Bulletin 38 - July 1989: Family Sturnidae in the UAE

Family Sturnidae in the UAE

by P. Hellyer

The Spring of 1989 proved to be most interesting for Abu Dhabi's ornithologists, with February and March in particular being unusual for a number of observations of Mynahs. The Common Mynah Acridbtheres tristis and the less common Bank Mynah A. gingianus are town residents, the latter being occasionally glimpsed among groups of the former. In winter there comes the Starling Sternus vulgaris in flocks of fifty or more, and rareIy the Rose-coloured Starling S. roseus, with its unmistakeable black and pink plumage. In general the Common and Bank Mynahs tend to be ignored or at least glossed over, but this year was different.

On February 1st I noticed a flock of twenty or so Mynahs fly into a tree on the Saeed bin Tahnoun Street roundabout. Through the binoculars I realised that they were not the expected Common, but Bank Mynahs, the most I had seen in one flock and easily distinguishable by their redder bills and eyes and grey chest. With them were three other birds, two brownish and one that I at first assumed to be a type of starling or possibly a Black-throated Thrush. Slightly smaller than the Mynahs, my notes record that it had a "dark throat and head to the back of the neck with a light pink chest. Buck grey-black, legs darkish in the afternoon light, bill darkish but yellow underneath near the head, and a little shorter than the Mynahs." If it was a Black-throated Thrush, I was at a loss to explain its presence among Mynahs. I thought the three mystery birds might be one male and two females.

Over the next few days I returned several times to the same spot and saw first one and then two of the 'males'. Checking with Colin Richardson of the Dubai Group I learnt that a similar bird had been seen in Saffa Park. They had withdrawn their tentative identification of it as a Black-throated Thrush.

Two days later Dave Robinson and I recorded a Rose-coloured Starling in the tree, a first for Dave's UAE list. Along with the two Mynahs and Common Starlings already seen, this was the fourth member of the Sturnidae family for February. On that occasion the mystery birds did not return, but I had previously noticed that they flew off to roost with the Mynahs towards the mangroves.

On February 9th, we checked out the Prosopis juliflora trees at the old sewage outlet near the mangroves. Among over a hundred Common Mynahs there were two of the unknown birds, and it was clear that they were not thrushes, but Sturnidae. A survey of all reference books we could muster proved a fruitless exercise, however.

At dusk on February 10th some seventy-five starlings flew over us into the mangroves. About four hundred Common Mynahs flew into the trees and amongst them we picked out perhaps ten Bank Mynahs. As if on cue, our mystery bird then arrived and settled amongst the Mynahs.

The good light showed a pinkish tinge on the chest and the faintest hint of pink on the greyish back, and it was this that enabled Dave to identify it: a Rose-coloured Starling in intermediate plumage. The 'brown' ones I had seen must have been in the normal immature plumage, and the confusion had been through non-recognition of this particular plumage phase. This meant four members of Sturnidae on the same day.

On February 17th I met Willem Dolleman, a keen birdwatcher, at the same spot. The indefinite Rose-coloured Starling was not present but among the three hundred or so Common and ten Bank Mynahs, Willem picked out a different bird, blacker, minus the yellow skin patch around the eye and with a little quiff of feathers at the base of the bill. They were two Jungle Mynahs Acridotheres fuscus, presumably escapes but a new species for Abu Dhabi.

On February 23rd, a cold Thursday afternoon, several local bird watchers, themselves being watched by a bemused police patrol, were patiently following events in the Sturnidae world. The Common and Bank Mynahs came in, Starlings flew over to roost and a Jungle Mynah appeared. A further flock of Common Mynahs then arrived and among them was a black and white bird with white cheeks and a dagger-like bill. It stayed for some ten minutes, by which time our reference books showed it to be a Pied Mynah Sternus contra, another escape and a sixth new species for our list. Although only the one was seen, there is always the possibility of a mate in the vicinity. To complete the day's record in came a Rose-coloured Starling in intermediate plumage, rather pinker than a fortnight earlier. This time there was no problem with identification.

Thus February brought at least six members of the family Sturnidae to Abu Dhabi (all seen on 23rd), two of them new to us, albeit escapes. There were more Bank Mynahs and Rose-coloured Starlings than usual, plus the apparently previously undescrlbed intermediate plumage phase.

The following few weeks were also productive. On March 10th a Hill Mynah was recorded at the sewage outlet, along with all the other six species and yet another new record (escape) for Abu Dhabi.

The Pied Mynah put in a few scattered appearances before disappearing, while the Jungle Mynahs were still around in early May. The two Rose-coloured Starlings in intermediate plumage became gradually pinker and pinker until they were last recorded on May 5th, presumably migrating northwards then.

(Rose-coloured Starlings were again recorded in Abu Dhabi on May 31st and one turned up on Das Island on June 3rd. According to Len Reaney's Das notes (Bulletin 30), this species is a fairly common migrant in late summer and early autumn but not recorded on the island before in June. A single bird was seen in April 1986. - Ed.)


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