The Sultanate’s migratory mudflat habitats and inhabitants

They come in their thousands, the migrants, winging their way from North Africa mostly, to the estuaries and mudflats of Oman, every year. Some here to stay, where the climate suits them, while others will linger a while before moving on to India and South East Asia, on that annual sojourn.

According to a 2016 study, involving the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Affairs, Shell Oil, and a Netherlands based conservation and monitoring group, Wetlands International, completed a census which identified over 500,000 birds, of some eighty different species, in the Al Wusta wetlands alone, and mostly migratory. The International Waterbird Census team headed by Ward Hagemeijer, Wetlands International’s Head of Business and Ecosystems, and Associate Expert Szabolcs Nagy, with volunteers Kees Camphuijsen, Lenze Hofstee, Leon Kelder and Steven de Bie.

 

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Wetlands are where water meets land, and the terrain lends itself to estuary sustained marshes, river deltas, mangroves, peat marshes and exist on every continent. These wetlands, have long been a primary target for predatory real estate developers, due to their location, relatively low cost of regeneration, and flat terrains, and during the last century more than 60% of global wetlands have been drained for such urban development. Wetlands International is adamant that the abundant and unique nature of wetlands biodiversity requires urgent action to reverse this deeply concerning global trend.

In the MENA region particularly, being more arid, the wetlands have a meaningful role to play, in that they retain water from rainfall, for longer. They provide grazing for farmers and pastoral cultures, and a breeding haven for fish and waterbirds, especially the wading birds. Wetlands International has made a significant impact within the region through the restoration of the internationally important Ndiaël Avifauna Special Reserve in Senegal, the redesign of the proposed Fomi Dam in the Upper Niger River in Guinea to minimise the downstream impacts on people and nature, and restored nearly 500 hectares of valuable flood forests in Mali’s Inner Niger Delta through community participation while improving livelihoods and reducing bird hunting.

Here in Oman, from Bar Al Hikman in Al Wusta, to a hundred locations in Sharqiyah, and even in Qurum, Muscat, the mudflats and mangrove wetlands host wildlife galore, but almost certainly the standouts are the long-legged, usually elegant, almost arrogant waders, the stilts, flamingoes, and herons. They are so amusing to watch as they gently tiptoe through the water, never dragging their legs or feet, but very deliberately taking that one step after another, in their search for food.

Flamingos, the national bird of the Bahamas, get their names from the Spanish origin ‘flamengo,’ meaning flame colored, and describes the bill and legs particularly. They are proportionately, the longest legged of all birds. They feed on shellfish and algae, using their oddly shaped, specially adapted, beaks to filter and separate mud and silt from the food they consume, usually brine shrimps and algae. Uniquely, they can both raise their top jaw, or lower their bottom jaw. Most either dwelling or migrating through Oman will be of the Greater Flamingo standing 1 to 1.5m tall, or the Lesser Flamingo at approximately 60-80cm tall. They can most often be found standing on one leg, though scientists are to date, inconclusive why that occurs.

The heron has a long rapier-like beak, or bill, though unlike the flamingo it is more rapier, or harpoon shaped, and are usually black, brown, or yellow. They feed mainly on fish, crabs, and shrimps, and use their sharper bill to spear their prey. They are interesting to watch as they stalk, as they appear to calculate distance, refraction of the water and hunch over close to the surface before striking swiftly, and perhaps that is why the rapier analogy comes to mind so easily? The heron is also renowned as a cultural predator, adept at using bait to attract their prey, so must retain high intelligence.

The stilts, though the smaller of the three, at only 30-35cm long, have extremely long pink legs and long, thin, straight bills, with distinctive black and white plumage and markings. They get their name from the Ancient Greek ‘stilt,’ meaning strap leg. They feed on aquatic insects and organic small creatures. The stilt is quite aggressive, and if you have ever camped out near the wetlands you would recognize their loud, strident, barking type of call. Their long pink legs are comparatively, only shorter than the flamingo.

These birds are gracious, quite elegant movers, fun to watch, and sustaining their habitats here in the Sultanate would appear to have significant upside in a post-covid-19 tourism environment.