Pelagic birding in the UAE
by Oscar Campbell & Tommy Pedersen
Video by Khalifa
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 of 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, 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, not to mention long periods of tedium and rubbish views. From June 2010, all this has changed (apart from, just to keep us grateful, the odd bout of tedium). Since then, Abdalla al-Zaabi, our captain, has taken us out from Khor Kalba harbour on a weekly or fortnightly basis from mid-spring to late autumn, along with a few speculative winter trips as well, and, in our absence, has even added quite a few notable records himself whilst on fishing trips, for example Red-footed Booby & Cory's Shearwater, which he was able to photograph for us with his iPhone.. as we said, views have got much better.
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 even now, in July 2014, we are unlikely to have fully exhausted the mother lode. Perhaps not by a long shot!
With only four 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, and as would be expected from Omani records and the UAE pioneers of the 1980s, it seems that April to September / October 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.
Whilst every trip is a lottery, and what we find (or don’t find!) sometimes bears no relation to any expectations, or (to the prior trip just a week previously) 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 (peculiarly regular April-May despite generally avoiding much of the Indian Ocean), Common Noddy, Pomarine and Long-tailed Skuas and, at least in some years, Flesh-footed and even Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Skuas are almost invariably non-breeding immatures (2nd and 3rd calendar years) and the trips provide a rare chance to study these complicated and poorly known age categories. Wilson’s Storm Petrels appear regularly from mid-summer, sometimes in good numbers and give magical views dancing round the boat and Sooty Terns, formerly regarded as a good rarity are now annual amongst groups of Bridled. We finally broke our Red-billed Tropicbird duck in June 2014; its apparent rarity off the UAE east coast, given its regularity in Omani seas and abundance around a few breeding islands in the Arabian Gulf is really quite remarkable.
Real rarities found have included Leach's Storm Petrel in May 2018 (first for Arabia), Cory’s Shearwater (in 2011 and 2014, with multiple sightings each year), Arctic Tern and Lesser Noddy. So far, Abdalla’s Red-footed Booby sadly remains a one-off but we have had better luck with regard to Masked Booby, often loafing on buoys and once, as you will see below, on the boat. One of the holy grails of northern hemisphere seabirds, Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel was seen on successive trips in August and early September 2011 and appeared again in June 2014, including one that would easily have been viewable from Kalba breakwater (not that we have any intention of going back to those days…) That most enigmatic of Arabian seabirds, Jouanin’s Petrel, has also put in appearances erratically and unpredictably. With only a handful of records up until October 2012, we were totally unprepared for a deluge arriving at the end of that month – a trip in November reached 100 (and gave two Long-tailed Skuas something to pursue!) and a further trip in December found 600 (and otherwise totally empty seas!)
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 Short-beaked Common) on a number of occasions. Sea-snakes and turtles feature erratically. And our mammal list may not end there. Orca and Risso’s Dolphin have been reported offshore from Muscat and, a bit further south there are recent records of Humpback Whales…
Similarly, birdwise nobody really knows what is coming next. Brown Booby has been notable by its absence on these trips (despite reaching Dibba in October 2013) and, with over 20 Omani records of Catharacta skuas (and a handful more in Indian / Sri Lankan waters) surely one for us is not beyond reach. Sabine’s Gull and Streaked Shearwater may seem an awful long shot, but perhaps no longer than Cory’s Shearwater. And is a Black-bellied Storm-Petrel (seen off Ras al Hadd, July 2013) really too much to hope for given a large enough slice of luck? Short-tailed Shearwater, anyone?
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 AED 150-350 depending on how many are on the boat and how far out we go and usually includes a few cups of Abdalla’s famous cardamom tea. You will need to bring plenty of water, suncream and a hat (normally lost at sea around 35km offshore) 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!
Persian Shearwater, Puffinus persicus - Khor Kalba Pelagic 25 May 2011
© Tommy Pedersen