By Vesela Todorova
DUBAI // A shy waterbird from the wetlands of south Asia took a wrong turning and ended up in Dubai.
The watercock, known to ornithologists as Gallicrex cinerea, has now become the 460th bird species to be officially recorded in this country.
The bird with the faulty satnav was spotted last week by Gareth Tonen in the grounds of the Nad Al Shiba Avian Reproduction Research Centre in Dubai, where he works as an aviculturist.
“I recognised it was something different that should not be here,” he said. So he called David Le Mesurier, the centre’s manager, to take a look.
The bird offered no resistance to being captured, which led the men to believe it had flown off-course. “It was very tired when we found it,” said Mr Le Mesurier.
Watercocks inhabit marshes and wetlands across much of Asia, including India, Bhutan, Vietnam, China and Indonesia.
They released the bird, but emailed pictures to Tommy Pedersen of the Emirates Bird Recording Committee.
Mr Pedersen, a pilot, had been hoping for a glimpse of a watercock for 11 years, and travelled as far as Singapore, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
“It is very shy and secretive, so it is a very difficult bird to see,” he said.
When Mr Pedersen looked at the pictures, he needed “a tenth of a second” to recognise what he was looking at. “This bird is unmistakable,” he said.
Adult male watercocks can grow up to 40 centimetres in length and weigh more than 500 grams.
The birds’ plumage is dark grey and they have red legs and bills. Adult males also have horns. The birds have long bills that allow them to delve for food in muddy water.
While the bird has never been seen in the UAE before, it has been recorded in Oman on five occasions.
Wanting to view the bird for himself, Mr Pedersen arranged to meet Mr Tonen and Mr Mesurier, hoping the bird would stay in the area overnight.
The party, which included birdwatchers Mark Smiles and Mike Barth, set out last Thursday to find the bird.
After a futile search in the morning, they eventually found the watercock in the afternoon hiding in some bushes, mainly thanks to Mr Tonen, who crawled through thick undergrowth in a beekeeper’s suit to avert wasp stings.
The bird was released at 4.30pm at Al Warsan Lakes, near International City, where there is a habitat more suited to it. A party of 16 bird enthusiasts from Al Ain, Abu Dhabi, Fujairah and Sharjah, and their family members, gathered to witness the release.
“That was a very happy moment,” said Mr Pedersen.
For Mr Tonen, who is a keen wildlife photographer, the unusual encounter is a reminder of how much this country has to offer bird enthusiasts and wildlife lovers in general. The country is an important stopover for many migratory bird species and the time to see them is now.
“It would be nice if there were more people in Dubai who were aware of what is out there,” said Mr Tonen.