Elusive and Enigmatic
One of harder resident species to find in the UAE is Hooded Wheatear, arguably the king of a superbly evocative genus. Stunning good looks (male) or a subtle palette of plumage shades (female), stupidly long wings (leading directly to a habit of floating, Hoopoe-like, over the wadi walls whilst attempting to flycatch its next meal), an affinity for the most sweepingly vast of montane landscapes and, not least, a simultaneously frustrating and delightful will-o-the-wisp unpredictability (you just never know when – or if – you are about to bump into one) all add up to tremendous allure.
In the UAE, as seemingly across almost all its limited range from Sinai to southern Pakistan, the species is very local and uncommon. Most visitors, if they haven’t been lucky enough to see one on a previous trip to Israel, generally haven’t seen one anywhere. And often they won’t see one in the UAE either, for birds come and go erratically and temporarily reliable spots suddenly and abruptly go quiet for months or longer.
For that reason, whilst guiding three fortunate UK and South African birders on an insufferably humid and sweaty mid-September morning earlier this year, I was delighted to find a young male at the migrant hotspot of Wamm Farms, on the UAE’s east coast. This site is one of most birded in the country and has a superb track record for both vagrants and large numbers of common migrants. However, despite this, and despite the fact that it’s overlooked by the towering Hajar mountains (with several known – if not especially reliable – sites for the species within 30 or 40 km) this was the first ever record of Hooded Wheatear at the food-rich farm. The ‘normal for autumn’ regular and intensive coverage (well, ok, in the UAE this means a few birders each weekend…) failed to relocate the bird until, in mid-November, there I was again and so was he, in pretty much exactly the same spot, feeding from the sprinkler heads on the edge of a stony, barren field. As is typical for the species here in the UAE, when you do manage to locate one, views were stunning as Hooded Wheatears are often fearless and very approachable; this one was audibly snapping for insects at ranges down to 2 metres! Watching and digiscoping this sensational bird for over 30 minutes at point-blank range was easily the highlight of my morning, and, on a day that produced Pallid Harrier, Amur Falcon and seven species of pipits, that is saying quite something.
Movements of Hooded Wheatear are poorly understood, although appear to be very limited. Of 291 records in the UAE bird database between 1992 and 2014, just eight, totaling four individuals, have been recorded away from potential breeding locations.
Tellingly however, all these come from sites on the coastal lowlands of the Persian Gulf, 350km or more west of the nearest known breeding sites in the UAE. One individual over-wintered December to March and the other three were all logged between mid-February to early April. The mountains of southern Iran are barely any further away across the Gulf that UAE breeding sites and are very likely the point of origin for these coastal birds.
Mike Jennings’ wonderful and very readable tour-de-force, the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Arabia, details older records from Das Island and Bahrain, supporting the contention of at least some movement south across the Gulf and the same book shows scattered records from Kuwait and the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, again likely referable to migrants and winterers.
Shirihai’s Birds of Israel notes limited movements, mainly for females and 1st calendar-years dispersing from breeding grounds in early autumn and the species has (rarely) reached Cyprus, Turkey and even Greece. Of course, none of this brings the origins of the Wamm bird beyond mere speculation, although records from Masirah Island, off the central Omani coast, show that the species may move a long way along the Gulf of Oman coastline as well.
It will be interesting to see if the Wamm individual remains for the winter although, not entirely atypically, on my last visit several days ago there was, of course, no sign of it!