Yas Island – A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Muddy Mangroves

Yas Island is one of the many great infrastructure projects in the United Arab Emirates, located close to Abu Dhabi airport and 10 miles down the highway from the city. In 2012, it already had a Formula 1 racing circuit, a huge red panini of a building called Ferrari World, hotels, marina and golf course and of course an IKEA. Yas Waterworld was being built and the following year a gargantuan shopping mall.

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The sun was moved one morning to make way for the new Yas Waterworld.

Yas was, and probably still is, a work in progress and on the empty boulevards leading to the attractions, many had turn offs where the tarmac and pavements ended abruptly and from them on there were just rough tracks over reclaimed sand and coral. These roads to nowhere were used by those seeking a quiet corner overlooking a vast mangrove forest at the weekend. Families would picnic by the edge of a quiet channel or launch a small boat; I watched a young Emirati couple take a huge radio-controlled jet fighter out of their 4-WD one evening; he flew circuits over the empty sand and she captured all on the smart phone. One such access was at the far end of the golf course where the dusty track led to an abandoned farm which (like all farms here) had a large water tank. The adjacent fields, formerly used to grow fodder grasses, were slowly dying and looked a sickly yellow. An overflow or leak from the circular tank created a large, shallow wetland and another a freshwater stream on the edge of the mangrove. Both were a great attraction for waders, herons and other wetland birds to visit and there to preen and drink.

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Mangroves in front of Yas Island’s hotels.

A small hide (a frame of bamboo runner bean poles with bulldog clips attached to an increasingly dirty, yellow sheet) on the edge of the mangroves next to the shallow freshwater channel worked like a charm and the birds more often than not settled in front of the camera. In the summer, the birds were much more desperate for the freshwater and the hide was bearable from dawn (around 5:30) to around 8 o’clock.

These are the results in no particular order; the background of oozing, algae-ridden mud was not ideal but this was the only hide option that ever really worked, since it was virtually undisturbed. As it turned out, the security guards moved in and cordoned off the access in 2013 and soon afterwards the diggers trundled in to construct another grid square of houses. The freshwater outlet was probably switched off and the waders pushed somewhere else.

The dark green mangroves that run from the eastern side of Abu Dhabi to Yas as well as other shallow coasts across the country hold a great diversity of wildlife including dolphins, birds, fish, and invertebrates, especially huge numbers of crabs, and are one of the treasures of the otherwise parched landscape.

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A typical gathering of muddy waders in the freshwater stream; dunlins, curlew sandpipers, little stints and ringed plover.

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Preening redshank looking rather solemn.

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A more normal pose; a flock of a dozen redshanks were often the first to arrive after the hide went up.

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Greenshank; as was the case here, these birds are nearly always solitary.

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The same ever pensive greenshank.

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Supremely elegant bar-tailed godwit.

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Bar-tailed godwits usually arrived in pairs or small parties.

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Common sandpiper on the alert.

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Terek sandpiper; this has an extraordinarily delicate bill, used to snatch crabs and other invertebrates from the surface of shallow water or wet mud…

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…the bill is also somewhat comical and made worse by a silly walk.

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Beautifully marked turnstone alongside redshanks.

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Dunlin keeping a wary eye.

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Little stint likewise.

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Kentish plover.

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Ringed plover reflection.

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Lesser sand plover I think; mastering the difference with greater sand plover was always a challenge.

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Grey plover in understated winter plumage.

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Grey plover still retaining some summer plumage.

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A Pacific golden plover – one of the few rarer species to turn up.

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Red-wattled lapwings are found on every patch of muddy water; these act as manically as they appear with their red goitre eyes, always shrieking a loud did-he-do-it! warning and flapping about.

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Curlew – a picture of deportment.

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Not so when stooping and twisting to drink…

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…and then slurping it down.

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An intermediate phase western reef heron; the two colour forms are white and slate grey and this one an interesting and attractive mix of the two.

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A more flattering portrait.

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A dark phase western reef heron on the charge.

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Reef herons like all herons are sneaky stalkers.

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Western reef heron in rich evening light.

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The diminutive and rather tipsy looking green heron.

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Black-winged stilt with impossibly long legs.

Passerines would also descend to drink and sometimes bathe.

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Clamorous reed warbler; in the breeding season these have a wonderful call that sounds something like pumpkin! parakeet!

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Pied wagtail; there were also many yellow wagtails and one citrine wagtail.

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A laughing dove only put in the odd appearance.

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…and a collared dove only just made the cut because of the blousy pose. These birds were always waddling or dropping in to the picture at the wrong time.

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But the last word has to go to the waders; redshanks are sublimely elegant, noisy, sociable and never dull.

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