Summary of the OSME Survey of Southern and Eastern Yemen and Socotra: Spring 1993

by P. Davidson, 24 Smithfield Road, Norwich NR1 2HN, United Kingdom

Yemen Update 36(1995):12,33

Over an eight week period from March to May 1993 the Ornithological Society of the Middle East (OSME) conducted an extensive survey of the birds, habitats and conservation in the southern and eastern governorates of the Republic of Yemen. A week of the period was spent on the island of Socotra.

Ornithological studies were conducted at 77 sites, and concentrated on four main integrated projects:

(i) specific species studies on the 13 southwest Arabian and five Socotran bird species of global conservation significance (several of which are considered threatened), together with the locally threatened Arabian bustard Ardeotis arabs population;

(ii) gathering data for the identification of potential Important Bird Areas (IBAs);

(iii) standardized habitat and bird community censusing, involving the systematic surveying of over 410 km of representative habitats, coupled with over 21 hours of spot-count observations, to assess differences between bird communities in different habitats and evaluate the conservation importance of each;

(iv) collecting data for the forthcoming Atlas of Breeding Birds of Arabia (ABBA), covering 64 half-degree squares. In addition mist-netting was carried out for in-the-hand study of some of the region's poorly known birds, and the distribution was documented of amphibian, reptile and mammal species.

Four bird species previously unrecorded in Yemen were discovered, as well as ten new to Socotra. The first probable breeding record of malachite kingfisher Alcedo cristata in Arabia was made at Wadi Hajar (OB05). Range extensions were recorded for at least two southwest Arabian endemics, Arabian serin Serinus rothschildi and Arabian waxbill Estrilda rufibarba. Arabian partridge Alectoris melanocephala was found down to sea level as was golden-winged grosbeak Rhyncostruthus socotranus. Dunn's lark Eremalauda dunni was discovered in desert-steppe on the southern fringe of al-Rub' al-Khali (Empty Quarter) between the Hadramawt and Ma'rib.

Eleven additional potential IBAs were identified in Yemen, which included the vast gravel plain along the coast west of Aden, which supports mature acacia savanna, where the continued presence of Arabian bustard was confirmed (one record). This area may still hold a nationally important population of the species. One of the largest remaining tracts of juniper forest in Yemen, discovered on Jabal Iraf on the old North/South Yemen border north of Aden, supported populations of Arabian woodpecker Dendrocopos dorae, Arabian waxbill and golden-winged grosbeak, as well as plain nightjar Caprimulgus inornatus (of which there are only very few previous records from Yemen). In the Mahra region of eastern Yemen there is a substantial zone of drought deciduous woodland, covering many square kilometers (an extension of the Dhofar region in Oman), which probably supports the highest breeding density of golden-winged grosbeak in Yemen, together with spotted eagle owl Bubo africanus and breeding didric cuckoo Chrysococcyx caprius. A largely unvegetated desert plain ca. 40km west of al-Ghayda, (ca.QB09) held a small population of lappet-faceted vultures Torgos tracheliotus. Internationally important numbers of crab plovers Dromas ardeola (170) were found on the Dhubab Flats, on the Red Sea coast north of Bab al-Mandab, along with large numbers of migratory waders. Other notable finds involving migratory species included substantial passage of rufous bush robin Cercotrichas galactotes and barred warbler Sylvia nisoria. In contrast was the complete absence of Abyssinian roller Coracias abyssinicus, a rains-migrant from sub-Saharan Africa.

On Socotra, sites on the lowland coastal plain, through the mid-altitude zone and up to montane habitats of about 1,100 m, were surveyed. The island's four endemic bird species were all found, three in good numbers: Socotra sunbird Nectarinia balfouri (very common), Socotra Warbler Cisticola incana (relatively common in suitable habitats) and Socotra grackle Onycognathus frater (also relatively common in suitable habitats). Somewhat surprisingly perhaps, only one Socotra bunting Emberiza socotrana was discovered, in rocky terrain at about 400 m. In contrast its congener the cinnamon-breasted rock bunting Emberiza tahapisi was encountered frequently in many habitats. Several sites merited IBA status, in particular Wadi Ayhaft, a well-vegetated wadi on the north coast. The Socotra race of rufous sparrow Passer motitensis insularis (considered by some to be a separate species) is abundant. Forbe-Watson's swift Apus berliozi is a fairly common mid-high altitude species. One individual was mist-netted.

Two pelagic trips were made, one off the north coast of Socotra, the other out of Sayhut on the southern coast of Yemen, east of Mukalla. Jouanin's petrel Bulweria fallax was recorded in good numbers (250+ seen on each survey). Other notable seabird observations included small numbers of wedge-tailed shearwaters Puffinus pacificus off the south coast of Yemen, pairs of red-billed tropic birds Phaethon aethereus at two localities on the south coast of Yemen, and the importance of the Mahra coast as a feeding area for Audubon's shearwater Puffinus lherminieri.

The expedition culminated with a presentation of the results to the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and representatives of the Agricultural Research and Extension Authority and the Environmental Protection Council, during which priority areas for bird species and habitat conservation were discussed and follow-up action was agreed upon.

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