This article was written by Sarah Rich in April 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.
Coming to Dubai from the "evergreen" state of Washington, the dearth of vegetation and wildlife stands immediately apparent. One doesn't take much notice of the squirrels and sparrows in Seattle until going to a city where critters don't have much of a hospitable environment. But if I thought they didn't exist at all here, I learned how wrong I was at 5 a.m. a few days ago, when a group of us dragged ourselves out of bed to go birdwatching in several of Dubai's green spaces.
Interestingly enough, one of the most attractive places for birds here is at the turf farm, where fields of lawn grass are raised for installation on the grounds of Sheikh palaces and the tourist golf courses. The shorter decorative grasses grow next to taller stalks which are cultivated as fodder for camels. As Clive Temple, our birding guide, explained, the camel feed is what keeps these turf farms in business, and because camels are now increasingly fed with a different type of high-energy food, decreasing demand for grass has caused some of the turf farms to shut down.
But this one thrives, with vast stretches of flat greenery sitting under huge pivoting irrigation systems that rotate once every few days, hydrating the grass with grey water from residences in Dubai. The grey water comes in on orange tanker trucks which arrive and depart continuously all day. Clive comes out here regularly to observe the numerous bird species that nest and pass through on their northwesterly migration routes.
We saw a number of beautiful birds -- a few of them rare sightings, according to Clive -- including electric green parakeets, Chestnut-Bellied Sand Grouse, harriers, a Greater Spotted Eagle, a Purple Heron, White-Tailed Plovers, Spoonbills and Pallid Swifts. Clive said that the farm undergoes very little management with regard to the bird life which passes through, and that with just a small amount of consideration -- such as shallow water catchment areas, which would guarantee some constant source of water and mud -- the place would become an even better sanctuary for birds. As it is, those that don't thrive in a desert can't hang around for long, even in the presence of the well-irrigated turf. It's simply too hot and dry during the day.
From the turf farm, we traveled to the Ras Al-Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, a small wetland area which houses, among other things, about 2,000 pink flamingos. Unlike the turf farm, this place is under extremely tight management (or at least extremely stringent bureaucratic rules), and our visit was closely monitored. We were only allowed into the bird-viewing hut in small groups, and were asked to provide a seemingly useless amount of personal information in the visitors' book. Clive (who is British) expressed frustration at this style of management, which doesn't do well to attract visitors and prove that there is a continued interest amongst the public in preserving wild areas such as this.
We did, in spite of this, see some big, gorgeous water birds, including reat Egret and Western Reef Egret. Clive told us that there are several exotic storks and other birds which arrived in Dubai as imported ornamental wildlife for the palaces -- mostly purchased from India -- and managed to escape upon arrival and set up a home in the Sanctuary. He said that the import of wild animals as pets and exotic decor has been very active in the area and has caused a share of problems.
We ended the tour at Safa Park, Dubai's oldest public park and the most luscious and colorful swathe of land I saw during the entire visit. At about twenty years old, the park has some very well-established trees which make it look a bit less like a movie set than some of the other "natural" areas around the city. There are some waterways and lakes, plenty of landscaped flowers, and gardens in various world themes. It's clear that locals enjoy and use this place (though you do have to pay a small fee to enter). There were lots of people escaping the midday heat under the shade of the trees. In Safa we spotted one of the most exciting bird finds of the day, an Indian Roller -- a medium sized bird with two brilliant shades of blue feathers.
I later spoke with an expat who's lived here ten years, who told me that the city of Dubai has been considering eliminating the park in order to make space for more building development. It's a wonder that with plenty of other space to develop, and an already astonishing amount of building in progress, the city would think it a good idea to tear out such a beautiful refuge in the city. I wonder to what extent locals have protested against the idea, as such a proposal in a city in the States would surely spark public controversy. A panel of urban planners later in the day suggested that there's much greater motivation and concern for rapid completion of building than for the preservation of anything "natural." Some more detail on the growth of urban centers in the UAE to come...
[Photo Credit: Clive Temple]
Birding in Dubai is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.