Rare and enigmatic bird spotted on Abu Dhabi's Saadiyat Island

A Steppe Whimbrel - of which only 100 exist today - was captured on camera by two bird watchers

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One of the world’s rarest and most enigmatic birds has been sighted on Saadiyat Island.

The Steppe Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris) has an estimated global population of just 100.

The whimbrel of Saadiyat is particularly remarkable because it is the first juvenile Steppe Whimbrell to be observed in the field anywhere in the world.

The bird was spotted by a lake at the Saadiyat Beach Golf Course by Oscar Campbell and Simon Lloyd, members of Emirates Bird Records Committee.

This is a perfect example of why supporting conservation projects for migrating birds is so important

The Steppe Whimbrel is one of five sub-species of the common whimbrel, which regularly passes through the Emirates in spring and autumn.

The sub-species has a distinctive white colouring under its wing and it was a flash of white that caught the eye of Mr Lloyd and Mr Campbell when observing a flock of about 20 common whimbrels one Friday morning in late August.

The pair have been on the lookout for the Steppe Whimbrel for years, following a 2016 Mozambique sighting of the rare bird that caused a global sensation amongst bird watchers.

The community was put on alert to watch for the Steppe Whimbrel along its potential migration path between its summer breeding home in Russia and its winter sites in eastern Africa.

“We have been checking every whimbrel that we see, and especially this time of year,” said Mr Lloyd. “We were just finishing up and were about to go back to the clubhouse when I saw the bird and got a good look at its underwing. I said, ‘we need to check this, this looks very interesting’.”

They kept calm and took several clear photographs for identification.

After all, the pair had two false alarms in the past, when photographs from potential sightings in Abu Dhabi and Kalba were inconclusive.

“We’ve had one or two near misses in the past,” said Mr Campbell.

“The two whimbrels are very similar, you need a good look at the underwing. If you just look at them side by side it would be impossible to tell them apart.

It is the first juvenile Steppe Whimbrel to be observed in the field. Photo: Oscar Campbell
It is the first juvenile Steppe Whimbrel to be observed in the field. Photo: Oscar Campbell

“We went home and we started to think, we could be in with a chance here. It was kind of a gradual build of excitement.”

The whimbrel’s identity was confirmed the next morning by Gary Allport of BirdLife International, the world’s foremost expert on Steppe Whimbrels.

“The discovery of a Steppe Whimbrel in Abu Dhabi is remarkable in itself, and confirms our suspicion that the migration route of the sub-species passes through the Arabian Peninsula region,” said Mr Allport.

“What is even more remarkable is that this is the first time ever, anywhere in the world, that a juvenile Steppe Whimbrel has been seen in the field which is encouraging evidence that there is still some breeding taking place in this tiny population. It’s an amazing find.”

The Steppe Whimbrel was first described in 1921. The subspecies was declared extinct in 1994 but was accidentally re-discovered in its Southern Russia breeding grounds three years later.

The bird was unrecorded from 2009 until 2016 when, by chance, Mr Allport sighted two adult birds on a public beach in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

It was the first time the bird was recorded on the continent since 1965. A bird tagged in Mozambique in 2018 was tracked north to Yemen, where its tag fell off.

The Abu Dhabi sighting on August 29 was a missing piece in the puzzle. It was last sighted on September 11.

More knowledge about this rare sub-species is critical for the preservation of this little-known bird.

In 2018, the Abu Dhabi-based Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund made a grant to researchers at the University of Cape Town to support research on the Steppe Whimbrel migration.

“Sighting a juvenile Steppe Whimbrel here in Abu Dhabi is magnificent news,” said Razan Al Mubarak, managing director of the fund.

“The fund supports conservation of rare species and sub-species around the world but we never expected one of the rarest of all to turn up on our doorstep.

“It emphasises the importance of our commitment to maintaining protected areas along bird migration routes, including here in Abu Dhabi. It also shows the importance of the support provided by the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund for projects to monitor and protect endangered species and sub-species.

"This is a perfect example of why supporting conservation projects for migrating birds is so important.”