Bulletin 22 - March 1984: Bird Notes for mid-October to mid-November 1983

Bird Notes for mid-October to mid-November 1983

by Mike Crumbie


How many birds are there in Abu Dhabi, the Island that is, not the Emirate? An oft-times asked question to which there is no readily available answer. There is a comprehensive list of birds seen in the Emirates as a whole, which is being added to each year but not, it is thought, one that is purely applicable to the Island. In all probability the question relates to the species seen rather than actual numbers. The number of species recorded is to a large extent influenced by the migratory periods. It would be fair to say that dozens of species are seen and recorded throughout the year, but alas, quite a few pass through unrecorded. To cover the Island fully over any period of time would of course be impossible given the limited sources available. Fortunately however, one area, the old sewage farm, has been closely observed over a period of years. Another area, slightly to the north of the sewage farm, has been observed on an almost daily basis for a few months, but this region is discounted for two reasons. In the first case it is not the area under study on a very regular basis by this observer; secondly, it is felt that it does not truly represent a fully natural area of tidal creek, as over the years it has been the recipient of various human contributions. The aim of these notes is to give an insight into the numbers of species seen in a very small part of Abu Dhabi, which, given three more years to the completion of the Eastern Ring Road, will not be in existence by 1980. A few notes, hopefully of interest, are included on selected species.


The area measures roughly one kilometre in length by five hundred metres in width. The shore line runs the full length and its width encompasses some shore line and creek. There is a small island in mid creek which is completely cut off at high tide, and almost inaccessible at low tide owing to the depth of the mud.

The vegetation is quite dense and consists of bushes, mainly Arthrocnemum macrostachyum, whilst on the slightly raised ground there a few low Suaeda vermiculata and grasses. Except for the slightly raised ground, at high tide 90% of the area is inundated. At the water's edge a few small mangroves can be found.

Influences on Species

The fact that this is a salt water creek is the largest influence on the species and as would be expected the bias is towards the waders and sea birds. The vegetation, in which the waders have little interest, does however provide an ample supply of food, namely insects for inland visitors, a good example of which is the great grey shrike. Not forgetting, of course, our resident insect eater, the graceful warbler. (See Bulletin No. 20). Another influencing factor is the state of the tide; at high tide the numbers of birds seen are reduced considerably but the reduction in the number of species is relatively small. Last but not least of the factors influencing the variety of species is the time of year. At the moment we have a lot of visitors for the winter from the northern climes. The following table gives an indication of the daily sightings that have been obtained, irrespective of the state of the tide. The figures relate to confirmed species only and it is accepted that several 'get away' each day.

Average daily sightings 23
Maximum sighted 36
Minimum sighted 28
Number of species identified 48

Notes on Various Creek Residents/Visitors

Flamingos and Others

One of the largest species to be seen in the area, on occasions in very large numbers, is the flamingo. On one occasion the flock numbered well over 500 birds and presented a truly dazzling sight with the pink, black and white colours of the mature birds. The few immature or juvenile birds present were drab in comparison. One of these immature birds was observed to have a ring on its left leg. The flocks in this particular area and in Abu Dhabi generally have of late greatly diminished in numbers; a daily count now averages about 30 (December 1983). These flocks are generally broken down again into groups of between 4 to 12 and spread over the whole area. A survey carried out over three days at the beginning of the period indicated the total population within the Abu Dhabi Island coastal waters numbered between 600 -700. They could be seen in small groups from the observed area to north of Bateen Airport and in the various creeks associated with this coastal area, with one group being closed to Sadiyat. One group of 50 - 60 has been reported quite regularly on the coast opposite Futaisi and another one of similar size on Hail Island. ( A late update, 26/11, found numbers increased to the north of Bateen to about 200+ and a similar number at Hail, a few days earlier). It is possible that all of the dispersed groups could be part of the greater Abu Dhabi flock.

At this time of the year, the flamingo can generally be found during mid afternoon, sleeping in the warmth of the winter sun. They sleep standing up either on one leg or two and with their necks contorted almost through a figure of eight before the head is brought to rest in the fold of a wing. When standing on one leg, the free leg is normally doubled up under the body with the knuckle extended a few inches to the rear. On occasions the free leg may be extended fully, either horizontally or angled down at 45.

Feeding time in the flock is generally accompanied by a period of noise and squabbling, sounding similar to a mixture of noises that one would normally associate with flocks of geese and ducks. During feeding the flock usually spreads out along the shore line, just in the shallows, stopping as the mood dictates. It is at this time that the birds are easier to count. To feed, the flamingo marches on the spot, this action disturbing the mud on the bottom. The head is then placed, inverted, under water, where animal and vegetable food particles are separated from the mud and sediment by sieving through the bill. It is not generally thought that flamingos are fishing birds, but on three occasions now flamingos have been seen in the company of reef herons which were fishing, dashing around in the shallows and stabbing at the water as if attempting to catch fish.

Even allowing for the spectacular pinks, whites and blacks of the flamingo, perhaps the most colorful visitor to the creek, although only very rarely, is the kingfisher. Normally it is only possible to catch a glimpse of irridescent blue/green as it flashes quickly over the water. It fishes by diving from a perch or from the hover and very occasionally can be seen just sitting on the fence in the creek.

One of the most common sights is that of the reef heron, numbering over ninety in one sighting leading to the possibility that in Abu Dhabi as a whole there could be hundreds. To date no nests have been reported, but as they are so numerous and present throughout the year, there could be the chance of them breeding somewhere in the area.

Most of the time the herons feed in the shallow water but occasionally can be seen belly deep. At times they can be seen dashing around in the shallows with their heads cocked to one side almost as if they are listening for underwater movement, when in all probability they are focussing on their prey. Then with a sudden stab of the bill they go for their selected victim, which is usually a small fish.

On occasion they can be seen with wings half spread running backwards and forwards over short distances in the water, in what would appear to be a dance ritual. The ritual is more likely to have the practical application of shepherding the shoals of small fish into the shallows and even forcing them out of the water onto the mud, where they become easier victims for the stabbing bill of the heron. Once in a while they may even get a free meal, as on the occasion when two caspian terns were squabbling over a fish. In the argument one of the caspians dropped the fish and an opportunist heron quickly removed the cause of the argument.

Caspian terns are more often than not seen diving from a fair height into the sea for fish. When not fishing they bask on sand bars in the warmth of the sun. Very raucous seabirds they are easily recognised by their bright red/orange bills and black caps, more often heard before they can be recognised. The dive is performed vertically with the wings half spread. If by chance the fish moves out of sight the dive is broken off a few feet above the water and the bird then gains height for another attempt.

Whimbrels are fairly regular visitors to the area and a rather unusual sight was one of them catching one of the small black crabs that inhabit the mud flats in large numbers. The crabs live in tunnels dug into the soft mud which become flooded on the rising tide. At low tides the crabs can be seen feeding a short distance from the tunnels but at the slightest hint of a threat they make for the entrance. This particular crab wasn't quick enough and the whimbrel's problems only started when it tried to swallow the crab which quite naturally was not going to give in easily. It took about five minutes of dropping and picking up the crab before it was sucessfully manipulated into a position for swallowing.

It is more than probable that only one pair of ospreys covers this creek but they have not been seen too often of late and when seen there has only been one bird. On the last occasion when one was seen it was in more of a playful than fishing mood. It kept swooping just low enough to enable it to drop its talons through the water for a short distance. The Ospreys probably breed to the North of the creek as they have been seen during the breeding season making off in that direction carrying fish. Last year a pair of young ones was seen in the company of the adult birds.

Originally it was thought that as only two marsh harriers had been seen at one time they were the only residents in this area. However on one occasion four were seen together and as harriers frequent Bateen Airfield regularly, three being seen on one occasion, it would be reasonable to assume that the two pairs share the territory. Food is plentiful for them and one was seen recently devouring its prey while perched in one of the scrub bushes. At times the harrier can be quite helpful to an observer because as they fly low they scare up birds that would not normally been seen.

Other infrequent visitors have been three night 'herons; as the name implies they are normally nocturnal. Probably the unhappiest-looking birds in the whole area, they were seen skulking behind some beached drift wood and scrub in their usual hunched-down attitude. These were immature birds with green bills and a very distinct beady red eye. In company with them on occasion was what is probably the smallest heron in the region, the squacco. It is classed as a white heron but the white of the plumage can only readily be seen when it is in flight.

Migratory Notes

The migratory period, as would be expected, has its share of rewards and regrets, this year being no exception. To start on a low note, a quail was found on Bateen Airfield, dead, unfortunately. A close inspection of the body which measured approximately 7" revealed no obvious signs of injury. The crop was fairly full and its plumage was in good condition. Being the smallest migratory game bird of the region it more than likely died of exhaustion.

Another migratory visitor was found by a local family, in their garden, at Wathba. It was reluctant to fly except for very short distances within the garden boundaries. Being worried about it being attacked by cats the family caught it and put it in a box, where it refused food and water. Eventually it was decided to bring it to Abu Dhabi but unfortunately it died on the way. An unusual visitor to Abu Dhabi it turned out to be a woodcock. On inspection it measured 13 1/2" and as with the quail there were no obvious signs of injury; the plumage was in good condition, although the crop was empty. Normally it feeds on marshy or swampy grounds but of course during migration in more open country. Once again exhaustion from its travels was probably the main contributory factor, and the family, in their desire to help unfortunately probably aggravated the situation, when the real need was more than likely just rest.

However, on a happier note that rare visitor the demoiselle crane, reported in an earlier newsletter, is alive and well and still with us. A bird of regular habits, it puts in daily attendances at Bateen Airfield. Arriving before sun up it remains feeding throughout the day on the grassed section of the field, departing after sunset. It departs from the airfield in a northerly direction so it is possible that it spends the night roosting in the mangroves which are in abundance to the north of Bateen. A stately-looking bird, it measures 38" with very pronounced white side whiskers, a predominantly grey body and a black bill. It moves around and feeds almost oblivious to the noise of aircraft taking off and landing. What it feeds on is a bit of a mystery, possibly insects or grubs; whatever it is must be in abundance to sustain such a large bird.

[Web Ed note: The illustration accompanying this article was a pull-out chart covering two pages. Owing to limits on the scanning resources available, the chart has been included here as two separate graphics available from the links below.]

Part One of chart

Part Two of chart


Back Home Up Next

Copyright 1977-2011 Emirates Natural History Group
Patron: H.E. Sheikh Nahayan bin Mubarak Al Nahayan

Served from Molalla, Oregon, United States of America