Friday 29 January 2010

Kufra and the deep south

Photo courtesy of J.Bradbeer, Uweinat December 2009

Just how do you know when you are in the Sahara desert? Scientists tell you that it is the area where the rainfall is less than 100mm per annum. I propose a different, more practical, way of knowing. And it works in Libya. ...... It's where you find white crowned wheatears. If you see them you are in a desert area. If you don't see them you're not. It's that simple (well very nearly).

So I see distribution maps showing white crowned wheatears all over the Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian desert but the same maps put big blanks in large areas of Libyan desert. I have no idea why. But I can assure you they there in every wadi, town, village and oasis (or at least everywhere I or my friends have visited).

The photo at the top is a white crowned wheatear at Uweinat in the deep south east corner of the country. It was taken (like all of them in this blog) by a friend, Jon, who travelled into the far south east of Libya last month. Not many birds have been photographed down there. In fact I cannot find any records never mind photographs.

The "base" for anyone travelling in south east Libya is usually Kufra. Kufra is best described as one of the driest places on the planet two or three hundred kilometres from anywhere else.

Until last year, the only references to birds I had ever found for the settlement at Kufra is that there are resident little grebes at the waterholes. Well we can now add white crowned wheatears which were observed by Jon and also kestrels (see below left) and laughing doves (see below right).

Photos courtesy of J. Bradbeer. Kufra settlement. December 2009

Pioneering work by Jens Hering and other German co-workers showed that the Libyan government's greening the desert projects are producing some major effects for birds. These projects have planted dozens of green circles of citrus groves, palm plantations and fodder fields deep in the desert. The biggest scheme is just south of Kufra. They saw dozens of White Storks in Winter and very late Spring. There also saw kestrels. Kestrels were seen again by Jon (look closely at the photo below of a crop circle).

Photograph courtesy of J. Bradbeer. South of Kufra. December 2009

What ever you think of the environmental impact of these projects it is certain the birds are gaining at present. Several places where the effective rainfall is 1000mm per annum in the desert has got to be a plus for them on migration. Or in the case of storks they can decide why migrate any further. Let's stay here.

There were other birds there too. Can any one tell me what the silhouette is?

Photograph courtesy of J. Bradbeer. South of Kufra. December 2009

Jon travelled towards the corner of Libya which has both Sudan and Egypt as near neighbours. Uweinat is a highland area with a wadi. Don't forget the white crowned wheatear at the top of the blog came from here.

The wadi at Uweinat

Photograph courtesy of J. Bradbeer. Uweinat. December 2009

Not to be outdone by their cousins, desert wheatears were also fairly common. Below is one standing like a soldier and another one (two small photos at the bottom) in the same tree as the white crowned wheatear. I really wish I had been there with Jon!

Photograph courtesy of J. Bradbeer. Uweinat. December 2009

Photographs courtesy of J. Bradbeer. Uweinat. December 2009

Saturday 23 January 2010

Far out at Farwa

Last Friday, I visited Farwa. Farwa is in the far north west corner of Libya on the border with Tunisia. It's special. The island offers a very big lagoon with 90% protection from the sea. The lagoon is never deeper than one metre and its very,very big. It doesn't get polluted because it is connected to the sea at two narrow points north and south of the island. Curlews, spoonbill and a very large variety of other waders love it in winter. Whatever the height of their legs there is a space for a wading bird at Farwa.

But that isn't all. Inland and south of Farwa is a saltpan called Boukamesh. In winter this can be enormous (it goes into Tunisia) when full. And when it has water, hundreds of Flamingo move down from Jerba to their preferred winter holiday resort. Beware though, if it hasn't rained heavily the saltpan will be empty. Sadly it was virtually totally so on Friday! However as slight compensation two flamingos were seen at Farwa lagoon (see photo at the top).

That still isn't all. As well as a lagoon, island, and sporadically flooded saltpan, there is prime coastal garrigue and some maquis. In fact with the sand flats next to the saltpan the majority of the habitats of Libya are present in one place.

Twice now when we have visited Farwa we have not been able to avoid the temptation to stop at the Zuwarah- Al Mantoub saltpan which is en route. It can be seen from the main road. As we drove passed we saw that there were the usual large number of gulls. We reversed immediately. Closer inspection shown although a majority were Black Backed Gulls and Lesser Black Headed there were a few YellowLegged and Mediterranean Gulls. The prize sighting were three Caspian Terns among them. Below left you can see Martin and Ibrahim working out how to get a decent photograph of them. We got a bit of a hazy one in the end (see right below). The Caspian Tern is the one with the red bill.

These Caspian Terns could easily be the laziest ones in the world. The most southerly breeding colony is at Farwa. If these are from there they have flown 30 kilometres this winter. Most of their cousins fly from the Baltic or Caspian to the sub Sahara. This is roughly 100 times as far!

When we finally arrived at Farwa we chose to go to the salt pan first. To our collective embarrassment we were fooled by a mirage (honestly) to think there was plenty of water in it. We detoured to the south bank of it to get better light only to find the saltpan was nearly empty. Not only the saltpan has been affected by the abnormally very warm and dry winter. Even the almond trees are in blossom 6 weeks early.

Obviously a local farmer thought they would be more birds near the salt pan then we found. See his scarecrow below. But has nobody told him there are no crows in Libya?

As already mentioned the Farwa area is not short of birding options. You can lose on the saltpan swing and win on the lagoon and heathland roundabouts. We won on both roundabouts.

The heathland between the saltpan and the coast varies between almost desert (near the saltpan) though semi-desert to garrigue and even a few trees all in the space of 5 miles. We saw a desert wheatear, a flock of babblers (see one below left) and a Sardinian Warbler (the blurred picture below left) and many singular Stonechats (see the rather nice right photo ).

My favourite sighting in this area though was a mixed flock of local Goldfinches with immigrant Greenfinches (see below).

The Greenfinches scared more easily than the goldfinches. When I approached too close the flock separated by species! The Greenfinches flew straight to a tree which conveniently had few leaves.

On finally leaving the hinterland we had far too little time left for the coastal lagoon. On the fields next to it was a Kestral at rest (below left). But the lagoon did not disappoint. There were Spoonbill shifting the waters, dozens of Curlew in the water, and many other types of waders. See Turnstones and friends busily eating (below right).

And finally there is a blow up of the first photo of this blog showing the flamingos so large you might just be able to recognise them rather than take my word for it.

Jebel Nafusa

The hills which run east-west and are south of Tripoli are called the Jebel Nafusa. Or is that Jabal Nafusa, or Jebel Nufusa, or Jabal Nufusa or any other vowel combination. This is part of the reason it is so difficult to get geographical facts about Libya. The names are inter-changable. I live in Janzour, Zanzor, Janzoor, Zanzoor Janzor or Zanzour. Take your pick.

Anyway, Jebel Nafusa is seriously good for birds how ever you spell it. Moussiers redstart breeds here so don't let those Moroccan bird trip salesmen convince you that you must go to Morocco. Same goes for some other regional specials such as the house bunting. OK, the density of moussiers redstart is quite a lot lower here but I challenge any place to have more density of house buntings than the villages around Gharyan.

Part of the excitement of Jebel Nafusa is its reservoirs. The ones at Wadi Ghan and Wadi Zarat are important sites for water birds and waders. This blog though is not a exposition on all the birds of Jebel Nafusa but it is a record of one December's day out to Wadi Zarat which is in the northern foothills of the range. In addition, after this we went up to the very top of the north eastern side of hill range.

We turned off at a junction on the main Tripoli- Gharyan road some 20 kilometres north of Aziziyah which is famous for having the highest recorded and verified temperature in the world (57 degrees).

Some way down the road, there is a large bird sanctuary on the right. It is a genuine protected area. There is no grazing and there is no access. Things seem to be going well since you can see the natural garrigue has regenerated here. There is an artists impression of a barbary partridge on the gate. And its true there are barbary partridges around as I have seen them near by before. In the fields on the opposite side of the road we saw many crested (see picture below) and thelka larks.

We passed through the village of Az Ziribah. As a typical Jebel Nafusa village it had house buntings but my target bunting kept moving so as compensation here is a photograph of a black wheatear on the edge of the village (see below).

Nine kilometres further on is the entrance to Wadi Zarat. It had very little water (see below). This cames as a shock since a visit to the other wadi (Ghan) in September had shown a full reservoir.

Nevermind the width, feel the quality. We saw many shovelers, teal and ferruginous ducks. This was a good result because ducks are not common (to put it mildly) in western Libya. On the mud flats, there were little ringed plovers, greenshank and black winged stilt (photographed as below) at the same time. So you can see not all black winged stilts go south of the sahara for winter. Quite a few hang out in Libya.

Now I had said that the density of house buntings in the villages is high so I cann't really finish without a picture. It's just not credible to say they are common but I couldn't find one to photograph. So here is one (below) that was taken on the hill plateau at village south of Gharyan later in the day after we had moved on and up from Wadi Zarat.

carry on up the Kaam

Wadi kaam is famous in Libya because it has the longest permanent river in the country. It is nearly two(2) kilometres long all year round. This certainly puts the Nile into perspective.

The river flows because of an Ain (springs) reaches the surface just before the coast and flows the remaining 1.75 kilometres into the sea. In the other direction, this water doesn't link up anymore with the waters coming off the hills further up the wadi. It doesn't link up because there is a huge dam. And behind that dam can be a serious amount of water. In fact it is probably the largest fresh water body in Libya. It certainly is in winter when most rain falls in the Jebel Nafusa hills which feed the reservoir.

The wadi complex that is the Ain, the reservoir, and the valley between the two, is well worth a visit. Since where there is fresh water in Libya there are birds - plenty of them. I went to Wadi Kaam in late November.

It was a long drive from Tripoli. It's way past the tourist mecca at Leptis Magna. We decided to visit the reservoir by travelling along the Kaam valley before visiting the Ain (see purple circles on the map above). Mind you its not easy to find. There is a signpost in arabic which is easily missed without an arabic speaker. Then you pass a never-ending army camp. Its probably not wise to photograph there. However we did get out and notice serins and chaffinches (sub species -africana). Isn't this sub species so attractive! There were a few wintering robins too.

Two interesting birds which were seen in the valley were photographed. These were little owl and cattle egret (plenty of them actually).

The african bird club site says there has been an unconfirmed report of a little owl in Libya. Let me assure them they are alive, kicking and common.

The cattle egret is also nowadays a fairly common bird and spreading. The big change apparently was when it adapted to feeding off the Benghazi corporation tip. There is apparently lots of food there. They are the new herring gulls. They are good scavengers. Though, the picture above shows them feeding the traditional way in the valley.

At the reservoir itself we found a great diversity of species. There were cormorants, little and great egrets in or by the water (see photogrpah above) the water. Little crested terns and sandwich terns flew overhead. Flocks of goldfinch darted between the reservoir-side trees. Black redstarts were seeming standing around idly. There were plenty of chiffchaff around too. On the fields near-by thekla larks and black wheatears were going about their business.

My friend Martin even spotted a kingfisher at the reservoir edge. This bird is a rare winter visitor. It makes me wonder why the fatbirder website using it as the bird to adorn the Libyan pages. I think there are approximately 100,000 times more white crowned wheatears in Libya at any one time than kingfishers. Still it looks prettier I suppose!

Ain Kaam is a subtly different habitat to the reservior. It is fringed with very high reeds and loooks like a genuine river. The reeds are home to resident reed warblers. Scientists have found that unlike virtually everywhere else reed warblers in Libya are resident. The area around also house zitting cisticola.

The river had cormorants and egrets just like the reservoir.

The "estuary" had a few dunlin (see below) , little ringed plovers and a lone grey plover. Ain Kaam is quite an action packed 2 kilometre strip.

I cannot wait to visit this area again at the time of the spring passage and the breeding season.

Monday 18 January 2010

Into the desert

This blog is a desert flashback. It was late November and end of term so I took a break in Ghadames, a town in the north west Libyan sahara. It is famous for its world heritage old berber town. It is 8 hours' sensible drive from Tripoli. Most Libyans do it in 6 hours. The scenic route drives south from Tripoli onto the Jebel Nefusa hill range. Then west for ages on the plateau towards Nalut. Then south off the plateau into the desert for approximately for ever with only the odd camel, electricity pylon and mobile phone mast for extra company.

On the plateau towards Nalut you would have to have your eyes closed and wear an iPod continually NOT to see groups of brown necked ravens. We saw them.

This trip was a compromise. I wanted to bird watch with a smidgin of culture thrown in, the others wanted culture. So we didn't stop to bird watch seriously for the first 3 hours or so. We had lunch off road 12 kilometres south of Nalut. I never did get to eat my food. We weren't even meant to be bird watching but within 5 metres of the picnic blanket I saw and photographed without moving (see below) a hoopoe lark(upper left) , and a bar tailed lark(lower left) and a mourning wheatear. Wow. The moral is get lucky!

The books seem to spend a lot of sentences explaining the differences between a desert lark and bar tailed lark. But in the field its easy even to an amateur like me. The bar tailed lark behaves like a little stint on steroids. The desert lark is as cool as a cucumber. Also one likes slopes, the other likes the flat.

When we arrived in Ghadames we were based in the modern Ghadames Hotel. Its very smart in design and decor. The garden plants are attractive. Shame they planted eucalyptus round the perimeter of the gardens. They might as well have planted plastic trees for the number of birds these attract.

Here I am with friends (below left) at the hotel after a hard day's birding and "being cultural".

The locals are strangely attractive in their traditional costumes (see photograph above right). The old town is certainly attractive. All the area is fed by little water channels in the paths. These come from the springs which are the reason there is a town in the first place.

Now these water channels supply allotments (see photograph below) right next to the old town. And the allotments are great places for birds. In fact they are the greenest area for 250 kilometres in any direction.

Some allotments are maintained. Some are not. This increases the habitat types. The most obvious birds are laughing doves in the palms and white crowned wheatears (see right photograph) everywhere else. You bump into this bird every where in the Libyan desert. Among the laughing doves are a smaller number of eurasian collared doves (see left photograph). This is another bird the books say is not in Libya. It's expanding its range and has certainly reached Ghadames (though not Tripoli).

In the undergrowth at the allotments are many spanish sparrows and wintering chiffchaffs(below left). This area is worth a more serious look particularly during the passage seasons when the locals say there is a huge influx of birds.

The town has a bit of municipal pride. In a few places they have planted grass and it is well watered. These places are also popular with wintering white wagtails (above right) particularly in early morning and early evening.

Ghadames is well worth a visit. The sighting of collared doves shows just what surprises birding can bring.