If snarling, jagged teeth, a ruthless gleam in the eye and sharp, piercing claws are what come to mind when you think of a predator in the wild, well, think again. At the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, situated on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and just over an hour’s drive from Dubai, it is Claudia Steuber, a geologist and nature-wildlife enthusiast, who first introduces us to a ‘voracious predator and ambush hunter’ of the miniature kind.
Called the antlion, this tiny predatory critter is smaller than a little fingernail but is neither an ant nor a lion. Instead, says Claudia, ‘it is the larval stage of the antlion and native species may remain in this state for a year before metamorphosing into a winged creature closely resembling a damselfly or dragonfly with large, ornately patterned wings’.
The young antlion lays a trap for its prey by digging a funnel-shaped pit in the loose, fine grain sand, she says, while pointing to several pits of varying sizes in the ground. ‘Each of these conch-shaped pits is a death trap,’ she tells us as we crouch to get a better look. ‘The larva settles down at the bottom of the pit where it lies in wait for ants or other insects.’
When an ant tumbles into the conical pit, the antlion seizes the unsuspecting prey with its venom-filled pincers sucking the life juices out of the victim. If the ant or insect manages to escape the ferocious jaws, it is still doomed to slide back into the pit as the larva hurls sand into the air, creating a mini avalanche in the walls of the pit. The sand thus slips beneath the ant’s feet when it tries to scramble out and escape becomes impossible as it slides into the waiting jaws of the predatorial larva.
‘The larva antlion’s metamorphic transformation as it flutters off as an adult insect and alters its diet to pollen and nectar, and its incredibly effective hunting trap is a brilliant example of some of the lesser-known wonders of the natural world,’ says Claudia.
‘When we look at the larger and spectacularly beautiful winged creatures or smaller mammals that thrive in the reserve, this little sand monster may not hold much appeal, but the fact is that insects make up about four-fifths of all the animal biodiversity on earth,’ she says. ‘Recent scientific studies estimate that 40 per cent of the 30 million or so insect species on earth are now threatened with extinction. The hard truth is that ecosystems cannot function without the millions of insects that not only make up the base of the food chain but also provide essential ecological and recycling services that allow life to exist as we know it.’
Following a nature trail in the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve, a five-square-kilometre mosaic of natural and man-made lakes, with Claudia and experts from the Emirates Natural History Group Abu Dhabi, is an eye-opening introduction to not just the teeming plant and animal life of the protected reserve — it is a riveting story of nature that lets you see the natural world in a new light.
With their wealth of wisdom and trivia, our field guides provide us — a group of around 15 nature enthusiasts — a unique insight into the ecosystem of the wetland reserve, the geological forces that have shaped the landscape of the region, and how conservation efforts are helping preserve its precious biodiversity.
Joining us on the walk is Dr Thomas Steuber, a geologist at the Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, who leads us to fossil dunes of the Gayathi Formation that were formed 7,000 to 20,000 years ago when the environment in the region was very different from what it is today. ‘During the last Ice Age, this was a land that had water running through, and the accumulation of wind-blown sediments at the end of this glacial period caused the formation of these fossil dunes.
‘Much of the solidified sand has now become loose due to erosion and wind patterns over the years,’ he says, as he shows us how easily a piece of hardened sand structure crumbles in his hands. ‘The layering on these structures tells us that these were formed by wind that picked up marine sediment from the bottom of the Arabian Gulf that was dry at that time, as the sea level was much lower than today.’
What led to the creation of this wetland reserve, he continues, was the ponding of water in a natural depression dammed by the construction of the Al Ain truck road. ‘The ensuing flooding of the surrounding land led to waterlogging, which soon began to attract water birds,’ he explains. ‘A small colony of flamingos was first detected here in 1993 as the saline lakes that were thus formed caused unique conditions necessary to create the perfect breeding ground for the brine shrimp — the flamingo’s staple diet. However, flamingo breeding attempts failed then due to human activity in the area.’
Today, Al Wathba is supplied with regulated amounts of tertiary treated waste water from the Al Mafraq water treatment facility that helps create a welcoming habitat for birds and other animals, he adds. ‘The salinity of the water throughout the lake is variable due to the fresh water input and the underlying sabkha or salt flat substrate. Geologically, the sabkha refers to any form of flat salt-encrusted desert with a high concentration of salts, sediments and minerals. It has been developed over the past 7,000 years.’
The Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is a microcosm of different habitats including fresh water bodies, saline lakes, tall-reed marshes, gravel plains, sand dunes and sabhka, which make it a natural refuge for a high diversity of flora and fauna. Designated a nature reserve in 1998 by the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan following the first successful breeding of the greater flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) that year, it is the Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi (EAD) that is tasked with biodiversity protection and conservation here.
The reserve supports a rich array of wildlife and many globally and locally threatened wetland species. In total, the site is home to over 260 migratory and resident birds, 11 mammals, 16 reptiles and over 39 plant species. It is also home to more than 5,000 flamingos.
We stop by at a dhub burrow and look for signs of this reptile among the dunes, but we fail to spot one. Also known as the spiny-tailed lizard, Claudia informs us that adult dhubs can reach over 70cm in length. ‘These peaceful dragons of the desert are herbivores, although juveniles also feed on insects.’
Once hunted by the Bedouins as a rare form of protein, hunting of the Dhub is strictly forbidden since 1983, she adds. ‘The dhub populations in the UAE are still regarded as vulnerable due to habitat loss and trampling of burrows by four-wheel drives. Unfortunately, despite its protection status, dhubs are still being caught for its meat or for trading.’
The dhub’s ability to make large burrows in solidified sand and being a vital link in the natural food chain make it extremely important to native ecosystems. ‘Various animals take advantage of the dhub’s burrows as shelter,’ says Claudia. ‘A camera trap at Al Wathba once recorded a snake in it as well.’
Looking across the reserve, you notice that it is covered with herbs, grasses, shrubs and trees mostly growing in dense clumps or tufts. One area is covered in a blanket of yellow as the tiny flowers belonging to the perennial white bean caper Tetraena qatarensis, a wild plant native to the Arabian peninsula, paints a pretty picture amid the varying shades of green and brown all around it. ‘This is the most widely distributed plant here and camels tend to steer away from it because it is too bitter and salty,’ says Claudia.
Meanwhile, Salem Al Menhali and Mustafa Hamid Eltoum from the EAD-Al Wathba team, draw our attention to the Red Thumb Cynomorium coccineum, a fleshy, club-shaped, leafless plant that appears to be more a dark shade of black than red. ‘It generally has minute scarlet flowers, which give this plant its common name,’ explains Mustafa. ‘It is after pollination that the plant turns black.’
Salem, a UAE national, adds that the Red Thumb is a parasitic plant that grows to a height of about 30cm and is found in clumps close to the host plant. ‘These are also edible. They taste sour in the raw form but yields a sweeter flavour when cooked. Its red colour also makes it an excellent choice for creating dyes but it is its array of medicinal properties for which it is renowned. Nomads are happy to see the Red Thumb sprout after rains because it was used to treat a range of problems, including joint and digestive or stomach ailments.’
A little ahead we spot the desert hyacinth, another leafless parasite fleshy herb. Its dazzling yellow flowers are surrounded by a swarm of painted lady butterflies (Vanessa cardui) that are known to cover up to 100 miles a day during migration. Mustafa describes how the plant survives by sucking water and nutrients from its host plant to which it is attached via a thin root that can extend over a distance of several metres.
The afternoon air at the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is resonant with the tweeting and chirping of the myriad winged creatures that live here. This is a birdwatcher’s paradise and it is sheer joy to be listening to the calls and birdsongs from a range of species, including bee-eaters, bulbuls and lapwings as they dart about in the shrubs and thickets or remain hidden in the dense foliage of trees.
Pointing to a small sandy hillock, Claudia describes it as a special dune structure known as nebhka that is formed by the interaction of wind-transported sediments and certain plant species that are able to stabilise the sand. Two such plant species around which the sand mounds are formed here in Al Wathba are the saltbush (Haloxylon salicornicum) and the white saxaul (Haloxylon persicum).
Nebhkas are important to the ecosystem as they are home to a variety of burrowing animals, including foxes, small reptiles and insects.
We explore different habitats and listen in earnest as Claudia tells us that the majority of the plants in the reserve are halophytic species, which are specially adapted to live in saline environmental conditions. We are intrigued by the toothbrush bush (Salvadora persica), which, as Salem points out, ‘is commonly known as arak and its dried twigs or roots called miswak are used for cleaning teeth’.
Miswak is available at most petrol stations in the UAE, he tells us, adding that the toothbrush bush has certain medicinal uses. ‘Its fresh leaves are also added to salads and its small red fruits are edible.’
It is the Tamarix tree (Tamarix cf. ramoissima) that Claudia insists we should not miss for ‘its leaves collect dew in the morning, which later drips onto the ground thus irrigating the plants and, in the process, providing a micro-habitat for other flora and fauna’.
We walk deeper into the reserve and enter a narrow pathway framed by 5m-tall reed plants that provide a habitat for birds, mammals and reptiles. Nearby is a large, natural lake where we find around 30 black-winged stilts in the company of lapwings and plovers. These wading birds are resident breeders and found in shallow waters where they feed on aquatic invertebrates and insects.
According to bird conservationist Oscar Campbell, ‘The Reserve supports a great diversity of resident and migrant birds and other species. The UAE’s rich marine food sources, mudflats, lagoons and sabkha sanctuaries have made it a preferred stopover point for millions of birds on their annual multi-continent sojourns as they leave the icy snowbound regions of the Asian and Siberian Arctic to seek out the warmer climes of Africa.’
Through his spotting scope mounted on a tripod, Oscar asks us to observe the long yellow legs, pure-white tail and distinctive brown wings of the white-tailed lapwing — distinguishing features that make this species different from other plovers. As we come to another waterbody, he points out a group of little stints with brownish grey feathers and short, straight fine bills. ‘These are long-distance migrants that breed in the high Arctic in Russia and spend the winter in the Middle East before heading to South Africa,’ he explains. ‘They are easily recognised from other waders by the quick, rapid movements with which they pick insects off the water surface.’
Oscar is excited to show us the grey-headed swamphen, a large bluish-purple feathered bird with a red bill, that is resting on the water’s edge with its chick. ‘This bird was first spotted here in 2011 and the species have now established themselves well in the reserve.’
He also points out a group of black-necked grebes with small yellow tufts swimming in the lagoon who, he adds, will sport a glorious breeding attire of a unique ochre-coloured plumage during the mating season.
No visit to Al Wathba Wetland Reserve can be complete without seeing its flagship species, the greater flamingo. As we walk towards the observation hide, their distinctive loud, nasal honking calls comes through loud and clear. Their gorgeous bright pink plumage, spindled legs and long, curvy necks are a sight to behold especially when there are thousands of them spread out across the large lake.
Oscar tells us that thousands of greater flamingos travel to the UAE each year to escape the brutal winters of central Asia. ‘They are choosy breeders and aren’t typically known to regularly breed outside of their homes in central Asia — Khazakhstan, Iran and Turkey. By fostering the ideal environment for the animals to reproduce, especially keeping the place safe from predators, the Al Wathba Wetland has become the species’ preferred breeding site in the UAE.’
From just 10 chicks in 1998 that was the first documented breeding in the Gulf since 1922, Al Wathba saw their numbers rise to 601 last year. ‘The high fence around the wetland keeps predators at bay,’ explains Oscar. ‘Human activity is also kept to a minimum as the reserve is closed during the breeding season and visitors are allowed only twice a week.’
Oscar asks us to check out the flamingo mud nests on the shore. ‘They lay only one egg at a time. When the chicks are born, they are grey and white and attain complete pink plumage when they are fully mature, after around two to three years.’
Their pink colour comes from beta-carotene in the crustaceans and plankton that the flamingos feed on, he adds.
We step over crystallised salt formations caused by the drying up of the saline water as we make our way to witness the sight of the Western Marsh Harriers coming home to roost amongst the tall grass, safely hidden from foxes and other predators. By now the sky has turned a golden hue and as we trace our steps back to the visitor’s centre of the reserve from where we had set out on this incredible journey of discovery. All at once we spot a flock of flamingos flying right towards us, their wings outstretched, the tips of their black flight feathers highlighting ever more so the fiery brilliance of their flamboyant pink tone.
‘With its high salinity and dry weather conditions, what fascinates me about Al Wathba is how well it supports such incredible plant and animal life,’ says Claudia. ‘This wetland offers incredible learning opportunities in nature education — you can learn how plants and animals depend on each other to survive in this intricate ecosystem. The younger generation can also learn about conservation and preservation of our biodiversity. For, how can they protect nature if they know nothing of it?’
Know before you go
• Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is open until end of April on Thursdays and Saturdays only. Timing: 8am to 4pm (Last entry is at 2pm). It reopens in October.
• Free entry.
• Closed, comfortable shoes are a must. Carry ample drinking water and snacks. Slather on sunscreen and wear a cap and sunglasses.
• Avoid bright coloured clothing; preferably wear brown, beige or green attire.
• Equipment required: binoculars, camera.
• Patience is a must — do not rush through if you want to fully imbibe the beauty of the natural world.