Bulletin 40 - March 1990: The Qarnein Expedition, Recommendations on Conservation
The Qarnein Expedition
Recommendations on ConservationArchaeology and history
Qarnein is an important example of one type of Island to be found in the lower Gulf -- rocky outcrops combined with low sandy areas. Though small, it has a variety of wildlife and its previous isolation has made it a site of crucial importance for the breeding of animals such as turtles and a number of species of sea birds. The significance of the Island to these birds is explained above and in Appendix One.
Qarnein has a fragile ecology. For a combination of reasons, including its size and relative isolation, it has remained relatively undisturbed in the past by human activity, unlike some other islands of a similar type, such as Arzanah and Zirku, both of which in former years had an importance similar to that enjoyed by Qarnein today.
The changes in recent years, however, has meant that Qarnein is one of the very few islands of its type in the UAE in the Gulf as a whole which has not witnessed a major development program, whether for the oil industry or for other purposes.
While development plans are now in progress, which will inevitably have some effect upon the ecology, it should be possible to ensure that the overall balance is disturbed to a minimum degree while the objectives of the development program are met, PROVIDED THAT careful steps are taken to limit the environmental impact.
In some spheres, such as turtles, it may even be possible to improve conditions by banning further human interference with their eggs and nests. Qarnein, despite its size, has the potential to remain an important scientific location if the environment is carefully managed. Because of its significance as a site for breeding seabirds, it has an international scientific importance that is matched by no other single site of the same type in the lower Arabian Gulf.
Invitations to scientists to visit the Island and to study the birds in detail would add much to scientific knowledge and would have the added benefit of winning substantial international recognition for Qarnein, and for the UAE, in the topical and sensitive sphere of the conservation of wildlife. Advice on such a program of scientific research can be supplied, if required.
Members of the team engaged on the Survey wish, finally, to express their thanks to His Highness Hamdan bin Zayed, both for his invitation to them to visit the Island and for the facilities made available during the two-day visit.References and Bibliography
There is very little previously published literature on the Island of Qarnein, one of the smaller of the offshore island in UAE waters. Some material has been published, however, in specialist publications, including those of the Emirates Natural History Group.
The following articles and papers were consulted in preparation of this report.
A Study of the Status of Breeding Seabirds on Qarnein Islandby Colin Richardson
The International Council for Bird Preservation published a report on the distribution and status of seabirds on the islands off Iran and the Arabian Peninsula (Gallagher et al. 1984) and concluded that large number of rare and important seabirds are currently threatened by a number of factors. The expansion of oil-related industries and an associated acceleration of social and economic development has meant that coasts and islands are being increasingly affected by industry, the armed forces, and urbanization.
The threats to seabirds from this disturbance, as well as from pollution and other habitat changes, are now a serious problem in the lower Arabian Gulf, where seven species endemic to Arabia are at risk of local extinction.
Qarnein is the last largely undeveloped refuge for all of these species and is, therefore, of very considerable scientific importance. Further development, if carefully planned and implemented, may cause a minimal risk to the bird populations, although it must be recognized that an increase in human activity of any kind will have a negative effect on the bird colonies. With development under way, the challenge is to ensure that this effect is minimized.
The seven species of seabirds known to breed on the island are as follows:
1. Red-billed Tropicbird Phaethon aetherus
Probably the most interesting, and least known, of all the species found on Qarnein Island, this species (of the sub-species indicus), is known to breed only around the coasts and islands of Arabia. In the United Arab Emirates, breeding has been confirmed only on the islands of Arzanah, Zirku and Qarnein.
There is no recent information from Arzanah, where 100 pairs were reported in February 1975 (Carp 1976) and the most recent information from Zirku, in 1981, recorded only three nests (Fraser 1981). This compares very unfavorably with December 1972, when 500 birds were present (J. Stewart-Smith). In both cases, industrialization appears to have affected the nesting populations, although more research is required.
This underlines the importance of Qarnein as the last remaining breeding site of the bird in the UAE that is relatively undeveloped. During the Qarnein expedition, the species was found in three main locations. The two largest peaks, from which the Island takes its name (the two horns), were circled by approximately 60 adult birds each, actively chasing and screaming from dawn until 11 am.
Smaller numbers were present in the late afternoon. A third peak was less craggy and had only about 10 Tropicbird circling. Some birds were also seen to be circling, and then visiting holes, on lower sloping ground, one near the rest house of Sheikh Hamdan and another in a low rock outcrop adjacent to a rubbish dump.
Six nests were found, each of which had an adult inside, presumably incubating an egg, although this was not definitely established. From previous observation (Foxall 1984), the 1989 season's nesting appeared late, as in 1984 chicks were present in February. Only adults were seen flying, and it was assumed that no young birds had yet fledged. This species is known to vary its nesting periods in response to the availability of food.
Recommendations on Conservation
There appear to be no direct threats to this species at present, although it must be recognized that the number of birds in the colony is probably directly linked to the number of available nest sites. There appears to be a severe shortage of these as birds were observed using low-lying holes in flat areas and have been reported in the past as using small holes near the high tide mark.
The two larger hills are the focus of the colony and, if they are developed, the colony will inevitably decline. On lower ground, the birds are subject to threat by Sooty Gulls, while since they walk only with difficulty, they would be endangered by vehicles. Conservation of the hills and other rocky areas is of vital importance for the continued breeding of this species on Qarnein, and possibly in the UAE as a whole.
2. Socotra Cormorant Phalacrocorax nigrogularis
This species, one of only two in the UAE that is not officially protected by law, needs, for preference, totally uninhabited islands. It is very susceptible to disturbance by aircraft, helicopters and human presence, while as a fish eater it is also subject to marine pollution.
Formerly a widespread breeder on offshore islands of the UAE, the distribution of its breeding colonies has been affected by industrialization and urbanization in recent years. Zirku, for example, was once the Gulf's largest and most important breeding site although there are unconfirmed reports this year that the birds were driven off the island because of the fear of infections reaching the workers in the oil installations.
Qarnein has apparently been used as a breeding site in the past although it was not reported in 1984 (Foxall 1985). 10,000 birds were reported here in February 1975 during the nesting season (Carp 1976).
During the Qarnein Expedition, around 900 birds were found on and around the island, some flying in flocks of up to 50 in a V-formation, others roosting on offshore rocks or crags on the northeast and northwest. Around 90percent of them were immature birds, with brown wings and pale bellies.
For reasons that are poorly understood, Socotra Comorants generally breed on the northeast side of a coastline, perhaps so that they can take to flight easily into the prevailing northwest wind. An area of around 20 hectares on the northwest corner of Qarnein Island has been bulldozed and graded with the top surface, previously covered in Cormorant guano, being pushed into the sea, apparently in the hope of removing the smell of the guano. Consequently, there was no evidence of the actual colony left to examine, despite the presence of the birds offshore and at roost.
Recommendations on Conservation
In view of threats to the species' colonies elsewhere in the Gulf, it would be of considerable ornithological importance if the Socotra Cormorant was able to re-establish its colony on Qarnein. The presence of low rocks off the northwestern corner of the Island is probably the reason why this area was chosen for the previous colony site, although birds were observed roosting during the survey on the hill on the northeastern corner. If prevented from reforming the colony in the northwest, the birds may attempt to breed on the southwest of the Island where prevailing winds would minimize any disturbance to the immediate surroundings of the rest house.
3. Sooty Gull Larus hemprichii
This Gull has only three known breeding sites in the Arabian Gulf, the others, on Zirku and Sir Abu Nuair, already being affected by industrial and military development.
In 1984 on Qarnein, a winter population of around 100 increased to about 200 during the breeding season (Foxall 1985), while during the expedition numbers were estimated at around 400. This may be due in part to disturbance on other breeding sites, thus underlining the significance of Qarnein as one of the last breeding grounds of the Sooty Gull in the Arabian Gulf. This species was the most widespread of the seabirds found on the Island and more than two dozen nests were found in use in a variety of locations. Scrapes, sometimes simply lined with sticks, Cormorant feathers and other debris, were found on the open ground, among stones, in sandy areas, and sometimes adjacent to a small shrub, or in the center of low-lying vegetation, as well as on rocks.
In most cases, the nests and scrapes were well apart, although in one area of stones and scattered bushes four nests were found in an area of approximately five by five meters, two being a mere two meters apart.
Many scrapes were still without eggs, but of those with eggs, around 30% were found to have the full clutch of three eggs. 40% had one egg, and the balance of 30% had two eggs. This species feeds its young almost entirely on the eggs and young of terns, which were beginning to form colonies on the Island, although, with one possible exception -- see below -- egg laying had not begun.Recommendations on Conservation
Concern over the increase in numbers of the past few years and the consequent prospect of increased predation on the tern colonies should be balanced by concern for the nests of this species due to the exposed locations chosen by a significant proportion of the birds. Increased use of vehicles on the Island off the existing tracks will inevitably destroy eggs and young, while the lower areas of the Island are also the most probably sites for development. Care should be taken to ensure that a substantial area of suitable low-lying nesting habitat is retained, along with the general points that vehicular traffic and human disturbance should be kept to a minimum.
4. Crested (Swift) Tern Sterna bergii
The limited amount of ornithological research undertaken in the lower Arabian Gulf means that little information is available on the breeding range of this large species of Tern, the third largest Tern in the world. It was recorded as breeding in a colony of 2,000 pairs on Sir Abu Nuair in June 1970, though it was absent from that island in June 1971 (Cowley 1981). The only other record of attempted breeding is on Qarnein Island in 1984 (Foxall 1985), although on that occasion all eggs were collected by fishermen. Qarnein Island is clearly the site of some of the very few breeding colonies of Crested Tern in the lower Gulf, with none having been recorded elsewhere off the Emirates or in Qatar.
During the Qarnein Expedition, around 250 birds were counted, often mixed with roosts of the Lesser Crested Tern Sterna bengalensis, and engaged in noisy courtship and chasing around the northern shorelines. They appeared to form separate night roosts, although it was at times difficult to distinguish them in the field.
They favored the two areas of low rocks that rise slightly above the water some 20 meters offshore, on the northeastern and northwestern edges of the Island. No colonies seemed yet to have been formed. In 1984 they joined together in tight, though distinct, colonies with Lesser Crested Terns, laying spontaneously and simultaneously before all the eggs were removed by fishermen. However, one nest with two eggs, larger and paler than those of Sooty Gull (see above) was found, and may possibly have been of this species, although it usually lays one rather than two eggs.Recommendations on Conservation
The Crested Tern is one of the most endangered of the Gulf's breeding species of Tern. The main threat to its continued presence appears to be the regular collection of eggs from its colonies while, if the threat is removed, predation from Sooty Gulls is also likely. The significance of Qarnein as a breeding site for this species cannot be underestimated. The introduction of a ban on human disturbance of the colonies, including a total ban on egg-collection, could be of very substantial significance.
5. Lesser Crested Tern Sterna bengalensis
The Lesser Crested Tern has been previously recorded as nesting on Qarnein in 1984 (Foxall 1985), Zirku in 1981 (Fraser 1981) and Sir Abu Nuair in 1970, although absent in 1971 (Crowley 1981).
During the Qarnein Expedition, this proved to be the commonest species on the Island, with up to 1,300 birds being present, mainly at two noisy roosts, a night-time and morning roost on rocks off the northwest of the Island, and a similar roost in the afternoon off the northeast of the Island. It was not possible to determine whether these locations and timings were due to the tide or to other factors. Egg laying had not begun. In 1984 it commenced on May 18 (Foxall 1985). The species nests in well-synchronized colonies, which in 1984 were several thousand strong associated with, but distinct from, smaller colonies of Crested Tern (see above). One egg is usual.Recommendations on Conservation
Human disturbance and predation by Sooty Gulls are the main threats to the colonies. It was not possible during the visit to determine where the colony would be sited this year, although the recently built rest house, which overlooks a large and suitable level area, may affect the choice. Similar recommendations as outlined above should be introduced especially as Sooty Gulls swiftly take the eggs and chicks. The fishermen generally prefer the larger eggs of the Crested Terns and mostly ignore those of this species.
6. White-cheeked Tern Sterna repressa
No White-cheeked Terns were recorded during the Expedition, though this may have been because we were slightly too early. In 1984 numbers were present in late April (Foxall 1985), while nests were also recorded in July 1971 (M.D. Kyrle-Pope). Other breeding colonies have been found in the past on Zirku and Sinaiyah Islands, and on man-made structures around Das. On Qarnein the birds were reported to nest throughout the Island, presumably with the earlier arrivals taking the prime sites. Several thousand birds may breed here.Recommendations on Conservation
In common with the other breeding Terns of the lower Arabian Gulf, the White-cheeked Tern has been seriously affected by the changing habitats of offshore islands and the coast, with the result that suitable nesting sites have been reduced in number. It is not, however, believed to be endangered in the same way as the larger Crested Tern. Even so, previous records (Foxall 1985) indicate that it nests widely in scattered colonies, increasing the risk of disturbance. The same observations as above concerning human disturbance and the use of vehicles should be taken into account if the species is to continue to nest successfully and in large numbers on Qarnein.
7. Bridled Tern Sterna anaethetus
This species is very migratory and in some ways have very different habits to other terns. It is also one of the most threatened species of terns breeding in Arabia. It is a visitor to the Gulf, probably from the oceans off southern Africa, India and the northern Red Sea (Harrison 1985), and has previously been recorded as breeding on Qarnein in 1971 (M.D. Kyrle-Pope) and 1984 (Foxall 1985), on Zirku in 1981 (Fraser 1981) and Sir Abu Nuair in 1970 and 1971 (Cowley 1981).
During the survey, one single bird was seen offshore during the day but several hundred birds were found to be present at night on the scrub-covered plain at the southern end of the Island, roosting. When a vehicle drove across this plain they flew about like bats, with a swerving erratic flight. Birds could be seen roosting on the tops of low shrubs. The call was a loud grating 'drrr rrr', quite eerie at night.
In 1984 the birds paired up immediately on arrival in early May (Foxall 1985) but at the time of the survey there was no sign of them during daylight hours apart from the individual mentioned above, leading to the conclusion that nesting time had not yet arrived. The birds were presumably feeding some distance from the Island during the day and returning to roost at nightfall.Recommendations on Conservation
The threats to the Bridled Tern colonies on Qarnein are similar to those facing other tern species and the same general recommendations apply.Other Breeding Birds
Osprey: A large Osprey nest was found on the low-lying west side of the Island, consisting of a mound of sticks about one meter high and the same in diameter. According to Ian Foxall, it has been in use for several years. The breeding season had been completed by the time of the Expedition and it was not possible to obtain evidence on whether breeding had taken place recently. Successful breeding occurred in 1982/83 and in 1983/84 (Foxall 1985). There are a number of other sites elsewhere on the Island, mainly on the rocky crags at the north end, but though the nests were used in the 82/83 and 83/84 seasons, no eggs were laid. Two Ospreys were seen during the visit and the species should continue to breed on the Island provided the nest is not disturbed. One bird was shot on the nest in November 1984.
Kestrel: Two birds were seen during the survey and suitable nesting habitats exist on the hills, while food in the form of mice is available. This species is a potential breeder.
Sooty Falcon: Although no birds were seen during the visit, this species has been suspected of possibly breeding in past years (Foxall 1985).
Palm Dove: One bird was seen during the visit, presumably a vagrant from the mainland. If additional vegetation and water supplies are introduced, it is a potential colonist.
House Sparrow: One flock of around 20 birds was seen on the Island in November 1984 (Foxall 1985). Again, if vegetation and water are introduced, it is a potential colonist.References:
Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan
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