EUREKA!! A Modern Scientific Discovery in Yemen [Archives:1998/13/Last Page]

March 30 1998

Adel J. Moqbil,
Yemen Times
Yes, folks it is official. It has been proven for the first time. And it is in Yemen. Following a 4-day monitoring stint on the Yemeni side of Bab Al-Mandab, British nature conservationists Geoff and Hilary Welch have announced, in an exclusive interview with Yemen Times, that migrating birds of prey follow the same route back to Europe.

“It is very very exciting,” said Geoff euphorically, adding, “this is the first time that it has actually been proven that it happens.”
He went on to explaining, “we counted just over 1,600 birds of prey coming into Yemen. We have now proven that the migration does take place – the birds come from Africa, go through Arabia to Russia and Europe to breed.”Together with David Stanton, vice-chairman of the Yemeni Ornithological Society and nature lover Roy Wraines of Norway, the Welches proved what other scientists had only guessed at. Instead of taking a circular route back to their breeding grounds in Russia and Europe, birds of prey take the route they used on their way down.

Hilary Welch, a graphic designer interested in the conservation of birds and general wildlife and her husband Geoff, the site manager of the Minsmere nature reserve in Britain who also works for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), made 7 visits to Djibouti between 1984 and 1993 to monitor the migration of birds of prey.
The couple’s work there shows that the birds come through the Arabian Peninsula, enter Africa via Yemen and across the Bab Al-Mandab straits. “In the Autumn, we recorded almost a quarter of a million birds of prey entering Africa. Nobody has ever proven that those birds go back across Bab Al-Mandab in the Spring.

The exciting thing is about two main species – the Egyptian vulture and the booted eagle. In the Spring, there are virtually no places were these species occur in large numbers. “The numbers we have found in Yemen suggest that there must be quite large populations of these two species somewhere in East Europe and Russia, which are yet to be discovered,” said Geoff. “We hope very much that in the future it would be possible to come back to Yemen and have a longer period of counting birds at Bab Al-Mandab to try and get a better idea of how many birds go through that region,” commented Hilary.

Those coming down are about 250,000, so in theory there should be as many birds going back in the Spring. This makes Yemen a very important region to monitor these birds. Eagles, vultures, and buzzards rely on rising hot air – thermals – to travel long distances without using much energy. Thermals only occur over land. So when something like an eagle comes over a big stretch of water it finds it very difficult to cross. “So a place like Bab Al-Mandab, where the water passage is very narrow, is an ideal area for them to cross. That is why they are so concentrated there,” explained Geoff.

Hilary enthusiastically said: “From a birds watcher’s point of view, it is very spectacular to see these big birds in big numbers. Also you can do a long-term systematic count to get some indication of how big the population is. It is the first step of what we hope will be a major project in the future.”

Yemen’s geographical position at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula is the ideal place for the birds to gather so that they can cross safely to Africa. They fly in the day and roost in the night. By 8 or 9 o’clock in the following morning, the hot air is rising so they rise and carry on with their journey. “Watching the migration is a very good tool to get people interested in the wonders of the natural world. In Yemen there are so many birds that come through so it is a fantastic opportunity to monitor these birds of prey,” Geoff pointed out. The couple recorded 26 species of migrating raptors in Djibouti. Some start their journey earlier in the season and others start late.
The interesting thing about birds of prey, since they are on top of the food chain, is that if there are problems with pesticides or changes in the environment, one may be able to detect those by monitoring the numbers of the birds of prey. This may give an indication that there is something wrong in the breeding or wintering grounds.

Since Bab Al-Mandab is an off limit, military area, David Stanton spent several months obtaining what was thought to be the correct permission to enter the area, but the group ended up with losing two days with telephone calls and trips before the army would let them in. “Despite assurances from the proper authorities, the couple’s mission was thwarted at every turn,” complained David, adding, “considerable expenses were incurred which under normal circumstances would be considered unnecessary.”
“The other frustration is that the army said we can only stay in one spot. We think because of the wind many birds are probably on the other side of the peninsula. Ideally a full count would require 3 months,” indicated Geoff.
Bald Ibis, Again!

Geoff and Hilary Welch are also interested in the Bald Ibis. Old records from Yemen indicated that the bird is indigenous to this region. As recently as 1994, records stated that 4 or 5 birds were seen wintering in Taiz. “Together with Roy Wraines, who has travelled around the mountains looking for the Bald Ibis, we also went to an Ibis site near Lauder where a shepherd told us he still sees Bald Ibis most years, but only for about a week in the late Summer,” the couple said . There may still be a population somewhere in Yemen where they breed. The YOS, through Yemen Times, has set a reward of YR 25,000 for anyone spotting a nesting Bald Ibis without interfering with its habitat.
It remains to note that the Welch trip was sponsored by the British Council, Universal for Travel and Tourism and the YOS.