My visit to Jalu has profoundly altered my view on trans-Saharan migration and on the wintering of birds from Europe.
What I am going to say may make me sound a bit radical!
I believe that the Libyan greening of the desert projects have changed the migration and wintering pattern of a significant number of birds. Most of the change has been positive because it likely to have increased the survival rates of many birds and shortened their migration journeys.
There are four massive farming projects in the middle of the desert (marked red on my map) and at least two more in the north of the country. Each farm has a surface area of 1000 to 3000 hectares. Furthermore the Jalo/Awjila area is awash with water to irrigate the private sector farms (blue square on map). The result is a chain of fresh-watered green areas across the desert. No bird has to fly more than 300 kilometres from green oasis to green oasis. The surface area of green land in the Sahara desert has probably increased 10 to 20 fold (if not more) in the past ten years.
scheme of greening the desert projects in Libya
The German Ornithologist Jens Hering was first to realise the potential of these green projects. He observed hundreds of wintering white stork at two of the most southerly projects. He also found many lingered well into spring.
common crane flying over alfalfa fields, Jalu project
On my visit to Jalu and its private sector farms and gardens I noticed some species which are supposed to winter south of the Sahara. I will blog them tomorrow and the day after.
But today's blog is about my short visit to the Jalu government project two days ago. It involved a 30 kilometre 4 by 4 car journey across pure desert. For this visit I am indebted to a student at my work Abdulgader and to Mister Ali who manages the farm.
Jens Hering found hundreds of white stork at two government projects and I found common crane at the Jalu project. This is a good 1,000 kilometres from where the collins guide says they should be (although the UN winter count found a lager flock at Houn Oasis a few years ago). It is also at odds with the prevailing information that cranes take one of two routes to Spain and nearby NW Africa or to NE Africa via the Nile.
wintering northern wheatear in a wheat field in the middle of the Sahara!
Northern wheatear are supposed to winter south of the Sahara but I saw several in one field alone.
The guidebooks and websites don't help me when they say a bird winters north of the Sahara or it winters south of the Sahara because clearly significant numbers of some species now winter in the Sahara.
I think birders should come to Libya and find out which species have a new preference.
I know a little now about which species they are from my birding of the private sector farms in Jalo. I will blog this.
cattle egret at Jalu project
I only had about one hour's birding at the government project not because I was restricted but because the light failed. I would love to return.
kestrel at Jalu project
I saw many cattle egret. I also saw several kestrel. Both birds were easily seen despite my short time there because they are large and love sitting on the water sprinkling machines! There were obviously many passerines which take more time to identify than I had. You cannot get round 1500 hectares in an hour! I did identify short toed lark though.
white wagtail, Jalu project
I saw many white wagtail on the project. In some senses I was disappointed not to pick out any yellow wagtail which is nominally a winterer south of the Sahara.
I was lucky enough to speak to a retired environmental officer with one of the oil companies near-by who gave me more information. He told me that white stork winter at the next nearest green project 225 kilometres south between Jalu and Tazibu. He said that project has even more wintering birds than the Jalu project. He also said that in Jalu itself (over the past 5 years) he has seen a very big increase in passage birds in March and October.
I would really urge serious ornithologists to visit southern Libya. The old certainties have gone and we need to know what has replaced them. .