Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Lilith Owl in the UAE

A pair of Lilith Owls.

If ever there was a dynamic science, then taxonomy is it. The perennial question, when has an organism diverged enough to be called a species, is one that is not easy to answer. There are many definitions of species in science today and certainly in the world of birds, many species are being split from close relatives into species in their own right.

World listing is fraught with difficulties, birders are equally divided into two main camps:

  • The more conservative approach of the Clements checklist
  • Or the more up to date and dynamic approach of the International Ornithological Congress (IOC) Checklist.

I am a firm supporter of the later organisation, as I believe it is more up to date in its philosophy and ready and eager to utilise modern scientific breakthroughs to try & solve taxonomic problems. However, there is no right or wrong approach here, both have its merits and its detractors.

In typical rocky habitat in the desert.

Something has caught it's attention!

Little Owl has a wide distribution across Europe, North Africa and Asia. Thirteen races are currently accepted by most authorities. Within these races, are marked differences in plumage, calls and habitat. It is these fundamental differences, which some authorities see as enough evidence, to split off some of these races, into species in their own right.

This species pairs for life & are
very faithful to their territory.

Notice the less defined facial disk on this bird.
Characteristic of Lilith Owl?

The races found in the Middle East would appear to have one of the more stronger cases for splitting and a recent paper in the journal Dutch Birding sets out the case for speciation in this complex.

The scientific name for Little Owl is Athene noctua. A third name (called a trinomial) follows this. So the race of Little Owl we have here in the deserts of the UAE, becomes Athene noctua lilith.

However, we also have the more normal looking Little Owl in the UAE mountains, which in my view, strengthens the case for the race lilith being elevated to full species concept. The two groups of Little Owls in the UAE are separated by geography, habitat and they have different coloured plumage and crucially, slightly different calls. The vexed question of whether these two forms ever come into contact with each other, has yet to be established. And if they do, do they interbreed? If this is established to happen, then this would weaken the case for splitting lilith off as a full species in its own right. 

If you follow the recent trend, then the former race of lilith now becomes Athene lilith. A full species in its own right, with other races in the Middle East:

Athene glaux

Athene indigena

The Lilith Owl (Athena lilith) within the UAE seems to be  found in desert habitats, more in piles of rocks or small cliffs amid the widespread sand desert. It seems to shun the use of trees, which is another difference from the other forms of Little Owl. The form which is familiar to us European birders seems to be confined to the mountains and foothills and gravel plains surrounding the mountains.

Whether you believe that the form lilith has deviated enough away from its ancestral core form, is debatable and probably will only be settled by modern genetic studies. But it sure is fun seeing these two forms (or is it species)? in the UAE.

  • Current scientific thinking is that Little Owl Athene noctua has ten races.

  • Lilith Owl Athene lilith is a full species with the races glaux and indigena.

However, this situation could change, as it seems curious that the desertae race found in North Africa, is currently not split from Athene noctua. Watch this space!

Monday, 26 March 2012

The Last Week of March

The weather has not been good recently, high winds and lots of sand flying around makes looking for migrants challenging, to say the least! I am very anxious to get some of those scarce migrants under my belt but migration has come to a bit of a stop. Very frustrating!

Monday saw me meeting up with Robin to wander around Mushrif Palace Gardens and the Abu Dhabi Racecourse. It was grey, overcast and blowing a bit of a gale. However, slowly but surely, we added birds; 3 Masked Shrikes; Turkestan & Woodchat Shrikes; Black-eared, Pied and Isabelline Wheatears were all seen before we entered the wood.

Alexandrine Parakeet 

This species is getting more abundant 
each year in the city.

A pair of Eurasian Kestrels are in residence in the area
 & look as if they will breed.

Grey Francolin is both expanding its range
 & increasing its numbers,
 as it benefits from continued urbanisation
& the creation of green areas in cities.
A Grey Francolin's nest, containing five eggs.
A Grey Francolin exploded from beneath our feet, revealing a nest with five eggs inside. It is in quite an exposed position, so I am not too happy about the chances of breeding success.
A female Masked Shrike.
Isabelline Wheatear
 Despite the dark and gloomy conditions, at least 12 Menetries Warblers were present, together with a Lesser Whitethroat, 7 Chiffchaffs and 4 Eastern Olivaceous Warblers. A bit of a surprise was a lone Plain Leaf Warbler in the back wood. 2 wintering Song Thrush have yet to migrate north.

Plain Leaf Warbler is a scarce
passage migrant on the island.
The very similar looking Chiffchaff.
A Wryneck played hide and seek with us and I think it won the contest!
Eurasian Wryneck, trying very hard not to be seen!

The racecourse was quiet: the best were a fine male Desert Wheatear and a Citrine Wagtail.

A few Desert Wheatears are still around.
 The pair of Little Grebes are now feeding two chicks, which is a very good local breeding record. Just as it was getting dark a Squacco Heron flew right down in front of us, giving excellent views.

0 species added (245 species total): 80kms travelled.

Tuesday afternoon saw Robin & I having a quick look at Sadiyat Island Golf Course. A few migrants around, including Black-eared Wheatear & 25 Pale Rockfinch.  3 Arabian (Mountain) Gazelle were also seen.

A young male Arabian Gazelle - still hanging on,
 now in developed habitat.

We then continued north to Ajban, to look for the resident Little Owls. They performed nicely!

Little Owls.

1 species added (246 total): 120 kms travelled.

Wednesday after work, saw me meeting up with Jan & her friends from the UK. We had a stroll around Mushrif Palace Gardens. It was a hot and sultry afternoon, with not a breath of wind, in marked contrast to the gales we experienced a few hours previously.
Very few migrants were around, the pick of the bunch being 4 Masked Shrikes; a Tree Pipit; 2 Black-eared Wheatears; an Ehrenerg's Redstart and an early Barred Warbler. I quick look at AD Racecourse produced a Common Quail feeding out in the open! Now that is a rarity!
It was nice to meet people from Yorkshire!

1 species added (247 total ): 80kms travelled.

Friday saw me guiding Dick Bianca from  Holland. Our first stop was the Fujairah National Dairy Farm at Dibba.

FNDF with the grand Hajar Mountains as a backdrop.

Justin joined us for the foot slog around the Goat Farm. Migrants were hard to find, but persistance paid off with 2 Common Quail; Pintail Snipe; 2 Blyth's Pipits; an incredible 9 Steppe Grey Shrikes and 2 Pale Rockfinch. A Common Whitethroat was the first of the year for me.The star bird was the Eastern Cattle Egret, which once it gains summer plumage becomes visible again!

Eastern Cattle Egret

Recognised as a full species by the IOC. Surely, to be recognised as a full species soon by the Middle Eastern authorities?

A quick trip to Kalba Mangroves revealed 6 Arabian Kingfishers heard & seen by some! 4 Sykes's Warblers were singing and one was eventually seen by all.

Arabian Kingfisher

All too soon, it was time to board the boat, for our pelagic off Kalba. It was nice to see Abdulla & be back on the boat again. Eight of us assembled & we set off in high spirits.

Judging by Jacky's face,
this was one of those quiet moments!

We didn't go far before seeing our first Persian Shearwaters. We had great views of several large groups totalling over 250 individuals.

Persian Shearwater

Groups of Red necked Phalaropes were an attractive feature, dotted across the open ocean. They will be gathering now, ready for their long migration north next month.

Red necked Phalaropes
Still in winter plumage, these birds are going
to be around for a while!

 Sooty Gull
Lesser crested Tern

Large groups of both Sooty Gulls & Lesser crested Terns are gathering, before moving to the Arabian Gulf for breeding. 7 Arctic Skuas were preying on the terns, they proved boat shy though.

Arctic Skua
Arctic Skua just before...
The more usual view of a skua from a boat!

The highlight of the trip was in the last hour (as usual)! A very early Sooty Shearwater. A great bird to get on the year list as one has only a small window of opportunity to see this southern hemisphere breeder.

Sooty Shearwater 
Sooty Shearwater is now recorded regularly in spring
 off the east coast of the UAE.

2 species added (249 total): 725 kms travelled by car & c60kms by boat!

Saturday was supposed to be a day off birding. But, the best laid plans often go astray & so it proved today! Khalifa was back at work in Jebel Dhanna & reported both the Kurdistan Wheatear & Spotted Crake still present. The crake had been found by Neil a few days previously and I had resisted the urge to travel all that way yet again! Not much resistance today though! I was off!

Me on my day off from birding!

I arrived at JD & started working the habitats around the Danat Hotel.  Migrants were everywhere: I managed to flush a lone European Nightjar; 4 species of Wheatear; 3 Common Redstart; 7 Lesser Whitethroat; a Menetries Warbler; Willow Warbler; a late Eastern Orphean Warbler; 4 Tree & 6 Red throated Pipits; 3 Pale Rockfinch and excellent views of a young Southern Grey Shrike, which had just recently fledged.

An early migrant - European Nightjar
Desert Wheatear
Pale Rockfinch

I visited the nearby marsh, which was after all, the main purpose of my visit. Khalifa gave me excellent directions, but after two fruitless hours I still hadn't connected with it. I began to wander further afield. 19 Greater Short-toed Larks; 20 Pale Rockfinch; another Willow Warbler among ten Chiffchaffs; Siberian Stonechat; Steppe Grey & Woodchat Shrikes;a fine male Black crowned Sparrow-lark. 3 male Ortolan Buntings flew in, giving prolonged views. I went back to the favoured crake spot. I played the tape. Nothing! Khalifa arrived & we got a response to the tape. We went in! After what seemed like an eternity we both saw it run across a gap in the reeds, agitated at the tape. Spotted Crake in the bag!

Siberian Stonechat

One of three male Ortolan Buntings

We went into the plantation at the foot of the mountain. The Kurdistan Wheatear proved elusive at first. But we eventually saw it well, if a little distantly. The first time I had viewed it in good light. And what a star bird!
The star -showing well!

A Red rumped swallow flew over. We went up the hill to check the fodder fields: 4 Willow Warblers; 2 Rufous tailed Rock Thrush being the best. And then I picked up a European Crag Martin flying over. A tick for Khalifa!

European Crag Martin

It was now time to get back on the road. It is a long slog back to Abu Dhabi, but I was very happy! Two really good year birds on the list! A nice day out and thanks for your companionship, Khalifa.

4 species added (253 total): 420 kms travelled.

A recently fledged Southern Grey Shrike