Saturday 27 February 2010

Trip Report: Tripolitania (Libya) - February 2010

In mid February, Ibrahim (our Berber Guide and Driver) and I were joined by Dr. Paul Bowden and his wife Diana for some intensive bird watching. Our trip was over two weekends- February 12/13 and February 19/20.

Paul and Diana are experienced bird watchers and had good quality optics including photographic and video equipment. Ibrahim and I have extensive local knowledge so together we made a good team. Over 4 days we saw 87 different species. Over a quarter were wintering or passage birds. Paul took extensive video footage and a number of digital still images. Highlights included not one but two separate encounters with both Cream-coloured Courser and Moussier's Redstart.

These were memorable encounters of much sought after species but to concentrate on two species doesn't tell the whole story.

February 11th Tripoli

The story began when Paul and Diana joined me late on the evening of February 11th at the Oasis Club (British Embassy, Tripoli). As we sat out in the warm evening air planning the days ahead, one of the resident Barn Owls flew over.

February 12th ("Day 1")

We drove out directly westward along the Tripoli road towards Farwa which lies on the border with Tunisia.

As we zoomed down the highway, Desert Grey Shrikes were plentiful on the wires. Our first stop was at Zuwarah Saltpan (32.90N, 12.14E). This was flooded though not as much as in previous winters. It held several wintering species including good numbers of Lesser Black-backed Gulls (both Larus fuscus graellsii and the darker "Baltic Gull” L. fuscus fuscus) as well as Audouin's Gull and Sandwich Tern. The surrounding land held a number of Crested Lark.

Next we turned off the main road taking a back road to Farwa. This was quiet and had virtually no traffic. The area (33.03N, 11.83E) was a mixture of scrubland and salty semi-desert. On a warm but breezy day, the scrubland held four different species of sylvia warbler - Blackcap, Sardinian Warbler, Spectacled Warbler and a momentary close encounter with a beautiful male Marmora's Warbler. A flock of 30 Common Crane flew close by for a few minutes. Crested and Thekla Larks, Spanish Sparrows and Stonechats were abundant. As the scrub graded to semi-desert we saw White Wagtails and one Desert Wheatear.

We reached Farwa at the far eastern side of the lagoon (33.06N, 11.81E). This stretch of water and the immediate coast was the only part of Farwa visited. Yet we saw Grey Heron, Little Egret, Curlew and two Caspian Terns on the water’s edge. There were several waders on side pools, including several Redshank in breeding plumage, Greenshank, Kentish Plover, one Common Sandpiper and several Dunlin. One Sanderling was found close to the beach. In the scrub at the side of the lagoon were several summer plumage Linnet and a Sardinian Warbler. An Iberian Grey Shrike, a Desert Grey Shrike and a Fulvous Babbler were also seen.

We headed north east to start the coast road back to Zuwarah. We stopped in a coastal area (33.07N, 11.83E) which had a mixed habitat of cypress trees, maquis, garrigue and steppe all close to each other. We saw and heard several Serin singing from the cypress trees and the wires behind. A Stone Curlew alighted from close by and flew across the road in an unsuccessful attempt to hide from us under a tree (see photo). In a near-by bush a Willow Warbler, presumably on passage, was feeding. Flocks of Spanish Sparrows and Stonechats in ones and twos were common and we also saw wintering Black Redstart.

February 12th ("Day 2")

We started out at the crack of dawn. This was the start of a gloriously sunny and windless day. This time we travelled eastward on the main road towards Wadi Ka’am which is 140 kilometres from Tripoli. We stopped to watch a flock of several Fulvous Babblers on bushes next to sea cliffs and what appeared to be an Iberian Grey Shrike. On the other side of the road a cypress wood had abundant Serin in the trees, Sardinian Warbler in the scrub and Spanish Sparrow in the bushes.

The valley just north of the reservoir (centred on 32.41N, 14.34E) at Wadi Ka’am is very green when you first come off the main road. In the fields, we saw five Cattle Egret darting after food unearthed by a passing plough. A Little Owl was asleep in the trees. Another nearby tree held a European Wryneck which quickly flew as we stopped to take a photo. A single meadow held a flock of wintering Meadow Pipits, a few Goldfinches, European Chaffinches, Spanish Sparrows and a European Robin. There were more Sardinian Warblers, Serin, Desert Grey Shrike, Linnet and a Common Kestrel near-by as well as a flock of Common Starlings.

The majority of “Great Grey Shrike” observed were the paler North African Desert Grey Shrike (Lanius elegens) which have much whiter breast feathers and lighter grey head and back. However, we did see a few birds that were much more reddish-brown underneath and darker overall resembling the Iberian Grey Shrike (Lanius meridionalis) found in Spain.

The road rises from sea level to 200 metres at the reservoir. The valley gets less green as you rise. We stopped short of the reservoir to search a narrow wadi which joins the main wadi in the valley below. The aim was to find Black Wheatear which we did but this proved to be a great decision in hindsight as this small area held several species. The shrubs in the small wadi held a Streaked Scrub Warbler, there was a pair of Blackcap in the bushes and a few Blue Rock Thrushes flew around the slopes. A Common Raven was seen overhead and there were a few Barbary Partridge in the valley below.

We took a lunch break and a final look before leaving turned up a pristine male Moussier’s Redstart. It completely outclassed a near-by Stonechat and was foraging on the ground adjacent to the narrow wadi. It appeared totally unafraid of us and walked ever closer towards as we stood transfixed for what seemed an age.

After tearing ourselves way from this view we carried on up towards the dam. However, before we reached it we saw a Desert Lark on the last slope along with several Black Wheatears which are very common in this area and westward onto the Jebel Nafusa.

On and by the reservoir we saw relatively few birds compared with a previous visit in December. But there were still several Great Cormorant, Little Egret, Grey Heron and a small flock of Ferruginous Duck. A Common Kingfisher was also found on the bank below the dam wall. In the small ravines by the reservoir there were wintering Chiffchaffs of various hues. We also saw Laughing Dove and Rock Dove. Crested Larks and Stonechats were again abundant.

After the reservoir we retraced our steps down the valley across the main Tripoli-Benghazi road to Ain Ka’am. This is the longest permanent river in Libya yet it is not much over 1 kilometre in length. But it is rich in birds. In the tall reeds we saw a resident Zitting Cisticola and a resident Reed Warbler. It surprises many European birders that most Libyan reed warblers don't migrate.

Naturally there were more Spanish Sparrows in the trees and yet more Stonechats close by. On the rivers edge we saw two bold young Moorhens and a Water Pipit. In the water, a Little Grebe was diving for food and two Great Cormorant were also fishing.

We headed back towards Tripoli as the evening approached. There was time to make a brief stop in part of Garabolli National Park. We saw several Hoopoe and more Sardinian Warbler, Serin, Fulvous Babbler, Desert Grey Shrike, the ubiquitous Stonechat and of course Spanish Sparrow. We were then pleasantly surprised to find another Stone Curlew.

Hoopoes are resident in coastal Tripolitania in large numbers contrary to the distribution maps found even in the latest field guides.

With the light fading we stopped once more where the road is very close to the sea to film a flock of Fulvous Babblers settling down to roost for the night.

During the week

While I settled down to my day job, Paul and Diana had a day to visit the Roman ruins at Sabratah which produced an unexpected sighting on the way of a Sparrowhawk in Janzour, west Tripoli as well as a Barn Swallow among the ruins. Offshore were a few Northern Gannet and a Cory's Shearwater.

February 19th ("Day 3")

We travelled up the Jebel Nafusa late on Thursday evening to stay at a beautiful old Berber house owned by Ibrahim's family near Yafran. This was our base for the weekend's birding.

In the very early morning of a very windy day (with dust being blown in from the Sahara) we travelled part down the hills to Yafran reservoir (32.11N, 12.54E). This was frustrating as the reservoir was closed until 9am. The trees around the reservoir were clearly roosts for many birds. Not to be deterred by the closure of the reservoir we birded the immediate area for a time. There were plenty of Black Wheatear which are very common in the Yafran area. Common Starling, Linnet and Spanish Sparrows all roost close to the reservoir. Crested Larks, Desert Grey Shrikes and a Brown-necked Raven were also seen before we moved on.

We then went part way back up the hill side to Ain Tamdit (32.17N, 12.47E) at 450 metres. This has a spring in a valley surrounded by palm trees and some scrub in the middle of otherwise dry sloping landscape. The highlight here was a sighting of a pair of Trumpeter Finch on the edge of scrub as it graded to barren rock. Otherwise "the oasis on a hill" housed Spanish Sparrows everywhere, Laughing Doves in the palms, Chiffchaffs in the shrubs and Crested Larks on the ground.

After climbing up to the top of the range, we travelled through Yafran and viewed the archaeologically important deserted old Berber town. This site was crammed full of House Buntings whose ancestors have probably bred for hundreds of years. This bird is common in all the settlements of the Jebel Nafusa.

We had lunch in Wadi Khourdjet (32.07N, 12.55E). This wadi is beautiful. There are several mini wadis which join together into a wider main wadi. This wadi has a small permanent spring and has a large number of natural trees protected from the elements by the wadi slopes. There is plenty of shade, rare habitat these days. A small flock of Greenfinches were seen, in the same place as on a previous visit weeks before. Other birds included Sardinian Warblers, Chiffchaff and a Willow Warbler as well as Black Wheatear and a House Bunting. The place looks a good candidate for a migrant trap on passage.

Heading back to the car we walked up one of the smaller wadis with low vegetation and quite a slope. We were rewarded with a view of another Blue Rock Thrush and another Moussier's Redstart. This Moussier's Redstart was seen 90 kilometres away from the previous one. It is resident on the Jebel Nafusa again contrary to most current bird guides but the IBA write up on the Jebel Nafusa by Bird Life International has got it right.

After lunch we chose to travel south to Mizdah (31.70 to 31.45N, 12.99E) in the desert. The idea was to do the travelling during the hottest part of the day so we would miss the least amount of bird watching.

The road to Mizdah was eventful despite the very strong sandy wind. At first we mostly saw Crested Larks and Black Wheatears in the flat wadis that crossed the road. There was a beautiful close encounter with a Brown-necked Raven where its colours were clearly seen.

New species for the trip then started appearing in rapid succession as the habitat changed. First we came across a flock of about 30 Lesser Short-toed Larks. Then further south we spotted a pair of Red- rumped Wheatear.

As we got close to Mizdah, we saw our first White-crowned Wheatear. This was a sign that we had truly arrived in the Sahara. Several others were seen in the area and they are the predominant species south of here. In Mizdah, our search for Desert Sparrow proved fruitless but a short walk in an area with sparse vegetation just south of the town disturbed a small flock of Cream-coloured Courser.

February 20th ("Day 4")

This was another early start. The big surprise was that it was raining. This often happens in spring when the southern Saharan wind gives way to other wind directions. This type of weather is more normal in late March and early April. Nevertheless, we anticipated there might be some migrants, which had used the strong Saharan winds from the previous days and had then dropped out of the sky with the weather change.

We headed west on the Jebel Nafusa plateau towards the drier parts of the range to visit new habitats and find other birds. Our main stop in the morning was in poorly vegetated fields off the main road towards Nalut and west of Zintan (31.88N, 12.53E). It had stopped raining and the wind had finally started to ease.

We were rewarded with many sightings of Red-rumped Wheatear some of which were already showing signs of breeding. We eventually saw our first Maghreb Wheatear. Then it became a bit of a wheatear bonanza. In the same small area we found Northern Wheatear and Isabelline Wheatear, passage birds rather than winter visitors. There was also a flock of Linnets and a single Stonechat. Possibly the best find of the day, if not the trip, was a small flock of five Cream-coloured Courser foraging on the ground close to us. Good film footage and photographs were obtained. The only disappointment was a lack of the rarer lark species (Dupont’s and Hoopoe Lark).

After lunch back at Yafran, we made our way back towards Tripoli. This was not before we saw another flock of seven Barbary Partridge close to our temporary home.

At the start of our journey back to Tripoli we saw a flock of Fulvous Babblers feeding in an almond grove and a pair of Blackcap near Kikla. We had an excellent view of a Thelka Lark coming down from the main plateau.

We stopped off at Wadi Zaret reservoir in the late afternoon. This reservoir is towards the bottom of the Jebel Nafusa on a mini plateau at 200 metres. It was not surprising that this expanse of fresh water in a dry landscape attracted a wide variety of birds. There were Desert and Crested Lark, as well as a mobile flock of twenty Short-toed Lark, Black Wheatear, Linnet, Stonechat (again) and Hoopoe in the area.

On and in the water were a few Common Teal, Little Egret, Coot and four Black-winged Stilt. Near the water’s edge, we found an odd assortment of wintering birds. There were White Wagtail, a Common Snipe, two Common Ringed Plover and quiet surprisingly, a single Northern Lapwing. Overhead a small flock of returning House Martin and two Pallid Swifts were seen. Finally, a Brown-necked Raven and a pair of Long-legged Buzzards were also roaming the area.

On the last leg towards Tripoli as the light faded, we stopped at a protected area (31.11N, 12.54E). We were rewarded with more views of Barbary Partridge, a Little Owl, Hoopoe, Desert Grey Shrike, Spanish Sparrow, a Kestrel and of course another Stonechat.


An email from Paul and Diana the day after they left added another species to the list. They had seen three White Storks at Tripoli Airport as they were boarding the plane back to the UK. There were also Barbary Partridge on the runway margins as seen from the aircraft. This was the icing on the cake and completed their first trip to Libya.

Species List (Total 87)
Audouin's Gull Larus audouinii W
Barbary Partridge Alectoris barbara CR
Barn Owl Tyto alba CR
Black Redstart Phoenicurus ochruros W
Black Wheatear Oenanthe leucura CR
Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla MW
Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus M
Blue Rock-Thrush Monticola solitarius W
Brown-necked Raven Corvus ruficollis CR
Caspian Tern Sterna caspia MW
Cattle Egret Bubulcus ibis M
Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs CR
Common Coot Fulica atra W
Common Crane Grus grus W
Common Greenshank Tringa nebularia MW
Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculus CR
Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis W
Common Moorhen Gallinula chloropus CR
Common Raven Corvus corax CR
Common Redshank Tringa totanus MW
Common Ringed Plover Charadrius hiaticula MW
Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos MW
Common Snipe Gallinago gallinago MW
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris W
Common Stonechat Saxicola torquataW
Common Teal Anas crecca W
Cory's Shearwater Calonectris diomedea M
Cream-colored Courser Cursorius cursor CR
Crested Lark Galerida cristata CR
Desert Grey Shrike Lanius elegans CR
Desert Lark Ammomanes deserti CR
Desert Wheatear Oenanthe deserti CR
Dunlin Calidris alpina W
Eurasian Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita W
Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata MW
Eurasian Hoopoe Upupa epops CR
Eurasian Linnet Carduelis cannabina W
Eurasian Reed-Warbler Acrocephalus scirpaceus M
Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus W
Eurasian Thick-knee (Stone Curlew)

Burhinus oedicnemus CR
Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla M
European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis CR
European Greenfinch Carduelis chloris W
European Robin Erithacus rubecula W
European Serin Serinus serinus CR
Ferruginous Pochard (Duck) Aythya nyroca W
Fulvous Babbler Turdoides fulvus CR
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo W
Grey Heron Ardea cinerea MW
House Bunting (African) Emberiza sahari CR
Iberian Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis W
Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina M
Kentish Plover Charadrius alexandrinus CR
Lanner Falcon Falco biarmicus CR
Laughing Dove Streptopelia senegalensis CR
Lesser Black-backed (Baltic) Gull Larus fuscus fuscus W
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus graellsii W
Lesser Short-toed Lark Calandrella rufescens CR
Little Egret Egretta garzetta MW
Little Grebe Tachybaptus ruficollis CR
Little Owl Athene noctua CR
Long-legged Buzzard Buteo rufinus CR
Maghreb Wheatear Oenanthe magrebii CR
Marmora's Warbler Sylvia sarda W
Meadow Pipit Anthus pratensis W
Moussier's Redstart Phoenicurus moussieri W
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus W
Northern House-Martin Delichon urbica M
Northern Lapwing Vanellus vanellus W
Northern Wheatear Oenanthe oenanthe M
Pallid Swift Apus pallidus NM
Red-rumped Wheatear Oenanthe moesta CR
Rock Dove (plus Domestic Pigeon) Columba livia CR
Sanderling Calidris alba MW
Sandwich Tern Sterna sandvicensis W
Sardinian Warbler Sylvia melanocephala CR
Sky Lark Alauda arvensis W
Spanish Sparrow Passer hispaniolensis CR
Spectacled Warbler Sylvia conspicillata CR
Streaked Scrub-Warbler Scotocerca inquieta CR
Thekla Lark Galerida theklae CR
Trumpeter Finch Rhodopechys githaginea CR
White Stork Ciconia ciconia M
White Wagtail Motacilla alba W
White-crowned Black (White-tailed) Wheatear Oenanthe leucopyga CR
Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus M
Zitting Cisticola Cisticola juncidis W

Saturday 6 February 2010

Crested,Thekla,Crested .... (I think)

This Friday I ventured up the Jebel Nafusa again. This time to the Yafran area.

The idea was to do a "recce" that is to say a reconnissance. I wanted to generally find out what the area has to offer. And in my dreams I wanted to find new places that have moussiers redstart and duponts lark.

OK, there were some good sightings which I write about later in this blog. However not for the first time I got side tracked for quite some time trying to work out if I had seen a particular thelka or crested lark. In the end I decided the new bird (large photo above) is a crested lark but it deceived me at first. The one which is above right is for comparison is also a more typical crested lark. I had seen this one (smaller photo above) weeks before in another part of the Jebel Nafusa.

This bird did not oblige by flying overhead so my identification was based on seeing it on the ground.

Breast streaking is a clue. If the streaking on the breast is diffuse then it is crested but often the streaking is not. It still doesn't mean you have a thekla. I tend to trust the bill shape then. If the bill looks like a recently sharpened pencil then its crested (smaller photo above), if its blunter - like the bird's bill has been used to write a few essays then (large photo above) its probably a thekla. So just as I believed it was a thekla I saw it from a different angle. The pointy punk crest changed all my ideas. It's a crested lark after all.

Back to Yafran. Yafran is in the middle of the Jebel Nafusa. It has a deserted old city (below) and roman ruins (further below). The new town is still part deserted particularly in winter. Many locals have a house in Tripoli and the family home here. In summer the slightly lower temperatures have an attraction particularly at weekends.

In the immediate Yafran locality, it seemed strange to see four brown necked ravens fly straight through the town. On the ground, the battle for town supermacy is still being won by house buntings (further below) over spanish sparrows (below) though both are present in large numbers. In fact the other most obvious bird, except in very centre of the town, is the black wheatear.

The most interesting sighting for me in this area was a Iberian Great Grey Shrike Lanius meridionalis right next to the roman ruins. I didn't realise any of these migrated to North Africa. I suspect the poor weather this winter in Iberia and further north may have persuaded it to make the short trip. It's pinkish front stood out like a sore thumb. What a shame my camera was away at the time.

If you really want to see black wheatears by the tens then Bir Tamdit is the place (see below). Its just the sort of place bird holiday companies take people to "guarentee" a bird. Bir ("well" in arabic) Tamdit is a spring in the hill side at 450 metres off the old road from Tripoli via Aziziyah to Yafran.

Laughing doves and spanish sparrows are the other inhibitants of the Bir. Its probably worth a visit first thing in the morning to see if there are any birds drinking.
Watching from the top of a 20 metre high palm stump was a long legged buzzard (see two photos below) . This bird is very common all over the Jebel Nafusa.

It's worth a short stop at Bir Tamdit if only for the black wheatears. However the prize for the most interesting area for me is Wadi Khourdjet. Its unspolit (apart from 500 year old stone terracing - see below), has cool air and is relatively clean and a bonus for the birds - it is quiet. Unfortunately we visited it in the early afternoon when the birding is less likely to be rewarding.
There were plenty of larks singing on the wadi sides but I had had enough of larks that day. A sardinian warbler was heard and then seen. The strangest sight was yet another flock of greenfinches (one shown below). The locals (Ibrahim's family) say they have been common this year. The distribution maps show them on the narrow coastal strip within 5 kilometres of the sea. They are not supposed to be 80 kilometres from the coast as the crow flies (or as the raven flies since there are no crows in Libya). I shall certainly visit Wadi Khourdjet again preferrably in early morning. I know it is going to be very interesting.