Established in 1998 by the late Sheikh Zayed, founding father of the UAE, the Al Wathba Wetland Reserve consisting of both natural and man-made bodies of water located on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi. It is covering a total of five square kilometres area comprised of wetlands, salt flats, fossilized sands and sand dunes. As per Environment Agency Abu Dhabi this reserve hosts more than 250 species of birds, 37 plant species and a wide range of aquatic life. The reserve is particularly known for its large population of Greater Flamingos which came here every year from central Asian countries looking for the warm weather during the winter months and suitable breading place.
This place is not formed naturally and even a few decades before this was just a flat land. It all started with the construction of the Al Ain truck road nearby for which the area was excavated causing a natural depression. Due to this land depression, water logging started in the area which start attracting the water birds. The first group of flamingos in the area was seen in the year 1993, which were attracted here by their favourite food, the brine shrimps. The saline water and plenty of food created the perfect breeding ground for them but initially they could not breed because of hunting and human activity around.
In 1998, His Highness the late Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan declared the area a natural reserve, thereby becoming the Abu Dhabi’s first protected wetland area. The wetland reserve was fenced, reducing human activity around which led to the growth of the flamingo population and subsequently more and more species flocked here. Now a days Al Wathba reserve gets a regulated amount of treated wastewater from the nearby Al Mafraq water treatment facility to keep the place habitable for all species. You can feel this flow of water while passing through the covered walkway where it is passing though the hume pipe underneath. The wetland is made on the sabkha land which helps in maintaining the salinity of the water. The sabkha refers to any form of flat salt-encrusted desert with a high concentration of salts, sediments and minerals.
There is a small visitor center with ample of parking space. There is a sitting area next to the visitor center to observe the birds if they are in the nearby waters. At the visitor center the staff there told us to register visitors detail on their site. (Name, email and number of visitor). After that they have given us a quick orientation about the nature reserve and the path we can take, bird hide and resting shelters. There are two self-guided walking trails of 1.5 kms or 3 kms for visitors to explore the nature reserve. The smaller trail is for watching the Spiny-tailed lizards or Dhub and the longer one will take you to a bird-watching hide to observe the flamingos. The place has been maintained in its organic form and the walking trails are properly marked.
On the left side walking trail from visitor center there are many fossilized sand dunes till the resting shelter. This is the area where spiny tailed lizards are expected. There are few burrows which can be easily seen from the track itself but we are unable to spot any spiny tale lizard.
Some of the stretch along the walk is paved and covered with tall grass. While passing through under this stretch, you will feel a drop in temperature. With cool temperature you many also feel some peculiar smell along the trail which is coming from the mostly stagnant water and the vegetation. Once you cross this stretch there is a small walk remaining which is on a mud track road used by wetland reserve staff for patrolling.
The grass on both side of this road is very high and walking through it a pleasant experience listening to the chirping of the birds. At the end of this road you will find the first bird hide and another 20 meters away. After second hide road is barricaded and visitors are not allowed.
Large group of flaming were sitting in the side of the lake opposite to the reserve entrance and from first bird hide only few group of flamingos were visible. From this hide view was obstructed by vegetation and simply because flamingos have decided not to be in front of this hide. When we went to the next hide, we find a pleasant surprise. There were flocks of flamingos visible from this hide which is otherwise not visible from the first bird hide.
The Greater flamingo found here is the largest species of flamingo and they can be easily identified by their long, thin legs and neck, a downward-bending beak and unique pink colour. They get their unique pink colour from the beta-carotene in the food they eat, which includes shrimp, plankton and algae. In one breeding season flamingo gives only one egg. From the age of two the small grey – brown flamingo’s plumage start turning pink. Most of the flamingos here are not as pink as we have seen before, they are paler in colour. Even though they are not as expected, but they still make for an impressive sight.
The area is full of shrubs and many long grass and plants native to the country. Common reed grass and the bristle grass everywhere makes the landscape beautiful. There are many Zygophyllum plants everywhere which are adapted for desert condition by retaining water in its leave. Its leave is like a capsule filled with water which attracted the kids and they start playing with that. On one of the sand dunes next to the walk way we spotted few desert hyacinth. These are parasitic plants and find in desert generally after rainfall. I have seen many of them before with top half yellow colour and bottom half dying and black in colour. But here they are quite healthy.
Few birds which we have identified are laughing dove, houbara bustard, Black-winged stilt, Clamorous reed warbler and White-eared bulbul. My younger kid was busy with the cluster of ant colonies he found. First time he saw how ants are working and carrying load more than their body weight.
If you are a bird watcher, photography enthusiast, or have a quest for learning about the flora and fauna found around, this place will not disappoint you.
Know before you go
- The first and most important thing is to carry a binocular. Flocks of Flamingos are sitting far away from the bird hide and it’s difficult to see them properly. Their groups are visible but not the way you are expecting.
- The place is open in winter months but if you are going on a warm day cover your hands and legs completely there are mosquitoes and flying bugs.
- The walking trail inside is almost 3 kilometer so, wear a comfortable walking shoes.
- Around the walking trails there are limited tree cover or shade so, bring your cap or hat.
- There is no restaurant or shop inside. Carry your water bottle and snacks with you while going inside.
Opening Time & Entry Fee
Al Wathba Wetland Reserve is open to the public Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays Fridays and Saturdays every week, from 8am until 6pm. Entry to this nature reserve is free.
How to get there
There is no public transport available in that area. You can go there by your own/rental car or taxi. From Abu Dhabi side exit the Al Ain road at Baniyas west and then take the Al Ain truck road. Al Wathba wetland reserve will be in your right side. While returning to Abu Dhabi use to Al Ain truck road.