By: M Najmuz Zafar

MUSCAT: The juvenile sooty falcon whose epic journey from Oman to its wintering grounds in Madagascar and back, had caught the attention of researchers and bird lovers alike, has been found dead near Yibal close to the Empty Quarter.

The falcon had covered nearly 20,000km on its flight back to Oman. The dead bird was found by the Office for Conservation of Environment (OCE), which was tracking it through a satellite device.

Just a couple of months old, the juvenile, fitted with a satellite transmitter along with four other birds, flew early November last year from Fahal Island and reached Madagascar on December 30. However, the other four juveniles perished during the onward journey, while this one returned to Oman, bringing joy to conservationists. However, it died before turning one.

“It is quite sad. We had practically lived with it, tracking it for close to a year and had thought that it would stay in Oman, grow and breed,” said Mansoor al Jahdhami, senior specialist, environmental studies, OCE.

Jahdhami added that after coming to Oman, the juvenile flew to UAE and then returned again to a place near Yibal. “We were able to use the satellite locations to go into the desert and find it.” He said that it was unclear how the bird died. “By the time we retrieved it, the carcass was quite dried out, but we could see that the bird was not preyed upon or shot. We found it in a shallow wadi very far from human population, near a ghaf tree, and it was half buried by drifting sand.”

Jahdhami said that it is suspected that it was hovering near the Empty Quarter in peak summer where food could be less and died a natural death.

With all the five tagged birds perishing within their first year, it has been proved once again that juvenile sooty falcons have high mortality rate. “The last one had survived the perilous journey and we thought it had passed the high-risk age. But that was not to be, cementing the fact that juveniles have very high mortality; more than 80 per cent don’t make it past their first year.”

However, there has been good news as well from the research on the sooty falcons, which has continued since 2007. During field surveys carried out in August, the OCE team managed to capture a number of falcons, some of which had been caught before.

“We have been capturing a particular bird every year since 2008. She was an adult then, and must be at least nine years old now. We also captured a bird that we had ringed as a chick in 2007; so that one is at least seven,” said Jahdhami, adding that it shows that adults have been doing well.

During field work this year, four adult birds were fitted with satellite transmitters and three more will be tagged between September 21 and October 4. Last year, five juveniles were fitted with satellite transmitters. “We had six transmitters to be fitted this year but we have one more from the dead bird,” said Jahdhami.

All the birds with transmitters are busy taking care of chicks currently, so they have not moved far from their breeding places. They’ll start moving, most likely in November, he added. Sooty falcons are listed as ‘near threatened’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.