Rare birds new to the region spotted in UAE

Birdwatchers couldn't believe their luck when they saw two species never recorded before in the area. The Cory's Shearwater and Franklin's Gull are far from home but received a warm welcome.

DUBAI // Two bird species never before documented in the Arabian Peninsula have been seen in the UAE in the past fortnight.

A Cory's Shearwater was spotted by birdwatchers on May 12 - the first sighting in the Middle East. The bird was found while the group were taking part in a boat trip off Kalba, the east coast enclave of Sharjah near the Oman border.

Last week, a Franklin's Gull turned up at Fujairah Port Beach. The gull appeared on May 17 and remained at the beach over the weekend, to the delight of dozens of bird enthusiasts who turned out to see it.

Sightings of species new to the region are extremely rare - the last one happened in December 2008 when a Red-flanked Bluetail was seen at Safa Park in Dubai.

Dr Reza Khan, a wildlife and zoo specialist for Dubai Municipality, was the first to spot the Franklin's Gull.

"This is the first sighting in the Arabian Peninsula," he said. "I saw it last Tuesday and all the birdwatchers went to see it on Friday and Saturday.

"This was a once-in-a-blue-moon sighting. It was a thrill for me and a thrill for all the birdwatchers."

He said the gull breeds in the US and migrates south.

"Something's happened to make it land in this country where it should not be. It was hit by a wave or it was following a storm."

Dr Khan said he did not realise the bird was rare until he posted pictures of it on uaebirding.com, a site run by Tommy Pederson.

"Within almost half an hour of the post, Tommy and other birdwatchers became almost crazy because in my record of the picture there is one bird that I had posted as White-eyed Gull that was actually a Franklin's Gull," Dr Khan said.

Mike Barth, of Dubai, who runs a bird photography blog, said: "Seeing one of these so far out of its territory is unusual and exciting. This is what you live for, it's one of the biggest highlights for a while."

Dr Khan added: "The Cory's Shearwater is out in the open sea, so nobody could see it from the shore. You'd need to go three to five kilometres out to sea and if you're lucky you could see it. It was in the fishing area off Kalba; the birdwatchers go out every weekend."

Khalifa al Dhaheri, a member of the group that spotted the shearwater, said: "The moment we found the bird we knew it was a new species for the UAE so we started to take documentary shots to identify it and keep as evidence. Then we started chasing the bird and photographed flight shots for an hour."

The Cory's Shearwater measures up to 56 centimetres long and breeds mainly on islands in the Mediterranean, though there are some colonies in the Atlantic off the coast of Spain and Portugal. It migrates to the southern parts of the UK and Ireland in the autumn and returns to its breeding grounds in February.

The Franklin's Gull breeds in Canada and the northern US and winters in Argentina, Chile, Peru and the Caribbean. It has occasionally been spotted as far afield as Europe, Africa, Japan and Australia. The bird was named after Sir John Franklin, an Arctic explorer from the UK.

In his report of the sighting, Dr Khan wrote: "Franklin's Gull is very similar to the very commonly seen Black-headed Gull that loiters around fish markets, harbours and wetlands in the UAE during winter.

"It measures up to 36 centimetres in length and weighs up to 300 grams. Below the black hood the back and wings are greyish-white. Rest of the body is white, bill and legs are reddish."

All reports of rare bird sightings are subject to assessment by the Emirates Bird Records Committee.