Middle East
16 Oct 2016

Birds of the Arabian Night

The pharaoh eagle-owl (Bubo ascalaphus)  ©Faisal Hajwal
The pharaoh eagle-owl (Bubo ascalaphus) ©Faisal Hajwal
By Faisal Hajwal
When the Sun begins to set on the Middle East, the majority of the region’s birdlife settle down to roost for the night. Yet for others, the day is just beginning. We are of course talking about owls – those nocturnal birds of prey that bewitch us with their secrets and unusual behaviours.
 
We are all surely all familiar with owls; this large and distinctive order of around 234 species spreads its wings across the world, and can be found on every continent except for Antarctica.  Despite the existence of such an enormous number of species, the Arabian Peninsula is host to a relatively small number of owls that are considered either resident, transient or migrant. 
 
Nonetheless, these charismatic birds have left their mark on the psyche of the region. In some Middle Eastern cultures, owls are often associated with death and ruin, and are said to represent the souls of those who have died unavenged. For this reason, owls are often considered bad luck in this part of the world, but this perception may be changing, particularly among the region’s farmers. Incredibly effective predators who are specially adapted for night hunting, owls offer great environmental services for humans, reducing the population growth of rodents and helping to maintain an ecological balance.
 
Because owls are generally active at night, they have a highly developed hearing system and extraordinary night vision. The forward facing aspect of the eyes gives the owl its "wise" appearance, but also more practically gives it tremendous depth perception. Additionally, their eyes are very efficient at collecting and processing light, allowing it to hunt effectively in dark conditions.  In addition to that, owls have specialized feathers that enable near-silent flight by altering air turbulence and absorbing noise.
 
Silver tetradrachm coin depicting the owl of Athena (circa 480–420 BC)
 
Owl size and weight varies greatly among owl species, with the Great Grey Owl, which is considered the largest species of owl, weighing up to approximately 3 kg with a length reaching up to 76 cm. Other species are very small, with a length that does not exceed 14 cm and weigh 40 g. Although the Arabian Peninsula isn’t typically considered an owl hotspot, these stunning images show that the few species that do make the region their home perfectly illustrate the variety and charisma of this iconic bird family.
 
Pharaoh Eagle Owl (Bubo ascalaphus)
Pharaoh Eagle Owl by Faisal Hajwal
 
This striking species, with its eyes as orange as the richest sand dune, is found across most of the Peninsula and in particular the east coast. Also known as the Eagle or Pharaonic Owl, it is the largest species in the area. Its size is about 68 cm, with a wingspan reaching up to 147 cm. It lives in desert environments and use rocky formations cavities as a nest.
 
 
Barn Owl by Bandar Al-Jaber
 
Resident throughout the year and considered the most common species in the region. It is medium-sized with a length reaching 35 cm, and 89 cm wing span. It is easily distinguishable from the rest of other species, with its heart-shaped face and piercing black eyes. True to its name, it likes to nests in abandoned buildings, especially ceilings and concrete gaps. It feeds primarily on small birds.
 
Pallid Scops Owl (Otus brucei)
 
Pallid Scops Owl by Taqi Al Talaq
 
A rare resident, known in Arabic as the Striped Trees Owl. Small, with a length not exceeding 20 cm and 50 cm wing span. It is a resident to the eastern regions of the Peninsula; however, it is not common. It nests in tree holes, often in arid foothills and rocky gorges, but can be found in urban gardens, too. According to our research there is no certain record for its breeding time. In winter, it migrates to the north-western regions of the Indian subcontinent.
 
Eurasian Scops Owl (Otus scops)
 
Eurasian Scops Owl by Ahmad Rajab
 
A migrant that is resident in several countries and regions such as northern India, northern Iran, Turkey and the Mediterranean basin. It migrates in winter to Africa, its route running across the peninsula. It is significantly exposed to hunting during the season of migration.
 
Little Owl  (Athene noctua)
 
Little Owl by Sheikh Mohammed Al Thani
 
Uncommon resident, also known as the small owl or the ringed owl. It reaches 22 cm in length and is often seen in the daytime. Marked by rows of sand colour and a rounded head. It is recorded breeding in most of the Gulf States. It is a widespread species, with a range that spreads from the UK to Eastern China, but the subspecies Athene noctua lilith, which is a softer sandy colour, is found only in this region.
 
Short-eared Owl (Asio flammeus)
 
Short-eared Owl by Mohammad Al-Khulaifi
 
A rare winter visitor, also known as the Short-Eared owl or the Deaf Owl. Length may reach up to 38 cm. It has been recorded in most of the Gulf States but in low numbers. It prefers open, marshy countryside, where it is active both day and night, flying a few feet above ground and often hovering over prey before pouncing.
 
Long-eared Owl (Asio otus
 
Long-eared Owl by Mohammad Al-Moshwah
 
Its size is similar to its shorter-eared cousin, with a length that reaches up 36 cm. This agile predator prefers to roost in woodland, stretching its wings and body to disguise itself as a tree branch. Its migration route does not pass the Arabian Peninsula region, with very few observations in some Gulf countries, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia.