After four years in Dubai, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard people scoff at the suggestion that flamingos are native to the region. Yet a trip to Dubai Municipality’s Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary shows how the birds are flourishing here, giving residents a rare chance to see these magnificent birds in their natural habitat.
Drive along Al Awir Road past a row of curiously-placed independent electrical shops and mechanic stores (with pun-tastic names such as ‘Dubike’), and across the road to your left you’ll hopefully catch a glimpse of the birds standing in the water at the sanctuary. Do a U-turn at the junction where Nadd Al Hamar Road crosses over Al Awir, and exit onto the second service road you see. The set-up is simple: just wander up the short, screened jetty to the flamingo hide, a shed-like observation room where you can pick up a pair of binoculars and peer out at the birds.
Surprisingly, it’s not just greater flamingos stalking around. Amid a tangle of pink legs, it’s possible to spot black-winged stilts, grey herons, great egrets, reef herons and more, although we missed out on seeing the brightly coloured yellow-billed stork advertised on posters around the room. Though the set-up is basic, it’s cool (at this time of year, at least) and quiet, and with only a security guard for company. It makes a peaceful, uplifting way to start the day – the antithesis to arguing over a taxi in Dubai Marina.
So why are there so many flamingos living in the emirate? One oft-peddled theory is that a colony were set free from domestic captivity decades ago by a mad millionaire, but this is one that Kevin Hyland of Dubai’s Wildlife Protection Office (WPO) is happy to put to bed. Having worked with the WPO for 29 years, the UK-educated ecologist has focused on Dubai’s flamingo project since 1995.
Of the six different species of flamingo in the world (greater, lesser, Chilean, James’s, Andean and American), Dubai is home to a seemingly growing number of greater, whose population is the most widespread of all species. In the past, the emirate has also played host to a few visiting lesser flamingos, which apparently must not be confused with possible escapees. ‘About five years ago I saw two lesser, but they had most likely flown in from Oman,’ Hyland explains. ‘Greaters are, however, indigenous to the UAE.’ Yet he notes that flamingos as an overall species are nomadic, and will go with the wind, ‘unlike swallows or geese, which return to the same place year after year’. A number of greaters at Ras Al Khor have been tracked all the way back to Iran, with some visiting from as far away as Turkey.
The team at Dubai’s Wildlife Sanctuary do their best to encourage the birds’ return and nest-making. ‘We’ve put protection in to stop vehicles and stray dogs going in, and we’re feeding them twice a day, but that’s supplemental,’ he says. If the flamingos weren’t satisfied with the deal at Ras Al Khor, they’d no doubt be making a speedy departure – much like if you were to put Gordon Ramsay in a vegan restaurant, or Germaine Greer in a beauty pageant. And the WPO’s efforts must be working, because in January this year the sanctuary noted its largest count since records began, with 3,100 flamingos on site.
Though the larger flamingos at the sanctuary are very obviously pink (joining the hordes of sunburnt expats), the majority of the flock have a more subtle colouring than those seen swooping through Disney films. The reason is that greater flamingos aren’t naturally fluorescent pink: the brightest species are those found in the Caribbean and Central America (and juveniles tend to be black and white). The second reason is diet – the pink colouring in flamingos is widely attributed to the aqueous bacteria and beta carotene content of their diet, which consists largely of brine shrimp. And until recently, the Ras Al Khor site has mainly offered food such as polychete worm and other invertebrates.
Yet these birds are anything but fussy eaters. ‘They’re very opportunistic. They’ve been known to head into rice paddies and eat the seedlings,’ says Hyland. He recalls a local incident three years ago when a flock of flamingos were seen feasting on larvae that had spawned in puddles at the side of Sheikh Zayed Road following a few days of intense rain. With the introduction of hyper-saline lagoons, however, the sanctuary has been able to culture brine shrimps, which have been seized upon with gusto by the beaky bunch.
Though there is evidence of nest building at the Khor site, there have yet to be any eggs laid. Recently, however, an Abu Dhabi team discovered a huge breeding colony on a small island near the capital. Since then, it has been suggested that these birds account for a large portion of those feeding at Ras Al Khor, despite the distance between the two locations. Hyland cites a case in Spain at a town called Fuente de Piedra, which has one of the largest populations of flamingos in Europe: it was discovered that some of the breeding adults were plundering a food source 100km away, twice a day, in order to feed their young. ‘It’s possible that the birds breeding on the Abu Dhabi mud flats are flying down to Ras Al Khor to stock up on food. There’s no evidence yet, but it’s entirely possible,’ he explains.
Breeding or not, there are plenty of magnificent birds to feast your eyes on at Ras Al Khor, and the best time to visit is between 9am and 9.30am, when you may catch them feeding. Take a long lens: as I watched a flock of these intriguingly proportioned pink creatures take flight, I realised how beautiful they are. As Hyland himself says: ‘It’s phenomenal.’
Entry to Ras Al Khor’s flamingo hide is free. Open Sat-Thu 9am-4pm. www.wildlife.ae
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