25 December 2013

Mangrove White-eye sp Zosterops (abyssinicus?) sp - Red Sea Mangroves

An unidentified ‘mangrove white-eye’ species occurs along the Red Sea Coast of southwest Saudi Arabia (Newton 2006) but very few records of the birds have been published. The birds were found during a survey of southern Red Sea mangrove stands in 1994 when white-eyes were discovered between the villages of Shuqaiq and Amq, approximately midway between Jizan and al Qunfudah. This represented a range of approaching 100 kilometres, though it was thought it may have extend further to the north given the abundant mangrove stands, although subsequent surveys of these areas failed to locate any birds. The birds choice of habitat as well as smaller size, confirmed by biometrics, and brighter plumaged compared to the nearby montane populations of Abyssinian white-eye Zosterops abyssinicus arabs led to the suggestion that DNA evidence may be necessary to unravel the bird's identity and until this is done the birds should remain unidentified and were best treated as 'mangrove white-eye sp' (Newton 2006). A comment in Porter & Aspinall (2010) under Abyssinian White-eye states a population of white-eyes present in the mangroves on the southern Red sea coast of Saudi Arabia and Yemen remains unidentified. In Jennings (2010), however, there was no mention of the birds in the mangroves of the Red Sea coast possibly as they have not been positively identified and despite extensive searching no further data has been located on these birds and no other documented records have been found. In Oman, Oriental White-eyes were found in 1999 on the small offshore mangrove island of Mahawt where they used similar habitat and occurred only in the canopy of mature mangroves similar to the behavior of the ‘mangrove white-eyes’ in Saudi Arabia. They do not however, appear to be this species as they have obvious differences in plumage and bill colour. The Saudi Arabian birds resemble Abyssinian White-eye but one obvious difference is that the amount of white around the eye is much larger on the ‘mangrove white-eye’ than on Abyssinian White-eye form the Asir highlands taken at the same time of year - see photo below.
Abyssinian White-eye

 On 2 July 2013 whilst birding Either Mangroves (17.16375N, 42.40585E), I saw two ‘mangrove white-eyes’ feeding in the top of mature mangrove trees at the water edge. They kept high in the treetops although dropped down slightly in response to ‘pishing’ but moved off quickly. They were very mobile and although they did not give very good views a photograph was taken of one bird by Phil Roberts wh has kindly allowed me to use his photograph on my website. The location of Either Mangroves is approximately 75 kilometres south, as the crow flies, of the southernmost location noted by Newton, almost doubling their known range and extending it to over 175 kilometres of the Saudi Arabian Red Sea coast. The lack of records is interesting as a number of birdwatchers have been to the mangroves near Shuqaiq in recent years to look for Collared Kingfisher Todirhamphus chloris with no sightings of the White-eyes and Brian Meadows told me that he never saw or trapped any in the mangroves at Yanbu on the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia during the ten years he was present, 1984-1994, possibly because all the trees were either stunted or young rather than mature. This is another possible new Arabian Endemic species but work needs to be carried out to ascertain if this is the case or not. This may prove to be difficult as I am unable to get permission from the Saudi Authorities at present to carry out ringing in the country and this will be required to get DNA of the birds.