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A world first for Abu Dhabi as ultra-rare bird stops over

As the autumn bird migration gets under way, one of the rarest birds in the world has been spotted on the Saadiyat Beach Golf Course in Abu Dhabi by two members of the Emirates Bird Records Committee, EBRC, Oscar Campbell and Simon Lloyd.

The bird, a Steppe Whimbrel, Numenius phaeopus alboaxillaris, is an extremely rare sub-species of the widespread Whimbrel, which regularly passes through the Emirates in spring and autumn.

The bird seen in Abu Dhabi was a juvenile, born this year. It is the first time a juvenile Steppe Whimbrel has been seen anywhere in the world.

Rarest of the five Whimbrel sub-species, Steppe Whimbrels are estimated to have a global population of only around 100 birds.

Steppe Whimbrels were first described in 1921 from a bird collected in Mozambique in 1906, although birds later shown to be of this sub-species had been collected in Russia as far back as the middle of the 19th Century. Never common, it was declared Extinct in 1994. A tiny population was re-discovered in its Southern Russia breeding grounds in 1997, with a few scattered confirmed records there up until 2009, but none since.

No more than 19 breeding pairs have ever been located, at three breeding sites, and the maximum number ever seen together is 11, on migration on the Caspian Sea.

In 2016, two wintering adult birds were found in Maputo, Mozambique. In subsequent years, sightings of only seven birds have been confirmed from Mozambique. In 2018, a single bird, fitted with a satellite tag, was tracked in 2018 northwards to Yemen, where the tag fell off.

The discovery by EBRC members Campbell and Lloyd, who are both also teachers at the British School Al Khubairat, was made on 29th August. The bird was re-found on 31st August by another EBRC member, Peter Hellyer, and was still present on 11th September. It is now believed to have continued on migration on its way to East Africa.

Steppe Whimbrels differ from other Whimbrel sub-species in having a largely white underwing, lacking the dark bars and marks that are otherwise typical of whimbrels. Since the discovery of the Mozambique birds, Campbell and Lloyd have been closely examining whimbrels passing through the UAE in autumn and spring, hoping to find one.

“On 29th August, we were studying around 20 whimbrels on the Saadiyat Beach golf course. We were stunned when one flew off showing the distinctive white wings, clearly different from the other birds,” Campbell and Lloyd say. “We immediately realised the potential significance of this so we concentrated on observing the bird and obtaining photographs, allowing us to check the key identification features.”

They then shared their photographs with Gary Allport, of BirdLife International, who found the Mozambique birds and is the world’s top expert on Steppe Whimbrels. He has confirmed that the bird is a juvenile, proving successful breeding of the sub-species this year.

Allport said, “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. 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. This is encouraging evidence that there is still some breeding taking place in this tiny population. It’s an amazing find.”

In 2018, the Abu Dhabi-based Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund made a grant to a team of researchers at the University of Cape Town to support research into Steppe Whimbrels on their wintering grounds in Mozambique and for plans to track them on their migration route northwards to Russia.

“Sighting a juvenile Steppe Whimbrel here in Abu Dhabi is magnificent news,” Razan Al Mubarak, Managing Director of the Mohamed bin Zayed Fund, says. “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.”

The Saadiyat Beach Golf Course management, meanwhile, are delighted with the discovery. Clinton Southorn, Cluster Director of Agronomy for managers Troon Golf, commented, “I have been fortunate to be involved with Troon Golf in the construction of Saadiyat Beach Golf Club from day one in 2008. Having been part of the transformation and seeing the vision take shape — from the original desert island landscape to where we are today highlights that the golf course is a vital oasis for birds and wildlife, making it an experience unlike any other.

“When you look at the significance of sighting the Steppe Whimbrel in Abu Dhabi, its history and the subspecies actually being declared extinct in 1995, it is pretty amazing. This is one of the reasons the Saadiyat Beach Golf Club has worked hard to achieve its Audubon certification and showcase the positive environmental impact the course can have on the environment. This is a globally impactful sighting at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club and the entire team are very proud.”

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