Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Nature of the Desert: Birds

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Flamingoes are non-territorial.

People often think the desert is devoid of wildlife, but it’s not true. Where there is water there is life, and in the Arabian Desert, just like in Nevada’s desert rivers, the greatest concentration of species is where the water is: the reefs, mudflats, mangroves, wadis (intermittent streams,) and oases. Not surprisingly, birds from all over Africa, Asia, and Europe make use of these food-rich environments as migratory stopovers and breeding grounds.
This Place is a Dump! - Al Wathba Wetland Preserve

In February I had the great opportunity to join the Emirates Natural History Group touring the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, which is not open to the general public except for specially organized school and other educational tours. This outing is organized about once a year by Dana and Deb’s upstairs neighbor Oscar, who is a high school science teacher at the British school as well as a birder. Oscar threw a party the weekend before the outing, so I was lucky to meet him just in time to get invited to tag along.
I rode with Oscar and his friend and fellow birder Dave who drove down from Dubai to help out with the tour. Before we met the rest of the group at the preserve, we were stopping off to look at some gulls in a location right next to the preserve. “My girlfriend Gilly doesn’t usually come along on these trips,” Oscar said as he warned me about where we were going. “She doesn’t find this place very salubrious.” “Oh, I get it,” I said.
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Gulls love refuse sites.

If you think the place in these photos looks like a dump, you’re right. It is the dump! In my mind, it’s one of Earth’s great ironies that our garbage dumps and cesspools, which are places we avoid if possible, are so attractive to wildlife. Yet think about it: standing water and refuse breeds bugs which means lots of food, with no people and no pets to bother them. For some reason, birds don’t seem to be bothered much by heavy equipment moving around, either. I noticed this in my last job working on The Nature Conservancy’s ranch in Nevada.
Dave and Oscar are world-class birders.

The two birders set up their scopes. To me the gulls all looked alike, and before long I was gazing at the nearby workers’ housing, thinking about their lives and wondering what it would be like to be a fly on the wall – and that there are probably lots of them.

Which one of these is not like the others?

After a while, I noticed that Oscar and Dave were talking about one bird which was a different species than the others. “It’s just to the left of the cement block,” Dave said. I looked through my binoculars and, sure enough, I saw one bird that had a different beak, more yellow and bulbous, which I described. “That’s pretty good,” Oscar said. I may never be able to call myself a birder, but I have learned a few things from my birding friends in Nevada.

Al Wathba Wetland Sanctuary is home to 250 species of birds.

Al Wathba is a natural wetland into which treated effluent from the wastewater treatment plan is released. Many people are disgusted at the idea of coming in contact with reclaimed water, but it’s quite safe. This type of wetland is becoming more and more common as municipalities are developing better ways of treating wastewater, including tertiary treatment using biological agents. Harmful bacteria is removed from the water and, in fact, we could safely drink it.

Unfortunately for the birds, this process doesn’t remove certain chemicals that are byproducts of humans, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products. Although they haven’t been found to be present in amounts that harm humans, they work like DDT in that these chemicals interfere with certain birds’ ability to breed by causing their egg shells to become too weak for the parent to sit on without breaking. Sad. So, don’t flush your old pills down the toilet! Check on the internet for the best way to dispose of them in your area.

Al Wathba Wetland Reserve
The wildlife center, where they rescue exotic pets, will be featured in an upcoming story.

Declared a protected area in 1998 by the late President of the UAE Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan , Al Wathba provides habitat for 232 species of birds in a 5 square kilometer area. Because the underlying land includes layers of buried salt which doesn’t compress but instead pushes up to the surface, the water is very salty, but it still supports enough small fish and insects for the birds to feed on.

Since we had a dozen or more people, we split into two groups and I went to the blind with the first group. This was my first opportunity to see the Greater Flamingo and watch its behavior. Such graceful elegance! I love spending quiet time in a bird blind with other people, looking through binoculars or a scope, talking in hushed tones. It’s relaxing, and I recommend it if you have the chance, but you must be quiet.

Dave, left, never stopped looking for birds for us.

Next we went for a short walk out on the preserve, and I had a chance to chat with some other people. I was talking with a woman whose husband was in the group as well, a very tall guy. As she was telling me a few details about them a funny, déjà vu feeling came over me, and I realized I had met her lanky husband before. I went over to him and the light bulb lit up for us both. In fact it was Steve, the guy who gave me the “Quiet Please” sign at the PGA tournament at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club. We hadn’t recognized each other because we were wearing different hats. What a coincidence! This town is already getting small to us.

Quiet Please 2

I mentioned that my friend Lucy is his neighbor – did he remember her?
“How could I forget?” he said, spreading out his long arms.

It's so great, how kids like Ella love to learn.

There was one child in the other group, a girl of nine or ten named Ella. As we approached her group, she exclaimed, “We saw a Bluethroat!” and showed us a photo in her field guide. This bird is very shy and hard to spot. Experienced birders will recognize its call before they see it. I asked which school she goes to, and her mom told me American Community School. I loved seeing Ella paging through her field guide, identifying birds. In fact, I think Ella’s and her mom’s enthusiasm for nature and ACS convinced me to sign up to sub there, and a few weeks later I met Ella again, as her substitute music teacher.

Ibis have a distictive profile.

  Our two groups joined up for the beautiful Arabian sunset and we were treated to the arrival of a flock of ibis, which is one of my favorite birds in Nevada. As we left, we noticed some workers (referred to here as “bachelors” because they are single or married men living here without their families) walking into the preserve. Oscar noted that although the property is officially closed to the public, sometimes the locals come inside. Good for them, I thought, that they come and enjoy this beauty. I just hope they don’t leave trash behind.
A golden Arabian sunset.

Hiding in Plain Sight - Ras Al Khor Nature Preserve
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The blinds at Ras Al Khor are equipped with
scopes, binoculars, and an attendant
 to make sure you sign the guest book.

Mark and I drove by this preserve on our way through Dubai in February before I knew anything about it, on the way home from our first camping trip with Abdul. That would have been a perfect day to visit, as we saw thousands of flamingoes against a clear city backdrop that included the Burj Khalifa.

But we didn’t stop, so finally in mid-April Terry, Lucy and I made our way there, inspired by a news story in The National which Terry and I had both read, and simultaneously realized that we needed to get there as soon as possible. Many of the birds move on when the weather gets hot.

Ras Al Khor is a wildlife oasis in the midst of Dubai's swirling urban sprawl. Its name means "Cape of the Creek," and the intertidal wetlands, mudflats and mangroves support 250 species of birds.

The tide was low while we were there, but water was flowing in through a culvert, and in a few hours the wetland would look very different. This makes it worthwhile to visit several times, during different tidal phases as well as different seasons.
Ras Al Khor
Dubai Creek has been used for transportation the earliest days.

The preserve is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. We arrived when it opened, so we could see as many birds as possible before the daytime heat set in. We visited blinds in two locations where you just pull off the freeway, park, and walk on an enclosed boardwalk into the blind. As usual, luck was with us. Just after we arrived at the first blind, it was morning feeding time for the flamingoes.
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The birds knew it was
feeding time before
we did.

While most preserves don’t feed wildlife Ras Al Khor does, to encourage the Greater Flamingo population to breed in the preserve. We were mesmerized by the flamingoes and, to me, it’s interesting how they all crowd so closely together to feed –  they don’t bicker or fight over food.


Hundreds of flamingoes peacefully gather as a worker scatters food onto the water.

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The flamingoes were fabulous, but I loved seeing
the great variety of species at the second site.

After the feeding, we drove to the other blind. Of course, as is typical here in the UAE, we drove a circuitous route to get there, but once we were on the right road the pull-off was convenient.

There were flamingoes there, but we saw many other water birds as well: several species of heron and egret, sandpiper, stilt, tern, curlew, whimbrel, ducks and many, many more. I wish I had the kind of brain that could memorize the names and recognize more birds, but what's in a name? It's a treat just to see them in their habitat.

I know for sure that I will want to visit Ras Al Khor many more times. Mark will enjoy it; he likes birds. And it's a great antidote to the skyscrapers and malls, the freeways and rush of humanity that is Dubai.

Be sure to look at the two photo albums, below.

Thanks for reading, and remember to enjoy Mother Earth.

Coming up next: Abu Dhabi Wildlife Center - a rescue center for exotic species, and kayaking in the Eastern Mangroves.


For Birders: Here is Oscar's bird list for the day:

Species Code Number Location Date
Egyptian Goose 11 2 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Northern Shoveler 18 250 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Northern Pintail 19 15 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Eurasian Teal 21 20 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Little Grebe 34 25 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Black-necked Grebe 37 50 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Greater Flamingo 38 2000 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Glossy Ibis 42 7 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Cattle Egret 51 100 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Western Marsh Harrier 88 10 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Common Moorhen 113 4 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Black-winged Stilt 121 100 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Pied Avocet 122 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Red-wattled Lapwing 125 2 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
White-tailed Lapwing 127 5 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Grey Plover 130 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Common Ringed Plover 131 20 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Kentish Plover 134 70 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Common Snipe 144 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Spotted Redshank 149 2 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Common Redshank 150 25 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Marsh Sandpiper 151 20 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Common Greenshank 152 4 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Wood Sandpiper 155 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Little Stint 163 50 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Temminck's Stint 164 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Ruff 170 30 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Black-headed Gull 187 2500 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Barn Swallow 283 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Red-rumped Swallow 289 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Clamorous Reed Warbler 315 15 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Common Starling 354 4 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Bluethroat 367 2 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Yellow Wagtail 417 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
White Wagtail 426 50 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Masked Wagtail 427 1 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Water Pipit 437 6 Al Wathba Lake 4-Feb-12
Greater Flamingo 38 6 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Grey Heron 52 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Western Reef Heron 57 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Black-winged Stilt 121 25 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
White-tailed Lapwing 127 2 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Grey Plover 130 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Common Ringed Plover 131 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Kentish Plover 134 8 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Black-tailed Godwit 145 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Common Redshank 150 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Little Stint 163 5 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
[Steppe / Caspian Gull] 184.5 20 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Great Black-headed Gull 185 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Black-headed Gull 187 1500 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Mediterranean Gull 189 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Whiskered Tern 206 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
Citrine Wagtail 424 1 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12
White Wagtail 426 8 Mafraq Overflow Pools 4-Feb-12

Links to news and more information:
Emirates Natural History Group http://www.enhg.org/
For my San Francisco Bay Area friends near Martinez, check out the bird observation platform off of 680 near the Benicia Bridge approach, the dump, and the water treatment facility. http://www.mvsd.org/

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That's a lot of birds! I think I see most of those models on my way to work in California. That's cool to know I don't need to travel half way around the world to see and Egret, Avocet, Grebe, Stilt, Plover, or Gull. Got any Hawks? I have been enjoying seeing the Red Tail Hawks and White Tail Kite. They hunt a lot around Sonoma.