Sooty Falcon Research Project Extended. (From the Muscat Daily)

( Office for Conservation of Environment (OCE), Diwan of Royal Court, which started research on sooty falcons in 2007 along with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs and Sultan Qaboos University has extended the commitment till 2013.

Oman is considered to be one of the most important breeding grounds for the ‘near-threatened’ sooty falcon, with perhaps four per cent of the global population being found on Fahal Island alone. But since 1978, when the first survey was done, (initial survey was done for a year only in 1978) the population has declined by about 15 per cent and it is estimated that annual mortality among adult birds is about 20 per cent and about 70 per cent among juveniles. ”From 2011 onwards, we are the main authority to conduct a detailed study of population dynamics and ecology of sooty falcons,” said Mansoor al Jahdhami, senior specialist, environmental studies, OCE.

The authority has carried out field visits to the Damaniyat and Fahal Islands in September and October and ringed about 50 chicks. Since 2007, 300 birds have been ringed. Mike McGrady, from Natural Research, a Scotland-based research charity, who is working with OCE as the chief researcher, was in Oman for the 2011 survey. Speaking to Muscat Daily, he said that there were three main initiatives that OCE has started from this year. “Firstly, to track more birds with help of satellite transmitters.Secondly, to look into migration and study of wintering grounds with a possible collaborative venture with Madagascar where sooty falcons winter. And thirdly, to make a documentary film on the ongoing research.”

McGrady said that the sooty falcon is a special species of the falcon family as it is one of the only two species that breeds during peak summer. “Summer provides a harsh environment for breeding but it is good for these falcons as this is the time when birds are on annual migration to Africa from Asia and they pass through the Arab region making a stopover in Oman at places like Fahal and Damaniyat Islands. The falcons make a killing and it is feast time for them and their chicks.”

Sooty falcons arrive in Oman from Madagascar in April and May and establish their territories before laying eggs in June and July. “Eggs hatch about 32 days later and the chicks fly within four weeks. By mid-November, the chicks, only about ten weeks old, start their winter migration to Madagascar. Of the total, about 70 per cent die in their first year, while it is estimated that 20 per cent of adults also die per year.”

With such a high mortality rate, McGrady feels there is a need to urgently raise awareness and embark on better and detailed researches on the ecology of these falcons.“There is no proper data on the population demographics of these birds in Oman except for the Fahal and Damaniyat Islands. There is a possibility of its presence in places along the coast, like south of Duqm, Musandam and Jebel Akhdar. It may be that the population in Musandam can be globally significant,” said McGrady. Jahdhami said that chicks and adults are ringed every year with alphanumeric and microchip rings and blood samples also taken. “With about 40 pairs of falcons residing on the one square kilometre Fahal Island, there is a keen contest for maintaining territories, as sooty falcons are predatory birds and territorial in nature. But with so many birds living in close proximity of each other, a shift is visible in the behaviour of these falcons in becoming colonial than territorial.”

McGrady said that there is an opportunity for Oman to lead the work on sooty falcons as it was the first country to embark on the research in 1978.

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