Monday 14 June 2010

White storks and other birds at Al Marj

white stork feeding in a field near Al Marj, early June

On Friday June 4th, I ventured out of Benghazi for the first time since moving to Cyrenaica. The main target area was Al Marj - 80 kilometres out of the city. The Al Marj plain is on a flat plateau at roughly 300 metres. It is north east of Benghazi and is half way from Benghazi towards the Jebel Akhdar (green mountain). It shares some of the characteristics of both places. Its higher, wetter and greener than Benghazi but not as high, wet and green as Jebel Akhdar. It is a little further inland from the mediterranean sea than Jebel Akhdar but even here the coastal plain below the Al Marj plain is barely 6 kilometres wide.

There are records of a sizeable white stork colony at Al Marj though once again its presence fails to make the distribution maps of major recent guides. We (my new teaching colleague Wendy and my older colleague Martin who has been on several trips with me in Tripolitania) didn't find it difficult to confirm the white stork presence. Eagle eyed Martin spotted seven or eight in a single field just east of the town.

two white stork in a field near Al Marj, early June

It was a blistering hot day though thankfully not as hot as in Benghazi. But beggars can't be choosers. If I am going to chronicle all Libya's birds in the two year period of my teaching placement here then I have to make full use of the summers.

Not far from the field of storks, we found a beautiful shaded cypress avenue of trees down one of the side roads out of town. Near-by was a good mix of other vegetation including olive trees. This mixed habitat was clearly a draw for a good cross section of birds who seemed to be taking some sanctuary in the shade. In the cypress trees were not only house sparrow but also chaffinch. Once again on this trip I failed to see any spanish sparrow but house sparrow were plentiful (the reverse of Tripolitania). I saw more chaffinch in this one spot in one hour than in eight months in Tripolitania. It is rare there (only around wadi Kaam) but my suspicion it is is much more common in north east Libya especially once I get to see Jebel Akhdar.

The chaffinch were all africana with the males having a beautiful green back. Sadly, I failed to get a good picture but I am sure there will be more chances.

In the same area we also saw woodchat shrike, laughing dove and turtle dove. The latter bird is missing from the immediate Benghazi area but is relatively common north and east of there. Great great shrike was also present.

We moved on through old Marj. This formerly very attractive ex-Italian town was destroyed by an earthquake in the early 1960s.We went through it trying to find a way up to some higher hills which form the south western edge of the Jebel Akhdar. We didn't succeed. Nevertheless we managed to find some shade for lunch under an olive tree. Near-by in a small cluster of cypress trees I spotted a flock which turned out to be totally made up of juvenile goldfinch.

juvenile goldfinch, near old Marj -early June

There is something surreal in me running round trees in boiling weather at midday trying to photograph a mobile flock when most sensible people would be having a siesta.

I didn't find identification easy. I am still no good with juveniles. It was more a case of guessing and looking it up in the collins guide I always carry with me as a comfort.

After lunch we made our way down to the coast which was a little bit cooler. On the slopes on the way down towards Tulmaythah (Ptolemis), a common raven was spotted.

The coast itself also held one or two surprises. The first surprise was a sighting of two bee-eater. I think they were juveniles since there colours were so washed out. This fact and the late time of year suggests to me that there is probably a small breeding population of bee-eater in Cyrenaica.

bee-eater near Tulmaythah, early June

There were more sightings of great grey shrike. Many of them do not look like desert grey shrike elegans. Many are a darker bird which looks to me like great grey shrike aucheri. My current view is that both birds co-exist in Cyrenaica just as they do in southern Israel and in Sinai. I know that top orinthologists are currently looking hard at this issue.

great grey shrike - near Tokrah, early June

Apart from the odd pigeon near settlements there were three other new birds (for the day) seen along the coast. Crested lark was relatively common.

But two birds of prey were seen. One was kestrel. The other was much more exciting. It was a short-toed eagle. This was a lifer for me.

short toed eagle, near Tokrah, early June

Once again I lack confidence with birds of prey. It is thanks to correspondence in Surf Forum that I identified this bird.

One advantage of summer birding is that it is improving my identification skills with birds of prey.

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