The UAE is home to an amazing wealth of wildlife, and David Williams dons his binoculars to focus on the bird population
When the 400th species of bird was spotted in the United Arab Emirates earlier this year, it sent ripples through the local press but triggered interest of tidal wave proportions in the world of bird watching.
To the keen fancier of our feathered friends it announced the country's arrival as a serious ornithological hotspot. The UAE's location at the east-west crossroads has always provided an ideal stop-over for the world's weary birds conducting punishing hibernation trips, but the greenification of the cities, coupled with the government's superb commitment to creating habitats, is encouraging more and more birds to call the country home.
Waders, warblers, sea-birds and birds of prey can be found in plentiful supply throughout the UAE's plethora of diverse countryside. From the lush green golf courses and parks of Dubai to the mud flats and mountains of the east coast, the length and breadth of the UAE provides a perfect location for migrating or breeding birds.
The UAE has expanded its collection of birds to become the GCC's most populous birding nation, and bird watching holidays are actively being promoted across the world. Twitchers from Europe and beyond are told to expect to see at least 190 species during a two-week holiday, including the possibility of viewing five endangered species - forruginous Pochard, Greater Spotted Eagle, Imperial Eagle, Lesser Kestrel and the Pallas's Fish-Eagle - which are fighting back thanks to the UAE's helping hand.
Official sightings of new birds are being recorded with increased frequency, and among the books written on the subject is "The Birds of the United Arab Emirates" by UAE Bird Recorder Colin Richardson. The high temperatures of the summer months produce somewhat of a dearth of bird life from June- August, but the visitors return by their hundreds of thousands. At any time during the migration periods of September-November and March-May, over 250,000 waders alone can be viewed on the intertidal areas of the Gulf Coast. Of the 400 species recorded in total, more than 50 families of bird have been ticked off. Wader watchers are in their element in the northern Emirates where a visit to one of the three major wetlands on the Gulf coast should produce an exciting abundance of palearctic shorebirds.
The sheltered tidal lagoon at Khor Dubai, 50 hectares of tidal mud flats located within Dubai's city limits, holds over 50,000 birds at any one time during the winter season. Internationally important for its large migrant flocks of Lesser Sand Plovers (up to 3,000 counted in winter) and Broad-billed Sandpipers (up to 4,000 can occur in autumn), it also supports significant numbers of Kentish Plover (up to 3,500 in winter, with a large proportion resident).
The most attractive species include Great White Egret, Spoonbill, Greater Flamingo, Marsh Harrier, Spotted Eagle, Osprey and Caspian Tern. The area can be viewed from around the perimeter adjacent to the main roads to Hatta and Al Ain. This site has been declared a Wildlife Sanctuary (the country's only one so far) by Dubai's Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, whose interest in the high numbers of Greater Flamingos occurring throughout the year encouraged him to build a breeding island in the centre of the lagoon.
The area is patrolled by the police to prevent disturbance to the birds and watchers have been asked to leave in the past. The police force's instruction is to remove intruders not bird watchers, and once they see and understand you are simply watching the birds, you will be left alone, although passes can be obtained from Nad al Sheba police station just to be sure.
Further up the coast in Umm al Quwain, an even bigger expanse of mud flats at Khor al Beidah hosts the country's largest wintering flock of Crab Plover (up to 500 birds between September and February), often in the company of the even rarer Great Knot, which until recently was believed to winter only in the Far East and Australasia. These two species are good crowd-pullers for attracting visiting bird watchers. The extensive khor is also a favoured site of Greater Sand Plover, Whimbrel and Terek Sandpiper.
The complex of sheltered intertidal mud flats, islands and mangroves is bounded inland by sabkha (salt flats) and rolling dunes, which host several breeding species of larks, including Black-crowned Finch, Lesser Short-toed and Hoopoe Lark. In winter, Isabelline and Desert Wheatear, Desert Warbler and Tawny Pipit are common. Access to this remote area is by several unofficial dirt tracks.
The spectacular lagoon at Al Jazeerah Khor, south of Ras al Khaimah, where the Arabian Gulf is guarded on the land side by a high bank of red sand dunes from where the observer can get a wonderful view of the mud flats and its bird population.
But the northern Emirates are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to birding in the UAE. The East Coast beaches and mangroves are a hive of activity with the stunning scenery attracting scores of birds.
At Khor Kalba on the border with the Sultanate of Oman, is situated the country's (and possibly Arabia's) oldest forest of black mangrove Avicennia marina.
This area, one of the jewels in the itinerary of visiting naturalists, hosts, amongst other creatures, an endemic sub-species of White-collared Kingfisher. At certain times of the year, turtles (green, loggerback and hawksbill ) may enter the khor to feed, while the nearby coastline is favoured by eight species of tern and six species of gull, which roost on the black sandy beach or feed on dead fish lying discarded on the beach. The mangroves are alive with the calls of Clamorous Reed Warblers, Booted Warblers and Purple Sunbirds for most of the year, while Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters roost in spectacular numbers in autumn.
The mud flats are teeming with small crabs, the staple diet of several species, including the White-collared Kingfisher and occasionally Crab Plover, Greater Sand Plover and Whimbrel.
The remainder of the eastern coastline teems with gulls, terns and skuas, plus, at the northern end, the occasional Audubon's Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-Petrel or a 'skein' of Socotra Cormorants. Sooty Falcons are regular migrants along there, where the Hajar Mountains form a spectacular backdrop. A variety of birds of prey call this their hunting ground, including Lappet-faced and Griffon Vulture, Bonelli's, Spotted and Short-toed Eagle adjacent to the dark, apparently featureless hills.
A visit to Arabia would not be complete without a trip into the desert, and bird watching is no different. Most visitors are intrigued by the giant sand dunes, reached after less than a 30 minute drive from Dubai.
The red sand dunes in the northern Emirates (the most dramatic are found on the Dubai to Hatta road) are small compared to those found further south in the Empty Quarter, but are always worth exploring for signs of life. The most common bird resident is the Hoopoe Lark, while in winter small areas of scrub are likely to attract Desert Wheatear and Desert Warbler. The unique stands of ghaf trees (Prosopis cinerarea) characterise the UAE desert and provide a magnet for birds, the most common resident being Great Grey Shrike. During the cool season the trees attract several species of Sylvia warbler (Orphean and Menetries' Warbler and Desert Lesser Whitethroat), while in summer they provide nest sites for Yellow-throated Sparrows.
Qarn Nazwa: Qarn means a 'horn' of rock; in this case a limestone outcrop set in the middle of an expanse of red sand dunes half way between Dubai and Hatta. The outcrop is undeveloped and remains dramatic in appearance in spite of some old quarrying and two roads which dissect the site so providing convenient viewing for the site's well-watched Eagle Owls. The area is important for several rare migrant birds, including Eastern Pied and Red-tailed Wheatear and Hume's Lesser Whitethroat. The caves and cracks in the rock surface support a good vertebrate fauna including red fox and free-tailed bat. The site is fenced from the Dubai-Hatta main road, although easy unrestricted access is available from the road to Margham which branches off here.
The area around the mountain village of Masafi, which lies at an altitude of 600 metres, has a number of sites worth visiting, particularly on the road to Dibba, which passes through a range of pale foothills and on to Tayibah plain. The region is quite unspoilt away from the towns and there are lots of wadis to explore. Shale foothills divided by gravel plains with scattered Acacia and Zizyphus trees are set amidst a dramatic mountain landscape comprising one of the most natural, unspoilt and beautiful environments in the UAE. Resident bird species include Bonelli's Eagle, Sand Partridge, Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse, Desert Lark, Hume's Wheatear (easily identified by contrasting black-and-white plumage) and House Bunting.
Red-tailed Wheatear, Desert Lesser Whitethroat and Plain Leaf Warbler are regular. Most of the mountains are best explored by four-wheel-drive vehicle since walking can be quite difficult. The mountains were formed by tectonic plate movement against the Indian subcontinent, and have volcanic origins deep beneath the seabed of the Gulf of Oman. These dark 'ophiolitic' mountains support resident Sand Partridge, Pale Crag Martin, Scrub Warbler and House Bunting, while Indian Roller, Yellow-vented Bulbul and Little Green Bee-eater are found in the shaded, more cultivated wadis. The key birds for bird watching visitors occur in winter and include species such as Eastern Pied & Red-tailed Wheatear, Desert Lesser Whitethroat and Plain Leaf Warbler.
A bird-watching visit to the Emirates is not complete without touring the numerous golf courses, city parks and agricultural areas. Recommended are the Emirates golf course (where special permission is required), Safa Park and the grass fields around Digdaga and Hamraniyah, south of Ras al Khaimah. In addition there are a number of other sites, less known for their beauty, though teeming with bird life. These include Ramtha (sewage) lagoons, a place which holds the country's greatest variety of wetland species.
One of the most audacious efforts by the authorities of the UAE to attract more bird life to the Emirates can be seen at Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, which is fondly nicknamed Arabia's Ark. Throughout history this fascinating island has offered challenges and opportunities for those who chose to make it their home. For the people of the Bani Yas tribal confederation, after whom the island is named, it offered a refuge and staging post, with a safe anchorage, good fishing and the prized Gulf pearling beds nearby.
Today the island is part of an unusual environmental and biological experiment. Initially, the UAE's Ruler, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, chose Sir Bani Yas as a place to spend time with his family, following an age old Bedouin tradition that took advantage of the sea-breezes during the hot summer weather.
A love of wildlife and nature led Sheikh Zayed to the idea of sharing his island with endangered Arabian species such as sand gazelle and oryx. Little by little, year by year, he developed the island into a special reserve where wildlife holds pride of place and where visitors are able to gain a taste of how it must have been thousands of years ago, when this landscape resembled the savannahs of Africa and shared many species with its neighbouring continent. One experiment of wildlife management that visitors are not encouraged to observe is a breeding pen for houbara, members of the bustard family.
These birds need to be left strictly alone if they are to have any chance to breed successfully under wild conditions, and a large area close to the coast has been set aside just for that purpose. This island bird sanctuary is only part of the many efforts by Sheikh Zayed and his family to revive the population of the houbara in the wild. At the National Avian Research Centre (NARC) at Sweihan on the mainland, a highly scientific approach is taken to captive breeding, while NARC scientists are also studying the migration and breeding patterns of the houbara.
Sir Bani Yas's other birds are also impressive inhabitants of this Arabian ark. Whilst Arabia's native sub-species of ostrich is sadly extinct, a captive population of closely related African ostrich is now breeding on the island. Meanwhile, successful breeding of two other flightless birds, the rhea and the emu is raising the question of what to do with the rapidly increasing flocks. Another introduced bird, but one which now breeds in the wild on Sir Bani Yas, is the Egyptian goose, whose adults, with goslings in tow, can be seen alongside the mangrove channel close to the main residential area. Other introductions include the ground nesting grey francolin, black francolin, see see and chukar partridge. Some other free-flying species that have begun to breed include the African crowned crane, helmeted guineafowl, and possibly also the common pheasant.
The success of Sir Bani Yas as a nature reserve is further underlined by the number of wild bird species that made it a temporary or permanent home. Details of sightings of around 170 species are now kept in the files of the Emirates Bird Records Committee. Among these, a popular favourite is the greater flamingo, also known as the pink flamingo, which can be seen in shallow intertidal lagoons, protected by mangrove bushes, or at the artificial 'bird lake' where they can gather in dense flocks of over a hundred individuals.