Top 3 wetlands United Arab Emirates: hidden gems in the desert


flamingo wetland

The desert is full of unexpected surprises and hides little gems that you can only dream of. One of these are the wetlands. Vast fresh water lakes in the middle of the barren landscape turn pink by the hundreds of flamingo’s that forage in shallow waters. Several of these have been designated as sites of international importance by the Ramsar Convention. They are a perfect escape from the busy cities. These are my top 3 wetlands  in the United Arab Emirates.

Top 3 wetlands

Dubai – Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary

Amidst swirling traffic and sprawling urban infrastructure Dubai hosts a unique gem in the middle of the city, The Ras al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary. It is one of the few protected urban natural areas in the world. Ras al Khor, meaning Cape of the Creek, is with an area of 13 km² just a small wetland. Nevertheless, it attracts a great variety of (migratory) birds.

In winter large groups of around 500 pinkish-white Greater Flamingos steal the show. They walk elegantly on their long pink legs through the shallow water making loud honking calls or while gathering food. Other regular visitors among more than 150 other species are the Purple Sunbird, Heron, Bee-eater, Common Kingfisher, and various raptors like the Spotted Eagle. They can be easily watched in their natural habitat through fantastically sharp binoculars provided in the different hide outs on the junction of Al Wasl Road and Oud Metha Road, and on Ras al Khor Road.

Don’t hesitate to bring your kids along. The staff members of the Sanctuary are enthusiastic bird lovers and enjoy pointing out the birds to them.

grass wetlands

Abu Dhabi – Al Wathba Wetland Reserve

The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve in Al Wathba, 40 minutes on the South- West of Abu Dhabi, is located in an area of sabkha. This salt area becomes water logged during winter months as a result of sub-surface flow and hydro-static back-up during spring tides. It hosts an amazing high diversity of fauna in the mosaic of fresh water and saline lakes, gravel plains, mangroves and fossilised sands.

The total area of Al Wathba Reserve is only 5 km², but it simply teems with life. The majority of mammals and reptiles like the Red Fox and the Skink can only be seen in the early morning. Yet they leave plenty of trails in the sand to make up a track search with the kids.foot prints wetlands

Wandering through luscious greens and 3 meter high Reed Grass you’ll discover Francolins scurry in the vegetation. Kites, great spotted eagles and other raptors may be patrolling the skies. Golden broadbilled sandpipers, grebe, stilts, and Pacific golden plovers forage through the lakes, while beautifully coloured dragon flies and damsel flies hoover over the water.
During winter avid birdwatchers can spot more than 250 birds species.

But the most spectacular attraction is the flamingo population. As many as 4,000 of these gracious birds fly to the lakes of Al Wathba from autumn til spring, turning them into pink oceans of feathers. If you are lucky you might be able to spot some hatchlings as well.

The Reserve is open to the public on Thursdays and Saturdays from 8 am to 4 pm (last entry at 2 pm). Entrance is free. When available, you can borrow binoculars at the reception.

Opposite to the Wetland Reserve is the Abu Dhabi Wildlife Centre, a rehabilitation centre for endangered species including Bengal tigers, jaguars, cheetahs, hyenas, white lions, baboons and turtles. Combining a morning in the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve with a visit to the Wildlife Centre makes a nice day trip.

Umm al Quwain – Umm al Quwain Wetlands

But the most beautiful wetlands and a perfect gem in itself are the Umm al Quwain Wetlands in the North of the United Arab Emirates. This is what the coast of the UAE used to look like! A striking bright blue lagoon presents a patchwork of islands, water channels and silver-green mangroves. The area is intertwined with shallow lagoons and mud areas covered by dense mangrove forests. It is the perfect habitat for feeding and nesting for both endemic and migratory birds and a broad variety of mammals.

The Umm al Quwain Wetlads have secret unspoilt beaches where flocks of flamingos forage along the shore while sea turtles dive under the water surface. Among many other species you will spot a variety of Herons, Plovers and  Terns that feed, nest and rest on the sandy islands.

cormorants ras al khor

The most popular spot is Khor al Beidah, a marine life reserve on Al Sinniyah Island. It is home to Antelopes that search for shelter in the mangroves and under Ghaf trees. A huge and important colony of Socotra Cormorants flies just feets above the sea or dry their feathers in the mangrove trees. This endangered species with 15,000 bird pairs forms the third largest colony in the world.

The beautiful nature and wildlife of the Umm Al Quawain wetlands are are all laid out on a plate for the kayaker to find. Follow this link to find a map with the best kayak spots and bird watching spots.