Encounter: Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

It had given me the slip in Kutch, but in Oman I caught up with the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin

Last month a travel assignment took me to the Sultanate of Oman. I spent four days on the road from Muscat watching the arid gravel desert fleet past, then sampled the crisp night air of the Jebel Shams mountain, spent a night in the dunes and was then driven at 140 km along the coast from Sur to Muscat. In the sapping 46-degree heat, I expected birds to drop dead from the sky, but they didn’t. Instead, sparrows seemed to flourish, as did mynas and bulbuls near date palm-fringed oases. On the road I passed wheatears and lapwings, swifts and sand martins, munias and Egyptian vultures, but none quickened my pulse like one lifer that I encountered on my last blazing afternoon just 500 metres from the pale-blue Gulf of Oman.

We were hurrying back to the air-conditioned refuge of our four-wheel-drive near Bimmah Sinkhole, when a little brown job stopped to regard me from the scant shade of a bare thorn bush. It was close enough to get me to forget the heat for a moment, then two or three, and then for a full five minutes as my body gently surrendered moisture to the roasting desert air. Open-mouthed as it attempted to lose body heat, the bird allowed me to get quite close.  

The bird, which had a melancholic musical call, was somewhat similar to the bush robins I had seen in the Himalayas and in habit reminiscent of the Cetti’s Bush Warbler but with the tail held upright. At first I thought it might be the Rufous-tailed Wheatear that I had met in Kutch. But the bird’s posture ruled out chat, flycatcher, thrush, wheatear and warbler, and I deduced that the little chap had to be a robin of some kind. Though I had no idea which one, since I didn’t have a field guide to the birds of Oman. 

I did the next best thing — I watched it, made mental notes and some on paper. The bird had a prominent white supercilium and a white under-eye patch. A dull black stripe began behind the nostrils and stopped at the eye. When it flitted from bush to bush it revealed a rich rufous tail that fanned out occasionally in the manner of a redstart. But then again the tail went right back to the upright angular position. I shot a picture to aid my identification efforts. When I got home, a little Googling solved the mystery.

This was a Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin (Cercotrichas galactotes), also known by several common names including Rufous Bush Robin. It occurs from the European Mediterranean south to the Sahel and east to Pakistan, where it is known to breed. The bird is also a passage migrant in Kutch, Gujarat.

I had missed the bird in Kutch, but here in Oman it gave me an exclusive audience.

Text and photograph: Beej

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