Bulletin 26 - July 1985: Rare Bird Visitors to Abu Dhabi and the UAE, 1984

Rare Bird Visitors to Abu Dhabi and the UAE, 1984

by Mike Crumbie

Little Green Heron or Green-backed Heron Butorides striatus (0109)

Although recorded at least once in the Northern Emirates, this is almost certainly the first Little Green Heron to be sighted in Abu Dhabi and definitely the first to be caught. Possibly a juvenile, it appeared in the military area in December, exhausted, and was caught while entangled in a bush. For a period of 24 hours it was kept indoors to be afforded it protection from the numerous cats in the area. It refused all attempts at feeding, so it was decided to release it in the sewage farm. Being weak, thin and bedraggled, there were doubts about its ability to survive. On being released, it attempted to hide in scrub, but on visiting it later, it had collapsed. It was then removed to a more sheltered position. With the help of some local boys who arrived in their Mercedes 280SEL, complete with small hand-held nets, a few small fish were caught. These were fed to the bird that was reluctant to take them. Regretfully, the feeding was to no avail as next day the heron was found to be dead.


The Little Green Heron breeds in parts of America, Africa, the Arabian Gulf and through the Indian Ocean as far as Australia and the Pacific Ocean. Although there is no evidence for breeding in the UAE, it is reported to be a fairly common breeding resident in Oman.

Very little is known about its movements, though there may be some migration across the sub-Sahara into Sudan. Indications are that it is of a basically sedentary nature.

The breeding season varies according to geographical distribution. Eggs have been found in the Sinai in May, in Sudan between June and September, and in Oman from March onwards. It has been recorded nesting in the company of the Western Reef Heron (very common in Abu Dhabi) and Goliath Heron, but, generally, on its own.

Habitat and Food

It is found on coasts in both fresh and marine waters, among mangrove swamps, harbors and creeks. Food consists mainly of crustaceans, but it also takes frogs, insects and various mollusks. It tends to be most active at dusk, hunting in crowded attitude and using a downward jabbing movement to catch fish, but it has also been reported diving from a height.

Greylag Goose Anser anser -- Eastern race rubrirostris (0162)

Greylag geese fall into two categories, Western and Eastern. The single bird which arrived in Abu Dhabi in mid-November and remained for about a fortnight, was of the Eastern variety, distinguishable by its longer bill, which is wholly pink with a white tip. It also tends to be slightly larger and paler in color. The visitor spent its time resting and feeding at Bateen Airport.


Originally the species possibly bred over the whole of Europe and Eurasia, but as a result of drainage, hunting and habitat destruction, the breeding grounds are restricted. Outside this geographical region, accidental breeding has been recorded in Kuwait. It is hard to suggest where our visitor came from, but it could be Russia or Western Siberia. During migratory periods, birds have been reported in the Arabian Gulf before, India, and the Far East.

Habitat and Food

The species is to be found in marshes, mudflats and grasslands. Food consists of plant material that is accessible from the ground or water surface. Green leaves and other soft foliage are clipped off with the side of the bill. Pieces from larger roots and tubers are scraped off using the terminal 'nail' on the upper mandible. This species feeds mainly on land, hence the probably attraction of the grassed area at Bateen Airport. It also feeds while floating, occasionally retrieving submerged material.

Mute Swan Cygnus olor

Among the rare migrants which visited Abu Dhabi during 1984 were three Mute Swans in December, one adult accompanied by two juveniles. From the coloring of the juvenile plumage, it is thought that the younger birds were between four and nine months old. Seen in the sewage farm area, the adult was in the company of one of the juveniles while the other was asleep on the creek bank about 400 meters away. Photographs were taken and confirmation was obtained from one of the prints.


Originally wild, mainly in Eastern Europe, the Mute Swan has been introduced into many countries of Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. Introduction into other parts of Europe started as early as the 16th Century, though the main period of expansion has been during the present century. During the Middle Ages, it was domesticated and used for food in England. In some areas, it is migratory, or partially so, and in others sedentary. In some areas, the British-ringed birds travel less than 50 km. In Northern Europe (Scandinavia, North Germany to Estonia), the species is mostly migratory. The three that arrived in Abu Dhabi could have come from the USSR where the migratory populations leave inland breeding areas to winter on the coasts of the Black and Caspian Seas. Others have occasionally reached the Arabian Gulf before, as well as Egypt, Afghanistan and northern India. Unidentified swans were recorded in Sohar, Oman, in 1960 and 1961.


Swans have switched extensively from natural to human-influenced habitats and patterns of living, and a transition from the wild stocks of Eastern Europe to the introduced species of the West. The eastern birds breed in scattered pairs on large open lakes with extensive shallow waters and in the deltas of southern rivers such as the Volga. In contrast to its western cousin, the eastern variety avoids proximity to man.


This swan feeds mainly on aquatic vegetation obtained from depths of up to a meter, which it reaches by full up ending or by immersing the head and neck only. Agricultural pastures are used on a regular basis as a food resource and at times they have been known to take cereals. Research has shown that the daily food requirement for a molting adult is between 3.6 and 4.0 kg of wet vegetable food.

White Stork Ciconia ciconia (0135)

Without doubt the most publicized of the rare visitors to Abu Dhabi in 1984 were the flocks of White Storks which arrived in September and remained in diminishing numbers at Abu Dhabi International Airport until the end of January, 1985. Understandably, there were over-enthusiastic claims of thousands of birds, but realistic estimations from the airport indicate a figure of 200 to 300 and an equal number scattered in small pockets throughout Abu Dhabi Island. We have no records of any reports from other Emirates.

Initially, some were shot at the airport. This may seem harsh, but when the size of the birds is considered, plus the potential hazard to aircraft movements, some action had to be taken. It has to be remembered that one of the prime concerns of the Civil Aviation Authority is flight safety, and birds of any kind are always treated as a potential threat, particularly when in numbers. It is believed that an incident did occur, in January, in which three storks were ingested by an aircraft engine, causing the takeoff to be abandoned. A flock of about 20 wintered at the Airport, the main flock having departed early. After the incident, the remaining few birds departed, possibly on their return to the northern breeding grounds.


The White Stork is found throughout Europe but in two major concentrations, the larger in northern and central Europe and the smaller in the west of Iberia and into North Africa. Concentrations are also found in Central and East Asia. The vast majority of birds migrate to tropical Africa, Iran and the Indian subcontinent. The main European departures occur during August and large flocks of up to 11,000 have been counted over the Bosphorus. In 1972, between 5 August and 4 October, an estimated 339,000 birds passed over the Bosphorus and Princess Islands of Turkey. During the same period, an estimated 35,000 passed south over Gibraltar. During migration, birds soar in thermals, avoiding long, tiring flights across large stretches of open water. They consequently cross the Mediterranean on two usually narrow fronts, one at Gibraltar and the other down the coast of the Levant. This migratory divide between two groups moving southwest and southeast is separated by a band roughly along the line of longitude 11E. The migratory crossings tend to favor deserts over thermally deficient areas like forests or broad seas.

Those migrating to the southwest winter mainly in the steppes and savannah zones of West Africa, while those from central and Eastern Europe opt for eastern and southern Africa. There is a tendency for separate winter quarters but some mixing of the populations does take place.

There is a further migratory divide in the areas from the east coast of the Black Sea south to the Euphrates, and from Armenia and Azerbaydzhan southeast to Iraq, Iran and Pakistan. It would seem that the Abu Dhabi visitors might have been blown off course over Turkey en route to east and South Africa, which has happened before in a few recorded incidents.


The White Stork is found in areas of wetland, scattered trees, steppe and flooded land. It prefers shallow standing water in lagoons and sluggish streams. It is mainly found in lowland regions but where the habitat is similar it may breed at higher elevations, up to 2,500 feet in Morocco.


This is exclusively animal, caught mainly while the bird is running with head and bill pointed downwards. Small prey is swallowed while, while large prey such as mice is broken up. It is recorded that one bird ate 44 mice, two hamsters and one frog in an hour, and another ate 25 - 30 crickets a minute. The stork eats a wide variety of food, depending on availability.

  1. Handbook of the Birds of Europe and the Middle East and North Africa, by J. Heinzel, R. Fitter and J. Parslow, Collins, 1972.
  2. The Birds of the Western Palearctic, Vol. 1, by Cramp, Simmons et al, OUP, 1977.


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