x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

Progress hasn’t robbed birds of safe havens in the capital

Studies show bird species thrive in some of the remote locations in the capital

Last weekend, I spent a happy few hours wandering around two of the islands close to Abu Dhabi. One, Habel Al Abyadh, is crossed by Sheikh Khalifa Highway that runs from Yas Island to Saadiyat. There are no slip-roads to permit access, but by a roundabout route one can reach the shoreline of the island and venture into the adjacent mangroves. The other island, to the north-east, is privately-owned but, with permission, can be reached by a short boat journey. It’s close to the city yet undeveloped, except for a few modest residences, which makes it an ideal getaway from the hustle and bustle of urban life.

These were not merely weekend outings, which are too few and far between for me these days. They were, instead, part of an event that takes place at this time of year throughout Arabia and the rest of the world, excluding North and Central America, the annual International Waterbird Census.

Coordinated by Wetlands International, it seeks to collect statistics on wading and water birds, recording species of birds and their numbers in as many places as possible. The census began, modestly, in 1967. Today it covers over 25,000 sites in more than 100 countries, with more than 15,000 people submitting data every year. It’s one of the largest projects in the world, mainly based on “citizen science” – defined as “scientific research conducted, in whole or in part, by amateur or non-professional scientists” – and it’s a pleasure for me to be part of that process, helping to collect data from sites throughout the Emirates, along with a select number of other UAE birders. There are a few “professionals” involved, for whom the counts are part of their work, but others include civil servants, teachers, PR executives and oil company employees, both Emiratis and expatriates.

The local effort began back in the 1990s and is now coordinated by the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi (EAD). Over time, the statistics indicate whether populations of particular bird species are rising or declining, or are stable, not just within a single country but regionally and globally, particularly if there are regular annual counts at the same location. It’s also possible to identify sites that are of particular importance in terms of a nationwide conservation programme, whether in respect of the total number of birds present or with regard to particular species that may be threatened in other parts of their range.

The most productive part of my weekend wandering was on the privately-owned island, which I visited with three colleagues, including the chairman of the Emirates Bird Records Committee, the local body that maintains the database of UAE bird sightings in collaboration with EAD.

It’s more than a decade since we last did a January count there, and we were delighted to find that the number of birds was broadly comparable to earlier data, a welcome confirmation of the beneficial impact of the informal protection regime that the island’s owner has implemented. With the rapid development that has taken place in recent years on other nearby islands, such as Saadiyat, Reem and Yas, it’s good to know that the birds can continue to enjoy this safe haven.

One species we were particularly pleased to find was the Great Knot, a small wading bird that breeds in the extreme north-east of Russia. Most of the population spends the winter months in Australia, with a few spreading out around the Indian Ocean. A very few reach as far as Arabia, but only two confirmed wintering sites were previously known in the UAE, on Marawah island, west of Abu Dhabi, and in Umm Al Quwain’s Khor Al Beida.

Great Knot were identified for the first time on the island in March last year, when they might have been on their return migration. So to find them in January indicates that we’ve probably found a third UAE wintering site.

In last year’s census, according to IWC published figures, only 10 Great Knot were recorded in the whole of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, including Arabia, all of those in the UAE. Over the weekend, though, we found 13 in this single site, where they’ve never been recorded for the census before. That’s not a world-shattering scientific discovery, but it’s a useful little piece of data.

Through such activities, our modest little team of UAE birders, along with 15,000 others throughout the world, can play our part in this global scientific monitoring exercise. That’s a useful way, in my view, to spend the weekend.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE’s history and culture