January is the perfect time to embrace the great outdoors, and what better way to do so than with our feathered friends?
We take a look at The Wasit Wetland Centre for a chance to get up close with nature that is protected and living in its natural habitat. Go on, get some fresh air in your lungs.
Is there anything better than feeding the ducks? How about watching 198 species of bird soaring through natural vegetation against a backdrop of stunning desert skies? The Wasit Wetlands are 4.5 sq km of salt plains on the outskirts of Sharjah that serve as a sanctuary for local and migrating birds.
Once a swampy wasteland, the area was cleaned up in 2007 and declared a sanctuary for protected species soon after. These days it’s also a sanctuary to birdwatchers, who flock to marvel at a natural sight and a gathering of species you’d be hard pushed to find anywhere else in the UAE. It’s also a top day out for the kids, who have the opportunity to see some impressive-looking birds, learn about nature, and slosh about in some wet mud in the process.
The wetlands now provide a comprehensive ecosystem, which comprises coastal sand dunes and salt flats, linking ponds and a large, open lake that is maintained by an upwelling of underground water. The boundary trees purify the air and eradicate harmful gases and dust. This increases the ratio of oxygen and reduces the greenhouse effect, aiding the habitat for its numerous migrating and rare birds and making sure they (and you) have nice clean air to breathe. We imagine you’ll come back with a spring in your step, and lungs like Susan Boyle.
Majestic, awe-inspiring and extremely rare. No, we’re not on about SuBo anymore; we’re talking about the tens of thousands of migratory birds that rest at the wetlands on their way to, or from, Africa, Asia and Europe. Eight huge aviaries on the site recreate natural habitats from valleys to flatlands, which house 60 species of endangered birds including the northern bald ibis – of which there are fewer than 500 in the world.
That bird, which is noticeable from its bare head and long, curved beak, is classed as critically endangered, which is the highest risk category, and the last remaining wild colonies are believed to be in Morocco. This troubled ibis is currently in breed at Wasit and the prospective hatchlings have some ready-made playmates waiting.
The centre recently welcomed two baby herons, who live in the Shrubland Aviary with their mum and dad and the goliath heron, a very large wading bird, also known as the giant heron. The new family is a great success story for the centre, and a delightful sight for the kids.
As well as ibis and herons, the centre is home to flamingos, pelicans, ducks, harriers and many other species of our feathered friends, protected yet free to spread their wings in their natural habitat.
The centre has been providing a peaceful getaway for visitors of all ages since it opened its doors to the public in 2015. Built into the sand dunes, bird-lovers can expect games, activities and a cosy café offering breath-taking views over the Lagoon Aviary – as well as a smashing cup of tea.
Complimentary buggies are available so you can chauffeur tired feet round the aviaries and you will be provided with binoculars to properly scope out the area – and any shy birds.
Hana Al Suwaidi, chairperson of the Sharjah Environment and Protected Areas Authority, says: “The centre aims to educate people on the birds and it offers its facilities to the public and researchers.
“It contains eight bird aviaries, each providing detailed information and signboards about the birds that frequent the area.”
You can take in the natural spectacle from dedicated bird-watching huts, or take your chances under the open skies. And if the worst comes to the worst, there’s nothing like a bird-poo shower for some good luck to start the new year. On second thoughts, maybe take an umbrella.
Wasit Wetlands is not just a place to watch the birds, it also prides itself on being an educational centre where you can learn about the different species, what they eat, where they nest and how to recognise them simply by their feathers.
Educational events are run for schools and groups of children, and families can tour the centre, play games, enjoy the activities and then take the buggy through the wetlands for an interactive, relaxing and fun day out.
Guides are provided for walking tours if you fancy stretching your legs and afternoons are feeding time in the aviaries, when you can enter the giant bird homes and get up close and personal with your new mates.
Little birdwatchers won’t even realise they are learning as they take part in fun, educational games geared towards spreading information about the perils facing migratory birds. Not only will this encourage them to be more considerate of household pets and domestic lighting, it will also bring your electricity bills down. Result!
Dhs15 (adult); free (kids under 12). Open Sun-Thu 9am-6.30pm; Fri 2.30pm-6.30pm; Sat 11am-6,30pm; Sun closed. Ramtha area near the suburb of Wasit, Sharjah (050 213 3915).