Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Ocurrence of Sooty Shearwater in the UAE.

Sooty Shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) are amazing long distance migrants over both the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans. They breed in immense colonies on the Falkland Islands & Tierra del Fuego in the southern Atlantic and on many islands off New Zealand.

Sooty Shearwater - offshore Kalba 30th March 2012.

Their oceanic migrations are well known, travelling up the western side of the Pacific & Atlantic Oceans in the northern hemisphere spring and then crossing to the easterns sides of the respective oceans in autumn, (usually September- October). They then return to their breeding colonies in November - December.

Sooty & Persian Shearwaters offshore Kalba 2012.

Please note how the extent of the silvery underwing
seems to vary from shot to shot.

All  photos are of the same individual!

They are much less well known in the Indian Ocean. In fact, there are very few records from the northern part of the Indian Ocean at all. This makes the recent records off the coast of the UAE to be both remarkable and significant.

The following records are taken from the Annotated Checklist of the Birds of the UAE by Aspinall & Pedersen.

Former vagrant, now almost annual in spring off East Coast, with one October record; single record from the Arabian Gulf.

  1. One feeding off Khor Kalba Beach 30 Apr 1995 (SJ Aspinall et al).
  2. One off Ra’s Dibba 1 May 1995 (WIWO/TM van der Have).
  3. One off Fujairah Hilton Hotel 11 May 1995 (SL James), perhaps same as first record.
  4. Three: one off Fujairah Port Beach, one off Fujairah Corniche and one off Kalba Corniche, 15 May 97 (SJ Aspinall).
  5. One Umm Shaif Oilfield (platform) 16 Apr 2001 is the sole record from the Arabian Gulf (SJ Aspinall).
  6. Two off Ra’s Dibba 5 Oct 2002 (DA Diskin).
  7. One off Fujairah Corniche 4 Mar 2003 (DA Diskin).
  8. Six off Al Ghurfa Breakwater 22 Apr 2006 (I Boustead), with singles 3 May (NJ Moran) and 11 May (T Pedersen et al).
  9. Up to 13 off Fujairah Port Beach and Fujairah Hilton Hotel 8 Apr-11 May 2007 (SJ Aspinall, OL Wardmann, SL James, AP Twyman, N Tovey et al).
10. One off Ra’s Dibba 29 Apr 2007 and 25 May 2007 (SL James et al).
11. One off Ra’s Dibba 18 Apr 2008 (G Talbot).
12. Four Kalba Corniche 2 May 2008 (G Talbot), with one there 12 May (K Bensusan).
13. One off Bidiya and six off Fujairah Hilton Hotel 19 May 2008 (SL James, AP Twyman), then two 25 May and a singleton 28 May (NJ Moran, SL James).
14. One Fujairah Port Beach 17 Apr-15 May 2010 (N Tovey, M Smiles et al), with two same locality 22 May 2010 (AP Twyman).
15. One off Khor Kalba 29 May 2010 (G Talbot).
16. Up to 12 Khor Kalba pelagic 15 Apr-25 May 2011 (M Smiles, G Talbot, T Pedersen et al).

All records bar one, have been from the east coast, mainly in the spring (March to May) season. There is one October record. Birds have recently been regularly recorded close in shore, the majority in an advanced state of moult. It is speculated by this author, that the birds visit this area in order to moult in relatively calm seas with an abundance of food on offer.

One thing that any reader should be aware of, is the increase of birders visiting the east coast and indeed offshore in recent years. This has led to an upsurge in recent records and I would expect this to continue in future years.
The individual seen offshore from Kalba (and also just into Omani waters) was the second earliest ever (30th March) and curiously, was not in active moult. What is very suprising, is that there are very few records of this species from Oman, curently eight accepted records. This may well be because of the paucity of obervers in Oman and also possible confusion with the Flesh-footed Shearwater which is quite common in Omani waters. What is clear, is that the birds recorded off the UAE east coast will also pass the adjacent Omani coast to the south. It is just that there are no observers currently birding regularly in this part of Oman and either sea watching from land, or going on on boats to observe seabirds.
Photo courtesy of Derrick Wilby

It would be interesting to find out if these birds conduct the same pattern of migrations recorded in the other two major oceans ie passing in a clockwise circular manner, perhaps off the western coast of India & Sri Lanka. Clearly, further research is needed in these areas.

If one looks at a map of the known breeding locations it is hard to discern where these birds may come from. Tierra del Fuego? Or much further east around New Zealand? Birds are regualrly seen virtually year round off South Africa (in small numbers) where in recent years, there has been extensive pelagic coverage, mainly off the Cape but also other South African cities. Could it be possible, that small numbers of birds have colonies in remote islands in the extreme southern Indian Ocean? And that these individuals move north on migration in the same way as other popluations in the two larger oceans? It is an intriguing possiblity, but there are no current records of breeding in this area to back up this theory.

What is true, is that recent observations off the UAE are providing significant records, which add to this species distribution and migration knowledge. A lot of this credit is due to Abdulla and his excellent boat. Abdulla is a keen fisherman and very competent boat handler. In recent years, he has also become an excellent and very enthuisiatic birder! I guess our good nature and enthusiasm has rubbed off on him. We all look forward to his trips and having a lot of fun in 2012!

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