oman," says Dr Mehdi Ahmed Jaaffar, secretary, ESO.
Enthusiastic bird watchers had a field day as Omar and Mike explained to them different varieties of the vultures. "The field excursion gave me an opportunity to learn how to identify juvenile, young and adult vultures. It nice to hear that Oman provides a safe environment for these birds belonging to the endangered species," said a participant.
Even Omar says he is excited to be part of the project.
"I am a keen bird watcher. But the presence of big group of vultures in dumpsites excites me often. It is a real treat to watch them in big numbers," he said.
The project has got the support of Shell Development Oman which aims to reduce the human and industrial impact on the natural environment. Says Muna Al-Shukaili, Social Investment Advisor and Deputy External Affairs Manager at Shell Development Oman: "We have contributed to the continuation of a key research project for the Egyptian vulture, one of the world's endangered species, in partnership with ESO. Efforts to date have shown that Egyptian vulture populations are rising in Oman but we must continue to identify potential threats and collaborate to discover solutions that provide safe habitats and a lasting impact."
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