About five hours drive from Muscat, hidden beyond the familiar Omani landscape of desert sand and low shrubs of the Al Wusta Governorate is a dominating mudflat — sun-baked salt pan or ‘sabkha’ made up of a mixture of mud, sand, and seawater.
On a cursory glance, the terrain looks dull. Except for people interested in the environment and birdwatching, the popularity of the place seemed confined within residents of the Mahout Province where the Wetlands Nature Reserve is located.
Covering a total land of area of 2621 sq km, the Wetlands Nature Reserve was declared as such courtesy of the Royal Decree No. 51/2014. About 900km2 of the Al Wusta Nature Reserve is part of the Barr al Hikman Peninsula making it the largest in the region.
While dull to an uninterested human, Barr al Hikman, however, is a paradise and a haven to nearly half a million waterbirds in winter.
Here, small grey-brown sandpipers and sand plovers stand side by side with Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Oystercatchers, herons, egrets, the occasional Spoonbill,
and the pink Greater Flamingos navigating the sand to forage for food.
A survey conducted by the Wetlands International in collaboration with expert ornithologists from Omani and Dutch universities, with the support of Shell Development and in partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs undertaken during the spring migration of 2018, when many birds that spend the northern winter along the eastern coastline of Africa down to South Africa, revealed that over 300,000 birds of approximately 80 different species have made the intertidal mudflats and coral reefs and associated wetlands on the coast of Oman their home for resting and feeding during their annual migration.
Hosting more than 1 percent of the shorebird population, by convention, Barr al Hikman is a site considered to be of international importance.
The results of the survey that covered wide range of topics regarding Barr al Hikman were all collected and are now part the book titled Barr al Hikman: Shorebird Paradise in Oman authored by biologists Jimmy de Fouw, Roeland Bom, Ward Hagemeijer and Raymond Klaasen, and retired ecological consultant and amateur ornithologist Andrew Thorpe and with accompanying photographs by talented Dutch Wildlife photographer Jan van de Kam.
The book encompasses captivating images and insightful information showcasing the majesty and diversity of bird species in the Al Wusta Wetlands, including the Barr Al Hikman peninsula. This region, a Ramsar site is also recognised as one of the most important African-Eurasian flyways for water birds in the world.
Officially launched on November 13 as part of the 48th National Day Celebration, the launching was held under the patronage of H.E. Mohammed bin Salem bin Said Al Tobi, Minister of Environment and Climate Affairs, Shell Development Oman, in collaboration with the ministry and Wetlands International.
The book aimed to promote the biodiversity of Oman’s Al Wusta Wetlands and its publication was part of a shared goal of endorsing the diverse ecosystems found in the Sultanate highlighting Oman’s story of growth and prosperity.
In his foreword of the book, Al Tobi commented that the nature reserve is “a critical habitat and one of the most important protected sites in the Sultanate and a vital centre for biodiversity in terms of numbers and species of diversity and distribution.”
“After the successful completion of the first full spring migration count of the Wetlands Reserve in the Al Wusta Governorate, the survey has proven the international importance of the reserve, kick-starting an in-depth research programme into the area,” said Ward Hagemeijer, Programme Head Business and Ecosystems at Wetlands International.
“We have recently been collecting further data in from the Wetlands Reserve to further understand the migration patterns of the extraordinary birds visiting the area. This book reflects this survey - showcasing some of the 300,000 birds making the wetlands their home for both resting and feeding during their annual migration,” he added.
“Having visited Barr Al Hikman, I am delighted that Shell has been able to collaborate on this book and that we can celebrate Oman’s 48th National Day with this publication. The Sultanate enjoys a wonderfully diverse landscape and is home to many different waterbird species. Further, this book is a vital piece of research and will ultimately contribute to sustainable development and promote Oman as a tourist destination, said Chris Breeze, Shell’s Oman Country Chairman.
“Our commitment to the country’s future revolves not only around the energy sector but also sustainable development.”
YERU EBUEN & TITASH CHAKRABORTY