Hidden between the urban infrastructure of Dubai, lies the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. It is among the few urban protected areas in the world. Flamingos in the sanctuary attract lots of people throughtout the year, especially in the winter. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: For the past decade, the UAE has become a bird-watcher’s paradise with anincrease in the population of migratory birds that fly into the country across thousands of kilometres of a time-tested route to nest and breed.

Dr Reza Khan, a passionate bird-watcher, principal wildlife specialist at the Dubai Safari Public Parks and Recreational Department, spoke to Gulf News about the importance of migratory birds.

“In the past few years, there has been an abundance of the migratory avian population in the UAE. This is chiefly because of the very generous interventions by the eco-friendly, benevolent Rulers of the UAE. As a result of these interventions, the desert environment has been heavily enriched with plantations that are suitable for deserts, landscaping supporting the greenspace and hundreds of freshwater lakes that have finally started paying off with the arrival of thousands of migratory birds throughout the year.”

Dr Reza Khan
Dr Reza Khan Image Credit: Supplied

Chief migratory seasons

The migratory bird season in UAE begins in the winter, roughly beginning in November and continuing up to February. These are the winter migrants. There are three major groups in this category. The first category is that of water birds. This includes shorebirds, waders, waterfowls or wetland avian species such as ducks, geese, gulls, terns, plovers, sandpipers, snipes, godwits, curlews, whimbrel, sanderling, shanks, avocets, oystercatcher, Stints, dunlins, ibises, spoonbills, herons, egrets, cormorants and so on.

The next category includes birds of prey such as eagles, kites, falcons, vultures. Then there are Passerines or perching or songbirds such as the small bulbuls, warblers, shrikes, flycatchers, redstarts, wheat eaters, finches and buntings.

According to Dr Khan, although the main migratory season is during the winter months, there are some birds of prey and songbirds that also visit the UAE during autumn and spring and are called passage migrants. “Their stay in the UAE is short — may be a day to a few days or could even be just a day of rest on way to the East Coast of Africa, Central Africa and both-way journeys. Some populations of winter migrants use the passage for their journeys from the breeding grounds to the wintering grounds during autumn and spring.”

In the last decade, with increase in water bodies and green cover in the UAE, a fourth category of migratory birds also visit the country during the summer months. It is unbelievable, but the summer migrants or summer migrant breeders, brave the summer heat of 45 to 49 degrees Celsius. These are a handful of species, especially the European Turtle Dove and Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters. They come in a small flock of 100 to desert and breed here. They leave with grown-up chicks as sub-adults. They stay between May and September and move back to the countries from where they came — mainly from the northern parts of Iran and Central Asia, Dr Khan elaborated.

Water birds are the first category of winter migrants to the UAE Image Credit: Supplied

An environmental miracle

In the last few years, with regular cloud seeding, increasing green cover and addition of water bodies, at least 50-100 new species of migratory birds have begun halting in the UAE. The eco system here has been adapting itself to more green landscapes and water bodies and has registered an increase in migratory birds with about 50-100 new species in the last few years.

According to the UAE bird checklist, in the 1990s, the UAE had some 300 species of birds, which has now gone up to 465. Also, many birds that used to just pass through the UAE or migrated through the country are now staying for longer periods and some even for the whole year. Many species of birds are breeding here, taking support from the man-made environment. This is a source of much delight to ornithologists, bird-lovers and residents.

Our eco-friendly avian warriors

Talking about why bird migration is such a significant event, UAE’s leading bird-lover Khalifa Al Daheri shared his insights on augmentation of species in the migratory bird population in the country.

Birds have a very important role to play in the fragile desert ecosystem of the country. Al Daheri said: “The migratory birds play an important role in striking the right balance in the fragile desert eco system. Many of these birds are scavengers. They not only prey on insects, but also clean up the deserts by feeding on animal carcasses. They also play a role in pollination and cross-pollination of flowers across and plants across the country.”

Al Daheri continued: “Some of the migratory water birds such as flamingos, cormorants, herons are natural cleaners of water bodies. Birds in the coastal areas, all waders, eat seafood and within every three to six hours pass stool rich in urea that fertilises the water instantly and their faeces become food for microscopic animals too.”

Bonelli's Eagle-1 in A Marmoom DCR Pivot Field 8 November 2020-1644642463246
Some birds of prey, such as this Bonelli's Eagle, are also guests of the UAE Image Credit: Supplied

Contributing to the rich biodiversity

Dr Khan listed some more important contributions of migratory birds. “Traditionally, migratory birds do not belong to any one particular country. They are part and parcel of the ecosystems of all the countries lying in the flight pathways of all migratory species. Many of these avian creatures are both a predator and prey. The predators usually feed on weak individuals or dead and dying ones. Migratory vultures are solely responsible to clean the dead camels, livestock and gazelles from the desert environment.

They enrich the environment by their presence as they utilise the additional food produced in all man-made ecosystems in the desert and other areas. They are an integral part of the regional and world biodiversity and natural heritage.”

Time-tested flight paths

Birds have been flying the routes for generations and the flight paths are embedded in their collective avian memory or integrated into their DNA.

Enumerating the major bird flyways, Dr Khan said: “As per the avian flyway route maps, the Arabian Peninsula falls under the West Asia-East Africa bird flyway. There are others such as the Black Sea-Mediterranean flyways. So, migratory shorebirds or waders mostly fly from Europe and Central Asia to the UAE. Some do come from Siberia. All other migratory birds that come to the UAE basically follow the East Africa-East Asia flyway. Most land birds do not cross the Arabian Gulf to reach the UAE and other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. They follow the land route through northwest of Arabia to the UAE. Some wetland birds like the ducks, gulls, godwits, terns, curlews, stints, etc. do not mind crossing the Arabian Gulf.

The birds flying in from exotic shores are involved in an exquisite cosmic dance that provides us a delightful reason to watch the feathered friends such as the beautiful mynahs, robins, warblers, egrets’ herons as wells as the famous pink flamingos that have made their homes in Dubai Creek.

Glossy Ibis- Dubai Safari 1-1644642442869
Glossy Ibis

Pink flamingos turning natives

The majestic flamingos are the star attractions of Dubai in the winter. If you are driving past the Ras Al Khor Creek, Dubai, it is impossible to miss these large, colourful birds with very long necks and lanky legs and funny large, down-curved bills that are suitable for filtering algae and microscopic animals or zooplanktons.

Interestingly, the flamingo get their pink hue by eating brine shrimps and krill or zooplanktons, blue-green and red algae that provide the Beta carotene needed to get the pink over the body.

How flamingos find their meal

Bird-watchers can see these graceful long–legged birds dip their bills into the surface of the water and move from side to side when skimming the tiny food items from the water or muddy bottom, from shallow pools. Sometimes the birds move their feet over the bottom to stir up the bottom ooze and disturb the tiny creatures that their bills can then easily trap.

The flamingo population has a wide distribution across major parts of the world as it is found in found in Africa, Asia and Europe. Flamingos in Ras Al Khor usually come from the lakes in Northern Iran, Turkey and Central Asia.

Long-time guests of UAE

Dr Khan disclosed an important detail about Dubai’s flamingos. “An interesting fact that few people know about Flamingos is that from 1989 to 1996, during the summer, there would be just 60 to 70 flamingos at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. But once the mangrove saplings were planted and the area was declared a sanctuary with the benevolent Dubai Rulers providing food for the birds, their population began to grow. Nutrition that was provided to flamingos was not just the subsistence variety, but included many other birds in the Creek as well as the fish and invertebrates.

Flamingos at Ras Al Khor Image Credit: Supplied

Slowly, the flamingos adapted to the Creek ecosystem and from less than a hundred in the 1990s, their population grew to more than a thousand by early 2000s. Now, even in the summer heat, we have more than 1,500 flamingos at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary and they receive food twice a day 365 days a year!”

Conservation of the bird population

UAE residents can greatly help in conserving this precious avian wildlife bounty by following a few precautionary steps, say bird-lovers of UAE. Following are some useful tips:

• Migratory birds come here attracted to the natural habitats and man-made eco features. They are using these routes for generations and they know almost every bit of the territory like the back of their palm. So, we as residents of the UAE, must take care not to feed the migratory birds any junk food such as chips, burgers, etc.

• People who have some open space outside their homes can place mealworms, laboratory or home-bred crickets, grasshoppers to provide meal to the migratory birds.

• Others who may not have space, can pit these near bushes or bird-feeders so that migratory passerine birds can enjoy free meals of good food.

• Never indulge in shooting the birds or harming them. We must remember that each species, big or small, is a part of the intricate global ecosystem where if one species or its population in a country is harmed, it can have domino effect of devastation on the food chain of other migratory and resident birds and other animals living in and along the migratory paths.