Wednesday 7 December 2011

Seabirding in the UAE - the new frontier in birding?

Up close with a Persian Shearwater,
 an Indian Ocean endemic.

The natural history and particulary the birds of the UAE, have been studied quite well by amateur and more recently, professional scientists. The desert, mountains and coastal habitats are all well known, as are the birds which inhabit them.  But, there is one habitat which is not well known at all – the sea!

The open Indian Ocean, which outlines the eastern border of the UAE, is an exciting, but until recently, very little visited by both birdwatchers & ornithologists. Very little was known about the species which occur, their abundance and indeed their seasonal distribution. Most of our present knowledge was based primarily on land based observations from a handful of experienced seawatchers and to a lesser extent, mariners, such as the late Adrian Chapman, who sent in seabird records while they were working offshore.

In the early 1990’s, the late Simon Aspinall and myself set out to rectify this situation, to try & understand our seabirds better. We hired sailing dhows from both Dibba & Fujairah ports. However, these excursions were largely unsuccessful, mainly because the boats employed were so slow; we couldn’t go far offshore and we couldn’t get close to many seabirds to actually identify them!

One of the real stars of the Indian Ocean
 - Jouanin's Petrel.

Recently, this has all changed! This was largely due to the arrival of Graham Talbot from Hong Kong. He was used to pelagic seabirding off Hong Kong and the kind of vessel needed to get the best results. He started searching the east coast harbours for a suitable boat and skipper. And what he found was a young Emirati skipper, Abdullah, with a very fast boat in Kalba harbour. Abdullah knew both boats and the sea very well. He is an accomplished fisherman, he knows where & when the fish are in his waters. But, he knew little, or next to nothing, about birds and even less about birdwatchers and their peculiar needs! He proved to be a very fast learner! His keen eyesight being utilised to spot even the most distant dark specs on the horizon. Then the chase was on! Birders in the UAE, now had the means to get quickly to where the birds were. Abdullah and his boat, revolutionised pelagic birding in the UAE! Literally, thanks to him, our knowledge of seabirds has improved by leaps and bounds. The record books have been torn up and the new ones re-written. Abdullah has become a great friend to all who enjoys his excursions and just maybe, he is slowly understanding, that we are not as crazy, as he first thought us to be!

Abdullah, a great skipper for birding.

Our aim now is the continue with the frequency of these trips. To try and map out the occurrence and seasonal distribution of the regular species and of course, to add those elusive and most wanted species to both our personal & UAE lists!

Wedge-tailed Shearwater, giving great views from the boat.
Not possible to get such views from land based seawatching.

Abdullah is part of the UAE birding scene. Everyone enjoys his excursions, complete with sweet tea on the high seas. The recent year or so, has been a lot of fun, with great people, mostly kind weather, some fantastic birding and a lot of smiles! Long may it continue.

Is pelagic birding the final frontier of birding in the UAE? It probably is and all of us look forward to the future with optimism. We still have a long way to go, to fully understand the seabirds found around the UAE, and one thing is for sure, we are going to have a lot of fun finding out!

Cory's Shearwater

A star bird!
Cory's Shearwater - a major surprise!

Wedge-tailed Shearwater - a regular spring migrant?

Sooty Shearwater, formerly regarded as a vagrant,
now known to be regular in spring, in UAE waters.

Flesh-footed Shearwater

Flesh-footed Shearwater,
 a quite common spring & summer visitor.

One of the great seabirding prizes: Swinhoe's Storm Petrel,
 breeds as far away as the seas off Japan.
 The blurred effect, is Khalifa's headgear blowing in the wind!

The best shots I could achieve in the heaving boat.

A tick for everyone, but me!
 The endemic Jouanin's Petrel: a real gem!

Long tailed Skuas have proved to be more regular
 in these waters than previously thought. 

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