Every morning around half past nine is happy hour at the creek.
Hundreds of flamingoes gather at several feeding stations spread
around the edges of the mudflats to get their portion of the designer
food made for them by the Zabeel feed plant.
The flamingoes of Khor Dubai have a special place in the hearts
of all Dubai residents. We all feel privileged to be able to see
the graceful birds as we drive by on the emirate's highways. Seeing
the large flocks of waders at the Khor Dubai Nature Reserve reminds
us that there is more to life than making money and getting somewhere
This morning I have the plesure of seeing the birds up close -
an opportunity arranged for me by the person responsible for the
management of the Khor Dubai nature reserve, Kevin Hyland. I joined
on of his workers in his pickup to drive down to the jetty that
is one of the feeding stations. The birds are used to this car and
are not at all disturbed at our approach. The keeper unloads three
large bags of the flamingo pellets. It is meant to be a supplement
to the natural food that the birds extract from the waters of the
The birds crowd around, eager to snatch as much of the food as they
can. It is interesting to watch them feed, with their heads upside
down, filtering the water through sieve-like holes in their upper
beak. I notice that these birds are mostly white, with only some
pink and black feathers on the wings. Kevin explains that since
this is the height of the breeding season, the pink-plumaged mature
breeding birds are all at their nesting sites in Iran. Flamingoes
migrate over quite large distances in their long life. Recently
a flamingo that was ringed in the Camarque in France was found in
Africa - forty years later!
The keeper has been trained well - I notice that he carefully tucks
away the string that bound the sacks and that the empty sacks are
weighed down by a rock until they are gathered to be taken back
in the truck so that they cannot be blown away by the wind.
Garbage - the bane of the Emirates - can do immense harm to wildlife.
Birds get entangled in wire and rope, beaks are closed permanently
if they are accidentally inserted into a flip-top opener of a beverage
can and chemicals can poison any wildlife.While Kevin drives me
around the perimeter of the reserve we talk about its development
over the years.
Dubai creek has been a protected area for many years now. The first
signs restricting recreational activities along the top of the creek
went up in the mid-eighties. Then a boom was placed across the creek
just beyond the water skiing club to prevent boats and skiers from
entering the sensitive area preferred by wildlife. Now a fence is
being erected to give even more protection to the thousands of birds
that visit, feed and breed in the reserve.
In years past, I used to walk along the edge of the creek every
day of the week. It was a wonderful place to get away from the hustle
and bustle of the city, to breathe some clean air and feast your
eyes on the sparkling blue water and the many species of birds going
about their business on or near the water. Walks like this are no
longer possible. The disturbance caused by fishermen, bathers, skiers
and speedboat drivers spoiled the fun for the less intrusive pedestrians
and bird watchers. The area is now off limits for everyone except
those with special permits. But if that means that the birds have
a better chance to survive and prosper, then it is a good thing.
Dubai creek is famous among bird watchers. During the migration
months (September-October and February-March) many thousands of
wading birds spend some time on its peaceful waters. At any time
in the winter months many tens of thousands of birds can be observed
on the inter-tidal flats, depending on which group of migrating
birds arrives on their way through. At times the numbers reach about
sixty birds per hectare, a higher count than found anywhere else
in the world.
Over 150 species of birds have been recorded within the area of
the sanctuary. Huge flocks of gulls visit the waters of the creek,
while spoonbills, herons, plovers, dunlins, whimbrels, and countless
other waders can be observed mingling or staying in tight groups
together. All these birds feed on a rich invertebrate fauna, consisting
mainly of polychaete worms, molluscs and crabs. Also, large schools
of killi fish prosper in the brackish water and are enjoyed by the
The surrounding fields are home to some desert birds: Grey Francolins
(Francolinus pondicerianus), Crested Larks (Galerida cristata),
Marsh Harriers (Circus aeruginosus) and an occasional Desert Wheatear
(Oenanthe deserti). Sometimes Grey Herons (Ardea cinerea) stand
on the field between the shrubs, or Red-wattled plovers (Hoplopterus
indicus) with their startling "did-he-do-it" cries are
Kentish Plovers (Charadrius alexandrius) breed on open stretches
of rubble, well nigh invisible with their mottled plumage. When
Kevin pointed out one of these camouflaged nesting birds to me,
I remarked that I had once seen a baby plover - the cutest little
fluffy pingpong ball on small stilts - run for cover among the bushes.
He answered: "I always think they look like marshmallows with
Spotted Eagles (Aquila clanga) and occasionally falcons have also
been observed, while the sanctuary signs along the creek shore are
often the perch for a Fish Eagle or Osprey (Pandion haliaetus).
Kevin pointed out that a few artificial platforms have been constructed
to encourage ospreys to build a nest. They have shown interest in
these platforms as a lookout perch, but so far no nesting has taken
On one side of the area a mud dam has been constructed to retain
water in a semi-artificial pond, where the birds can stay even if
the tide is out. As we drive along this pond, we notice some municipality
workers on the far side, standing in the water. Undoubtedly this
is a disturbance to the birds, so we drive around and along the
mud dam to investigate what they are doing there. It turns out that
they are from the Pest control sections and that they have been
putting out rattraps among the mangroves. Apparently this muddy
work necessitated ablutions. The guys were told in no uncertain
terms that cleaning would have to be done elsewhere and not in the
middle of the nature reserve at the height of the breeding season!
Kevin's work is an ongoing effort to raise awareness of environmental
issues. It is an uphill struggle. For instance, the fence that is
being erected at the moment is very important. But the fence is
placed right along the edge of the high tide line, with only a few
meters, somewhere even only one meter, between the fence and the
water's edge. This not only reduces the area that the plovers need
for their nesting, it also allows people to come too close to the
water's edge, where at high tide the waders will be feeding. Enormous
amounts of construction rubble and garbage have been pushed within
the fenced area. A cleaning operation will be difficult and will
cause a lot of disturbance.
In the mid-nineties over 40,000 mangrove seedlings were planted
along the south shore and the top end of the creek. These mangroves
have grown up well and are now seeding themselves out all along
the northern shore as well. This "greening operation"
has changed the creek from a flat non-vegetated inter-tidal zone
to an evolving mangrove forest. Some trees are already three meters
high! On the one hand this is certainly pleasing to the human eye,
on the other hand it is bound to have affected the bird life of
the area. No environmental impact study was made before planting
the mangroves and at the time some bird watchers were quite concerned
about the effects of the planting. Some birds are bound to avoid
vegetation, others may enjoy it more. However, it seems advisable
to curb the spread of the mangroves to some extent in order to retain
the nature of the inter-tidal flats that make such a great habitat
for the resident and migratory wading birds.
Many years ago an island was built in the center of the creek and
nesting platforms were erected along the shore to encourage the
resident and visiting Greater flamingos (Phoenicopterus ruber) to
breed. The flock of flamingoes usually numbers between 1000 and
1400 individuals. So far breeding has not taken place here, in spite
of all the effort put into encouraging it.
A few years ago, flamingoes started nesting at the man-made al Ghar
lake in Abu Dhabi emirate. Several young hatched, causing great
excitement among bird-lovers as this was the first flamingo breeding
on the Arabian Peninsula in many decades. Unfortunately at that
time, publicity about the event caused unscrupulous people to visit
the site and rob and trample the nest and steal the young birds.
Since then, the site has become a protected area, off-limits for
the public. But the flamingoes have not bred there again.
It is wonderful that Dubai has such an important and beautiful
small nature reserve virtually in the heart of the city. Now that
the protection of the site is actually being implemented, the next
step that is needed is to arrange for limited access to the site
to see the birds in their natural habitat. Tourists and students
as well as scientists should be the target groups for such access.
Because we only respect what we know and we can only know what we
can see and learn about!
© 2002 Al Habtoor Group. All
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