DUBAI // When it comes to feeding the birds, a couple of slices of stale bread torn into pieces just won't do if there are several thousand greater flamingos to deal with.
The colony at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary is fed twice a day - at 9am and 4pm - with specially produced, cereal-based pellets that contain added vitamins and nutrients.
Two hundred kilograms of this is scattered into the water at four locations daily to supplement the food the birds find for themselves, which includes marine worms, small crustaceans and invertebrates.
"The main reason the flamingos are here is that the site is rich in food anyway," said Kevin Hyland, an ecologist who works for Dubai's Wildlife Protection Office. "The idea of the supplemental feed is to habituate them to people, to get them relaxed, as you wouldn't normally be able to get close to wild flamingos.
"It's also to give them a bit of a boost and to encourage them to breed and stay."
The flamingo colony seems to be thriving on its diet - the latest count revealed that the population has reached an all-time peak, topping the 3,000 mark for the first time.
A total of 3,031 greater flamingos were counted on January 15, up from the 2,706 recorded on November 8, 2010. The latest count was part of a worldwide census of waterbirds.
The population reaches a peak in the winter and declines as the temperature rises because many of the birds fly to sites in other countries, although about 1,000 remain in Dubai throughout the summer.
"They go all over the place, but we know for sure some go to Iran and Turkey, so basically they fly north to get away from the heat," said Mr Hyland.
However, the future for the beautiful pink birds may not be entirely rosy due to problems at a key breeding site.
"The birds here are pretty much linked with Lake Uromiyeh in north-west Iran, which covers 483,000 hectares and contains their traditional and known breeding grounds," said Mr Hyland. "The salinity there has risen so much and the water levels have dropped so much that the breeding colony seems to have failed - they are not breeding."
Other flamingos come from Turkey and a third group is believed to come from a breeding ground in Abu Dhabi. There are also populations at Ras Al Khaimah and Umm Al Quwain, and in wet years the birds settle on stretches of flood water on the east coast.
"They are very opportunistic - if it rains and floods, they love it," said Mr Hyland. "Up where Tecom is now on Sheikh Zayed Road there was a really good flamingo feeding area after heavy rain - there were hundreds just outside the Emirates Golf Club up until 1999."
The flamingos at Ras Al Khor are entering their breeding season, but none has ever bred there.
Some individuals are showing their breeding colours and, encouragingly, a number are building nests, although fewer than in recent years.
It is thought that they are put off by traffic noise and the flash of headlights from nearby roads, and by disturbance from passing aircraft.
Other species such as black-wing stilts, Kentish plovers and red mottled lapwings do manage to breed despite the distractions.
They and the flamingos share the reserve, which is run by Dubai Municipality, with many other types of bird, including marsh harriers, grey herons, eagles, ringed plovers, avocets, pintails, teal, kingfishers, spoonbills and snipe.
Lurking in the nutrient-rich waters are queenfish and milkfish measuring up to a metre long.
Less welcome residents include foxes, which prey on the birds, while a member of staff on his way to feed the flamingos last week was startled by the sudden appearance of a snake.
Bird enthusiast Tommy Pedersen, who runs the uaebirding.com website, said: "Having a sanctuary like Ras Al Khor inside the city borders has provided many hours of joy during my 10 years as a resident of Dubai. A total of 182 species of birds have been recorded at the site but the greater flamingo is certainly the key attraction.
"Just browsing through the visitors books at the hides shows how appreciated this place is by tourists and residents alike."