Pelagic birding in the UAE
by Oscar Campbell
It all started with a Flesh-footed Shearwater in June 2010. Graham Talbot, long berating us all for not being more adventurous with regard to scouring the seas off the UAE’s east coast, finally found a boat that was willing to take us out seabirding and invited us all along. An hour or two later we found the shearwater and the rest is pretty much history.
Boat trips had been tried, on and off, for years in the UAE waters in the Gulf of Oman. They met with limited success, due to infrequent attempts, on boats that were too slow and perhaps didn’t go deep enough (and possibly departed from a less suitable part of the coast, generally further north at Dibba or Khor Fakkan) and, although it wasn’t realised at the time, sometimes went out at a less-than-optimum season (often in autumn). Other than that, and piecemeal records from merchant shipping, our knowledge of seabird occurrence and distribution in the UAE was deduced only from land-based sea-watching, with all its inherent biases. From June 2010, all this has changed. Since then, Abdulla al-Zaabi, our captain, has taken us out from Khor Kalba harbour on a weekly or fortnightly basis from mid-spring to mid-autumn, along with a few speculative winter trips as well, and, in our absence, has even added a few notable records himself whilst on fishing trips. Every excursion is different and, while most have long periods of empty seas, virtually all produce something memorable. Some have been really quite spectacular and resulted in a rewriting of the record books for a number of species. We have even made several additions to the UAE list. This really is the final frontier for birding in the UAE and it seems unlikely that we have fully exhausted the mother lode. Perhaps not by a long shot!
With only two years of searching (and counting) we are still trying to get a handle on the patterns of occurrence and abundance of many species. At this stage, it seems that April-May to September is by far the best season, coinciding with the south-western monsoon further south of the Oman coast. This drives warm surface water eastwards, so allowing an uprising of cold, nutrient-rich water and a consequent marked surge in productivity. Many seabirds move into Omani waters from the Indian Ocean to take advantage of this and, as we now know, some of these reach UAE waters as well.
Any trip in summer will result in splendid views of Bridled Terns and, normally, Persian Shearwaters. If we are lucky we will find baitballs of small fish, pinned against the surface by larger fish and attracting feeding melees of terns and shearwaters. Although often small, aggregations of many hundreds of birds are sometimes found. Either way, views are normally sensational and the chance to watch and photograph such fabulous species so closely is one reason why local birders keep making these trips. Other species regularly attracted to such frenzies include Common, White-cheeked, Saunders’s/Little, Lesser Crested and Swift Terns and Sooty Gulls plus the odd attendant Arctic Skua. With luck, such feeding concentrations may also attract much scarcer species such as Sooty Shearwater (regular April-May), Common Noddy, Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas and, at least in some years, Flesh-footed Shearwaters. Wilson’s Storm Petrels appear regularly from mid-summer, sometimes in good numbers and rarities found have included Cory’s and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Arctic and Sooty Terns, Lesser Noddy and Red-footed Booby. The occasional Masked Booby generally prefers loafing on buoys, sometimes quite close inshore. Tiny numbers of Jouanin’s Petrels and Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrels were located on successive trips in August and early September 2011, generally far offshore and both species may well prove to be regular in distant UAE waters. The few winter and early spring trips undertaken have resulted in much lower numbers of birds and greatly reduced variety, but Red-necked Phalaropes are sometimes very numerous. Finally, we usually return to Kalba by cruising along Fujairah Port Beach where at least a few Socotra Cormorants are usually present.
Interest is not limited to birds. At times, the seas seem to boil with leaping tuna and flying fish and we have also seen dolphins (Bottle-nosed, Spinner and Common) on a number of occasions. Sea-snakes and turtles feature erratically.
Nobody knows what is coming next. Red-billed Tropicbird has been notable by its absence so far, as has Brown Booby. White-faced Storm-Petrel and Streaked Shearwater may seem an awful long shot, but perhaps no longer than Cory’s Shearwater. And is a Catharacta skua or Black-bellied Storm-Petrel really too much to hope for given a large enough slice of luck?
Trips leave Khor Kalba Harbour (park at coordinates 25.026270,56.365333) at 2 or 3pm on Friday afternoons (or sometimes on Saturday) and return at sunset. The cost is around 120-200 AED depending on how many are on the boat and how far out we go and usually includes a few cups of Abdulla’s famous cardamom tea. You will need to bring plenty of water, suncream and a hat but there is some shade on the boat and the temperature never feels as oppressive and steamy as it invariably is back on the shore. Make sure you bring a passport (or UAE Identity Card) as we always report to the Harbour authorities prior to departure. To find out when the next trip is, keep an eye on this page on our UAE Forum and sign up!
Omani fishermen, Khor Kalba deepwater pelagic, June 2011. Bridled Terns and Flesh-footed Shearwater around the boat.
A flock of Persian Shearwaters off Fujairah Port Beach during a Khor Kalba pelagic.
Flesh-footed Shearwater during a Khor Kalba deepwater pelagic, June 2011.
A Wedge-tailed Shearwater during a Khor Kalba pelagic, May 2011.
Persian Shearwater during a Khor Kalba pelagic.
Jouanin's Petrel, Khor Kalba deepwater pelagic August 2011.
Swinhoe's Storm Petrel, Wilson's Storm Petrel and Bridled Tern, Khor Kalba pelagic, August 2011.
A sea snake during a Khor Kalba pelagic, August 2011.
All photos above © Tommy Pedersen