It’s World Wetlands Day on Tuesday February 2, a date that celebrates the importance of a type of landscape that is often disregarded as scruffy wasteland or boggy soup.
But low-lying and often flooded land is frequently important for activities such as fishing and rice farming. Wetlands also act as a natural sponge to soak up floods and high tides, they protect our coastlines, and provide a home for wildlife.
Here in the UAE we have five officially designated wetland areas, though some of them stretch the definition a bit. Dubai’s Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary (featuring lakes and flamingos) was the first to be named, followed by Wadi Wurayah National Park in Fujairah (with streams, pools and more than 100 species of animals), Sharjah’s Khor Kalba Mangrove Protected Area on the east coast (masses of mangroves) and Al Bu Nair Island in the Gulf (find corals and turtles).
In Abu Dhabi there’s the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve which has been recognised by the Convention of Wetlands of International Importance. Formerly a sabhka (salt flat), it is now a mix of shallow natural and manmade lakes that has made it ideal for many wetland-loving species within a super arid region. This was established in 1988 by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Wander around the five square kilometre reserve and you’re practically guaranteed to see flamingos – as many as 4,000 have been counted. You can get pretty close, thanks to a purpose-built hide and the birds even breed here.
Avocets and other wading birds also patrol the edges of the water providing spectacular bird watching opportunities for keen twitchers. In the summer you could find Kentish plovers, which seem to prefer the heat. And if you’re lucky you may also see eagles (at least two types have been spotted here) and the Sociable Lapwing – also endangered, (possibly because it gets too friendly?).
The reserve is just beyond Mussafah on the Al Ain truck road. Be extra vigilant, because if you blink you might just miss the small exit from the motorway, and in any case you have to be on the carriageway coming in to Abu Dhabi.
But follow the track round and you’ll end up at the small visitor centre with its friendly staff – sadly they don’t get to see too many visitors, so they’ll appreciate a visit. You can then walk the trails through the reserve, ambling through a surprising mix of scrub and hillocks that is very un-Abu Dhabi-like, before you reach the hide.
Open Thu and Sat, 8am-2pm. School trips on Tue, available upon request email@example.com, www.ead.ae.