Tuesday 30 March 2010

More nightingales in Janzour

Nightingale in Janzour, West Tripoli, March 30th

I first saw a nightingale in Libya about a week ago. Since then I have seen about a dozen and heard many more. And yet until recently it was not even acknowledged to be in Libya. In the new collins guide the distribution map shows a blank. But at the moment the nightingale is travelling through in great numbers and obviously in such varied places as the railway line, Tripoli and a proverbial middle- of- nowhere wadi near Tarhunah (three seen last Friday).

So I was very pleased and impressed that African Bird Club revised checklist includes this bird. Slowly but surely the birding world's collective knowledge of Libya is improving. Nevertheless, I felt I had to photograph one (see above) to prove my point! I have spent quite a few fruitless hours on this self appointed task. In the end one obliged near the railway line in Tripoli.

I'm still walking the (future) rail line when I have the odd hour or two since its the closest natural habitat to my flat. I am still occasionally seeing new species there too. The latest additions have been a little owl which took a typical corner position on a near-by house and pallid swift. Several pallid swift have joined the barn swallow skimming the air for insects over a well irrigated barley plot.

Little owl on look out Janzour, West Tripoli

One new migrant was seen earlier this week. It was a pied flycatcher. This is well documented as migrant here.

I managed to get a long distance shot of a blackbird this week too. This bird is not at all common as a wintering species mainly because they is so little non-eucalyptus woodland.

blackbird, Janzour, West Tripoli, March 29th

There have been some more subtle changes in the locality since last week. The turtle dove is proving to be a lot less jumpy and more amenable to photography. Maybe it is because it is not being shot at unlike along most parts of its migratory route. Although many Libyans still think hunting is a good pastime not many have access to guns. Gun control is strict here. This is to be applauded.

Turtle dove, Janzour, West Tripoli

On the way back from the railway line to my flat I walk past a water tower in Central Janzour. This is a guarenteed place to see pallid swift since near all of the crevices are occupied by families of pallid swift. The tower really is an urban simulation of a cliff face! I am privileged to have them as neighbours.

Water tower, central Janzour

Monday 29 March 2010

Tarhunah's Great Man Made River

Rock face on part of the Great Man Made River, west of Tarhunah

On Friday (March 26th) I visited the Tarhunah area of Tripolitania with Ibrahim and a couple of friends, Martin and Alexandra. Tarhuni are the butt of Libyan jokes for their alleged lack of sophistication. I suspect this is because this hilly area is farming country, principally olives, and the young folk historically used to leave school early to earn a living on the farm.

I visited the area as it is one of the few places in Tripolitania which I hadn't been to. Questions such as whether the house bunting is present needed to be answered. It's not present to the east (at Wadi Kaam) but it is to the west (at Gharyan).

The most obvious feature of the area is there are olive groves, everywhere! These are not particularly good for birding. However we discovered the area does have a few birding gems mostly away from the farms. Some of the land is too rocky and/or steep for olives. Here the habitat is much more natural.

Before we climbed up the hills too far we spotted a female kestrel in a field resting and a common raven overhead.

Out first major stop once we had arrived in the hills was to investigate a rocky slope which has a wadi. Yet we saw only four species. Two were crested lark and thekla lark. A third was black wheatear. We glimpsed some other birds sulking in the shrubbery in the wadi. With a lot of patience (on a hot humid day!) we finally got a good view of the other birds. There were at least three nightingale hiding in different places up and down the wadi. Presummably they had made the Saharan crossing and were resting during the day before onward journey. This discovery showed my sighting of a nightingale in Tripoli last week was not a fluke. But these birds had less hospitable surroundings.

Our second stop was to climb a local peak (up to 430 metres). We discovered a fulvous babbler's nest in one of thorn bushes complete with family. Otherwise the climb was uneventful until Ibrahim heard a toy trumpet! Actually he had stopped to rest while the rest of us had kept climbing when a large flock of trumpeter finch just flew past him.

Trumpeter finch, hillside west of Tarhunah

This is the first time I had seen a flock. Before my record was a pair at Ain Tamdit, Jebel Nafusa.

After watching the flock for sometime we tore ourselves away and headed into Tarhunah to look for house buntings. There were none. The town birds consisted of laughing dove, pigeon, turtle dove, barn swallow, desert grey shrike, serin and spanish sparrow.

On the way back we discovered a very interesting area. We turned off the Tarhunah to Tripoli road onto the service road which follows the Great Man Made River. There is a 50 metre corridor on the surface all along the water pipeline which is left flat and undeveloped. In places the rock has been cut to produce large cliffs (see picture at the top of this blog).

Along the route of the service road we saw serin in the nearby cypress trees and a pair of tawny pipit running along the flats.

Tawny pipit along the Great Man Made River, west of Tarhunah

However it was at a cliff face along the route where we had the best birding of the day by far. On the cliff face we saw a pharoah eagle owl fly into its day time roost. There were large flocks of linnet, trumpeter finch and serin all there at the same time in the flat area below the cliff face and on the cliff.

Two linnets below a cliff face on the Great Man Made River, west of Tarhunah

The area's attraction for finches is not just related to the cliff face and the flat land below with a variety of plants and seeds. There is also a row of cypress trees nearby offering wind protection for a citrus grove and there is a small water trough too. The finches and eagle owl were not alone. We also spotted lesser kestrel flying overhead and blue rock thrush on the cliff.

This is quite a magical place which I wish we had found earlier in the day. I have made a mental note to visit more of the route of the water pipeline in other places. I have also decided its time to upgrade my camera. When I first took up bird watching I had a standard digital camera. Last year I bought a bridge camera. But on Friday its limitations were all too apparent. Small birds such as trumpeter finch which refuse to come closer tested me and the camera beyond its limits. I have resolved to buy a digital SLR as soon as I can afford it.

Tuesday 23 March 2010

The railway line springs some surprises

A well watered citrus grove and orchard, Janzour, West Tripoli

I visited the railway corridor again yesterday (March 23rd). It was a spontaneous decision. I had half a morning free so I started out at 7am and was back by 10.30am. I had made a mental note to see if the flock of stone curlews were still present and to investigate the type of habitat that had led to my sighting of a blackbird earlier in the week. It was my first blackbird since arriving in Libya 6 months ago.

The habitat in which I saw the blackbird is like the picture above - well irrigated citrus groves and/or orchards with lots of shade. Needless to say that this is exceedingly uncommon. Nevertheless there is some of this habitat on my walking route. I stopped at the place which I photographed in the picture above. I immediately heard a beautiful song. it was even better than that of a blackbird. I heard and after a few minutes saw a nightingale. I guessed the place would be good for thrushes but I hadn't expected a nightingale on passage!

Further alone the walk, many of the same birds from previous days were still there (babbler, hoopoe, serin, sardinian wabler etc etc) but the flock of stone curlew have gone. They have presumably migrated. I still saw a few curlew in other places which are likely to be local birds. The one below was spotted quite close to a house. No one has told Tripolitanian birds that Tripoli is a city. I am constantly surprised how many rural birds live in an urban or sub-urban environment.

Stone curlew near a house , Janzour, West Tripoli

The most dramatic example of a rural bird being found locally then occured. I saw a pharaoh eagle owl (see photograph below) resting in a tree next to the field where the stone curlews had been in the days before. It was very well hidden. I am afraid I got a little too close and it flew off. It looked absolutly huge close up even though its supposedly much smaller than bubo bubo.

pharaoh eagle owl, Janzour, West Tripoli (above)
Clearly this is one eagle owl who prefers woods to the rocky environment of many of his brothers and sisters. Or is it that we are trying too hard to create distinctions between the habits of a pharoah eagle owl from the eagle owl. I suspect this behavoiur is quite common. As you can probably tell I am not a great fan of all the recent species splits.

Yesterday I got luckier with photographing some more species that I missed on earlier viists. The turtle dove was a bit less jumpy. See two below on a wire. The area is indundated with this bird at present. I wonder whether some are on passage and whether they are all are going to stay.

Two turtle doves, Janzour, West Tripoli

Finally having failed to get a picture of a barn swallow in flight, skimming insects off the flatter parts of rail corridor, I took a picture of one resting.

Barn swallow resting on a wire, Janzour, West Tripoli

Stop press: On a very short early morning walk (March 24th) I spotted my first woodchat shrike of the summer. It's time to be a bit more careful when passing a shrike on a wire. It might not be one of the hundreds and hundreds of desert grey shrikes.

Sunday 21 March 2010

Suburban birding or stone curlews galore

The railway line, Janzour, West Tripoli

This weekend I stayed in Tripoli. I tend to do a trip into the countryside every second week to help my wallet and to give me chance to keep up to date with logging all my data (and blog). This week though I did some extra birding very locally. After a tip-off from a work colleague I think I now know the best place to bird on foot if you have just 24 hours to spare and you are visiting Tripoli.

A few years back the Government decide it would build a railway from the Tunisian border to the Egyptian border. The land was put aside and no development can take place on a 50 metre wide corridor. The railway line is probably years away from being built. In Tripoli, the rail route links plenty of green sites by a wild life corridor. I found out over March 18th to March 20th that it makes for great sub-urban birding.

The best start point is just south of Janzour cemetery. It's best to walk eastwards towards Seraj in the afternoon and westwards out of Janzour in the mornings if you want to avoid walking and birding into the sun.

I saw a surprising number and type of "rural " birds! This time of year there is a state of flux. I saw a mix of residents, winterers, summer visitors and passage birds.

Before I set out I noticed that the bushy and woody area in front of my flat has got some new blackcap in the bushes or perhaps the old ones had returned. They were joined (at least until today) by a single greenfinch in the trees. I had thought these winter visitors had left the resident serin, spanish sparrow and laughing dove to it. Meanwhile one summer visitor, the turtle dove arrived almost a week ago in the parkland.

After inspecting myown frontyard (as described above) I went walking at the crack of dawn along the railway which is 10 minutes from my flat. I was shocked to see a stone curlew almost immediately by the side of the rail corridor. I soon saw barbary partridge too. In fact I later saw barbary partridge many times on different parts of the line.

stone curlew (left) barbary partridge (right)

The most amazing sight however was soon to come. In one field I counted 25 stone curlew!

It was still only 9 am the first time I saw them. They were noisy too. As soon as one of them saw me they all froze. They looked really stupid. 25 stone curlew pretended to be statues in one field.
I assume these were wintering birds gathering to leave for Eastern Europe. We have our own resident birds but let me assure you they don't pack in at a density of 25 per field. As a check, I visited the same site two days later at 9am and at 12 noon and they were still there. If anything there were more. I checked the adjacent fields and there were no curlews there.

I am not disclosing the exact location because stone curlews are a favourite prey of falconers. It's not a big sport in the Tripoli area and I don't want it to become so!

Five stone curlew out of 25 in one field - Tripoli area

Three feral dogs were around the second time I visited the stone curlew. I saw two brave stone curlew march straight up one of the dogs which then ran away.

As well as the stone curlew I saw a few other lingering wintering birds along the rail line. In the far west of my walk I spotted my first blackbird since I moved to Libya six months ago! It was a lovely sight. I had heard them several times before. It would appear they like shaded well watered areas such as irrigated citrus groves most of which are private property. The other wintering birds I observed was a robin and a few chiffchaff in different places. And finally there are still a few stonechat around but there numbers are drastically down on two weeks ago.

While some wintering birds are still lingering, some summer visitors have arrived. I saw more turtle doves in the agricultural areas. But they were very jumpy when I tried to photograph with my basic camera. One stretch of the line had several barn swallow skimming the air for insects.

The walk was also surprisingly good for seeing many of the residents too. There were several families of fulvous babbler along the route.

fulvous babblers (above)

Hoopoe was also common on the ground, and laughing dove in the trees and on wires. I have to be more careful with identification of doves with the return of the turtle dove. There are also rock dove and pigeon around. Serin and spanish sparrow were very common.

suburban hoopoe (left) and laughing dove (right)

suburban serin (left) and spanish sparrow (right)

It is already the breeding season for desert grey shrikes. I came across two groups of fledglings.

One fledgling desert grey shrike in a group of three

the two local breeding subspecies of desert grey shrike - algeriensis (left) and elegans (right)

Once again the books aren't very accurate with the distribution of desert grey shrike in Libya. Contrary to books, the main breeding sub-species even on the coast is elegans. It outnumbers algeriensis by at least 3 or 4 to one. Just to add to the mix, in mid winter they are joined by a few iberian grey shrike which are most obviously different.

Another breeder which is posing me a sub-species issue is the sardinian warbler. Like the stone curlew, the winter population is greater than those who stay behind. However, I am beginning to question whether all the residents are of the sub-species melanocephala. A very few are decidedly lighter (like the one below) . It's a long shot but I wonder if it is the sub species valverdei which is found in southern Morrocco.

A light coloured sardinian warbler

Another resident breeder which was seen several times during my walks is cattle egret. On one occasion it was next to a cow, true to its name. It's not even in the new Collin's guide as being in Libya at all. But I have now seen it near Wadi Kaam and now Tripoli. It is recorded by others as being quite numerous near Benghazi too. It only seems to inhabit the wettest meadows in Libya created by irrigation or a high water table.

Cattle egret- Tripoli

Other less common resident birds were also present. A flock of goldfinch briefly made an appearance and linnet was seen once.

local linnet- railway line, Tripoli

Even crested lark make it into the urban area. Several can be seen at Janzour cemetery near the rail corridor. The final resident I met on my walks was kestrel.

There were naturally some passage birds as well. I met just one sub-alpine warbler. It was the only bird in an area which was active at one o'clock in the afternoon. Maybe Tripoli at midday is cooler than where it has just come from! I had a definite identification on one isabelline wheatear and two female whitchat. Although the passage birds lacked numbers there was at least some variety.

All in all I had a surprisingly good time virtually on my doorstep.

Sunday 14 March 2010

The plain

Camels 40 kilometres inland from Zuwia

A naive view of the landscape of Tripolitania is that it is Mediterranean in character as far south as the Jebel Nafusa hills. And that south of the Nafusa is the Sahara. Actually the Mediterranean strip is only 20-30 kilometres wide. Inland from the strip is drier and much of it is flat semi desert well before you reach the hills. The hills are only 60 kilometres directly south from Tripoli but they are 120 kilometres south of the sea further west nearer theTunisian border. So the drier plain which is north of the hills is wedge shaped. On Friday March 12th We birded the thin end of the wedge! - only 50 kilomtres south west of Tripoli.

Ibrahim, Maria who is a friend from work and I had lucky weather. It was often cloudy. The plains can be hot even in March but not last Friday. Our first stop was in an area which was not semi desert. Sometimes the land can be greener in a small area probably because there is underground water or it's in a wadi. The area where we made our first stop was a little greener and had acacia and tamarisk bushes. There were some surprises here. The main bird population were migrants. There were tens of northern wheatears (see second set of pictures below - left). There was also one isabelline wheatear among the migrants. The second most common bird were sub- alpine warblers (see below for two shots of the same bird in a tamarisk). The wheatears were mostly on the ground and the warblers were always in the bushes.

sub alpine warbler in tamarisk

The local birds were mostly crested and thekla larks but amongst them was at least one tawny pipit (see below right). Its longer legs, lack of crest, longer tail, plain grey/brown back immediately separated it from the other birds near it. Thanks to Moshe who posted to my blog that it was a tawny pipit and not a female hoopoe lark as I had orginally posted. In my defence they are confusable and one is much more common here than the other. Please see the entry on hoopoe larks in the new Collins guide for a comparison! There was also a mobile flock of lesser short toed larks. Why doesn't this lark stay still?

northern wheatear(left) tawny pipit(right)

There was also a family or two of fulvous babblers in the bushes. A small number of desert grey shrike were also present.

Then we moved on it was to an area of more typical semi desert. Again the dominant lark was crested. One hoopoe lark was heard calling for about 15 minutes among the other voices. Then suddenly out of the blue it performed its courting flight right in front of Maria and I even though we hadn't seen the bird on the ground. It rose up about 4 metres with its black and white wings outspread. Seconds later it seemed to have nose dived back to earth. We still couldn't find it on the ground. Where even there was any concentration of bushes in this area (by a wadi - for example) there were more fulvous babblers. One bush held a sole willow warbler too.

A babbler on look out duty (left) and a desert wheatear (right)

A wall in the neighbourhood provided accommodation for nesting spanish sparrows and the next wall had a desert wheatear who seemed totally unafraid of us. We also saw one black wheatear during the day. The black wheatear isn't really a bird of the plains in Libya though a few venture down during the cooler part of the year. This is contrary once again to the distribution maps in recent guides which suggest it is resident!

You have to be patient when you bird the plains. The density of birds isnt high and they all seem to look like the earth they are standing on! We were very fortunate to come across cream coloured courser on four occasions and I don't believe it was the same group each time!

A cream coloured courser walking away (above)

There were a few more observations left. A kestrel was seen hovering over the semi desert. It looks like some wintering species are still hanging about. We saw a solitary white wagtail on the one mound in a flat semi desert area.

One final stop was in a less dry area on the way back towards Tripoli. This was quite close to our first stop. There was a flock of wintering skylarks along with crested larks. More fulvous babblers were in the bushes. There we also saw our only long legged buzzard of the day.

Finally I must state that on Friday we saw yet more collared doves as well as laughing doves and pigeons near the settlements . The collared dove is colonising Libya at a rate of knots. One day a distribution map may actually show its in this country - along with cattle egret, moussiers redstart and several others. There may not be huge numbers of birds in Libya but there are a lot more than people think!

Libyan collared doves (left) and a wintering white wagtail (right)

Sunday 7 March 2010

Away in Essaouria, Morocco

For an end of term break in early March I travelled to Essaouria in central coastal Morocco. I stayed in a Riad in the old town and walked out of the hotel into the local countryside on two days with only a pair of binoculars and a camera. There was no scope, no guide, no taxi. But I saw over 40 species and three lifers all within walking distance. Some people think Morocco birding is better than in Libya. I prefer to believe it is just easier.

In the town itself the most obvious birds were house buntings and yellow legged gulls. I saw house buntings inside my hotel. Shopkeepers ignore them or even feed them as they see them as sacred birds (see photo above). If you look more closely there are house sparrows and collared doves in the palms, white wagtails near the beach, chiffchaffs in the bushes and some wintering lesser black backed gulls overhead.

If you walk just south of the town on the coast road as I did there is maquis on either side (dense in places) until you reach the wadi mouth. This maquis is rich in birds. Common bulbuls (see photo below) are so noisy and common!

The maquis also houses warblers. The sardinian warblers were more open than usual as the males were courting females (see below). This open behaviour was even just after the rain in the morning as well as during the sunny afternoon. The blackcaps were more skulking. There were obviously quite a few chiffchaff and willow warblers too.

Several birds which are also found in northern Europe were present including wintering corn buntings and resident blackbirds.

Some birds not found in northern Europe were equally present such as desert grey shrikes (sub species algeriensis), a few north african chaffinches, flocks of spotless starlings, serins and spanish sparrows. A single female moussier's redstart was spotted in a dip in the landscape.

Inland by 150 metres from the coastal maquis there a wetter area. Some of the area has been drained into man made lakes. This attracted little ringed plovers by the waterside.

The earth works also attracted thekla larks in an area otherwise apparent devoid of larks. And some of the pools had lesser black backed gulls among the yellow legged gulls.

Part of the area has not been drained. Here the waterlogged maquis held a few surprises. Not least was the presence of half a dozen spoonbills.

There were also many cattle egret, a few little egret and 3 green sandpipers. In the air barn swallows and brown throated martins ( a new species for me) were flying endlessley.

After the waterlogged area I walked further south to the wadi mouth. Here I saw a kestrel flying overhead and a few black headed gulls among the yellow legged and lesser black backed gulls.

As I marched back to the hotel in the twilight I became increasingly embarassed by my flithy shoes which I came close to losing in mud trying to get pictures of the water birds earlier in the day.

The second day was very bright and sunny. I had no fears about my shoes. I walked north along the coast. The coast immediately north of the town has worn rocks and several same islands offshore. These held very large numbers of yellow legged gulls. I also saw a number of waders. There were plenty of turnstone and oystercatchers,a few grey plover and a single (non local) cormorant on the rocks.

If you walk far enough up the coast the rocks give way to sandy beach. I then moved inland about 100 metres and found another large tract of maquis. Many of the same species were seen as the day before - sardinian warblers were plentiful and so were common bulbul and serin (see below). I came across some new species for the trip too. I saw a beautiful male cirl bunting which evaded my camera. I got too greedy and tried to get too close - twice. To my shame I also saw my first african blue tit - not in Libya but there in Morocco.

There are large tracts of fresh water in the middle of this maquis. It looks a lot more permenant than the waterlogged land south of the town. There were many coots some of which were showing signs of nesting. Try as I might I could not make them into red knobbed coots. There were also several little grebe and a few moorhens.

As I turned towards the town to return I heard a loud scream behind me. A barbary partridge landed and seemed to announce that s/he wanted to be seen before I left. I duly took a photo then it flew off on cue.

Walking back to the hotel through the less fancy end of town that is the north I added pigeon to my list.

The journey back to Casablanca airport via an overnight stay in Marrakesh was not entirely uneventful. There were three more species for the trip. I saw plenty of little swifts in Marrakesh. This is another new bird (lifer) for me. On the train journey to Casablanca I noticed a pair of linnets at a railway station and several calandra lark in the fields on the way. This bird reminded me of my time in Azerbaijan where they were very common.

All in all I had a relaxing and enjoyable time in Morocco. I understand its appeal to birders. But I still prefer the Libyan challenge.