Following on from my recent description of a brief visit to Kuala Lumpur, my return trip from Britain gave me 26 hours in Dubai.  It was actually a moment’s impulse. The travel agent mentioned I had a 2 hour layover in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. I was flying Emirates and that was the hub. I knew nothing about the place beyond some distant recollection of an islands shaped like a palm tree and lots of shiny tall buildings in a desert. But I figured there had to be some birds there. So I asked if I could stretch the layover by 24 hours. As the travel agent typed the equivalent of a novel to check (why does travel seem to involve so much typing?) I quickly looked at a Lonely Planet in the office and saw there was a refuge inside the city. So there would be some birding.

The internet provided a great deal more information. The most valuable site I found was UAE Birding, an excellent site full of location guides, recent sightings, and a busy forum where its members discuss all aspects of birdiness in the area. A few posts of my own and I had an offer from one of the contributors, Mike Barth, to show me around for the day! Mike’s an expatriate Brit and a recent convert to birding, a love which he combines with photography; see the results on his great photography site (which I highly recommend you check out).

My 26 hour trip was literally a day trip. My flight arrived at midnight and I left at two in the morning a day later. After crashing in a hotel for the night Mike picked me up at 9 (it really should have been earlier but I needed some sleep). Our first destination was the Pivot Fields, via some abandonded looking building sits where I saw my first Crested Larks and a pond that had Kentish Plovers, Little Grebes and probable Whiskered Terns.

The Pivot Fields are an are south east of the city where large amounts of water are dumped onto the desert. The area is a nursery for plants for the many gardens in the city, but the water creates lush areas of vegetation which attract many birds. On the ground we saw large numbers of Red-wattled Lapwings and White-tailed Lapwings, the latter of which breed at the site. Migrants were also present, including some Ruff, Common Sandpipers, Little Ringed Plovers, and Wood Sandpipers. Perched on the large irrigation equipment were some of my favourites, including the gorgeous looking Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters, Indian Rollers and diminutive Green Bee-eaters. Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters are something of a speciality, breeding here before flying off to Africa for the winter. On the ground Yellow Wagtails dart around with Isabelline Wheatears, Laughing Doves and the larger Hoopoes, Cattle Egrets, and Grey Francolins, while in the bushes or fliying around are Bank Mynas, White-cheeked Bulbuls, Collared Pranticole and Marsh Harriers. All in all a pretty sweet spot.

Crested Lark (Galerida cristata)

Green Bee-eater (Merops orientalis)

White-tailed Lapwing (Vanellus leucurus). Lot’s of lapwings at the moment on the site!

After the excitement of this unconventional birding site the next place was somewhat more conventional birding site of Al Khor, a wildlife refuge which sits incongruously as a patch of mud and mangroves with the tall spires of Dubai as a backdrop. The draw here are the Greater Flamingo, but there are other great waterbirds including Grey Herons, Western Reef Egrets, Eurasian Spoonbills, Little Egrets , Green Herons and Gull-billed Terns. The place was also an important wader stop, with Greenshank, Common Redshank, Bar and Black-tailed Godwit,Grey, Pacific Golden and Kentish Plovers, Black-winged Stilts, Eurasian Curlews and Curlew Sandpipers.

Greater Flamingos (Phoenicopterus roseus), mangroves and Dubai

After geting our fill of wetland birds, we headed inland, into the desert of the the Arabia. Our destination was Quarm, an outcropping or rock on the edge of the road among some impressive dunes. The location was a good spot to see Arabian Oryx, a species I hoped to see but didn’t. It is also an oddly good speot to see migrants, we did find a couple in the oppressive midday heat. Laughing Dove and Feral Pigeon were present, as were Hoopoe and Little Bee-eaters, but it was the wheatears that stood out. Along with Isabeline Wheatear we found both Pied Wheatear and Red-tailed Wheater.

Not an Arabian Oryx, but pretty scenic none the less.

From Quarm we turned east to the mountains that stood between us and the Gulf of Oman. In one of the passes through the mountains was Wadi al Helo, a small settlement with a spring that attracted a whole range of different birds. The small trickle of water had a bunch of Indian Silverbills and Striolated Buntings coming down to drink. Also present were drab Desert Larks, and in the bushes around the water were Spectacled Bulbuls and Purple Sunbirds. the drive out got me my fourth and final wheatear of the day, Hume’s Wheatear. One final wadi to the north of this location netted us two more great birds, a Lesser Whitethroat (only the second of these I had ever seen, the first being a month’s previously in my parent’s backyard) and possibly the bird of the day, a few briefly seen Arabian Babblers. Then the sun was gone and the drive back to Dubai and the massive and gaudy airport.

Indian Silverbill (Lonchura malabarica)

Striolated Bunting (Emberiza striolata) with Desert Lark (Ammomanes deserti)

Dubai and its surrounds is a great location for birding. It is particularly strong during migration season, but there are interesting things to be had all year and it proved to be a tantalising taster of Middle Eastern birding. I can’t thank Mike enough for a great day and highly recommend UAE Birding if you happen to be thinking of heading to the area.

Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.