Look: How UAE deserts turned into a winter wonderland for migratory birds

Over two million winged visitors arrive in the country every year and the numbers are rising steadily


Mazhar Farooqui

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Photo: Neeraj Murali
Photo: Neeraj Murali

Published: Fri 7 Oct 2022, 6:00 AM

Last updated: Sun 9 Oct 2022, 5:13 PM

Flamingos strut their stuff, their pink feathers contrasting starkly against the desert landscape as they wade through the waters with magical fluidity. A short distance away, hundreds of sparrow-sized birds with dagger-like bills are engaged in a feeding frenzy.

“Those are Little Stints stocking up fuel. They weigh under 25 grams, but are excellent long-distance migrants, having flown over 5,000 kilometres to reach here,” explains wildlife expert Dr Reza Khan as we pull up at Al Qudra Lake in Dubai.

Veritable paradise

As winter sets in, the manmade desert oasis in the expansive Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve becomes a veritable paradise for migratory birds.

From waders such as cattle egrets, herons and·flamingos, to freshwater birds like mallards, pintails and green-winged teals, they all flock to the 70 odd lakes here.

Here's the scene in one area of the reserve:

“We also get a lot of sea birds. Common species include gulls, terns and petrels, says Khan, who is also principal wildlife specialist at Dubai Safari Park

Birds of prey such as the eagles and harriers are not far behind,” he adds, pointing at a big vulture lazily circling in the morning sky.

“That’s a Lappet-faced vulture. With a wingspan measuring up to nine feet it is one of the largest vultures in the Arabian Peninsula although its major population lives in Africa.”

A lapette-faced vulture. Supplied photo
A lapette-faced vulture. Supplied photo

However, the species that outnumber other avian visitors are the warblers, flycatchers, bluethroat, nightingale, thrushes, stonechat, wagtails, buntings, pipits, larks, shrikes, martins, starlings, bee-eaters, finches, siskin and wheatears.

Passage migrants

Certain birds remain in the UAE throughout the winter while others stay for a day – often just a few hours, much like transit passengers.

“This explains why you may see thousands of godwits, Kentish plovers, stints and sandpipers in Dubai’s Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary or the Khor Al Baidah wetlands in Umm Al Quwain one day – but none the following day.

They might have already left for their final migratory destination, which is usually the Red Sea or Coastal East Africa. These birds are called passage migrants,” says Khan.

“Then there are summer migrants and breeders like the Eurasian Turtle Dove and the Blue cheeked bee-eater, which come here to breed during May-June only. They leave the country by September-October along with their chicks.”

Mohammad Ali Reza Khan, Conservation Specialist at the Al Marmoom desert conservatory area in Dubai. Photo by Neeraj Murali.
Mohammad Ali Reza Khan, Conservation Specialist at the Al Marmoom desert conservatory area in Dubai. Photo by Neeraj Murali.

The UAE welcomes nearly two million feathered friends every year, according to the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD), which runs a long-term conservation and monitoring programme to monitor migratory birds.

Over 260 species have been recorded so far at Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, which is the only site in the Arabian Gulf where the greater flamingo breeds regularly – an important indicator of EAD’s efforts in species conservation.

According to the UAE bird checklist, there were 300 species in the country in the early 90s. That number has now gone up, here are the latest figures:

Environment-friendly initiatives

Dr Khan attributes the rise to the environmental initiatives taken by the UAE rulers. “Their policies and management protocols have transformed desert lands into winter wonderlands for birds.

Increase in green cover, freshwater lakes, ponds, canals, fountains and fountains draw them like a magnet.”

Popular Emirati bird-watcher Khalifa Al Daheri says UAE is an ideal place for migratory birds as it lies in the middle of their flight route.

Twice a year, billions of birds migrate vast distances across the globe, migrating along broadly similar, well-established routes known as flyways.

Over 50 million use the East Asia-Australasia flyway yearly.

“We get birds from as far as the high arctic, Siberia, Europe and Asia, as well as some rare ones from America. They are everywhere, from the North and South to the far West in Silaa, to the East in Al Ain and Fujairah,” says Al Daheri.

Photo: Neeraj Murali.
Photo: Neeraj Murali.

Migratory birds aren’t just a visual spectacle. They play several critical and indispensable roles in the ecosystems by devouring insects and other organisms that affect the environment..

How birds navigate when they migrate

Around one in five of all the world’s bird species migrate.

It's easy to explain why they do that, but quite difficult to understand how they accomplish these marvellous feats.

Scientists believe birds use celestial cues to navigate, much like yesteryear sailors who used the sun and stars to guide themselves. Some species fly non-stop, while others make brief stop overs to rest and replenish.

Photo: Neeraj Murali
Photo: Neeraj Murali

In 2016, a little unassuming bird called the Artic tern smashed the record for the longest known migration, flying nearly 96,000 kilometres over the course of its monumental journey from its breeding area on an island off the coast of England to Antartica, and then back again.

Considered a vagrant species, the Artic tern has been spotted only five times over the past more than two decades.

Did you know?

Flamingos stand on one leg because it allows their joints to lock in a stable position without any muscle exertion, giving them more balance than when standing on two legs.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Top tip for bird watchers

  • The most important element is a sincere respect for the birds and their environment.
  • Basic bird watching equipment includes binoculars and a camera.


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