The Omani Owl is the rarest of the seven species of owls found in the Wadi Wurayah National Park Image Credit: Supplied

Fujairah: The UAE has registered its first visual record of a rare and endangered Omani Owl, officials have revealed. The elusive Omani Owl was spotted on camera in the mountainous Wadi Wurayah National Park (WWNP) in Fujairah. The national park team was able to record the Omani Owl through recent surveys, said Mohammad Saif Al-Afkham, Director General, Fujairah Municipality.

The Omani Owl is a pale, medium-sized owl with a dark brown patch above and narrow dark streaks below.

First confirmation

Dr Ali Hassan Al Hmoudi, park manager, told Gulf News: “The Omani Owl was rediscovered when a survey in Oman in 2013 found this species. Then in 2015, it was found in UAE, but only via sound recordings of the calls it makes. Now, the Omani Owl has been visually recorded in the UAE for the first time using camera traps and field surveys. It confirms the species is actually here.”

It is very difficult to find the Omani Owl in the 220 square-kilometres of mountains that mark the boundaries of WWNP Fujairah, he added.

Critically endangered

“There is a possibility of a small population, which is yet to be found, of the Omani Owl living in the UAE. It can be categorised as ‘Critically Endangered’ because we don’t know the number of the population, whether they breed here or not, what is their food base and we don’t know what threats they may be facing,” Al Hmoudi added.

Secret location

The location of the visual recording of the Omani Owl in the national park is “a sensitive matter” as the species is listed under Critically Endangered as per the UAE national red-list of endangered species. “We are trying to ascertain right now if what we have is only a small number of these owls or is there a larger population? We do not want to scare the species away. So, since last year, we are undertaking our monitoring programme for owls.”

The owl family
There are nine species of owls found in the UAE, three of which are migratory. The Wadi Wurayah National Park is considered a haven for seven of the nine species. The Omani Owl is the rarest species of owl seen in the UAE.
As per International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, the Omani Owl has recently been rediscovered and the little-known species has been listed globally as ‘Data Deficient’ because there is insufficient information available for a robust assessment of its extinction risk against the Red List criteria.
Within the UAE, it is suspected to have a tiny population size and so despite more research into this species still being needed, it is listed here as Critically Endangered.

Bird-rich zone

Al-Afkham added that WWNP is rich in various types of birds, numbering 107 out of the 475 species in UAE. Some of these reside in the protected areas, including the migratory types and another that faces extinction. Al-Afkham praised the efforts made by the team that resulted in the discovery of the Omani owl.

During last six months of the owl research and monitoring programme, which has been ongoing since 2019, the park team was able to, using a camera trap, record a medium-sized owl that was photographed in July 2020, visiting a small water pool away from human activities inside the national park. As the pool was the only source of water in the dry wadi bed away from any human presence, it was visited by a number of wildlife creatures.

Frequent flyer

Further monitoring of the site showed this medium-sized owl to be a regular visitor in the summer months to quench thirst, have a bath and also feed from the pool, including the Arabian toads. From the owl’s structure, head, body and tail pattern, the park team was able to identify the owl as the Omani Owl through published literature by researchers on Omani Owls in Oman and the UAE. This was later confirmed by an expert on Omani Owls whose team was first to record the new species in Oman in 2013, later identifying it as an Omani Owl.

Another recording

At another location only 17km away from the owl recorded at the water pool, one more Omani Owl has been recorded (possibly a juvenile) roosting in a cave during the morning hours. The owl was again found in an area not frequented by humans as its deep inside the core zone of the national park. As a juvenile owl, its presence may strongly support a small population of Omani Owls inside the national park. Both locations have a dry and rocky habitat with a water source nearby.

Where else have they been seen?

Omani Owls have been recorded in the Hajar mountains in northern Oman, north-east and southwest Iran, perhaps also in southern Pakistan (Makran Coast), with records from UAE mountains limited to call records in WWNP only. These latest visual records support the idea of a small population of Omani Owls residing within the safe haven provided by the WWNP to all its biodiversity. Extensive fieldwork is being undertaken to keep on monitoring these owls and research is being carried out on their habitat, breeding, food source, movement pattern and threats to them which will help in the global database collection and conservation of the species.

Biodiversity hotspot

Al-Afkham said these records also emphasise the significance of WWNP as an important biodiversity hotspot in the area as the First National Park, a RAMSAR wetland site, a Unesco Biosphere Reserve and an Important Bird Area. He stressed the need to conserve its fragile ecosystem from any changes that can affect the biodiversity health and its safe haven status from any disturbance.

Other owl species recorded through the survey include the Arabian Spotted Eagle Owl, Pharaoh Eagle Owl, Barn Owl, Eurasian Scops Owl, Pallid Scops Owl and Little Owl.