An elusive tropical bird flew thousands of kilometres from its home, making a rare stop at Dubai’s Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Reserve, also known as Al Qudra Lake, last week. The not-so-common Common Cuckoo’s visitation added a feathered flair to the popular unfenced reserve, now bustling with hundreds of migratory bird species as winter sets in.
Veteran local wildlife expert Dr Reza Khan, 77, said this is the first time he has sighted a cuckoo in three decades. “I was at the reserve surveying birds in the pivot fields on Friday accompanied by a young birder when it flew past us. I instantly recognised it as the Common Cuckoo. Soon after, it appeared within 50 meters of us, and we followed it with my car and saw it hunting caterpillars from a Ghaf tree. I was thrilled because my last sighting of a Common or Eurasian Cuckoo was in Dubai’s Safa Park during the early 1990s,” he recalled.
Despite their whimsical ties to the 17th-century cuckoo clock, these birds don’t bring melodious serenades to the country but instead remain quiet. Khan explained, “Unfortunately, we do not hear the sweet melody of the cuckoo in the UAE, as singing is typically associated with the breeding season—used for pair bonding, attracting partners, and maintaining contacts with peers—all of which doesn’t happen here. While some bird species incorporate calls into their daily routine, particularly passerines or songbirds, cuckoos and koels are not known for vocalising during non-breeding seasons. As a result, those passing through the UAE are notably quiet,” said Dr Khan.
According to UAEBIRDING, a dedicated birding website, the UAE is home to just five species of cuckoos, and none of them are residents. “Their presence ranges from uncommon to very rare or vagrant, making each sighting a noteworthy event,” said Khan, who is also the Principal Wildlife Specialist at the Public Parks and Recreational Facilities Department at Dubai Municipality.
“The common cuckoo is a widespread summer migrant to Europe and parts of Asia where they breed. It winters in parts of Asia and largely Africa. Some of them make their passage through the UAE and are spotted by birders like me,” he added.
Two other uncommon migratory waterbirds spotted by Dr Khan are the Water Rail and Spotted Crake. The Water Rail (Rallus aquaticus) is a rare to very uncommon migrant and winter visitor, present from August to May. Meanwhile, the Spotted Crake (Porzana porzana) is an uncommon migrant and winter visitor, typically observed from September to May.
In addition to the rare migrants, the Pivot Field and the entire Al Marmoom Desert Conservation Area are playing host to numerous winter migrants, including the Greater Spotted Eagle, Eastern Imperial Eagle, Bonelli’s Eagle, Black Kite, three species of Harriers, Common Kestrel, and the uncommon winter migratory European Roller, which might become not uncommon in autumn/spring.
Among other wetland and water birds are hundreds of ducks, cormorants, herons, egrets, ibises, snipes, sandpipers, stints, ruffs, plovers, etc., all categorised as non-passerines. “Passerines included three species of wagtails, two species of stonechats, three to four species of shrikes, pipits, orioles, buntings, and more,” he said.
The UAE plays host to nearly two million migratory birds annually, as reported by the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD). In the early ’90s, the UAE bird checklist noted 300 species. Thanks to the country’s environmental initiatives, that number has increased to 468. Over 60 per cent or 3 out of 5 of these birds are migratory.
Dr Khan credits the rise to the visionary policies and management protocols of UAE rulers who have transformed desert landscapes into avian winter wonderlands. He said the country is anticipated to remain a home for thousands of migratory birds from November to March.” They are drawn to man-made lakes, forests, pivot fields, paddy fields, orchards, and green verges or lawns, all of which provide an abundance of insects and worms when some local plants flower in winter. This ensures migratory birds find a suitable residence with plenty of food, water, and undisturbed shelter.”