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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Abu Dhabi proves vital to growing population of greater flamingos

Thousands of greater flamingos travel to the UAE each year to escape the brutal winters of central Asia. But, when it comes to raising their chicks, only one emirate will do: Abu Dhabi.

The capital region is home to three main protected areas that not only attract the largest population of the migratory birds in the country each winter but also serve as the species’ preferred breeding sites when they visit the Emirates, according to a report by the Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi published in Zoology in the Middle East in May.

The three habitats – Bul Syayeef Marine Protected Area, Al Wathba Wetland Reserve and Shahama Wetland – are frequented by a combined average of about 8,557 greater flamingos each month. In all, the Emirates offers 36 key habitat areas that draw between 15,000 to 20,000 greater flamingos each winter.

Bul Syayeef, located among the islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi, holds the largest population -- about 6,500 flamingos on average any given month. But it is at the inland wetland in Al Wathba that the breeding has been most frequently successful, even though these birds aren’t typically known to regularly breed outside of their homes in central Asia – Khazakstan, Iran and Turkey.

Dr Salim Javed, EAD’s acting director of terrestrial biodiversity. Antonie Robertson / The National
Dr Salim Javed, EAD’s acting director of terrestrial biodiversity. Antonie Robertson / The National

Dr Salim Javed, EAD’s acting director of terrestrial biodiversity, credit’s the emirate’s conservation efforts for fostering the ideal environment for the animals to reproduce.

“If the conditions are optimum and suitable they can breed,” said Dr Javed. “One of the prerequisites is they need to have a place which is safe from the predators. That is what we have done in Al Wathba. Any predator control measures that we need to take are in place and as a result of that we have seen our flamingos breed.”

The wetland is surrounded by a high fence to keep out predators such as foxes, dogs and cats. Recently, one of the small islands on the site was dredged to increase its land size and add more depth to the water. Human activity is also kept to a minimum. The reserve is closed to the public during the summer and only open to visitors twice a week in the winter, beginning in October.

Eight of the 10 times that the flamingos successfully reproduced in Abu Dhabi between 1993 and 2015 were in Al Wathba. Of the 1,972 chicks that hatched during that period, 821 did so in the Al Wathba wetland, 801 in Bul Syayeef and 350 in Shahama Wetland.

Ramon Peñas / The National
Ramon Peñas / The National

“Flamingos are not only fascinating birds to watch, but are also central to Abu Dhabi’s effort to protect its important species and habitat. It’s also a legacy of Late Sheikh Zayed who was instrumental in the establishment of Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, the first protected area in the Emirate,” said Dr Shaikha Al Dhaheri, executive director of the terrestrial and marine biodiversity sector at EAD. “We are proud to have the only breeding site of the species in the UAE. This has been possible because of the effective management of the species and its habitat and we will do everything to ensure that they continue to breed at Al Wathba.”

The Al Wathba habitat, located about 40 kilometres east of the capital, formed “accidentally” as a byproduct of its neighbouring water treatment plant. As the water was released into the area, it accumulated into a small lake that began attracting wildlife, including the brine shrimp craved by greater flamingos, said Dr Javed.

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Read more:

Al Wathba flamingo population booms — with a little help

‘Serendipitous’ Al Wathba Wetland reserves are home to more than 4,000 flamingos

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“The reserve is a microcosm of different habitats,” said Dr Javed. “It’s got a gravel area, there are reeds there, there are slight sand dunes, deep water, shallow water. There are some areas where you have fresh water mixing with the underground water. So there are all kinds of water gradients out there, which provides wonderful opportunities for a whole range of species to come and stay here either temporary or in a permanent basis.”

In 1993, the first four flamingo chicks fledged in the wetland, bringing attention to the area’s positive environmental impact.

“Basically that was the catalyst in raising the profile of this site,” said Dr Javed, noting Sheikh Zayed immediately recognized the area’s potential and by 1998 had it designated as a nature reserve with full protection status.

The relationship between the flamingos and the Al Wathba wetlands has clearly been a mutually beneficial one. While the birds helped the area gain environmental protection status, the wetland has in turn become a second home to the migratory birds.

“Breeding has been consistent and regularly successful at AWWR from 2010 to 2015,” according to the report. “It is one of the few places in the world where regular breeding, even for short periods has been recorded.”

This summer, a record 448 chicks hatched at Al Wathba.

“It is the biggest breeding for Al Wathba Wetland since we recorded breeding on a regular basis since 1993,” said Dr Javed.

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More on flamingos:

In the UAE, there are two breeding seasons for the greater flamingo.

During the summer, the females lay eggs from about April to June or in the winter from November to March.

They can only lay about one egg per year. It takes about 25 to 30 days for the eggs to hatch.

Newborn chicks are born fuzzy white or pinkish white, but they quickly turn a brownish-grey.

They remain with their families almost two months until they are independently moving around.

As they become adults, in the third or fourth year, their bills and legs begin to turn pink and their feathers become white.

The greater flamingo gets its famous pink colour from its favourite food, brine shrimp, which contains a pigment called carotenoids. The shrimp are abundant in the salty waters found throughout the emirates.

Although, during the hot summer months, when salinity and Ph levels can rise with the temperatures, the brine shrimp enter a dormant phase where they stop hatching.

In September and October, as the brine shrimp population begins to naturally increase around the emirate, so does that of the greater flamingo.

The biggest flamingo population ever recorded at any site in the Arabian peninsula in the past 25 years was found in the Bul Syayeef Marine Protected Area, when 18,855 birds amassed near the islands off the coast of Abu Dhabi in 2009.

In captivity, greater flamingos live between 25 and 30 years, and probably a little less in the wild.