Abu Dhabi Island
Birding sites for visitors
By Oscar Campbell, October 2019
What follows comprise notes and basic suggestions for birdwatching on and around Abu Dhabi Island, as far afield as Yas Island and Al Wathba Wetland Reserve. Birding locally is best throughout winter and during migration periods (September to November; March to May), although migration can be a bit of a lottery with regard to numbers and variety of grounded migrants. Even on good days, numbers are much lower than countries further west (such as Kuwait and the Levant region) although variety of passerines and near-passerines can be good, even during days with relatively low numbers of birds. Diurnal soaring migrants, so conspicuous further west, are effectively absent.
The highest variety of species occurs when wintering birds and migrants overlap, essentially November and March.
Summer (June to August) is a pretty tough time to bird locally, although breeding terns on offshore islands are of interest and a few waders oversummer (see D and E below).
All co-ordinates given below refer to Google Maps and are clickable weblinks, even if they do not have an underline.
Location names are weblinks to the checklist and bar graphs based on data in eBird.
Before getting into a taxi it is best to be clear with regard to where you want to go and, ideally, have a map to show the driver – they will not be familiar with many of the sites. Basic location maps are provided but are best used in conjunction with a phone / sat nav app.
A superb, free and offline map app is Maps.me
Binoculars are fine at all sites and are very unlikely to attract any attention at all from passing authorities, as long as you don’t do something really stupid with them. Cameras are mostly ok too (unless expressly noted otherwise below) but best kept in a bag until really needed.
A telescope is not essential, other than where indicated.
1 Sites on Abu Dhabi Island
A number of good birding sites on Abu Dhabi Island are very difficult to visit without local contacts. However, the following sites, A to E on the map below, are all straightforward to visit for anyone.
For further information on site F, Lulu Island, see details presented therein.
A - Mushrif Palace Gardens (starting from the junction of 24th and 15th Streets; 24.453378, 54.377327) are well planted with native ghaf trees and can be quite good for migrants such as warblers that require tree cover. There is a grassy area and helipad at the front, and species that will utilize more open habitats (wheatears, wagtails) may occur there, especially early morning before disturbance and heat builds up.
April is often the best month for variety, and species to look for then include Common Redstart (both nominate and Ehrenberg's), Common Nightingale, and various warblers (sometimes including Upcher’s). However, whilst searching for the latter, beware of Eastern Olivaceous Warbler (several pairs breed locally; fairly noisy and obvious by song from April onwards). Species such as Green Bee-eater (Arabian), Shikra and Purple Sunbird also breed; Crested Honey Buzzard (Northern) over-winters and often remain well into spring (and sometimes the entire summer). It is worth looking through the trees close to 24th Street (at 24.449901, 54.380352 ) before continuing round the palace edge (keep palace wall on the right) before reaching the Back Wood (at 24.447642, 54.376273), which is sometimes left to grow rather dense. From here you can exit and turn right to complete a loop back to the helipad or make the short walk across to the entrance to the Golf & Equestrian Club (B; see below).
Migration in autumn is rather unpredictable but may include Red-breasted Flycatcher, whilst Blue-cheeked Bee-eater are regular and obvious from late August to mid / late September.
Wintering species include Lesser Whitethroats (mostly subspecies halimodendri), Common Chiffchaff and Black Redstart (the Eastern subspecies phoenicuroides). This has site has been well covered for many years by local birdwatchers and the list of rarities recorded is most impressive, although, of course, none are likely to be found on a casual visit.
The palace that you are walking around is generally not in use, so bird-watching in its environs is fine. However, definitely do not bring large camera lenses and telescopes (the birds don’t warrant the latter anyway) and be sure to stay at least 50m away from the obvious guarded gates. These face onto 24th Street and 15th Street and are clearly marked by the barriers.
If arriving via taxi, the driver may know the palace but is more likely to know Umm al-Emarat Park (A1; open from 0800, 10AED entry fee) which is just across 24th Street from the palace gardens. There is a good chance for a few migrants in here as well, although the best bits can be checked more or less from the outside footpath that runs along 24th Street i.e. just across the road from the helipad.
B - Abu Dhabi Golf & Equestrian Club can be easily accessed by walking in the gate at 24.445164, 54.375085 just behind the Back Wood of the Mushrif Palace Gardens, as noted above. Go through the security barrier either on foot or via taxi and turn immediately left along the internal road. The grass racecourse is very soon obvious on the right. If coming directly by taxi and / or if you get challenged at the gate (unlikely), tell the driver / security guard that you want to go to Abu Dhabi City Golf Club and just get out at the clubhouse (B1; 24.443337, 54.381630) and walk from there. There is another gate off 19th Street (at 24.441141, 54.384216) and if you enter via that it is best to start at the clubhouse and complete the loop of the track from there.
It is fine to walk round the grass track (but stay out of the way if horses are being exercised - usually only very early in the morning during the cooler months) and it is also usually ok to cross the inner sand track and walk on the tarred road encircling the golf course (but don’t walk on the golf course itself and be sure to stop and give way if any golfers are swinging clubs nearby). The entire loop can be completed in under an hour, depending on how many birds there are to see. A telescope is useful to check the boulders and bushes in the middle for perched shrikes and wheatears, or to scan the edge of the lake for the odd wader. Species here may include migrants that like open grassy areas (shrikes, Red-throated Pipits, wheatears, sometimes Ortolans and European Roller) plus the likes of Pallid Swift, Crested Honey Buzzard and Shikra circling overhead, a few waterbirds on the small lakes etc. Clamorous Reed Warblers breed in the reedbeds fringing the pools but are easier to hear than see; the introduced Southern Red Bishop also occur in these reedbeds.
The best months for variety are March and April (especially former) and late August to early October. A small but diverse number of waders occur throughout September, sometimes including Pacific Golden Plover and Collared Pratincole, with hirundines and Yellow Wagtails peaking then and, sometimes, Lesser Grey Shrike early in the month.
This site is easily accessed from the Anantara Eastern Mangroves Resort (24.447087, 54.437066), on Salaam Street. All taxi drivers know this hotel. Walking and scanning along the waterfront here may produce a few waders (mainly when the tide is low), also good for Western Reef Heron, Great Egret and passing terns. Other good vantage points are C1 at 24.444957, 54.444168 (definitely needs a telescope) and the ‘Dolphin fountains park’ (C2) at 24.454899, 54.405147.
From C1, you can see out over the estuary, although results are usually disappointing, unless the tide is very low. However, then the mudflats can be covered in (mostly distant) shorebirds. These may include a few Crab-Plover but only on a low tide and best on winter afternoons when there is no haze and the light is from behind you. Fair numbers of gulls, including a few Pallas’s Gull (from December to February / March only) may also be seen here.
The several km along the lagoon edge from the Anantara to C2 are not a pleasant walk due to the very busy, noisy road right alongside, but Western Marsh Harrier are quite frequent in winter (especially late afternoon) and there is a Western Cattle Egret roost as well. The grassy areas at C2 sometimes have a few migrant passerines and the ghaf trees just alongside may also yield a few more, plus wintering Chiffchaffs etc.
Small numbers of waders and Greater Flamingoes concentrate a little to the left of here (as you look with the Dolphin fountains to your back) but be careful using a telescope towards a large distant place over to the left. Elsewhere at this site, a telescope is no problem.
Get out of the taxi at 24.399257, 54.468747 (note – you don’t go into the Officer’s Club Hotel complex itself to access this site) and walk c200m down to the shore. The co-ordinates are actually right alongside the entrance to the Lady’s Club but we don’t recommend you try to go in there with optics. The beach on the edge of the Lady’s Club (at least for the meantime; there is always a risk they will dump a load of sand to fill in the pools and wreck the site) is the most accessible locale on Abu Dhabi Island for wintering and passage waders and at least a few will be present regardless of the tide (although more birds are generally present on a low tide) – Lesser Sand Plovers, Kentish Plover, small Calidrids, Terek Sandpiper and Black-winged Stilts are some of the most likely shorebirds but variety sometimes runs to over 15 species.
Scanning across the channel from here (telescope required) will produce many more, especially if the tide is low, and, from April to August or early September, there is a very good chance of White-cheeked Tern. The Sternula terns you see are, as far as we know, almost certainly all Saunders’s (fairly common breeder at low densities on offshore islets) but eliminating Little is very hard and, on most views, not possible. Western Reef Heron, Western Osprey, Crested Lark, Little Green Bee-eater (Arabian) etc. may also feature here, with reasonable numbers of gulls (almost invariably including a few Pallas’s), Western Marsh Harrier and, rarely, Greater Spotted Eagle are also present in the winter. Crab Plover and Socotra Cormorant have been recorded, but are both peculiarly rare.
As at Eastern Lagoon, this site is best visited early or late in the day before the heat haze builds up, and, again the light is often better in the evening rather than early morning. Note that Friday afternoon often sees an influx of fishermen to the site and the beach is then very disturbed and results consequently disappointing.
Abu Dhabi Officer’s Club is rather close to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque (D1; 24.412161, 54.473661), and it is possible to walk from one to the other. This would take c15-20mins and, apart from perhaps at the big roundabout that goes over the highway, the traffic is not too bad. Between the main road and the Officer’s Club fence (at 24.404931, 54.475953; noted on some maps as ‘Khor al Maqta park’) there is a rather extensive grassy area with the odd small tree, picnic tables etc. This is usually heavily disturbed but can be quite good in March and early April for migrant wheatears, wagtails and shrikes. Don’t expect to hear anything singing, however, given the roar of the traffic…
E - Abu Dhabi Corniche and nearby areas
This is easily visited by asking a taxi to take you to Marina Mall and walking to the start of the Marina Mall Breakwater (e.g. at 24.473237, 54.316473) and scanning across the bay out from there, including across towards Emirate’s Palace. Socotra Cormorant are generally present here, albeit in low numbers (and often on distant buoys; telescope generally required) and White-cheeked Tern should be a slam dunk with a little patience from April to August. Saunders’s Tern may also be about, as may Bridled and Lesser Crested Terns (Bridled commoner later in summer i.e. May onwards; Lesser Crested perhaps more likely in winter bird). Western Osprey and Western Reef Heron may also appear, as may Indo-Pacific Humpbacked Dolphin.
In winter, there is sometimes a small mixed flock of gulls on the beach at Emirates Palace, at the end closest to the corniche (24.469462, 54.321836). This can be a good place to get views of Steppe Gull and, sometimes, Heuglin’s and Pallas’s Gulls.
Some of the above species – although probably not Socotra Cormorant – may be viewable from along the actual Corniche itself (e.g. at E1 24.473022, 54.340656 or thereabouts) and if you are visiting Abu Dhabi--Louvre Museum (just off the top left of the above map; at 24.538039, 54.396596), bringing binoculars might be a good idea too – White-cheeked Tern may be possible from here, perched on the posts right by the museum.
F - Lulu Island
Unlike all the above sites, this one requires some effort to get to. However, this may prove very worthwhile indeed, as, also unlike all the above sites, Lulu Island has had Hypocolius wintering annually (since 2009 at least). These are present reliably from mid (sometimes early) November to late March, peaking in February – March when over 100 may occur. Views are often superb, especially early morning when the perch openly and can be scoped at leisure.
In general, the best area to look for Hypocolius is highlighted in red in the map above although, over many visits, groups have been seen at various parts of the island, particularly those marked in blue. Exact details, including how to get to Lulu Island, are presented at this link.
Although technically you are not allowed to walk in the island interior, being on the beach is generally ok, and nobody should bother you if stay on it. So you could walk along the beach up to the red area and then just cut in a little to check the best area – it is only a very short distance from the beach. Make sure you know the call – playing it back will not help but you nearly always hear the birds before you see them – there are freely available recordings, some of which came from Lulu Island, at this link.
Despite it being pretty arid and dry, birding generally is pretty good on Lulu, with as good a range of migrants as any site on Abu Dhabi Island, many of which have clearly just arrived off the Gulf. Hirundines, bee-eaters and the odd raptor and heron actively migrate along the leading line formed by the island and passerines such as wheatears sometimes seem to congregate at either end; the outer edge facing the gulf can be quite good for European Nightjar in late April to early May and (especially), late September to early October. Migrant Menetries’s Warblers are often easier to find here than elsewhere on Abu Dhabi Island.
Other good birds include the odd Socotra Cormorant and Sooty Gull, plenty of terns along the outer edge in spring (from mid March), Pallas’s Gull (pretty obvious flying over and about from December to March) and Chestnut-bellied Sandgrouse which are present on the island quite frequently although often rather hard to find.
2 Sites beyond Abu Dhabi island
2.1 Yas Island
The Yas Hotels area is c20-30mins taxi ride from any anywhere on Abu Dhabi Island and a 10min drive from the airport. It is included here as there are a number of hotels and other tourist attractions such as Yas Formula 1 track and Yas Waterworld. For a birder it is not a bad place to stay by local standards, as walking out in the morning to find a few birds is straightforward.
A worthwhile walk is along the edge of Yas Links Golf course, from the hotels to the Links car park at 24.478036, 54.599198. It may be possible, by sticking to the path, to walk further on (to the north and east) round the golf course edge. Please don’t go onto the golf course itself under any circumstances and be sure to keep a lowish profile and give any golfers a wide berth. The car park noted above provides a useful vantage point to scan the mangroves and estuary, although a telescope is essential and, even with it, many waders are too far to be comfortably identified. As well as waders, species may include Western Marsh Harrier, Caspian and Gull-billed Terns, Western Reef Heron and, if lucky and the right time of year, a sprinkling of migrants such as wheatears and wagtails. In addition, small numbers of Isabelline Wheatear and Isabelline Shrike (Daurian) overwinter. Socotra Cormorant have occasionally been seen on the estuary; White-cheeked Terns may well be about too (but the Officer’s Club D and Abu Dhabi corniche E are rather more likely sites). Hypocolius appeared annually in November for several winters up until 2016 and flew overhead from inland, from c1600-1700 each evening to roost in the mangroves. However, the flight path was often erratic so views were poor and they have not been seen in recent winters; their feeding area was never located.
B - Yas Gateway Park:
A short taxi ride (or longer walk) from the Yas Hotels. Start at about 24.489042, 54.625272
This large, green park may repay checking, especially in the early morning if there is a wave of passerine migrants coming through. Various shrikes, wheatears and warblers are possible, although the manicured grounds – and lack of really rich feeding opportunities – mean that many move on overnight so turnover can be quite high. The odd European Stonechat, Song Thrush and Isabelline Shrike (Daurian) linger all winter.
AWWR is an excellent Environment Agency–Abu Dhabi administered reserve that is a 20 min drive east of Abu Dhabi Island. Currently it is open on Thursday and Saturdays, 0800 to 1400 from late October until the end of April. Details, not necessarily regularly updated, are available from the EAD website at this link.
To get there, the only access road to the reserve is at 24.260952, 54.584500. From here a graded gravel road leads alongside the reserve boundary to the small visitor centre at 24.264565, 54.595831. There is shade, toilets and friendly staff here. If approaching by taxi or private car, be sure to use a navigation app but don’t follow it blindly – many sat navs seem to take one through Mafraq Industrial estate from the E22 Abu Dhabi – Al Ain road and the E11 Dubai – Tarif / Ruwais road. Whatever your sat nav says, don’t attempt this. Instead, take the Abu Dhabi / Mussafah to Al Ain truck road (E30) eastwards out of Abu Dhabi and do a U-turn at 24.252470, 54.637893 and back to the access road. Alternatively, if you come eastwards along the E22 Abu Dhabi – Al Ain road, stay on it until 24.282679, 54.645213 at which point you exit and turn south, cross the roundabout and follow the road before exiting again at 24.257899, 54.641661 and turn west on the truck road, soon to see the reserve fence and lake on your right and reach the access road noted above shortly afterwards.
AWWR is an excellent birding spot from autumn to spring but, as it gets busy on Saturdays from November to March and there is little shade, it is a good idea to get there as soon as it opens. Bring water; it is a 3km loop walk from the carpark to the hides. A telescope is very useful, and essential to really grill the waders and ducks. Full details about where to go are available at the visitor centre. The habitat is a shallow, very saline lake amidst sand sheets and some sabkha, with freshwater pools, partly overgrown by reed in several areas, due to the discharge of treated water from an adjacent water treatment plant. A very wide variety of waders are present, good numbers of dabbling ducks and Western Marsh Harriers winter and Greater Flamingoes breed annually in large numbers. Species of particular interest to visiting birders will include Great Spotted Eagle (scarce but regular in winter), White-tailed Lapwing (several pairs resident locally but may be tricky to find), Grey-headed Swamphen (recently established; breeding annually) and Clamorous Reed Warbler (abundant and, for much of the year, easy to see).
Al Wathba Camel Racetrack is c5km further east from AWWR and can easily be reached by driving east past AWWR on the E30 and turning south at 24.257899, 54.641661 or by turning off the Abu Dhabi – Al Ain road at 24.282679, 54.645213 (see above, as for AWWR) and then staying on this road as it goes over the E30; you will very soon see the racetrack on your left. The access point to actually get inside the track is at 24.229387, 54.653861 – from here, you can drive down the hill, although the area is often quite busy with camels and trainers early morning, at least at weekends. There may be a policeman in the box on the right but they will generally wave you on unless there is a big event on; if the latter, the place is better avoided completely as it will be crazy busy. Once inside, drive down to 24.232908, 54.652512 to scan the lawn behind you, and to access the grid of tracks inside. These can be accessed at 24.233505, 54.652266 and from there you can drive to the main cross track at 24.237039, 54.653408. All of this is easy in a saloon car and it is possible to drive left or right on the main cross track. Note, however, that many of the side tracks become sandy very quickly (especially those to the north of the main cross track) so are best avoided unless you really know what you are doing. The Camel Racetrack was formerly a legendary site, easily one of the very best in the UAE, until 2005, when the fodder fields were abandoned. It is now slowly reverting to scrubby desert and is but a shadow of its former self. However, it is as a good site to see wheatears (Desert and Isabelline), Asian Desert Warbler, Tawny Pipit and the odd shrike in the old grid of fields; Eurasian Skylarks, Water Pipits and (in some years) Corn Buntings winter on the grass by the grandstand. The odd raptor, stonechat and Bluethroat still occur and March can see quite nice falls of Pied Wheatear and sometimes Turkestan and Woodchat Shrikes. Egyptian Nightjar were formerly regular during winter (whilst the fields were still watered) and the odd one is still reported in autumn or winter.
Finally, the small plantation at 24.233817, 54.641962 is worth a look for variety for a few wintering warblers, most likely Lesser Whitethroat and Chiffchaff and Black Redstart (Eastern).
An older post on Al Wathba Camel Racetrack can be found here.
Other important sites:
Emirates Palace (no access)
No access unless you stay here. Probably the best birding spot on the island, incorporating most of the old hotspot Khalidiyah.
Saadiyat Beach Golf Club (no access)
No access unless you play here, but a top destination for wintering and migrating species.