Rare kingfisher threatened by demise of mangroves

A species of the collared kingfisher unique to the UAE and Oman is in danger of extinction because development has destroyed much of its mangrove habitat.

The rare collared kingfisher of the Kalba mangrove swamps is in danger of extinction because of coastal development. Courtesy Ahmed Al Ali
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While it does not receive the same attention as the Arabian oryx, dugong or marine turtle, the straits that the collared kingfisher finds itself in are no less dire. Put simply, if the mangroves it calls home completely vanish, so does this beautiful bird. Vesela Todorova reports

It hides in mangrove forests, weighs less than 100 grams and is considered an essential part of the UAE's natural heritage.

But the blue-and-white collared kingfisher, which does not have the conservation status of marine turtles and Arabian oryx, is endangered.

Kingfishers are found in many regions, from the Red Sea all the way to Australia. But the subspecies kalbaensis can be found nowhere but in Kalba, on the UAE's east coast, and two small sites in Oman.

If the coastal mangrove forests of Kalba, an enclave in Sharjah, are destroyed the birds will be, too.

A new study of Kalba's kingfisher population showed the birds were still in the swamps but their numbers have fallen since 1995, the first time the population was studied.

That first survey was carried out by the late Simon Aspinall, an environmentalist and bird specialist who estimated between 44 and 55 breeding pairs lived in the Kalba mangroves.

This spring, a survey of the area carried out by the preservationists Oscar Campbell, Ahmed Al Ali and Neil Tovey estimated the number of pairs was between 26 and 35. The research was supported by a grant from the Emirates Natural History Group.

"The true figure, I suspect, is probably close to 35," said Mr Campbell, as he presented the findings last week at a lecture organised by the group.

The team had been very conservative in their estimates, he said.

Mr Campbell, the chairman of the Emirates Bird Records Committee, had intended to compare notes with Mr Aspinall, who died in October.

Even with adjustments for differences in the methods used, the data shows a decline in Kalba's collared kingfisher population, although the results were not as bad as the team had anticipated, Mr Campbell said.

The reason the numbers of collared kingfishers are declining is that the condition of the mangrove trees supporting it is also declining.

Development and the construction of the Corniche has been harming the forest, Mr Campbell said.

"Kingfishers don't just need mangroves, they need high-quality mangroves," he said. The birds nest between February and June, using holes and cracks in aged mangroves to build their nests.

"Young mangroves simply do not develop like this," Mr Campbell said, pointing to an old, gnarled tree with a hole in its trunk that had been turned into a nest. "Possibly, what is restricting the population is the lack of suitable nest sites."

Steve James, an environmental scientist and ornithologist, agreed: "We are only dealing with two sets of data here so there is a possibility for error. My personal experience from the past 20 years is that the collared kingfisher has declined. I think the figures are fairly accurate and so is the interpretation."

In that time, the area of mangrove has decreased by up to 30 per cent due to development, Mr James said.

Mr Campbell estimates that area to be 6 square kilometres.

Some mangroves were destroyed to make room for villas and a new road, he said. And the development of the Corniche limits the amount of seawater reaching the trees. Mangroves need to be submerged twice a day.

"This is why some of the trees are under stress," Mr Campbell said.

This destruction of the mangroves has led to a shortage of nesting spots for the kingfisher.

"It is like six of us sharing a one-bedroom flat. You are not likely to have children, are you?" Mr James asked.