A new UAE nest for birdwatching: the undeniable magic of Wasit Wetland Centre
To say that the Wasit Wetland Centre, a veritable James Bond lair for birdwatchers and nature-lovers of all ages, keeps its many attractions well-hidden is something of an understatement.
The main road from the coast to Al Dhaid thunders along the centre’s northern boundary and the approach to the protected area, which sits between a residential suburb and an industrial zone at the border of Sharjah and Ajman, is defined by a series of rambling villas, mini roundabouts and an ageing outpost of Sharjah Co-operative Society.
The sense of arrival is equally unassuming. Passing through a security checkpoint, visitors are greeted by little more than a high hedge of dusty damas trees, a neat but largely featureless car park and a series of curious brown sails that emerge, tent-like, from nearby dunes.
It’s at this point, however, that Wasit’s undeniable magic begins, thanks to an act of architectural theatre in which visitors are drawn down into an invisible visitor centre via a broad, angled ramp.
The visitor centre consists of a series of subsurface, habitat-specific aviaries – the tent-like structures are actually above-ground shade structures – that are viewed from a long, soundproofed gallery that allows visitors to get close to a remarkable array of the region’s migratory birds without disturbing them.
In the first aviary, dedicated to wadi birds, Arabian helmeted guineafowl with scaly, bright-blue heads and black-and-white polka dot plumage take dust baths amid groups of trotting Arabian partridge, while preening glossy ibis, white-bellied Abdim’s stork and the centre’s rarest birds, the critically endangered northern bald ibis, perch on a series of trees.
Aviaries dedicated to mudflat, marsh, shrubland, reedbed and estuary birds follow as do fun and educational displays, many of which are puzzles and games aimed at a younger audience, that explain everything from the role of feathers, eggs and birdsong to adaptation and migration.
These are accompanied by beautifully illustrated and more detailed panels that profile the aviaries’ many species, as well as outlining the main challenges facing birds in the region – a deadly combination of habitat destruction, changing farming practices, pollution, hunting, poisoning and deforestation – and the efforts that the centre is making to safeguard the birds in its charge.
The centre’s pièce de résistance is the open area dedicated to lagoon birds that fronts its cafeteria. A long gallery in its own right, with a spectacular, full-length window, the room allows diners to snack on canteen food while observing enormous pink-backed pelicans, mesmerising herons and stately greater flamingoes in pools that sit a few metres from your dining table.
Thanks to their ability to support a unique variety of local and migratory bird life, it’s the rest of Wasit’s 4.5 square kilometres, defined as they are by a transitional landscape of dunes, reed beds, mudflats, freshwater pools and salt-encrusted lagoons, that appeal to the birdwatching cognoscenti.
Visitors can access this protected outdoor area, which includes a series of modern, purpose-built hides located to observe each of its habitat types, by taking a ride with one of the centre’s employees in a battery-driven buggy. For serious birders and photographers, there’s also an option to venture out solo, with special permission.
Ornithologically, architecturally and for the sheer pleasure of getting up close to nature, there’s nothing like the Wasit Wetland Centre anywhere in the Emirates. Make the effort, go to Sharjah and awaken the inner birdwatcher that you didn’t realise was inside you.
Birding for beginners
Despite the challenges of its climate, the UAE can be a birdwatcher’s paradise if you’re patient and willing to invest your time and energy.
“There are totally different types of birds here. In terms of resident species, you could see around 50 if you make the effort to travel around the country,” explains Mark Smiles, a 52-year-old operations director from Dubai who started “birding” in the United Kingdom as a child, and now spends his weekends documenting local avian activity as part of the UAE Birding forum. “But in a year, if you were dedicated to spotting rare birds, you could see more than 300 species in the UAE.”
For Smiles, the important thing about places such as Wasit Wetland Centre is the opportunities they provide to see a variety of birds, a factor that can make all the difference for would-be birders.
“The initial exposure is important as is seeing something close up and being able to identify what you’re looking at,” he explains. “I was at Wasit recently in the late afternoon, and a Eurasian sparrowhawk flew right past me really close, and if you can point to a bird like that and put a name to it, that’s something that people, especially kids, will buy into.”
A key piece of kit is binoculars, but when buying them Smiles explains the key is to resist the urge to buy a pair that are too powerful. “The power will magnify the image, but then vibration becomes an issue, and the binoculars will probably be too heavy.”
Instead, Smiles recommends lighter binoculars with a 7x or 10x magnification. “They give you enough magnification to get close, but their [wider] field of view means that you can find the bird to look at it,” he says. “If you’re really zoomed in, they can become difficult to locate.”
For Smiles, however, the most important purchase is a book about the birds you’re most likely to see in your area. “Buy a field guide, because even if you don’t have binoculars, you can still birdwatch,” he says, insisting that illustrated guides are superior because of their comprehensive information.
“Photographic guides make birdwatching very difficult, because they rarely show all the key features that will allow you to identify a bird, but with a pictorial guide, it’s very easy to show everything you need to know, because they provide an idealised image.”
Ultimately, the key to successful birding, according to Smiles, is patience and putting yourself in the right place at the right time to see the birds.
“We are dawn and dusk people. You have to be up when the birds are up, and that means within two hours of sunrise and at sunset,” Smiles says. “Birding is a lottery. Some days you see nothing, but others are just magic.”
For more information, visit www.uaebirding.com
Located in the Wasit Protected Area in Sharjah, the Wasit Wetland Centre is open to the public six days a week, excluding Tuesdays. Entrance costs Dh15 for adults and is free for children under the age of 12. For more information, visit www.epaashj.ae/learning-centers/wasit-centre.