Rare, red-footed Booby spotted in UAE for only 7th time in 45 years

Red-footed Booby with the gulls in feeding mission-1707994141554
The large red-footed Booby amid a flock of gulls feeding on fish farms, 3km off the Dibba Coast in Fujairah.
Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Birdwatchers in the UAE are a delighted lot. The rarest of rare, red-footed Booby, a globe-trotting oceanic bird, has been sighted for only the seventh time in 45 years in the country.

Barely able to contain his excitement, Dr Reza Khan, Birdman of the UAE, told Gulf News that he and a group of seven birders went on a recent boat trip from Dibba Sea Port to Ras Dibba in Fujairah. Their mission: To look for a red-footed Booby that had just been discovered.

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“UAE does not have any resident Boobies. They are not yearly winter visitors either. However, of the seven species of Boobies present in the major oceans of the world, we have three species here. Of these, the red-footed Booby is the rarest and it has just been sighted seven times in nearly 45 years,” he revealed.

According to him, birder Frank Hawkins had sighted the bird on December 10 last year in the waters of the Arabian Sea off Ras Dibba in Fujairah. “This has been published on the Ebird site. Following this sighting, almost all UAE birders have visited the marine area to see the bird,” he said.

A close-up of the majestic red-footed Booby captured by Dr Reza Khan in Fujairah.
Image Credit: Supplied

Marine fish farms

In a fascinating description of what he saw, Dr Khan said, “There are a few marine fish farms, some 3km off the Dibba Coast. Here, fish fingerlings are reared in under-water round fish traps/baskets made of fishing nets. Each trap is about 10sqm or so in diameter. There is a floating plastic boom with a top-netted barrier that is about one metre high from the water surface. These prevent fish from jumping out of the net. Top of the sunken part of the net is fixed to the circular boom and downward, it extends up to a depth of seven-10 metres, as narrated by the boat captain.”

After a fishing missing mission terns and gulls are resting for sometime on fish cage boom-1707994158369
After a fishing mission, terns and gulls rest on a fish cage boom.
Image Credit: Supplied

He said thousands of gulls and terns and hundreds of cormorants and herons feed around these fish farms on natural fish shoals. Occasionally, they feast on farmed fish too. The red-footed Booby entirely feeds on fish and squids.

“Now, the seventh-time spotted red-footed Booby has taken refuge in one such fish farm. I saw it resting on the boom or on top of an anchored fishing vessel for some time. Then, it joined in the feeding frenzy of gulls and terns that swooped down on a school of fish,” he narrated.

Dr Reza Khan and his inseparable camera
Dr Reza Khan with his inseparable camera.
Image Credit: Supplied

He said when the group first entered the area and followed the fishing operations of gulls and terns, he was unable to spot the Booby.

“After more than one-and-a-half hours of search, we got the first glimpse of the bird. It was like the Booby was playing hide-and-seek with the nine of us, including the boat captain. In one flash, it would be in our view, and in the next, gone. We spun our boat around again and again in our own frenzy to locate the bird again. We frantically looked where the gulls and terns were feeding. This went on from 3pm to almost 5pm, when it finally settled on a fish trap boom for night roosting,” said Dr Khan.

Obliging photo-op

What followed was an “obliging” photo-op, as the birders captured the beauty on their ready cameras to their heart’s content.

Why is this bird called the Booby?
As one story goes, Dr Khan said a small group of seven birds was given the name ‘Booby’, meaning ‘foolish’, in the early 19th century. “Reason: The migratory birds once landed on ocean-going vessels mistaking them for temporary stopover spots. The sailors on board promptly caught them and feasted on them. And perhaps, even congratulated themselves, of getting the better of the majestic, immensely powerful fliers, even great divers.”
However, he said contrary to their name, Boobies are one of the smartest birds of the world.
“Primarily, their bodies – bills, wings and tail as well as feathers – are streamlined like a torpedo. So they can fly at great speed in air and can do so in water too. To catch fish on the surface, they can plunge-dive through flocks of hundreds of gulls, terns, and cormorants. They can fly 125km over open ocean water for fishing. Once the feeding sessions are over, they return to the shore and rest on trees or boats and anchored ships,” explained Dr Khan.

“It was a very memorable experience, as we balanced ourselves on the boat, trying to protect our cameras from water splashing all around. But it was well worth the effort. Eventually, we bid goodbye to the Booby and moved on to spotting other migratory birds,” he said.

Dr Khan said two other species of the Booby have been found in the UAE. They include the Masked-footed Booby and the Brown Booby. The first has been sighted 46 times between 1973 and 2022. The second 18 times between 1986 and 2022, as mentioned by Tommy Pedersen, Mark Smiles, Oscar Campbell and Simon Aspinal in the 2024 UAE Bird Checklist.