For many people Dubai conjures up images of sun, sand and shopping, to say nothing of glamorous hotels and sparkling nightlife. But look hard enough and you can find another side to the city. Just a few miles from the traffic and the bustle is the peaceful oasis of the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary, a nature reserve teeming with bird life.

Wetlands of the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary

Situated about ten miles to the south of Dubai, Ras Al Khor lies at the end of The Creek, the waterway around which the city was originally founded. The wetlands cover an area of 620 hectares and include mudflats, sabkhas (salt flats), lagoons and pools.

Ras-al-Khor Nature Reserve, Dubai
The wetlands of Ras Al Khor provide an ideal habitat for all kinds of wildlife

The habitat was fundamentally changed by dredging during the 1970s and 1980s when Dubai’s construction boom was at its peak, but since then efforts have been made to preserve the area. Ras Al Khor was designated a protected site in 1985; a network of new channels was created and much of the area has been planted with mangroves.¬†Apart from the mangroves, the site includes reed beds and shrubs. It is also home to numerous species of crustaceans, small mammals, insects and fish.

Birdlife at Ras Al Khor

There are three hides at the sanctuary (although only two were open when I visited), staffed by helpful wardens and equipped with powerful telescopes and binoculars, so that visitors can get the best possible view of the birds.

Up to 67 species of water birds make their home here, their numbers rising to many thousands in the winter months. Notable winter visitors include plovers and black headed gulls, as well as curlews and redshanks. Broad-billed sandpipers can also be seen; this is the only place in the whole of the UAE where they congregate in large numbers. When I visited black winged stilts were much in evidence and, if you are lucky, eagles or other raptors sometimes make an appearance too.

Ras Al Khor’s graceful flamingos

But for me the highlight was the long lines of flamingos, graceful as ballet dancers. Although more numerous in winter, they are present in the sanctuary all year round.

Planning a visit to Ras Al Khor

The Dubai metro does not go as far as Ras Al Khor so a car is necessary to reach the sanctuary. A hire car may be the best option as the hides are about a mile apart. If you take a taxi make sure you book your return trip in advance as it is not easy to flag down a taxi from the reserve.

The reserve is open from 6 am to 6 pm, Saturday to Thursday (7.30 to 5.30 in winter, and reduced hours during Ramadan). The birds are more abundant in the winter months and, to have the best chance of seeing lots of birds (as well as avoiding the heat of the day!), a visit early in the morning or later in the morning is recommended. There is no entrance charge.

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