The Desert Blooms
Desert Flowers and Wildlife in Qatar: After the Rain
For a short period in the winter, rain brings the Qatar desert to life. After one of these rains, France Gillespie, author of Discovering Qatar, takes a walk in the desert to explore the plants and animals that inhabit this normally barren place.
The vividly coloured Cistanche Tubulosa - also known as
© David Gillespie
It's amazing, the difference a drop of rain can make. Almost overnight, it seems, the desert springs to life.
Millions of seeds have been lying dormant, waiting to be triggered into action, and the plants that soldier on all the year round: the gnarled, camel-chewed bushes of Desert Thorn [Lycium shawii] and the dusty, Zygophyllum qatarensis, with its salty-tasting fleshy lobes, found all over Qatar, have suddenly sprouted new growth. Heavy dewfall at night provided just enough moisture for them to survive the summers.
Even a couple of days' rain is enough to transform the landscape. Exploring an area near al Thakhira after last winter's rain, we found that land that had been parched and barren a month previously held a wide variety of vegetation. It was being enjoyed by a flock of fat, woolly-coated sheep which grazed along the slopes, watched over by their shepherd.
Even the wheel ruts criss-crossing the landscape were sufficient to hold a little moisture, and long lines of pale, silvery-green tasselled grasses waved gently in the breeze.
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In the rodats [depressions] the ground, above its layer of crackling, dried, smooth mud, was thickly carpeted with large clumps of a bright yellow button-flower, Pulicaria undulata. It was the dominant plant, with few other species competing. A couple of larks were carolling in the blue sky above, and we trod carefully, guessing that their nests were concealed among the clumps of button-flowers. Bees buzzed busily from flower to flower, making up for lost time.
Along a low dam at the side of a rodat a variety of plants and shrubs were blooming: bushes of Arabian tamarisk bore dense spikes of pale pink florets, and the delicate yellow flowers of the fleshy-leaved Zygophyllum simplex grew alongside both the green and deep purple phases of its relative, Zygophyllum qatarense, which is named after this country.
The prickly, dusty green, ground-hugging plants of Sclerocephalus arabicus were spreading rapidly along the slopes of the dam. Being too bristly for any animal apart from camels to eat, they were in no danger from the sheep.
On the stony plains surrounding the rodats plants were fewer, but the dense, thorny bushes of the orange-berried Desert Thorn seem able to survive in the toughest conditions, alongside the pink-starred, thorny plant Fagonia ovalifolia.
A level stretch of perhaps 100 metres of land was covered in the bushes of the Caper plant [Capparis spinosa] in full bloom. Its large blossoms, with their four frilled white petals and pink stamens are among the most beautiful of desert flora. The flowers and roots used to be used by the bedouin people as a tonic and to treat eye infections.
Many small animal burrows dotted the landscape: the smaller holes may have been the homes of snakes, but were more probably made by gerbils, either Cheesman's gerbil [Gerbillus cheesmani] or the Baluchistan Gerbil [Gerbillus nanus]. There were also the larger burrows of jirds, of which two species are recorded in Qatar: Sundevall's jird [Meriones crassus] and the Libyan jird [Meriones libycus].
The Cynomorium Coccineum or Red Thumb.
© David Gillespie
Several colonies of dthubs, the Spiny-tailed Agamids [Uromastyx aegyptia microlepsis] were established around the depressions, and the large faecal pellets of these big lizards littered the ground around the plants. Dthubs feed in the morning and evening, and we did not encounter any adults, but turning over some planks of rotten wood revealed two small juveniles, their grey flanks splotched with yellow.
Adult dthubs present a somewhat alarming appearance, with their heavy, spiked tails and sharp claws, but they are in fact harmless herbivores. Their colonies can contain as many as 40 individuals, which graze on the vegetation around their burrows. They hibernate during the cooler winter months and become more active from March onwards.
It was the first time I had seen baby dthubs, and I was intrigued to notice their stippled pattern of irregularly shaped spots and ovals of bright yellow on grey, which is different from the adult colouring. Adults are slate-grey in the mornings before the sun has warmed them, and later in the day they change to a mottled yellow. During the breeding season patches of bright blue appear.
The same shelter concealed a small nocturnal lizard, the curiously-named Rough-tailed Bowfoot Gecko [Cyrtopodion scabrum]. Its markings in different shades of brown provided perfect camouflage against the background of the desert floor. Little is known about the distribution of this reptile in Qatar, and it has only recently been identified in Abu Dhabi. After their initial panic-stricken scurryings, the little creatures calmed down enough for us to photograph them.
All too soon the hot weather will be upon us, and the delicate, short-lived blooms of the desert will be over for another year. So once the rain has come go out, wander the desert landscape and enjoy their fleeting beauty. The coastal terrain, the depressions and the land around cultivated areas are the best places to see a variety of vegetation.
Frances Gillespie has contributed to several publications related to Qatar, is the author of Discovering Qatar and also writes regular feature articles for a national newspaper on the cultural heritage and natural history of the country. She is a former chairperson of the Qatar Natural History Group, and is still active on the committee.