White-eyed Gull -3 at Kalba Beach on 6 November 2022-1668318357889
White-eyed gull spotted on Kalba Beach. Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: The white-eyed gull - a small bird that is endemic to the Red Sea, which had only been seen in the UAE thrice before - has been sighted again by birders in the country.

It was spotted between November 4 and 6 in the Kalba Beach area where fishermen use drag nets to catch tonnes of tiny minnow-like fishes, said Dr Reza Khan, principal Wildlife Specialist, Dubai Safari Park.

“I got the news of sighting of this very rare bird, Ichthyaetus leucopthalmus, from the UAE Birding WhatsApp group where it was mentioned that J Shemilt, A Wilson et al had seen the gull in Kalba Corniche Beach on November 4 and 5,” added Dr Khan.

White-eyed Gull -7 at Kalba Beach on 6 November 2022-1668318368566
The white-eyed gull - a small bird that is endemic to the Red Sea, which had only been seen in the UAE thrice before - has been sighted again by birders in the country. Image Credit: Supplied

Following this, Dr Khan went to look for it, along with his wife Nurun, on November 6.

“When I sighted it again, this gull was amongst a flock of nearly 500 other gulls. The lone, White-eyed Gull was at home with the congeners. Its look-alike species, the Sooty Gull, were there in hundreds.”

He said it is a rare gull found only on the Red Sea coasts on both the Asian and African sides.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorised it as a near-threatened species.

“So far, 13 species of gulls have been recorded from the UAE. Of these, the only species is known to breed on some remote islands is the Sooty Gull. Most others, totalling six species, are considered very rare and their status termed as vagrant. That means, presence of these in the UAE is uncertain and nobody knows when any of these could be seen next time,” Dr Khan added.

More about gulls

For example, he said Franklin’s gull has only been sighted by him once in the Fujairah Port Beach during May 2011. “It has not yet been seen again in the past 11 years. Such is the rarity of the vagrant species. Sabine’s Gull has been seen only twice, White-eyed Gull, now four times, and Brown-headed Gull seven times.”

Of the remaining six species, only four could be considered abundant or common. “Of these, the Black-headed Gull is known to all as it can be seen anywhere in the metropolis like Dubai during the winter months as their number in the country ranges in thousands. It is even known to snatch food from school children when they open their lunch boxes in school grounds. In abundance, next to it is Lesser Black-backed Gull having several subspecies. Third one being the Sooty Gull and fourth the Slender-billed Gull.”

Dr Khan said the White-eyed Gull was within five metres away when he spotted it.

“It was sometimes alone or with its look alike species, the Sooty gull in dozens trying to dislodge fishes stuck in the net. It was neither scared of me nor of the fishers. Its behaviour was very much like any other gulls I had seen there. The only difference was its shape, size, and colour patterns,” he said.

‘Outstanding feature’

“The most outstanding feature was a half-moon shaped white brow over and another piece below the very dark eye. Also, its bills are slender for the size of the gull. Overall, it is a sooty black, grey, and white medium-sized gull having gross similarity with the locally abundant Sooty Gulls.”

“Usually, the adult has a black hood, a white collar, a blackish bib on the chin and throat, wing black with a white trailing edge, shoulder is grey when rest of the underside and tail are white. Bills are mainly red in adult with black base and tip. Legs are yellow. It measures 43 cm from tip of the bill to the tip of the tail. Weight varies from 350 to 450 g,” said Dr Khan.

He added this gull has a very restricted distribution among the gull species being present only in the African and Asian sides of the Red Sea coasts, spreading from Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt to Israel.

As per some studies, Dr Khan said, the rare bird’s population is around 12,000 adult birds.

“It occasionally ventures into Oman and is very rarely seen in the UAE. The IUCN Red Book considers it as ‘near-threatened’ but some are predicting that it could soon be placed under the ‘vulnerable’ category because of its restricted distribution, loss of habitats, removing of eggs for human consumption and anthropogenic disturbances to nesting sites.”

However, the specimens of White-eyed Hull that reach the UAE coastal waters are safe because of positive government measures and patient, and tolerant members of the public, Dr Khan added.