Birding in Van

The trip from Georgia to Lake Van, in eastern Turkey was a bit awkward. We flew via Istanbul, an alternative would actually have been a bus trip from Tbilisi to Van. Had a bit of luck with the rental car at Van airport. This is the second time we are sloppy entering the arrival time at the airport, and when we arrive the car is gone. A local company had a car though, which was better than the one we had booked. We want to return the car in Antalya, making car rental a bit more complicated.

Van appears to be a very nice little city, friendly atmosphere, restaurants everywhere. It appears as if European visitors are rare here too, wherever we go people gawk curiously, albeit friendly.

First day birding started with pouring rain, thus we got a few well deserved extra hours of sleep. In the late morning, we went to a spot an hour away we received by Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu, turkish top birder who has been very helpful. It is very valuable to have a local birder to talk to when visiting foreign countries, Emin is the guy!

Just after a few kilometers up the mountain side, we connect with the first target bird. We hear it singing, and soon see it.

Grey-necked Bunting
Grey-necked Bunting

A very good WP bird, soon after we hear (and see poorly) over flying Crimson-winged finches. Very characteristic flight and call, after a few kilometers more up the mountain we get close.

Crimson-winged Finch
Crimson-winged Finch

The price bird of this mountain though is the Mongolian Finch. This is a bird Mårten has searched for in Armenia on numerous occasions without ever finding the bird. The tactic according to Emin Yoğurtcuoğlu is to just sit and wait at the spot. We do that for a while but soon get restless and spread out. After an hour or so, we find one, and then later two birds.

Mongolian Finch
Mongolian Finch

What we thought was going to be one of the hardest birds to locate in Turkey bagged on the first day.

Happy Campers
Happy Campers

Down by the car again, we see a couple of Black-headed Buntings. We’ll probably see lots of those as we travel Turkey. And finally, driving down the mountain we’re talking about Bimaculated Lark, and Mårten reads from the Collins Guide – They like high elevation area, just where agriculture is almost not longer possible. We all look out and say, well that’s here then and stop the car. First thing we hear is a singing Bimaculated Lark high in the sky.

Bimaculated Lark
Bimaculated Lark

Six new ticks in a day, we’ll probably never do that again during the year. Or maybe on Madeira in August!!

Kazbegi Georgia

Absolutely wonderful to go birding in a normal country where we don’t have to look out for police and militaries all the time. Normal customs, normal traffic, normal. The goal was to visit Kazbegi National Park. We rented a 4WD in Tbilisi and drove to Stepantsminda which is the mountain village at the foot of the impressive Kazbegi mountain.

We did a number of short road stops, the first by a small river which had some nice birds, nothing spectacular though.

European Bee-eaters
European Bee-eaters

Next short stop was better, with Green Warbler and Red-throated Flycatcher.

Red-throated Flycatcher
Red-throated Flycatcher
Green Warbler
Green Warbler

Nice lunch en-route where we, after traveling many muslim countries, could both satisfy our cravings for pig meat and some alcohol.

Cravings
Cravings

While eating a Lammergeir came flying over the lunch restaurant. A bird we have been worrying a bit over.

Lammergeir
Lammergeir

Finally, at Stepantsminda, we went birding immediately. New WP ticks came flying in directly. The Caucasian Snowcock calling from the mountainside, a few Red-fronted Serins and two Caucasian Black Grouse displaying on the mountainside.

Red-fronted Serin
Red-fronted Serin

 

The second day we started birding the bushes along the valley in Stepantsminda. We’d spoken to a few birders we met and apparently both the Great Rosefinch as well as the Güldenstädt’s Redstart had been seen in the valley. Griffon vultures were very common.

Torrent Vulture
Torrent Vulture

Scanning the bushes below the petrol station I  (Klacke) see one Güldenstädt’s Redstart flying over, the others were not able too see it though. This would be a horrible species to have on the Difference List. We searched for that bird to no avail.

Close to the village a sure spot for Wallcreeper was easy. This was a lifer for both Erik and me. One of those birds that stand out like a beacon in the Collins Birdguide.

After lunch we went with the car up to the famous Gergeti Trinity church on the mountain.

Scanning above the Gergeti Trinity church
Scanning above the Gergeti Trinity church

No Redstarts and no Rosefinches. A couple of Cinerous Vultures came soaring. Also a difficult WP bird which was very good to get.

Cinerous Vulture
Cinerous Vulture

Scanning slopes is the birding tactics in Kazbegi

Scanning Slopes
Scanning Slopes

Now the Güldenstädt’s Redstart and the Great Rosefinch both sailed up to an unthreatened position of most wanted bird, thus we decided to hike up the mountain next day. Both these species are true high altitude species. They winter in the valley, but  as spring come they go high. Unbelievably high, it’s hard to fathom how birds can live during such harsh circumstances. We started early in the morning in light rain. As we came higher the rain just continued to pour. Eventually it became snow which was easier to handle, but cold and windy.

Cold
Cold
Upwards
Upwards

Birding conditions were poor, however the high altitude species were active. The Snowcocks were playing like crazy in the mountains. Once we got up sufficently high, we were able to relatively easy locate the Great Rosefinch, we saw at least 10 birds.

Great Rosefinch
Great Rosefinch

No Redstarts though and eventually we gave up, cold and wet. One of the most common birds on the mountain was the Ring Ouzel, they were resident at very high altitude as well as way down in the valley.

Ring Ouzel
Ring Ouzel

In the afternoon the skies cleared and Erik and Mårten decided to make yet another attempt climbing the steep hill just below our hotel.

Climb
Climb

You see them as two small dots in the far. Again, the Snowcocks were displaying and Mårten managed to shoot a video.

Still no Redstart though. Next morning we decided to pursue the tactics of searching bushes in the valley. It had rained all night, and the theory was that with such bad weather, some birds might have decided to fly down to the valley. We went to a new place recommended by Frans De Schamphelaere just north of the village and – dang – we found one Güldenstädt’s redstart after just 5 minutes of scanning. Took the car down to those bushes trying to get better views and maybe a photograph, but we were never able to relocate the Redstart. Did get the best picture of the fast moving Mountain Chiffchaff though.

Mountain Chiffchaff
Mountain Chiffchaff

Also found a group of Rosy Starlings (new WP tick) and the best picture of Common cuckoo.

Rosy Starling
Rosy Starling
Common Cuckoo
Common Cuckoo

 

 

 

Wrap up Egypt

Our Egypt trip is now almost finished, yesterday we got our last two remaining target birds here in Egypt. The Senegal Coucal and Streaked Weaver. They were both relatively easy to locate in the agricultural fields close to Abou Hamad just north-east of Cairo. The Coucal we found almost directly

 

Senegal Coucal
Senegal Coucal

The Weaver was harder lo locate and we walked the foot paths among the fields for quite some time. Eventually three birds came flying over and landed shortly in some reeds so that we could all get good views. Pretty good birding in general in that area, with lots of Blue-cheeked Bee-eaters and also quite a few Greater Painted Snipe.

Greater Painted Snipe
Greater Painted Snipe
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
Blue-cheeked Bee-eater
White-throated Kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher

Apart from the debacle with binoculars at Egyptian customs, the Egypt trip must be considered a total success. We missed two species, the African Skimmer and the Goliath Heron, neither were present we believe.

Despite the chaotic traffic, we have managed to have zero incidents with the car, which by the way was a great car. Jeep Wrangler.

Chaotic manual petrol filling
Chaotic manual petrol filling

We were very happy with the 4WD jeep, so when we got stopped by the military at Suez and they asked if the car was 4WD, we said yes yes officer – it’s 4WD. That turned out to be the wrong answer there, no 4WD vehicles are allowed at all on the Sinai peninsula. Apparently this was part of a drive from the Egyptian authorities to fuck with the beduins – who they for some reason don’t like.

We have received a lot of help from various friends during out two week trip here in Egypt. Thanks a bunch !!!

  • Tomas Axen Haraldsson has led several trips to Egypt over the year. Tomas provided valuable information during the entire trip. He also set us in contact with:
  • Haitham Ibrahim, who also provided good info several times. Haitham set us in contact with:
  • Atyat Ghareeb, she borrowed us Haithams old binoculars. We would have missed species without those.
  • Mohamed Habib provided good info.
  • Bob Swann, provided the call of the Yellow Bittern. Without that we would have missed the bird. The song that exists on Xeno Canto is all wrong. We later also got the same song by email from Santamaa Markku.
  • Dan Pointon had good information on the Saunders Tern.
  • Istvan Molodovan who does field work in Egypt had good information on which roads were possible to use.
  • Pierre-Andre Crouchet, who provided the final piece of the puzzle for the Yellow Bittern.

Mangrove mania!

With this trip to Egypt it’s clear that the character of our project is slowly changing. We are doing less and less of what us birders call primary birding e.g going to good birding spots and just observe whats there. Now with over 550 species on our list, the days with twenty new species in a day are long gone. Our focus now is almost exclusively very specific targets, like the Yellow Bittern in Lahami mangroves. It was discovered in 2012 by Jens Hering and his german research team. Only 26 birders have registrerad the bird on their Netfugl list. We went there determined to find it.

The mangrove is fairly small and in 2013 at least 3 pairs where breeding there. It might sound like an easy mission but nevertheless the birds proved extremely tricky to locate. We arrived in evening just before sunset and went straight out into the mangroves wading in waist deep muddy water. But no sign of the Bittern. Went back the next morning now walking around and into the mangroves again, for hours, listning and play-backing hoping to get contact. No luck.

20170506-S57A5804
Me and Mårten in the mangroves

Durring low tide we moved on to another patch of mangroves where another target bird, Goliath Heron sometimes hang out. Walking the tidal mudflats in the 40 + heat is some what energy consuming. Saw some nice birds there but no Goliath…

sooty-falcon
Sooty Falcon was fairly common
So was Western Reef Herons
So was Western Reef Heron
And Sooty Gulls
And Sooty Gull

Next morning we where back at Lahami mangroves before sunrise, again trying for the bittern. All of a sudden a bittern-sized bird comes flying centimeters from Klackes nose and crashes into a mangrove tree just next to us. Hearts pounding we encircle the bush, almost sure that we would now get our precious bird. Mårten sticks his head into the tree and surprisingly calls out. “It’s a fucking Corncrake!”

corn-crake
Cool but no cigar

An hour south of Lahami lays El Shalateen, a small town just on the Sudan border which is famous for it’s big camel market and amongst us birders as THE place to see Lappet-Faced Vulture in the WP. We went there. To enter the town you must pass a good number of military check-points making the day trip a nervous one for us. Utterly afraid that they would find and confiscate our last remaining scope. Luckily they didn’t and the vulture was easy.

lappet-faced-vulture
A true monster with a wingspan of up to 290 cm

On our third day of searching for the bittern in the mangroves it felt like an impossible task. The birds where clearly not calling and seeing one felt even more unlikely. We had decided to give it one last try before continuing north and where back at the same spot wading out in the mangroves as the sun was rising from the turquoise sea. Then it happened! A Yellow Bittern was calling three times with it’s characteristic “whop whop whop” BINGO! We where relieved to leave the mangroves, never to go back!

YEEEES!
YEEEES!

Some other nice birds from the mangroves.

eastern-olivacious-warbler-mangrove
Eastern (Mangrove) Olivaceous Warbler everywhere
Lesser Grey Shrike
Lesser Grey Shrike
Don't touch my fish!
Don’t touch my fish!
crab-plover
Crab Plover
What a stunner! Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater
What a stunner! Blue-Cheeked Bee-Eater

Or next target turned out too be much much easier. After a nine hours drive with Valerie June and Swedish Radio documentary about the spectacular Arlanda Airport robbery in 2002 we arrived at the site for Chestnut-Bellied Sandgrouse south west of the small town Al Bahnasa.

It was a hot day, too hot to move so we found a good vantage point and started scanning. After about 1 hour I spotted three birds in the distance going down in some fields one km away. We quickly drove there and as we entered the field the owner of the land approached. As always we took our Collins Bird guide, smiled and said “Tayir” bird in arabic, and pointed at the picture in the book and the area where the birds where. The owner smiled and said something in arabic and after some advanced body language we had access to his fields and where invited for a nice cup of tea. Very nice!

chestnut-bellied-sandgrouse
Chestnut-Bellied Sandgouse

The following day it was time for another WP speciality namely Saunder’s Tern on the Sinai peninsula. A few years ago our friend Mohamed Habib found a nesting colony close to Ras Sedr again showing how under birded this country is. The terns where very easy and present in good numbers. Another one down! Two more to go before we leave Egypt and get our binoculars back!

Saunder's Tern
Saunder’s Tern
Another one just for fun
Another one just for fun

Traveling, Sleeping, Eating

I wanted to write a bit about how we travel, what we do and what we don’t do. What works well and what doesn’t. We’ve now traveled quite a few countries and learned quite a bit. So here goes.

Camping

The advantages of camping are several, it’s cheap (free actually) but the best is probably that it gets you species. Usually we try to camp on the spot for one or several birds. A good example is the Golden Nightjar spot in Western Sahara. Camping lets us be on the spot late in the evening, and then also waking up on the spot early is obviously good. We’re carrying a 3 person dome tent as well as cooking gear. The stove we use is a Primus multi fuel stove that runs on petrol as well as on diesel. Petrol and diesel are easy to buy everywhere. The dish we have settled on we have nick named Golden Rice, since the first time we cooked it was at the Golden Nightjar spot. The ingredients vary, but it’s basically rice, tomatoes, onions, chilli powder and whatever. If sausages are available they go in too. Fry everything, add rice and water – boil – eat. Everything in one casserole.

We’re also  traveling with sleeping bags and sleeping mattresses. All this is pretty bulky, and almost one entire bag is full of camping gear. It’s worth it though, especially since it makes us much more flexible. When driving, we know that we have the camping gear, thus there is almost never any panic as to where we shall sleep, we can always choose to set up the tent somewhere in the dark.

Internet

So far we have managed to have proper internet in all countries we have visited. We have a low-end Android phone, and we buy new SIM cards in the countries we visit. This can sometimes be a bit of a hazzle, but usually works fine. The low-end phone has the local SIM card, and then we use WIFI tethering on that phone to share internet to our regular phones and laptops. We consume almost 1 Gig per day. Internet is cheap though, especially so in countries like Morocco and Egypt. It’s invaluable to have Internet on the road. It makes things like eBird research and hotel bookings just so much easier. Prior to the year – while researching which birds are where, we did enter a lot of eBird/observado GPS points into a shared “Google My Maps”. From there it’s possible to export a KML file, which can be imported into an (Android only) map app called Locus. Thus, even without internet, we would have access to offline maps with GPS points for the important birds. So far we haven’t used the Locus Map that much since we have had proper Internet.

Hotels

Usually we sleep in hotels or sometimes in apartments. We use the booking.com app or sometimes just the regular hotel search on google maps. This has worked very well. We usually try to make the bookings as late as possible en route in the car. We don’t want to be tied up by hotel bookings, it’s better to focus on the birding tactics and late in the afternoon decide where to sleep. Flexibility is key. Prices of hotels are very different and sometimes it can be ridiculously cheep. Especially in Egypt, we have had a few full board hotels for as little as 10 Euro / night for the three of us. It’s probably subsidised by the Egyptian government.

Customs, police and checkpoints

Countries like Morocco and Egypt have checkpoints on the roads pretty much everywhere. Especially the Moroccan ones were irritating since each stop could take up to 10 minutes with police men writing down the details from our passports. A good trick is to have ready made copies of your passports that can just be handed out to the police at a checkpoint. In Egypt the checkpoints are military, not police, and pretty relaxed.

In Morocco we developed the ultimate checkpoint tactics. Here goes – read this and use for the remainder of your lives. When driving in to a police checkpoint you must never ever, under no circumstances have any eye contact with the officer standing there making the split-second decision weather to stop the car or let it through. That’s it, and it works unbelievable well. Since we started to employ this tactics, our checkpoint track record is stellar.

Customs and Airport Security is a harder nut to crack. In Rabat, Morocco we had our cameras and scopes confiscated by the customs. There the story was that we needed a permit from the “Ministry of Communications” in order to travel the country and photograph. We think they were just generally afraid of journalists, especially journalists travelling south into Western Sahara. We were able to get the damned permit, but it took the best part of a day to get it. However, the trick when flying with optics into Morocco is easy, just don’t fly to Rabat, choose Casablanca or Marrakech where they are more accustomed to tourists and optics are fine there in the customs. On our second trip to Morocco, we flew to Casablanca. The customs inspected our optics and there were no problems.

Egypt is a different story altogether though. In short – it appears to be a random process. Some birders get optics through customs, some don’t. We had almost all our optics, including the binoculars confiscated at customs. We’re not the only ones, others have had similar bad experiences with Egyptian customs. This situation is so bad, and random, so until this changes we cannot recommend Egypt as a birding destination at all. Unless you’re desperate for those (pretty awesome) WP ticks, choose another country. If you do go to Egypt, put all optics into the checked in luggage. If possible, choose a camera lens that is smaller. We have Cannon 100-400/5.6 lenses and those went through.

This is something for Birdlife International to work on. Egypt is a fantastic birding country, and it would be a shame if birdwatching tourism died out due to idiotic rules.

Music

We spend a lot of time driving. Offline music in the car is extremely important. These are some of our offline Spotify lists. Enjoy.

Pet Sounds Stefan from the hipster record store in Stockholm.

Lennart Persson a collection of what now deceased music critic Lennart Persson wrote about

Klackes Songs

Leon Hennings our friend Leon has impeccable taste in music, these are his most listened to songs last year.

 

 

 

Naked in Egypt

An expression amongst birders is – to go naked. That means don’t go without binoculars. That’s what we’re doing here since customs and airport security confiscated our binoculars and scopes upon entry to Egypt. We did some manoeuvring with different flights etc, so we actually have  one Swarovski scope and we also have the two 400mm lens cameras, plus a borrowed bin, thus we actually get by. Gear will be returned to us when we leave the country. Anyways, apart from the authorities here, birding is great.

First actual birding day, we went on a short boat trip in Hurugada, vaguely searching for Sooty Falcon over the city. We did get excellent views of the common White-eyed Gull.

White-eyed Gulls
White-eyed Gulls
White-eyed Gull
White-eyed Gull

As well as one single Sooty Gull.

Sooty Gull
Sooty Gull

Started the long dive through the desert towards Luxor and the famous Crocodile Island. The road was strange, almost empty and good asphalt. Lots and lots of Spotted Sandgrouse along the road.

Spotted Sandgrouse.
Spotted Sandgrouse.

Stayed at a fancy pants hotel in Luxor, and we throughly enjoyed a beer in the evening, watching the massive Nile flow by and listening to the displaying Senegal Thick-knees.

Once on Crocodile Island, we went with the first light searching for the Painted Snipe, which was fairly easy to locate. Apparently it is common in suitable habitat along this stretch of the Nile. It’s a skulky bird though, and if they are inside the reeds, they can be missed.

Painted Snipe
Greater Painted Snipe

The impressive African Swamphen was also common on Crocodile Island.

African Swamphen
African Swamphen

The Island also had quite a few of Green Bee-eater, the Cleopatra sub species which lacks blue. Nice bird.

Grren Bee-eater (ssp cleopatra)
Grren Bee-eater (ssp cleopatra)

Herons breed by the thousands along the Nile, especially Squacco is common.

Squacco Heron
Squacco Heron in full breeding plumage

Driving south along the Nile we did several short stops looking for African Skimmer. Later we learned that the Skimmers are only present along the Nile in the winter. The Nile is spectacular, wherever you look into the water it is just boiling with fish and other critters. No wonder there are so many Herons and Kingfishers.

Pied Kingfisher
Pied Kingfisher

The Barn Swallows in Egypt are of the sub species savignii and they are beautifully dark.

Barn Swallow (ssp savigni)
Barn Swallow (ssp savignii)

Next spot was the city of Aswan where we arrived in the evening. Mårten suggested that we should check out the dam, so we drove to vantage point in the last light and brought up our only scope, soon we saw militaries in the distance coming running towards us, thus we packed up real fast and drove off real fast feeling real stupid. Of course the dam is protected, what were we thinking of. Close call.

First light next day, we went to the fish ponds of Aswan where we were able to quickly locate the Three-banded Plovers. These fish ponds are well known to birders, and if you go really early in the morning, there are no guards and you can enter freely.

Three-banded Plover
Three-banded Plover

Birding in the ponds was generally good, and we got our first good views of the Nile-valley Sunbird which we’d only seen poorly earlier (No bins !!)

Nile-valley Sunbird
Nile-valley Sunbird

Heading further south towards the WP border and the city of Abu Simbel where I now sit and write this. Staying at a nice, albeit pricey place called Nubian Guesthouse (not much to choose from here)

Abu Simbel is truly a famous WP birder spot, just on the border of Sudan. Many african vagrants have been found here over the years, and the big Lake Nasser also hosts a couple  of WP price birds.  Arrived here in the afternoon and immediately went birding along all the small bays north of Abu Simbel. Two tools are invaluable here, Google Maps Satellite and a good 4WD car, not just any 4WD but a rough one.  We have a Jeep Wrangler and driving mud and sand is almost as fun as birding, but not quite. The third or fourth bay we checked, a Kittlitz’s Plover came flying in calling ‘kittlitz’ ‘kittlitz’ (Is that a coincidence or what’s the story behind that ?? Kittlitz was a naturalist in the early 19’th century, was he given the Plover due to the call ??)

Kittlitz's Plover
Kittlitz’s Plover

Next day we had organized (through the Guesthouse) an all-day boat trip on Lake Nasser. Went at first light with packed lunch. On one small island, we found two African Pied Wagtails.

African Pied Wagtail
African Pied Wagtail

Soon the wind picked up, and we were not able to pursue further north towards a bay where we the previous day had seen a couple of Pelicans in the far distance. We had to turn back. After a short stop on an island, the motor broke down. Eventually help arrived and we headed back to the guesthouse for lunch. Good birding in the lake though, few but good species.

Yellow-billed Stork
Yellow-billed Stork
Yellow-billed Kite
Yellow-billed Kite
White-winged Tern
White-winged Tern
Whiskered Tern
Whiskered Tern

Clamorous Reed Warblers and Graceful Prinias are abundant.

Clamorous Reed Warbler
Clamorous Reed Warbler

The Island where we were stranded when the motor broke down hosted a number of Senegal Thick-knees. In the evenings you hear this species everywhere but they hide well during daytime, requiring some work to get good views.

Senegal Thick-knee
Senegal Thick-knee

The temperature here now is nice, not too hot. Swimming in the lake is refreshing though.

Swimming Lake Nasser (no croks)
Swimming Lake Nasser (no croks)

 

In the afternoon we took the car, heading for the bay where we had earlier seen the Pelicans. Off road driving like crazy, we come to a couple of sheds. Suddenly a couple of guys take off in a hurry, running. They are as afraid of the authorities as we are. Our black Jeep looks intimidating. Mårten understand quickly what’s happening and manages to hold the guys off. Once they understand that we’re not authorities, Mårten offers some cigarettes, we’re all friends. Their bay does indeed host a couple of Pelicans. The first ones we see are Great White Pelicans though, we’re looking for the Pink-backed Pelican. Eventually two Pelicans come flying in, landing in the distance, and the looked smaller. Drove there and – Dang! – Pink-backed.

Pink-backed Pelican
Pink-backed Pelican

Tried some more bays and points for the African Skimmer, but no luck. The Skimmer is the second bird this year that we miss, the first was the Shikra in Kuwait. We met a group of German ringers at the Guest House, they had been on the Lake Nasser for two weeks, ringing on the islands. They hadn’t seen any Skimmers in two weeks on the lake, so I guess they are still in Sudan. Win some – loose some.

 

Morocco revisited

Second trip to Morocco. Since we picked off all the important migrating warblers in Mauritania, the target list for this Morocco trip was pretty short. This time we flew to Casablanca, not to Rabat where they confiscate optics gear at the customs. This seem to be a general tip for birders visiting unstable countries, go to the tourist resorts, not the capital unless you want to gamble with confiscated scopes and cameras. Our next trip is Egypt, and we have chosen to fly to Hourgada instead of Cairo for this very reason.

Started off with a long drive up into the low Atlas, the first good birds we encountered was a group  Seebohm’s Wheatear. Especially the females appear to be poorly documented on the Internet. Here are two females.

Seebohm's Wheatear (female)
Seebohm’s Wheatear (female)
Seebohm's Wheatear (female)
Seebohm’s Wheatear (female)

On our February trip to Morocco, we had a suspicious female Wheatear, possibly Seebohm’s, but we could not find sufficient documentation to safely determine if it was a Seebohm’s female or not.

The Seebohm’s Wheatear is still considered to be a subspecies of Northern Wheatear by IOC, we would not be surprised if the Seebohm’s Wheatear is soon elevated to full species status. Especially the male stands out.

Seebohm's Wheatear
Seebohm’s Wheatear

Kept driving into the evening all the way to Zaida for the Dupont’s Lark that we couldn’t find in February. We made a short attempt on the Zaida plains the same evening to no avail. It was raining and the wind was high. Instead we took up on information from our friend Arjan Dwarshuis that the birds start singing in the dark, one hour before sunrise. Thus, the morning after, in the pitch black dark on the Zaida plains we go. We drive up to the area and just before we stop the car, Mårten says “Ett två tre kryss” (One, two, three, tick) and as we open the car door we can hear the very characteristic song of the Dupont’s Lark out in the dark. Later as the light came, we got good views.

Dupont's Lark
Dupont’s Lark

A very secretive bird indeed, we saw the Larks running away in the grass, fast runners with a hunched fast running style. Like mice.

With the Lark finally secured we headed west towards Rissani where we met up with Hamid Gbt of Gayuin Birding who met us at the entrance to Rissani and graciously showed us the needle in the haystack, a day roosting Egyptian Nightjar. Very very difficult to find.

Egyptian Nightjar
Egyptian Nightjar

What a camouflage. Hamid and his brother Brahim Gbt run a professional bird guide company here in Morocco, Gayuin Birding. Nice setup.

Headed back towards the Ifrane area in the Low Atlas. This is a most beautiful part of Morocco with green slopes, cattle and sheep. Found a wonderful Auberge, and Eriks girlfriend Anna Malmström met up there. Next bird on the list was the Atlas Flycatcher, it was easy to find the NP close to Ifrane.

The forest was nice to walk in, and the high altitude temperature was a relief compared to what we’ve had earlier.

Forest
Forest

When we woke up the next morning, stepped out on the balcony at the Auberge the first Roller of the year sat on a wire.

European Roller
European Roller

In the forest we also had Firecrest, and the Short-toed Treecreepers were everywhere.

Short-toed Treecreeper
Short-toed Treecreeper
Firecrest
Firecrest

After an excellent lunch in Ifrane, we went to the Lac Oaua, which we also visited in February. Nothing new there, but we got some exceptional photographs of Black-necked Grebe.

Black-necked Grebe
Black-necked Grebe
Black-necked Grebe
Black-necked Grebe

As well as of the

Red-knobbed Coot
Red-knobbed Coot

Next group of target birds were way down on the coast south of Casablanca, a looong drive to a spot for the weird bird Small Buttonquail. I remember the first time I read about the Small Buttonquail many years ago and thought – I will never see this bird, ever. Now we were on the spot. It turned out to be very difficult. We spent the entire evening on and around the spot. We walked fields, playbacked and waited. During the entire evening the Buttonquail called two times. The call is very strange, it sounds like a distant cow. We never saw the bird, only heard it.

We found a beautiful little hotel  in the little tourist village of Oualidia. First slow time during the entire year, several days to spend and very few target birds to chase. As a freak accident, just as we are here in Morocco, IOC decides that the subspecies ambiguus of European Reed Warbler should in fact be part of the African Reed Warbler complex. Good writeup at Magornitho by Muhamed Amezian.

I remember we spoke of this when we heard singing Reed Warblers in Western Sahara in reedy breeding habitats. Thus, we go Reed Warbler hunting along the coast wherever we see reeds. Soon we find several singing males. This one is African.

African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)
African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)
African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)
African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)
African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)
African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)
African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)
African Reed Warbler (ssp ambiguus)

Shorter Primary Projection and very light underparts and throa are the characteristics as well as pale back.

Next day had some good winds, and we decided to do some sea watching from a point on the coast. Good winds, and hundreds of Northern Gannet. Quite a few Cory-like Shearwater, but we never got sufficiently good views to nail them. Cory’s and Scopolis Shearwater are very similar, this article is a good writeup on the differences.

Last day, made a stop in the early morning hours at the Buttonquail site, it would be nice to see the bird. This time we heard the bird once. It’s gotta suck to be British here – when you HAVE to see the bird….

 

 

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Mauritania blockers

We finally went to Mauritania, we have been wavering back and forth weather we should go here or not, eventually we decided for. It’s not an especially easy country to visit, logistics are difficult. Through a friend of Markus Craig, who joined us for this trip, Rob Tovey who lives in Mauritania, we got in contact with a Dutch guy called Just, running a hostel called Bab Sahara in the city of Atar. Anyone who ventures to follow us here, and go for the WP price birds in northern Mauritania should get in contact with Just. It’s not possible to rent a car, you have to get hold of a good 4WD such as a Landcruiser, and getting a good driver is invaluable. Just arranged this for us in an excellent way. We met up with our driver, Sidaty, at the airport and spent the first night in Nouakchott at a decent hotel. Early in the morning we headed towards Iwik, a small fishing village in the Banc d’Arguin National Park .

Banc d’Arguin is mostly famous for its impressive amount of wintering waders. From a WP lister point of view it also holds a healthy population of Grey-hooded Gulls.

Grey-hooded Gulls
Grey-hooded Gulls

As well as two species of cormorants, the Reed Cormorant.

Reed Cormorant
Reed Cormorant

More complicated are the White-breasted Cormorants that breed by the thousands in Banc d’Arguin. They are not easily distinguishable from the Marrocanus ssp of Great Cormorant. Possibly more research is required to determine which is what here. There were thousands of Cormorants, all looking like this adult.

White-breasted Cormorant
White-breasted Cormorant
White-breasted Cormorants
White-breasted Cormorants

The Banc d’Arguin was truly an interesting place to visit, the rich sea meets the barren desert, and the shores were teeming with waders. The large flocks of Spoonbills, White-breasted Cormorants, Great White Pelicans and Royal Terns flying by.

wb-cormorants

Ruddy Turnstones in particular were abundant.

Turnstones
Ruddy Turnstones

This is possibly also the easiest place in WP to see the Royal Tern.

Royal Tern
Royal Tern

Migrating Black terns were a bit unexpected.

Sooty Tern
Black Tern
Sooty Tern
Black Tern

There are decent sleeping and eating facilities in the little fishing village of Iwik. We had a nice fish meal for dinner prepared by the villagers and slept in a small house. No need to camp.

The borders of WP are essentially the 21st latitude, with an exception for the islands outside of Banc d’Arguin. Thus, nothing on the mainland is tickable, only birds over the ocean and on the islands. We also, must not be on the mainland. So are the WP rules and we abide by them.

Next target was a small wadi just south of Choum. Pierre-Andree Crouchet recently found Blue-naped Mousebird there, and we just followed his footsteps. Easy.

Blue-naped Mousebird
Blue-naped Mousebird

The area of these Mousebirds was very barren, with vast areas of rock. A wadi with sparse trees and bushes held the birds.

Area south of Choum
Area south of Choum

This is the habitat of Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse, the third time we see this beautiful Sandgrouse this year.

Lichtenstein's Sandgrouse
Lichtenstein’s Sandgrouse

The distances of Mauritania are huge, the country is big. Driving between the sites take time, long time. And every little stop takes time, if there ever was a time to quote the Douglas Hofstadter theorem it is now. It goes: Everything takes more time than you would expect, even if you consider Hofstaders theorem. Next target was an area north of Oudane, close to the famous Eye of Sahara. The Auberge Bab Sahara was ideally situated in between, and it was truly a relief be welcomed there with excellent food and some home brewed cold beer. Thanks Just!!

The drive to Oudane was also a long drive on a dirt road. Once we reached the wadi, which is just north of the 21st latitude we started to search for African Grey Woodpecker that was recently seen there by Pierre-Andree. Birding in the wadi was good in general, lots of good WP birds. Sudan Golden Sparrow was the most common bird with large groups seen all the time. Cricket warbler was also there, not as common though.

Cricket Warbler
Cricket Warbler

Also common was the western variant of Eastern Olivacious warbler, a.k.a Saharan Olivacious warbler, as well as many Isabelline Warblers, Namaqua Doves and Western Orphean Warblers.

Isabelline Warbler
Isabelline Warbler
Western Orphean Warbler
Western Orphean Warbler
Namaqua Dove
Namaqua Dove

A Fennec Fox had it’s den close to our camp, certainly the cutest fox.

Fennec Fox
Fennec Fox

Another rare WP bird that was common in the wadi was the African Collared Dove. The call was unmistakable and it’s easy to distinguish from European Collared Dove.

African Collared Dove
African Collared Dove

However, it was the woodpecker we were searching for, not the regular WP birds. The bird was not easy to locate, and just  before sunset Mårten has the bird on playback, he never sees it, but it responds to tape. We were all searching in larger and larger circles, and gathering the group took some time. Eventually when all 4 of us were gathered at the spot where the woodpecker responded, we could not relocate the bird before the sun set. It was a pretty frustrated group that went back to camp for dinner. We did enjoy the beautiful desert sunset though. No denying.

Sunset north of Oudane
Sunset north of Oudane

Woke up before sunrise to pursue the search for the Woodpecker. Went back to the crime scene and playbacked the call. No response. Again, started to search the area in general. This time together though, since the batteries of the Walki-talkies were dead. Finally we connected with the Woodpecker – which this time did not respond to playback at all.

African Grey Woodpecker
African Grey Woodpecker

We decided to do some additional birding further up in the wadi, and found one additional African Grey Woodpecker there. This upper area is smaller, and for the benefit of other WP listers trying to find this bird, the upper area is probably the best bet.

With the Woodpecker secured we had lunch and decided to go back. Waiting for our driver, Sitatty to fix some broken tires in the village of Oudane, just outside the WP border we hung out in the shade, enjoying the Black Scrub-robins.

Black Scrub-robin (outside WP)
Black Scrub-robin (outside WP)

 

 

 

Open letter to the Emir of Kuwait regarding immoral hunting practices

Dear, Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah, Emir of Kuwait. I’m writing this open letter to you as a result of our recent visits to your country. We are foreign bird watchers, ornothologists and naturalists, and we have just spent a couple of weeks in Kuwait in January, and now a week in April bird watching.

We are chocked by the amount of immoral hunting we have seen. We think that hunting and nature conservation can co-exist, but clearly not the way your people are currently behaving. The way hunting is practiced here in Kuwait, or rather should I say killing is immoral for the following reasons.

  • It’s not your birds, the migratory birds are just passing through here, they are not yours to kill.
  • Hunting should always have an element of sportsmanship, driving a 4WD through the nature reserves where exhausted migrating birds rest on their way north and shoot from the car window is barbaric.
  • Some birds are rare, whereas other are not. Many people, all over the world appreciate hunting. Indiscriminate killing of rare birds is unacceptable, the hunter MUST know what he or she shoots. Case in point, a group of 16 Caspian Plovers were resting in north Kuwait recently, this is an endangered species where elsewhere in the world,  people spend time and money to ensure the survival of the species, here in Kuwait, this winter, they were all shot, for fun.
  • And finally, the worst of them all, killing for fun is clearly immoral. Shooting arbitrary birds for target practice is almost evil. This we saw several times. An especially memorable moment was one of the days when we came down to the beach at Jahra. A father and a son were there, the father playing bird calls from the car, and the son, maybe of age 15, was shooting swallows over the sea. When we started to watch the birds through our binoculars, while they were killing them, they both must have felt ashamed as they left the beach looking down into the ground.

Thus, Dear Emir, we urge you to follow the recent example of Lebanon, which has just passed new laws fitting for the 21’st century regulating hunting.

Thanks for your attention,

Claes Wikström, Mårten Wiström, Erik Rask.

43 degrees in the shade

With just a few days – and birds left in Kuwait, we’re trying to focus on the few important birds we have left. In particular Basra Reed Warbler and Shikra. The weather is getting worse, the first few hours in a day are good, but then mid day the temperature goes haywire (+43) and bird activity drops to nothing. All birds we see in the trees sit exhausted with beaks fully open. We get exhausted too, the strength just runs out when walking in bushes.

We reached out to an expert in Pratincole identification, Gerald Driessens, and the suspected Oriental Pratincole from yesterday was rejected, it was a regular Collared Pratincole. It was a tricky bird indeed where many good birders and friends of us also thought it was an Oriental. Well well – win some – loose some.

Started in the morning, went to a pool at Al-Liyah checking for Pale Rock Sparrow which had been seen there previously. The Al-Liyah is a reserve, with guards. The guards were friendly, and when they saw that we were birders and not hunters, we were allowed to enter. Just as we enter, they wave at us and make “photo” signs. We get out of the car, a bit confused, but they just wanted us to photograph a roosting Eurasian Scopes Owl, roosting right next to their little shed.

Eurasian Scopes Owl
Eurasian Scopes Owl

Remember the stir-up with the feathering of the claws on the Pallid Scopes Owl, this one clearly has no feathering on the middle tow.

Claws
Claws

No bird at the pool though, a nice male Montague’s Harrier came in. Also an awesome lizzard ran in the desert, a massive Egyptian Spiny-tailed Lizzard, a beast.

Egyptian Spiny-tailed Lizzard
Egyptian Spiny-tailed Lizzard

With the morning spent, we went to Mutla searching for Shikra. The heat was devastating and bird activity was at all time low. In a dry tree, we found a Yellow-throated Sparrow.

Yellow-throated Sparrow
Yellow-throated Sparrow

Hardy bird to handle that heat so well. Chilled out in AC area and then went back to Al-Liyah. Birding there was pretty good, with for example several Upchers Warbler.

Upchers Warbler
Upchers Warbler

Also saw a few Hume’s Whitethroat there again. When we were just about to leave, a flock of European Bee-eaters came in to roost in a tree. Beautiful.

Roosting European Bee-eaters
Roosting European Bee-eaters

Saw several hunters in the reserve, cruising with 4WD cars, guns sticking out the windows, ready to shoot down any Bee-eater they see. Sad sight indeed.

Next day was Basra  Reed-warbler and Shikra day at Al-Abraq. Woke up real early and were at Al-Abraq at first light. Plenty of Sparrowhawks flying around, we photograph everyone in hope of a Shikra – non alas. We walked the thickets, searching for Basra Reed. Mårten and I stand together peeing on a tree, think father-son moment, when we hear very very close the call of an Eastern Nightingale inside the tree/bush. We look at that at 50 cm distance, when Mårten whispers – I have a Basra Reed Warbler inside here, very close.  It took us a few hours to secure good footage of the Reed Warbler.

Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler
Basra Reed Warbler

It says something of skulky and slow the birds, when it took us 30 minutes to realise that a White-throated Robin

White-throated Robin
White-throated Robin

was also sitting inside that same small tree without us seeing it. We notified everyone else on Whatsup about the Basra, and AbdulRahman – with two clients, Paul Chapman and Maximilliano DeTorri arrived to see the bird too. Now, the heat was once again unbearable, chilled out in AC/coffee area, and finished the day in Jahra East where some Eurasian Curlew (ssp orientalis) were feeding. The bill is really impressive.

Eurasian Curlew (ssp orientalis)
Eurasian Curlew (ssp orientalis)

Next day we went back to Mutla, once again searching for Shikra. Met a local birder there, Bassel, who had just found a Black Bush-robin at Mutla, an exceptional bird for Kuwait. We on the other hand – hit a rock with the car in an manoeuvre to get better view of a flying Sparrowhawk. Car is broken and we are depressed, waiting for toll.