Sunday May 10 is World Migratory Bird Day, a UN-declared day of observance aimed at raising awareness of the need to protect migratory birds. Hundreds of species pass through the UAE en route to cooler climes, including those from Europe and Asia, and people who take the time to notice will see them in parks and open wastelands.
Birdwatching is truly a hobby for patient types, as we discovered when we spent the morning with Mark Smiles of UAE Birding, a group for enthusiasts created by Tommy Pedersen. A keen watcher since his youth in England, Mark has observed and photographed birds all over the world. Together we don our binoculars and head towards the ghaf trees in Al Mamzar Beach Park.
Mark is part of a small community of dedicated birdwatchers in the UAE who spend their weekends documenting avian activity in the region. He says now is a good time to get out and see the migrating species. ‘We come out looking for migrant breeding birds, so we should see redstarts – a small, sparrow-sized species with a bright red tail.’
This time of year is crucial for watchers Mark says. ‘The first two weeks of April is when we start to see white-throated robins in Dubai, and only in that window. The male is stunning. If we see one of those it will be a good morning.’
We keep our eyes peeled. In two hours around the park, we see the vibrant yellow wagtail, masked shrike, hepatic cuckoo and rufous-tailed rock thrush and others – 35 in total and far more than we expected.
‘In terms of resident species, you could see about 50 if you made the effort to travel around the country. In a year, if you were dedicated to spotting rare birds, you could see more than 300 species in a year in the UAE.
When he relocated to Dubai six years ago, he was able to connect with other like-minded hobbyists in the city through the UAE Birding forum. He explains that it’s a year-round hobby and that the warmer weather does not deter the dedicated watcher. ‘From mid-May you’ll start to see less migration, so you’re left with residents. But there are a host of interesting native birds to discover in the mountains. There you’ll see scrub warblers, partridges and bulbuls.
Mark adds that summer is also a great time for enthusiasts to look for sea birds. ‘The UAE is far up the Arabian Peninsula. It’s in a bottle neck of ocean as it comes into the Strait of Hormuz, so the water is not deep and it drops off 60km out. A few years ago I met a fisherman who happily took me out into the Strait to spot a few species. On the first day I saw a bird floating on the water, and when I identified it, the bird turned out to be a flesh-footed shearwater. It was only the second documented record of this species, but actually the first proven case of its existence. So now I get out onto the water every weekend throughout the summer.’
Heading out early in the morning and using your senses to listen for the different bird calls is a unique experience in the city. And according to UAE Birding, three top spots from which to do this are Dubai Pivot Fields near International City – a turf farm where you’ll spot masked shrikes and white-tailed lapwings; Warsan Lake near International City – old gravel pits that have been flooded with water and are now home to little swifts and streak-throated swallows; and the popular Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary in Al Jaddaf, which will afford a chance for you to see flamingos and greater spotted eagles.
As we pass by the groups of families having barbecues and tourists heading for the beach, we keep our eyes on the birds. We don’t spot a male white-throated robin, but as Mark says, ‘Birding is a lottery. Some days we see nothing, but then others are just magic.’ www.uaebirding.com.
Organised birdwatching experiences in Dubai
Creek Park Bird Show See more than 20 species at the UAE’s only exotic bird show organised by Dubai Dolphinarium. Dhs50 (adults). Dhs30 (kids). Thu-Sat, 12.15pm, 4.15pm, 7.15pm. www.dubaidolphinarium.ae (04 336 9773).
Falconry displays at Al Maha Watch falcons fly under the guidance of qualified handlers. Dhs215 per person (no kids under 10). 5.30am-6.30am. Al Maha Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve, Dubai-Al Ain Road, www.al-maha.com (04 832 9900).